Fear of Open-Water Swimming

by | Updated: October 14th, 2020 | Read time: 2 minutes

We got this question during our Facebook chat with Vitacost earlier this week and didn’t get a chance to answer.

Q:   How do I conquer the fear of open-water swimming?

A:   Out of the three disciplines in triathlon, the one people seem to have the most fear of is the swim. Panicking is normal when you’re starting a triathlon swim with anywhere from 200 to 2,000 of your closest friends. Although I come from a swimming background, the swim component is my least favorite part of the triathlon even though I get to take advantage of the smaller professional start to the race.


I recently read the blog of a fellow professional triathlete who’d had a panic attack during the swim portion. So rest assured that you’re not alone, it can happen whether you are a beginner or a professional.

Here are a few tips that may help conquer those fears:

-If possible, get a 5-10 minute warm up in the water before the start. Practice your breathing pattern in warm up and stick to it during the race. Breathe more deliberately to make sure you are getting enough air.   Sometimes when the gun goes off, people panic and start swimming without taking a breath for the first 10-15 arm strokes.   Breathe every stroke if needed until you are able to settle into your own pace.

– If it is not possible to warm up (most races do not allow swim warm-ups anymore), it might be a good idea to let everyone get ahead a bit after the gun goes off. It can get claustrophobic at the swim start and people will swim on top of you and pull you under, which can lead to you panicking. Give everyone else a head-start, so it will be easier for you to get into your own rhythm.

-Position yourself at the start either to the far right or the far left so that you are at a distance from the mass of people in the middle. This is also a reassuring position to be in, because lifeguards are usually in boats or paddle boards on either side of the swim. Remember that you can use a boat or paddle board to hold onto, but keep in mind you can’t use it to help move you forward.

-Practice open water more often during training if you have a venue that allows for it. Always take a friend with you for safety reasons.

Happy swimming!

Amy Marsh is a four-time Ironman champion, two-time IronDistance champion, and was named the 2010 USAT Long Distance Triathlete of the Year. Brandon Marsh has been competing in triathlons since 1988, and can be counted on to be a top-10 contender in every event he enters. Got a question about swim-bike-run or sports nutrition for Team Marsh? Email them at ask.the.triathletes@gmail.com. On Twitter, follow Brandon @BrandonMarshTX and follow Amy @AmyCMarsh.