Article image

by Stuart McDougal

October 11, 2019

Flow into the moment; don’t let the moment take control of you

Open water races can catch even experienced open water swimmers by surprise. Getting kicked, having your cap or goggles ripped off of your head, surf conditions you haven’t experienced before or haven’t experienced in some time, or accidentally inhaling a face full of water can trigger any swimmer into survival mode.

When anxiety takes over, your breathing feels labored or you start wheezing, your heart rate jumps, your arms begin to feel very heavy, and it’s difficult to kick. The labored breathing and heaviness in your arms and legs aren’t because you haven’t built the stamina or didn’t practice high heart-rate training, but rather you’re experiencing the fight or flight phenomenon, during which oxygenated blood is redirected away from your limbs to your vital organs.

Knowing what to do when you’re triggered into survival mode can keep you from going over the fight-or-flight edge and into a panic situation. Let’s take a look at some things to practice and prepare for for when you’re in unexpected conditions and provide some steps you can follow to get your head back into the swim.

Practice in Open Water

Swim in adverse open water conditions when possible. Swim with a group and get close—bump into each other, practice swimming side by side, drafting, and passing each other. It’s always best to breathe on the side away from chop. But if there is some chop, practice breathing toward the chop—get your head in position and the timing right to breathe easy, especially if it’s on your weaker side.

Have a buddy grab your leash and unzip your wetsuit as you swim by. Practice rezipping your suit in the water when you’re a bit winded and swimmers are passing you on both sides. Remove your cap and goggles, stuff them in your suit, and swim a few hundred yards without them. Have someone grab your ankle and hold on while you continue to swim for several strokes. Practice shore starts and finishes with a group—the larger the better.

The more creative you are, using any combination of the above, the better prepared you’ll be for the unexpected. You’ll also become a better and faster swimmer in normal conditions—it’s a win-win.

Practice in the Pool

If the majority of your swimming is in the pool, you can simulate open water conditions with some creativity.

During triathlon and open water swim season, I’ll have my swimmers line up on both sides of a single lane, in the shallow end, facing each other, each swimmer holding a kickboard horizontally. Then each swimmer takes turns swimming down the middle of the lane, as those standing with kickboards (the “choppers”) move as much water as possible with the kickboard, pushing water forward and back as the swimmer swims by. At the end, the swimmer becomes a chopper and the next chopper in line takes a turn swimming, until you rotate through the whole group.

It’s a great way to practice swimming in tough, bumpy conditions. The choppers with the kickboards get a great arm workout too. You can get even more creative and have a few choppers bang the swimmer on the back and legs with the kickboard, grab their feet as they swim by, making it an even tougher challenge—all in preparing swimmers for the unexpected.

Turn Chaos into Opportunity and Fun

The day of your triathlon or open water race, recall your favorite swim practices and simulations with your swim group and how much fun they were. Make it the same on the day of your race. Rather than looking at the start of a triathlon or open water race with anxiety and trepidation, look at it as another practice or simulation, only with a much larger group. Visualize a great start, passing the first buoy and swimming cleanly though tough conditions with lots of swimmers in the water and nothing bothering you from the swim start to swim finish.

Here’s a helpful list to have on race day, or even on a tough day swimming in adverse conditions. It’s not limited to these steps—modify it and make it personal to you, with whatever helps you avoid survival triggers.

Before the Race

  • Stay warm in the morning—wear sweats and a hat
  • Drink warm or room-temperature liquids to keep your core warm—no ice-cold drinks
  • Put your wetsuit on not more than 30 minutes before your wave start
  • Get in a short swim 15 minutes before your wave start and do a bottom check where you plan to enter the water to check for obstacles or sandbars, etc. Locate navigation targets you’ll use for sighting and swimming straight.

During the Race

  • When the horn goes off, do what you've done at all the open water practices: Get in briskly but in control. A face-plant at the swim start is a really bad way to start your race.
  • Stay low and get past the surf quickly by moving under the waves, slow your stroke down, and get your breathing under control. 
  • When you pass the first buoy and find your own lane, swim your swim, the one you’ve been practicing all season—don't suddenly change it up and start sprinting.

If Something Happens

If you get anxious, kicked, have difficulty breathing, inhale some water, or start hyperventilating, here are a few tricks to help you regain control:

  • Roll on to your back to recover
  • Slow your breathing, relax, and get all the air you need
  • If backstroke or breaststroke isn’t an option because of high chop, try to put your head low in the water and keep moving, letting the chop pass over you and sneaking your breath in during the troughs—the low points of the waves. Once you have things under control, your arms will become light again and your legs connected and kicking.
  • Don’t be afraid to signal for help if you need it. Sometimes it’s better to get out and try another day.

While you’re swimming, tell yourself, "I'm OK, it's a beautiful day." Enjoy every stroke you take and feel how lucky you are to be able to do something so few can do and do well. Before you know it, your feet will hit the sand and you’ll be sporting an ear to ear grin. Be sure to congratulate yourself on a job well done!


  • Open Water


  • Training