Open Water Swimming Tips – How to overcome your fear

Open Water Swimming Tips – How to overcome your fear

Open Water Swimming Tips

I started open water swimming two years ago and I have been swimming pretty consistently – open water swimming (OWS) in the summer months and year round in the pool, even before this Augusta 70.3 training cycle. Yet, EVERY.SINGLE.TIME I go to tan OWS, I get this feeling in my stomach … 

I’m a horribly slow swimmer.
I can’t breathe.
I’m going to be tired before I reach any particular point.
I’m not going to make it.
There’s the Loch Ness monster.
The water is freezing. 
I can’t see/touch the bottom.

One thought leads to another and it spirals. While my fears freeze *me* up, none of it makes sense to a third person. Most of the advice I’ve had is to SIUP (Suck it Up, Princess!), especially because it is not my first year of OWS. I KNOW that it is my irrational fear (or lack of skill), but a large part of that fear is because I don’t know the steps to overcome my fear, so SIUP only gets me through that day and not give me confidence and skills to handle the next day. 

This year, during my first OWS back in May, I was lucky to have gone out with a group of experienced triathletes. Dan Arnett of Endurance Concepts spent a lot of time with me to work through my issues.


All those reasons I listed above became a jumble of fears and fear about my fears. I was encouraged to verbally go through my fear list and find a solution/plan of action to each of my fears.

It came down to one point that I wasn’t able to find an answer – I was never properly prepared for the water, especially when it is slightly colder than what I’m used to (I swim at a bath tub 84F temperature, so that is pretty much every moving body of water). I’d do some dips in the water before starting to swim, but those were only a 3 second ritual. 

Once we figured out what my main fear was, it was smooth swimming from there. Literally. He addressed my fear and gave me steps to overcome them. Not a SIUP, but actual steps that I can follow so I know WHAT to do instead of focusing on HOW to do the big swim. 

While my fears may not be the same as your fears, I think these open water swimming tips will benefit anyone who is afraid of Open Water. 

1. Give your Fear a name and Visualize the answer

Once we figured out what my main fear was – the COLD WATER, it was smooth swimming from there. Literally. 

Instead of the cold lake water, I visualized swimming in my familiar YMCA with the 84F water and the fish stickers on the walls. It took me to a familiar place that I had no fear swimming in. 

The next time though, I’m visualizing the beaches at Fiji. Because why not. 

YMCA pool
My warm bathtub pool at the Y!

2. Acclimatize 

A well known triathlon swim tip for newbies afraid of the water is to give yourself some time before you enter the water. Take that time to acclimatize yourself. 

These steps worked amazing for me at the Blalock Lakes Sprint Triathlon. 

    • Float on your back first. Cold water meets entire body, but my face is in the clear giving me time to relax and get that panic out of the way. Looking up at the sky also helped me to visualize a lovely day with the sun just coming up.
    • Float on your belly with face in the water. Oooo… the cold water hits! But I am not swimming, I am only floating. Zero effort.
    • Stand on  your feet and blow bubbles in and out, moving your head in a breathing motion. This got my rhythm going  and it was easy to focus on breath in, breathe out with the safety of my feet firmly planted on the ground.
Blalock Lakes Sprint Triathlon
Getting used to the water before start!

3. Let the wetsuit do its work

Wetsuits add buoyancy. When we fight this, it makes it difficult to get the added benefit of wearing a wetsuit. Once I learnt to let my body “go” and trust the wetsuit, all I had to do was use my hands and flutter kick a bit. 

One important thing about wetsuits that I’ve found as a girl – going strictly by sizing charts may not always work in your favor. I am supposed to be a M in most brands, but I cannot breathe in a M. I feel claustrophobic even before I take a few steps. I sized up and breathing during the relaxing portion of the stroke was much easier, even though the L was way too long on me. (I’ve heard this issue more from girls than guys. Either that or guys don’t discuss wetsuit sizes.)

Open Water Swimming Tips

If you are not wearing a wetsuit, remember that the body has a natural tendency to float. When relaxed. So relax and let your body do its work.

4. Breathe

Cold water causes natural hyperventilation. And the best way to counter hyperventilation is by breathing. Visualize yourself back to your happy place! 


When I instinctively wanted to flip on my back, Dan encouraged me to breathe and swim 10 strokes. Repeat. I found that focusing on that life-saving turn of my head to breathe and then blowing exaggeratedly slow bubbles in the water helped me regular my breathing and it took my mind off the cold water. 

5. Breathe on same side (every 2 strokes instead of 3) 

Yes, this is contrary to every swim tip I was told about the need for bilateral breathing. But breathing on the same side increased the number of times I came up for air and hence increased my oxygen intake. That in turn helped reduce the hyperventilation. 

Once you are well settled in the water without any more panic, go back to bilateral breathing and swim strong. 

There are plenty more strategies and tips for open water swimming practice and for race day. Getting over the first hardest step of actually getting into the water was the hardest for me. Check out these links on their OWS tips.

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