Race Fear and Open Water Swimming Anxiety


Race Nerves?

How do they affect you? Do you perform better or worse? Do you get a newfound courage or does your race plan collapse?

I’ve seen countless accounts from athletes online, and in person, where they stand on the beach before a triathlon swim start or an open water swimming race and drown in a cloud of panic and fear.  They are unable to start.  Or sometimes, this happens in the water, 100 metres into the race.  I once saw a man swim out 50m in a triathlon and proceeded to sink… flailing!

Fear of open water swimming is not something I’ve experienced since I started racing so it’s quite difficult for me to imagine what the athlete is actually going through.  Dr. Simon Marshall talks about “training your brain to swim fearless”.

If you think about your immediate group of peers (in racing). There’s the show-off talking about their last swim time, the bully telling you to just get on with it, the quiet athlete just running their race plan through their head, the data nerd fiddling with their watch, the instagrammars doing a 100 selfies and the rest, who just want to make it through the swim, period. It’s a bit like a playground.

Your brain, on race-day, could be compared to all of these people going on at once. Dr. Marshall talks about 6 areas in the brain having different priorities.

When you start the swim, one part of the brain is driving instinct (the Amygdala).  Someone kicks you and your first thought is “do that again and I’m gonna dunk your head under”.  Then straight after that the second part of the brain, which is a bit more rational and controls your impulses say no, don’t do that but let’s think of something else… (the Orbito-frontal).  Your conscience and guilt kick in further and get you to find a compromise, as you can’t actively drown someone else in a race (the Uncinate Fasiculus) BUT I could just give them a kick in the teeth (rational as not quite kicked in properly yet!)

Then the fourth part of the brain runs an analysis again and uses logic, searches for facts without emotion (the dorso-lateral pre-frontal cortex) and the fifth part is also saying actually that swimmer is probably also going through hell just like me right now … ah some compassion…(the ventro-medial pre-frontal cortex) and finally, the sixth part which is the Cingulate Gyrus steps in and makes a final decision based on past experiences and says “if you drown this swimmer you could end up in jail!” so chill out!  This isn’t a life and death scenario, it’s something that will pass shortly!”

Imagine all of this mini parts in your brain acting up all of these different thoughts at once, and they do?  What do you do, to get all six parts of your brain to play ball, when you are about to start the leg of your race which gives you the most fear??

Step 1 – Confrontation

Facing your fear, often, is one way to help overcome it.  If you don’t practice enough in open water, in rough water (even if you stay in the shallows and practice entry and exit), then facing the sea on race day will be even more daunting.  Challenge yourself in training, and feel ready to take it on at the race start.

Recognize that feeling overwhelmed by fear and anxiety about the swim simply means that your brain has been hijacked by the part of your brain trying to keep you alive – and that’s ok!  HOWEVER do not let the “Chimp” in your brain take over, it acts immaturely, sulks at failure, throws a tantrum and takes away your composure!  Let it have its wee rant, I am slow, everyone is faster than me, those waves are too big for me, I’m too inexperienced to do this…  then it will run out of things to say and then you take over and say “I am ready, I am strong, I have trained, I have prepared, I have swum in choppy water, I have practised this, I am an athlete etc).  And then you have not been tricked into quitting by that sodding Chimp.

See the video above. That was my race start in Barcelona 2021.  I travelled all the way to Spain, spent a ton of money and was really looking forward to the race.  There was no way this side of time that I was going to let fear or doubt cloud my vision of getting in that water and not finishing the swim. Many didn’t get in.  Most did! It’s a mindset and also preparation of the mind for race day.

That morning, it was between me and the Chimp.   Who won?

Step 2 – Simulate Your Problems

How much have you practiced busy swim starts, crowded swims etc.  Even if there are only a handful of you training, you can bunch up in the sea (and pool!), get in the water very close to each other, do a short run on the beach first to get your heart rate elevated then jump in the water and do a race start with a burst of swimming, and then swim back and repeat.  Being in the open water needs full control of your breathing too, to avoid early exhaustion and also to get control of your thoughts.

Step 3 – YOU Did Not Fail

I have heard so many athletes say that “they failed”. Actually, it was their actions that failed, not the human themselves.

Did you follow the steps you practised in training? Plans fail. Actions fail. People are not failures. The vital point is what we do with our failed actions and plans (or the thought of failure). Mental toughness is built by enduring in the face of failure through the months of training, it doesn’t come from an easy swim during taper week.

Step 4 – Reframing

I’ve spoken about fear in a previous mailer and in that email it talks about placing yourself at the finish line in your mind.  In order to define your success you need to have your goals under your control.   Goals are not where others see you (what was your time, did you place, what were your splits… none of this should be part of your goal setting)  – the goal setting is where you see yourself in that swim.

Start every swim with a promise to yourself to GIVE IT EVERYTHING YOU’VE GOT no matter the circumstances (choppy, cold, current, crowded etc).  You might not feel prepared enough, you might lose your goggles (practice that too!), or perhaps you will come in last out of the water, all of this is just circumstantial and has no bearing on your effort.

Step 5 – Don’t Harp On It

Have you stood on the beach falling to bits?  Get in!   If you linger on it for too long you can become paralyzed by your fear. Do not give it a chance.   Be a bit more impulsive – sign up for a local swimming race and get in!

Step 6 – Train!

Inconsistent swim training has a cascading effect on your physical, technical, psychological and emotional readiness to race. Fact.  I know athlete who are terrified of the water, or really uncomfortable with swim starts, but don’t train enough.  If swimming is your worst discipline, and you have a time constraint, head to the pool and skip the run session (for example). Don’t hide from your training sessions!

(Open Water Training starts on Tuesday 13th September in Dubai!)