An athlete swims in open water

Quelling Open Water Swim Discomfort

by Will Murray

Their least favorite part of triathlon: how some athletes contemplate swimming in a lake, reservoir, river, bay or ocean. Just thinking about an open water swim can cause some athletes to sense shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, even sweating and tunnel vision. For others, their emotions around open water swimming run from minor dread to something just short of terror. Some athletes describe their feelings as a “panic attack.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are fast, easy, effective and durable techniques to help any athlete achieve comfort and enjoyment in big water. These techniques address both physical and psychological aspects of and many of them you can do by yourself in the privacy of your own mind.

There can be physical causes of these panicky feelings, such as an insufficient warm up or tight wetsuit. In “Increase Your Open Water Swim Comfort” I wrote about the mammalian diving reflex and how a cold water start without enough acclimation can precipitate panicky feelings.

Psychological aspects of swimming outside the rectangle also can precipitate panicky feelings.

Physical sensations (e.g. air hunger) may set up future psychological experiences. You might say to yourself, “The last two times I swam in open water I felt short of breath. This might happen again next time, too.” Or perhaps you had a strikingly bad swim experience, and from this one episode you learned how to fear the water. Phobias are often formed from a single shocking event.

Fortunately, there are fast, easy, effective and durable techniques for dealing with fear of open water. I will present three among my favorites, and there are many more.

  1. Rehearse your swim.
  2. Address self-talk.
  3. Eliminate a phobia.
An athlete swims during a race.

Place yourself knee deep in the water just before the race starts. Next to you — right next to you — is an athlete in your same swim wave. His fists are clenched. He aims his gaze down into the water about a meter in front of him. And he repeats, just under his breath, “Oh god, oh god, oh god.” What do you suppose he is thinking? Chances are strong that he is making an image in his mind’s eye of some terrible thing about to happen — getting crawled over, running out of breath, whatever. There is a name for this technique; it’s called catastrophizing. He is rehearsing in his mind’s eye an awful event that hasn’t even taken place yet. And you can bet he feels awful.

Forget about him for a moment. It’s your job to control your thoughts and your emotions. You might as well, then, make a movie of the kind of swim you want to have, rather than direct your own disaster movie. Here’s how.

Step 1. In your mind’s eye, make a full color video, panoramic and bright, seeing you over there having a great swim, a really great swim. You might see yourself swimming a very straight course, latched on to a fast pack and slicing through the water with ease and grace and fluid power, comfortable breathing, and grinning as widely as you can (yes, you can grin underwater).  

Step 2. Now, as you see yourself swimming wonderfully, and feel how nice this feels, float over and enter into the you over there so that you join with that wonderful swimmer and become one. Continue to feel the ease and grace and control and slipping through the water.

Step 3. Now ask yourself, as though a part of you could answer, this question, then wait for an answer: “Does any part of me object to experiencing my swim this way?” If you don’t hear or feel any objections, you are finished with this exercise.

Step 4. If you do hear or feel an objection, ask yourself, “What do I need to do to address this objection?” Then carry out that action.

Many athletes do this mental rehearsal before every workout and every race. You can try this the night before your open water swim, then again a few minutes before to slip into the water.

Your brain has a hard time distinguishing between memories of what has already happened and memories of what hasn’t happened yet. When you install a memory of something that hasn’t happened yet, when you actually do the activity of your memory your mind says, “Oh, OK. We know this one. We’ve seen it before. We know how this goes.” So you might as well install a great future memory instead of a catastrophe. It’s your choice and you have control over it.

“Yes,” you say, “but what if? What if someone bumps into me or my foot (yick!) touches something?”

1. Run video of how you would like to address the issue. See yourself over there dealing with the issue calmly and competently, then continuing the wonderful swim.

2. Then rerun the video of the swim you want to have, the swim that goes just as you wish, the great swim.

Think now of an open water swim sometime in the future. It might be the next race you are registered for or an upcoming camp or a training swim. Listen closely to your own self-talk about it. What exactly are you saying to yourself, in the privacy of your own mind, about this swim? Many people don’t realize that they are having an internal dialog or self-talk, while for others, the self-talk is so grating or irritating or even nasty that they cannot ignore it.

Again, fortunately for us all, there are great techniques for making this internal dialog useful and helpful. Here are some techniques excerpted from the D3 Multisport newsletter.

First, what is the most vexing phrase that comes into your mind’s ear when you think about open water swimming? Get the exact wording now and estimate on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (HIGH!) how intense is the feeling you feel when you hear that inner voice right now.

And now try this:

1. Slow it down. Say aloud the exact phrase, but with a five-second pause between each word and a 10-second pause before the last word. What is the intensity of the feeling now (1-10 scale)?

2. Change the location of the voice. Have the voice say the same phrase, but from 40 yards behind you. What happened? What is the intensity of the feeling now (1-10 scale)?

3. Change the pitch of the voice. Imagine a big balloon filled with helium. Have the voice inhale deeply from the helium balloon, then have it say its phrase. What is the intensity of the feeling now (1-10 scale)?

4. Drop out the letters. In your mind’s eye in front of you, see the words in the phrase as though they were written in the air before you. Now let all the vowels in all the words fall to the ground, followed by the rest of the letters. What is the intensity of the feeling now (1-10 scale)?

For some triathletes, their representation of open water swimming feels like a full phobia. By just thinking about swimming in the wild, some athletes can conjure up uncomfortable physiological sensations as though they were actually in open water. Interestingly, the stronger the phobic sensations, the more susceptible they are to a complete and permanent cure.

The Fast Phobia Cure (Dotz, 2009) works best if you have a trained person leading you through it. Find a Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) therapist in your area or one accessible by phone or Skype to take you through the technique.

Of course, phobias can also develop around other facets of triathlon, including cycling, running and even racing. Athletes recovering from a bike crash or even a bad bonk can develop symptoms. Much in the news these days is post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects many people who have endured a catastrophic event. A new technique, called the Reconsolidation of Traumatic Memories (RTM) protocol, based on the Fast Phobia Cure, takes only a few brief sessions and is proving massively effective for military veterans in clinical trials (Gray and Bourke, 2015).

If you would like to achieve more comfort and enjoyment in your open water swimming, try first the first two sets of techniques above. If you need to eliminate a phobia, find a trained practitioner to help you with the Fast Phobia Cure or RTM and never fear the water again.

  • Dotz, T. (2009). 25 year phobia followup. Retrieved from
  • Gray, R and Bourke, F. (2015). Remediation of intrusive symptoms of PTSD in fewer than five sessions: A 30-person pre-pilot study of the RTM Protocol. Journal of Military, Veteran and Family Health 1(2) p. 85-91.

Will Murray is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach, a USA Triathlon All-American and co-author, with Craig Howie, of “The Four Pillars of Triathlon: Vital Mental Conditioning for Endurance Athletes” and has written mental training plans in Training Peaks. Murray, an NLP Practitioner, is the mental skills coach at D3 Multisport in Boulder, Colorado.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.