Swim Anxiety Information


Everything You Wanted to Know About Open Water Swim Anxiety but Were Afraid to Ask….

The Causes

So, you have been feeling a little anxious swimming in open water? For most athletes, a little dose of anxiety or “pre-race jitters” is a good thing, as it sharpens the focus of the task at hand, and provides some adrenaline to give you some added fight, as per the “fight or flight” response. Yet too much anxiety can impair performance, and is a common problem for swimmers at all levels of experience, and for you to overcome it, you first need to understand why you have it, and then develop some strategies to neutralize it.

There are distinct differences between swimming 2000 meters in a pool and swimming the same distance in open water; and, of course, there are big differences between doing a training session and doing a formal event or a race. These differences can create excess anxiety, and lead to decreased confidence in your swimming and decreased performance in your event. What are the sources of this anxiety, and what can you do about it? First, a list, and then, the strategies to overcome them.

Lets start by calling a spade a spade. Here are the increased stressors of open water swimming:

  1. In a pool, you are never far from a lane rope, the pool’s edge, the pool bottom, other swimmers, or a lifeguard. In open water, you do not have these securities, so you need to believe in your swimming abilities more, and have faith in your ability to remain calm and functional in any circumstance.
  2. In a pool, you have defined depths, some of which are shallow enough to stand comfortably; the rest has limited depths that you can see easily and grow comfortable with that. Lakes, rivers, and oceans provide you no such assurances, although you will come to realize that the depth of the water is irrelevant to most swimming, unless you are diving.
  3. Pools have discreet borders that easy to encapsulate in your mind with a quick glance, while open water can appear expansive, without a clear sense of distance.
  4. Pools also provide you a clear sense of direction, with lanes marked by dark blue lines at the bottom of the pool, to allow you to quickly correct any tendency to swim off course. Open water swimming requires the development of good sighting techniques to swim straight.
  5. Well-demarcated lanes also mean there is hardly ever any body contact with other swimmers, unlike in open water races, especially at the start, which can be chaotic. The feeling of random and repeated contact in the water by other swimmers is not generally comfortable even for experienced swimmers.
  6. In a pool, the water temperature is constant, predictable and comfortable, as well as being clean and clear. Open water can be cool or downright cold, have an unfamiliar taste, may be brackish or salty, may be green, grey, blue or brown, and may have significant particulates or silt, limiting visibility.
  7. And then there is the issue of what is in the water. While pools are generally sterile, chlorinated, and free of debris, open waters are vibrant, living milieus, with floating debris, birds overhead, and all kinds of marine life, from insects to fish, from water fowl to mammals large and small. Unlike a pool, the bottom can be sandy, rocky, muddy, weedy, scenic, or even unknown. For some, this is the “yuck” factor that takes some getting used to.
  8. What is on the water is also an issue in open water swims. Boats, kayakers, sailboarders and stand-up paddlers are all sharing the water with you, and leave you wondering how vulnerable you are to getting run over, a concern that does not exist in a swimming pool.
  9. There are also weather factors that do not exist in a pool. Wind, waves, currents, bright sunlight, changing air temperatures, lightning risks, poor visibility and darkness are all added variables in open water swimming.
  10. Swimming races and training in a pool are tightly structured, but are different in open water. Open water swims like ours have hundreds of swimmers in the water at once, and cause concern regarding being run over by another swimmer.
  11. Unlike the pool setting, most open water swims encourage the use of wetsuits, which is a new piece of equipment that takes some getting used to; some find them tight or restrictive, even hard to breathe if they are not properly fitting. Yet they also provide safety in the form of buoyancy and warmth, and usually enhance swimming by improving body position.
  12. There is the added anxiety of being in a formal event, commonly called performance anxiety, the added pressure felt to perform well in front of friends or an audience, or to perform up to a personal expectation.
  13. Swimming in a race is also more likely to adversely affect breathing patterns in a way that may create premature shortness of breath. If you start too fast (perhaps attempting to keep up with other swimmers), your breathing cadence may cause hyperventilation prematurely, or the lack of a relaxed breathing cycle may impair complete emptying of your lungs, causing premature shortness of breath and anxiety, and impair performance.

So, if you are new to open water swimming, there is little doubt that you will be quickly confronted by most of these variables, each one of which pushes you a little farther away from your swimming comfort zone. Some may get overwhelmed by several of these variables, and the result is…… anxiety.

The Solutions

So, how do you lessen swim anxiety? First, ask yourself which of these factors are most significant in your mind, and focus on those in particular. In general, though, the more time you spend in open water swim environments, the more comfortable you will be with it.

