Handling Panic During an Open Water Swim Race

by Pool Builders on 01-12-2013 in Articles

Do you worry about freaking out during your open water swim race? This well-founded concern may get the better of many potential competitors. Even experienced coaches and racers have unexpectedly panicked during a race. Honestly, it seems like almost everyone goes through this eventually.

Comfort Strategies

Do you know what to do if this happens? Feeling overanxious may simply be due to taking a few shallow breaths. Concentrate on taking deep, full breaths and pulling in some needed oxygen. If the thoughts continue, repeat calming words such as: breathe, relax, and quiet. Alternatively, you may start counting strokes. Bringing your mind to something else, like numbers, may be enough to distract yourself from feeling upset.

Try the Breaststroke

Your panicked feeling may come on suddenly and strongly, as opposed to the more gradual situation above. If you really start to panic, change over to the breaststroke. By moving your body position more upright, you increase your visibility and breathing becomes easier. Using the breaststroke for a short time may be enough to help you calm down quickly and continue your race.

Float on Your Back

If you can't relax enough to swim your way through it, roll over onto your back and float. Your wetsuit's buoyancy will keep you from sinking. Look for the sun, if possible, to provide a focal point. Rest and calm yourself here for a moment, then try to make progress by using backstroke. Resume your freestyle stroke as soon as you feel comfortable.

Ask for Help

When desperate, swim over to race support (kayaks or boats) or simply pump your arm up and down for assistance. As long as they do not aid you in forward progress, you will not be disqualified. A new swimmer I know felt very uncomfortable and uncertain during her first race. In order to manage her struggles, she simply swam from one kayak to the next, holding on momentarily to regain her composure. Completing the race gave her a thrill and much greater confidence to try another one.

End the Race

Finally, quitting the race is your last resort but resist feeling ashamed from withdrawing. Tackling an open water swim race is no small feat. Most people would never dream of even attempting it. Give yourself kudos for trying and challenge yourself to try again.


Practicing the techniques listed above before race day either in the pool or open water will reduce anxiety going into the event. That alone may help to prevent panic. Believing you can overcome the feeling if it begins helps so much.

Having techniques to turn to quickly can stop panic from escalating into real trouble. Awareness of growing anxiety can allow you to begin using comfort strategies. Changing your stroke, rolling over and asking for help if necessary are all important techniques to utilize during panic.

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