Conquering Open Water Fears

By Flipper Fingers

January 7, 2017  

Do you get nervous about panic attacks when swimming in open water? Worried there’s a large beast about to gobble you down? For experienced and novice swimmers alike, swimming in open water can pose some significant challenges – the need to sight (periodically check where you’re going), choppiness and the icy cold, to name but a few. […]

Do you get nervous about panic attacks when swimming in open water? Worried there’s a large beast about to gobble you down? For experienced and novice swimmers alike, swimming in open water can pose some significant challenges – the need to sight (periodically check where you’re going), choppiness and the icy cold, to name but a few. All of these – and other effects – can lead to a swimmer’s main fear: that of an open water panic attack, or ‘open water freakout’ as it is commonly known. This is the feeling of complete panic that can wash over you suddenly at any point in an open water swim, during which your heart rate rises, your breathing goes out of control, your limbs cease functioning and the brain starts to panic. See here for a description of two seasoned Walrus struck down by such a freakout in the Snowman Triathlon 2014.

The author of this post, indeed, suffered a freakout in his very first open water swim. Picture the scene: a novice but eager triathlete, having spent months training in a pool, diving into a lake in the New Forest in March, wearing his brand new wetsuit. The first few strokes – exhilaration! Out to the first buoy… made it. Turn back to shore… and BAM! It struck. With no knowledge of what was going on other than a near certainty of imminent death down with the fish and shopping trolleys, there was nothing for it but to roll over onto my back, stick my fist in the air, and wait for a canoe.

Often, following an initial panic that strikes out of the blue – or tales of freakouts from other swimmers – it is the fear of a panic attack itself that then induces subsequent occurrences. I’m panicking as I write this.

BUT all is not lost! The freakout, if its causes and effects are properly understood, can be controlled and avoided. Indeed, it is to be loved – a sign that somewhere in the back of your mind, some primitive mechanism has kicked in to tell you that what you are doing is madness – and not feared. This article aims to help those swimmers and triathletes – novice and experienced alike – to conquer their fears through knowledge and employment of some practical techniques.

The freakout is to be loved and not feared – a sign that somewhere in the back of your mind, some primitive mechanism has kicked in to tell you that what you are doing is madness


The first step in conquering the open water panic attack is understanding its causes. That way, effective methods can be used to beat it. The major ones have been identified as follows, in order of their impact:

1) Cold Water.

The cold of open water can be intense, raising your heart rate and your breathing rate (though your breathing becomes shallow).

2) Wetsuit.

For those used to training in a pool without a wetsuit, to suddenly have a wetsuit on in water can be strange, giving the feeling of constriction – particularly around the neck and shoulders.

3) Lack of Vision.

In a pool, you can clearly see the bottom and all marker lines. In open water, the water is often murky and you can barely see a few centimetres ahead of you, which can be scary if you’re unused to it. A further effect of this is that you will have to ‘sight’ (look up and out of the water) to maintain direction.

4) No Bottom.

Even if you never have to stand on the bottom in a pool, the fact of it being there (and being able to see it) gives a feeling of confidence and safety. This sense is taken away in open water: not only is there often no bottom to stand on, even if there is you may not be able to see it.

5) No End to Push Off.

Again, it may seem like a small point, but if you’re used to swimming in a pool you’re probably used to having an end to push off every few strokes, giving you a nice boost. Having this small rest taken away from you can make progress seem slow, increasing the sense of urgency and potentially leading to a panic.

6) Weed/Fish/Objects.

To find yourself brushing against weed, sticks, fish and other objects can be startling if you’re unused to it (and if you can’t see what it is you’re brushing against – who’s to say there isn’t a large undiscovered creature living in this lake….).

Preventing the Freakout

So, what can you do to combat these points and prevent the potential terror of a freakout?

Thoughts like this may lead to an open water panic.

1) Make sure you are dressed warmly enough for the water! For inexperienced swimmers, wear a wetsuit for swimming in UK waters at any time of year, plus a swim cap. In cold water, think about doubling up on swim caps, wearing a full face warmer, and covering the feet and hands. Shock due to cold is the prime cause of the freakout as it accelerates your heart and breathing, so if you can control this then you’re most of the way there.
2) Get into the water and acclimatise before setting off. This means getting your head under and practising breathing a few times until you are used to it. You’re good to go when you can do nice, long, slow breaths out underwater. Open up the neck of your wetsuit to enable water to flow all around your limbs and loosen everything up. Try and get into the water 3-4 minutes before the start (too soon and you will get cold!) to do this.
3) Urinate! It helps warmth spread through the wetsuit and will leave you feeling light for the rest of the race.
4) Set off slowly and build up to it. The freakout often occurs between 30 seconds – 1 minute after the start when swimmers have set off too quickly. Set off at a smooth, easy pace and build up to a quicker pace if you are nervous. If when you build up pace you start to feel a sense of rising panic, then slow down slightly and it will likely ease off.
5) Get the right kit. Being unable to see underwater means that sighting out of it is important, so get a good pair of goggles suited to open water. If you’re on a budget and just want one pair for the pool and open water, have a look at the Aquasphere Kayenne range. You also want a good pair of goggles so they don’t leak!
6) Train progressively in open water. The only way to get used to weeds/murk/lack of sight is to practise in it, building up slowly in terms of the distances you cover. Panics arise when the brain starts yelling ‘you can’t do this’, so by training up to the distances you need to cover in events, you will build confidence in your ability to combat this.
7) Train in varied environments. Try out swimming in rivers, lakes and the sea, and with different surroundings. The more variety of the environments you are used to in training, the more race environments you will be comfortable with. The sensation of swimming in a river with narrow banks is very different to suddenly being out in the middle of a lake in the Lake District!

What to do if the worst happens

OK – so you’ve taken the precautions above, have trained hard, but nonetheless find yourself in the middle of a swim and a sense of panic rising that can only mean one thing… a freakout on the horizon. Perhaps you’ve been kicked in the face, have inhaled a mouthful of brine rather than air when trying to breathe, or felt something slither past your legs. Well, the best thing to do is to slow down your stroke slightly to reduce your heart rate and to focus on long, slow strokes with long, slow breaths. Breathing at this point is key: a couple of nice, slow breaths out underwater will help calm you down and get your rhythm back. If you’re doing front crawl, switch to a smooth breaststroke, but keep doing your breaths out underwater – having your head out of the water looking straight ahead the whole time could make your neck feel constricted against the wetsuit, as well as increasing drag as your legs will likely sink, and progress the freakout even more. If that fails and you’re still struggling, just flip into your back and float gently for a few seconds: you’ll get your breath back and also realise that it’s hard to sink in a wetsuit. And don’t be afraid of clinging onto a safety canoe for a few seconds!


The freakout is largely driven by the mind. If you know the challenges of open water swimming and how to prepare for them, and are able to identify the signs of a freakout starting to occur and are able to deal with it, then you’ll be fine. And once you’ve successfully dealt with one once, after that you’ll know you can do it and it won’t be a problem.


The freakout happens to strong and weak, experienced and inexperienced swimmers alike. Don’t feel bad if it happens to you, and definitely don’t lure yourself into thinking it won’t happen to you. Know that it could happen and prepare accordingly. And when in doubt, wear two wetsuits.

One response to “Conquering Open Water Fears”

  1. […] are often prone to open water panic attacks, also known as ‘open water freakouts’. See our more detailed article on how to deal with these. As discussed in the article, the key is to know what to expect and to […]

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