Body & Soul

Three Tips to Overcoming Open Water Swim Fears

You hear it time and time again. I’d love to do a triathlon, but I’m terrified of the swim.

Fears of swimming, especially in open water, aren’t rare. In fact, I’d say unless you grew up swimming regularly in lakes or the ocean, the idea of getting into a body of water that other things- aka fish and other sea creatures- live in doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.

I totally get it.

This year I took on my first triathlon. In preparation, I swam lap after lap in the safety of my local recreation center pool.

I wasn’t the best swimmer, and I’m definitely not fast, but after about a month I rented a wetsuit and headed to our local lake for my first open water swim.


It was then that I experience my first panic attack. I literally couldn’t put my head into the water.


Knowing I needed help, I signed up for an open water swim clinic. The classes were helpful and I got a few sessions in before my first triathlon. I felt I could “get through the swim” at the very least.

When race day rolled around, I headed to the lake for my warm up swim with everyone else.

In that moment, it happened again. I simply could not put my head in the water, or swim even a single stroke.

I wrote about my experience in a recent blog post for those interested. But here is the Clift notes version: I had a panic attack and after about 10 minutes of flailing around, I had to ask to be pulled from the water. I had not even finished the first leg of the event.

However, after a day of feeling sorry for myself, I decided I needed to overcome this fear that held me back. With implementing the changes below, I was able to complete my first triathlon, just three weeks later.



If you suddenly can’t swim because of panic attack, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with your body, but something is firing wrong in your mind.

After my experience, I knew fear had completely overcome my body in that moment.

I went to counselor who offered brilliant advice. My panic attack wasn’t the result of a physical issue; it was a spiritual issue. I had put so much pressure on myself to get through the swim that I felt totally overwhelmed and full of fear.

Getting back to my daily morning mediation helped me work through a lot of pressure I didn’t even realize I was putting on myself.

For me, reconnecting with a power greater than myself helped me realize I wasn’t alone in that water. In fact, that water was put there by something bigger than us all, so it could be enjoyed.


Change Your Mindset

If you go into a swim thinking you will hate it, you will likely not be able to do it. If by chance it all goes well, and you do manage to “just get through it,” you are setting yourself up for a pretty unpleasant experience.

It’s like your shouting to the Universe, “I’m running on 100% fear right now and I’m totally freaked out. But please, I don’t need any help. I’m just going to rely completely on my self-will to get through this. Cool?”

With that kind of energy, what could possibly go wrong??

What if instead you asked the Universe to help? Perhaps a small prayer before you head into the water, and maybe even throughout the swim?

What I have found to be helpful is, “Thank you God. I’m happy to focus my attention on the love that is around me and I believe this will be a wonderful experience.”

Saying that over and over again reminded me I wasn’t alone. It also helped me to remember that I was surrounded by love. So many people want to focus on the person that grabs your foot in the triathlon, or keeps accidentally hitting into you.

What if you shift that to gratitude? Give thanks that so many people are also there and you are all experiencing this together. At the very least, you know you are going in the right direction if you’re swimming in a group of people! Right?


Different Goggles

I believe that the biggest difference between being okay with open water swimming, or not, is mental and spiritual. But I do have to say there is one thing I bought that made a huge difference- goggles with a wider view.

If you have any issues with being claustrophobic or fear of not being able to see, open water swim can present several challenges. When you put your face in the water, a lot of the time the water is so dark you can’t see well at all.

I don’t consider myself claustrophobic or fearful of not being able to see, but I did get panicky about both of these things during the swim.

My friend who is an avid triathlete suggested I try Aqua Sphere goggles. They have a larger range of view than traditional goggles. The difference was instantaneous. There was just something about being able to see all around that calmed my irrational fears that were overloading my system.

And that was it. Those three changes were the difference between me riding a jetski back to shore after a panic attack in the water, to finishing my first triathlon and actually getting second in my age group! Yahoo!

Do you have more suggestions? If so, please list them in the comments below!