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How to avoid panicking in open water

Panic attacks are common for outdoor swimmers. Even the most confident pool swimmers can freak out in open water. But why is this and how do you overcome the panic? Keen open water swimmer and coach Rowan Clarke tells us how.

The root of fear

Most of us have an irrational fear of some kind – spiders, darkness, snakes, buttons. These fears come from somewhere beyond logic.

The same goes for open water. A fear of what lies beneath, the cold, currents and tides all have a basis in reality, but they’re often irrational.

Because these fears are deep-rooted, they can take swimmers by surprise. You may not think you’ll be affected, but suddenly, when you’re face down in cold water unable to see more than a couple of inches ahead of you, an instinctive, subconscious level kicks in and you panic.

Breathe

Panic is understandable. Your brain tells you that you’re in danger, and your sympathetic nervous system – that ‘fight or flight’ instinct – kicks into action.

The main symptom is shortness of breath or hyperventilation (fast, gasping breaths). This is often exacerbated by your wetsuit, which feels tight across your chest.

So, what should you do? It’s down to your rational self to signal that you’re okay. The main way to do this is through your breathing. Slow it right down. Concentrate on your ‘out’ breath, gently trickle breathing when your face is in the water. Turn to take an ‘in’ breath, but don’t gasp.

Many swimmers find a rhythm, count or even recite the line to a song to help them breathe in a calm way. For example, you might say to yourself ‘bubble, bubble, bubble, breathe’, or ‘one, two, three, breathe; one, two, sight, breathe’.

This shall pass

It helps to remember that it’s normal to feel panicked and short of breath to begin with, and that it will pass.

As you get into cold water, your heart rate and blood pressure increase and that fight or flight reflex gives you a surge of adrenaline. But this passes after a few minutes and you will relax into your swimming.

It’s not just about allowing the first couple of hundred metres of each swim to overcome panicked feelings. The more you swim outdoors, the quicker you’ll be able to get into a comfortable, relaxed stroke.

But don’t get complacent. Even experienced swimmers can get caught out by a mass start at an event or unexpectedly rough water.

So it’s important to get as much exposure to outdoor swimming as possible. Gaining experience in different scenarios will help you overcome panic and teach your body how to adapt.

That means swimming in different places, experiencing salt water and fresh water, clear and murky, calm and choppy. If you can train with others, practice swimming close together to get a feel for mass starts.

The golden rule is to make sure you have experienced open water swimming before you swim in an event.

So many athletes get caught out because they have only practiced in a pool, or they’ve not trained in their wetsuit.

Mind over matter

Open water swimming is a mind game. Unlike any other field, open water is hard to control and changes from one day to the next. Panic is common and, in water, it’s dangerous. So, the key is to be prepared and to know how to calm yourself down.

Take a couple of minutes to acclimatise when you first get in. Then have an arsenal of calming techniques at your disposal:

  • Breathing: controlled, rhythmical, steady. Don’t gasp in big breaths
  • Stroke: slow and strong. Slow down your cadence and focus on using your core strength
  • Rest stroke: If you need a breather, switch to breaststroke or front paddle
  • Star float or tread water: If you need to, stop and take a few moments

Most of all, it’s worth remembering that it’s normal to feel a bit panicked to begin with and that these feelings will pass.

The cold, dark water triggers an instinct in us all: there’s nothing wrong with you and you can do it.

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