  1. Get to know all the safety resources available to you during the race (see the below list)
  2. Be committed to developing the fitness and swimming abilities necessary to do this swim. Take advantage of the free swim clinics included in your registration at the Gyro Beach Swim Loop 2 consecutive Saturdays before the event. Get into the open water – lots.
  3. If you are going to have a support paddler, do a practice run with them. Practice swimming beside them, having them sight for you, and water breaks if you are doing the 7km swim.
  4. Practice swimming in adverse but safe conditions—choppy water, cold water, windy days, sunny days, rainy days; all are possible on the day of the Interior Savings Rattlesnake Island Swim.
  5. Get used to swimming in groups—go with several friends, and get comfortable with occasional contact in the water, and swimming beside others. This is a good way to learn drafting and sighting as well, since there will be swimmers that will deliberately follow your feet or swim closely beside you during open water swim events.
  6. Get comfortable with your wetsuit and your goggles, and make sure they are properly fitted for you. Do NOT change your equipment on the day of the event if at all possible.
  7. Remember that your wetsuit makes you buoyant. Try diving down 5-6 feet of water and try to sit on the bottom - you will bob up like a cork. You have effectively a personal floatation device on you when you wear a wetsuit.
  8. You can rest at any point on your swim, by treading water easily or floating on your back while your wetsuit and swim buddy holds you up. Just swim off to the side of the swim pathway to clear the way for any other swimmers who may be behind you. If you need help, just wave to nearby watercraft, support boat, or lifeguards.
  9. Staying calm is your best strategy for a successful swim. Stay relaxed. If you are doing the 3.1km swim you have 2.5 hours and if you are doing the 7km swim you have 3.5 hours.
  10. Recognize that breathing is the most important part of swimming, and when that is not going well, it is the most likely trigger to hyperventilating, anxiety and panic. Cold water hitting your face reflexively may cause you to hold your breath, and may make it hard to take full expirations into the water, hence the need to do some warm up swimming. Learn to breathe in a variety of patterns (every 2, 3, or 4 strokes) to accommodate your swim needs and the choppiness of the water. If necessary, reset your breathing by going more slowly, taking a few deep clearing breaths, or stopping long enough to get your breathing back to normal. Learn how to breathe near the top of a water crest, by feeling the rocking of the waves, then timing your breath by altering your breathing cadence or extending the glide portion of a stroke.
  11. If you do not feel well for whatever reason (dizzy, fever, nausea, allergy symptoms, significant cold or flu symptoms, hangover, uncontrolled anxiety, headache, shoulder pain, tachycardia, etc) on the day of the event, you need to consider that today may not be your best day for this swim. Please advise one of the Interior Savings Rattlesnake Island Swim officials and hand in your timing chip and cap. We will gladly roll over your registration to next year. Do not let others tell you that you should swim if you are not feeling well—you are the expert of how you feel.
  12. Have a plan for the day of the Swim, and practice it prior to the event. This will include how you warm up, how you acclimatize to the cooler water, how you pace yourself in the early and middle parts of the swim, how you avoid falling into the trap of following others’ pace that may not be suitable for you, and even what drinks, foods, or snacks you eat pre-event or during the event if you are swimming the 7k.
  13. Avoid nicotine, caffeine, recreational drugs, and sugar prior to the swim. You don’t need to add to the heightened awareness you already have, and may give yourself palpitations or tachycardia.
  14. Become familiar with the important landmarks defining the swim. On the morning of the Interior Savings Rattlesnake Island Swim, check out the correct line of sight to Rattlesnake (for the 7km swimmers) and to swim bay (for everyone), including the finishing buoys, the mountain pattern behind that, and how this relates to where the sun is in the sky. Also check out what is on the left and the right of the swim path - buildings, mountains, etc.--these are things that you will need to correct away from if you start sighting these during your swim.
  15. Develop some mental resilience with positive self-talk, and learn some simple relaxing breathing techniques that can settle you down when feeling anxious. Yoga can help with calming your mind and using breathing as a tool to relax. Thinking logically is much easier when not feeling panicky.
  16. Be assured there are no monsters from the deep that are going to get you. Most fish and waterfowl would be trying to avoid you, not attack you! And the water is not out to get you. Learn to flow with it, and not fight it.
  17. To improve your visibility in the water, we require all participants to be wearing a brightly colored swim cap, and a Swim Buddy.
  18. Have an “escape plan” of sorts if things are not going well. If you swallow water, or are coughing, or are anxious or panicky, stop swimming, roll onto your back to make breathing easier, turn to face any swimmers that might be coming your way, and work at calming your breathing down. Find a posture that you can practice before hand in safe conditions that you can call your “happy place”. If you can resume your swim do so at a pace that is comfortable and manageable, with stops as needed. If you are unable to proceed, wave to the nearest watercraft for assistance.
  19. On the morning of the swim, do some warm up!! Getting water in your wetsuit will be a slight shock at first, but once you have warmed it up, becomes your wet insulation for the Swim, so do this BEFORE your event starts; one less shock to the system. Warming up your shoulders, getting a feeling of your breathing rhythm, getting comfortable with the water temperature, the waves, your goggles, and your wetsuit are all best done BEFORE the Swim.
  20. Ease into your “race pace”. Your heart does not like going from a resting pulse one minute, and race mode the next. Your breathing doesn’t either. Combine that demand with the “diving reflex” that cause people to hold their breath and slow down their heart with the application of cold water to their face, the possible added effects of ingested caffeine, and generalized race-associated anxiety, it is easy to see some swimmers becoming short of breath after just a few hundred meters of swimming. Pace yourself, and time your warm up to help this. Make sure that you are completely emptying your lungs with every expiration. Stay flexible in your breathing pattern as you move into race pace to accommodate your changing needs; depending how much warm up you have done and how warm it is, you may start breathing every 4 or 5 strokes, and reducing that over the first few minutes to every 3 strokes.
  21. Good sighting is essential to a safe swim and to be able to finish your event in a timely fashion. Learn how to do this in both flat water and choppy conditions. Consider practicing with some water in your goggles, and even commando style, without goggles (goggle straps sometimes break, and some fall off—remember that goggles have only been used for a few decades). Also try clearing your goggles while swimming on your back.
  22. Know thyself, and your limitations. Stay within your capabilities. Swim your swim and stay comfortable and relaxed especially in the early part of the swim; don’t get caught up with anyone else’s swim rate
  23. Be able to accept that, on any given day, your abilities may not be up to par, and that it is okay to decline the opportunity to do this or any event. Don’t force fit your bucket list onto your body if it is not truly ready for the challenge.

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Swim 3.1km or 7km across Okanagan Lake in historic Peachland, BC.