Seven ways to get over open water anxiety

Getting kicked in the face. Having a panic attack. Umm ... drowning?! If the thought of freestyling through open, unlined, even murky water with 800 other athletes makes you queasy, rest assured: You're not alone. Heck, even the pros get nervous. Just ask Ironman champion Hillary Biscay, who recently blogged about her "yearly panic attack."

"Two minutes into the swim, I found myself treading water, undoing my wetsuit, trying to get my breathing under control ... I spent the rest of the swim catching up," said Biscay, whose bouts of open water anxiety began with a bad mass swim start in a freezing lake in l'Alpe d'Huez in 2006. The good news is that bad starts, bad experiences and bad fears all can be overcome, said marathon swimmer Erica Sheckler. As head swim coach for Endurance Multisport, she helps swimphobics (like Biscay) overcome their anxieties. "About 90 percent of my nervous newcomers end up loving the swim," she said. More than just offering reassuring words, Sheckler has a game plan for conquering your H2O-phobia:

Warm up. You always start pool sessions with kicking drills and warm up sets to elevate your heart rate, warm your muscles, and get a feel for the water. Doing the same before an open water swim will prepare your body and calm your nerves.

Think efficient, not fast. "Often athletes will focus so much on going fast they don't realize how much effort they're wasting. Wasted energy means higher heart rate and higher likelihood for panic," said Sheckler. "Focus on your swim form and being smooth and controlled. You'll swim better ... and calmer."

Breathe. High nerves lead to shallow breaths, which lead to panicky sensations. Take deep breaths before you get in the water and continue during the swim, blowing out and emptying your lungs each time, so you can draw a deep breath when you turn for air. And if you end up with a giant mouthful of water because of a wave or swimmer's wake, relax. Do a breaststroke or two to catch your breath and keep going.

Establish Plan P. Panic happens. Have a plan so you're prepared to handle it. Rule number one: ease up on the pace, said Biscay. "If you feel panic coming on, just slow down. It calms your breathing and allows you to continue."

Pick your position. Stay out of the swim start scrum by positioning yourself to the side or back of the pack. Really nervous? Stay in place and let the pack thin before starting out. Then enjoy swimming in the draft.

Watch your wetsuit. Wetsuits make you more buoyant, but can feel claustrophobic on land (and raise anxiety). Pull the suit high on your body, so it's not pressing on your neck, shoulders, and chest. "Add lubricant like Sportslick around the neck, so it moves freely," Sheckler said.

Easy on the Starbucks. Java is a performance enhancer ... until you overdo it. "Limiting my caffeine helps me avoid the onset of panicky feelings," said Biscay. Skip anything with the word "Grande," "Venti" or, heaven forbid, "Trenta" attached to it.

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