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by David Miner

August 6, 2019

Open water swimming requires participants to be both physically and mentally strong

Open water swimming is both a physically and mentally demanding sport.

Oceans, lakes, rivers, and bays all vary in their challenges, and unpredictable weather conditions add to this. Your physical and mental strength can make the difference between having a great swim and a very difficult swim, or not finishing the swim at all.

Moving through a liquid environment confidently, efficiently, and safely requires strength and good cardiovascular fitness. Being “swimming fit” is important to face the open water conditions you’re bound to encounter. If you’re out of shape and struggling, you’re going to create anxiety and stress. Depending on your goal, before you tackle an open water swim, be sure you can swim 500 to 1000 yards or meters in the pool without stopping.

Open water swimming also requires mental fitness and toughness. Training your brain to not panic or overreact in the open water can be the difference between life and death. The only way to really work on your mental toughness is to train in the open water on a regular basis. Training once or twice in the open water prior to your event when the conditions are perfect won’t translate into swimming well in choppy and windy conditions during your event. Get out in the open water regularly and build higher comfort levels. The more comfortable you become, the greater your mental confidence and fitness.

But even a physically and mentally fit swimmer can become nervous or stressed during an open water swim. Preparation—knowing what do to if things become stressful—can be the gamechanger. Here are five things you can do to calm your nerves and either continue safely or exit the water, before things get out of control.

Roll Onto Your Back

In this position, you can breathe easier. Take in a few full breaths and close your eyes to calm your heart rate and reduce stress. You can swim backstroke slowly to keep loose and moving forward on the course if you wish. When you feel ready, flip back over and start swimming again.

Talk to Someone

If you’re with a training group, talk to another swimmer until you feel less stressed. If you’re in a race, call for the safety kayaker to come over and talk with you. Venting your concerns to someone else and listening to a calming voice can oftentimes remedy the situation. Most safety kayakers are very supportive and invested in your success.

Swim with Others

During training swims, don’t swim alone. Being able to see another swimmer or a group of swimmers near you can have a calming effect. You can even make plans to stop at certain times to make sure everyone is together. This is a great time to communicate your concerns and listen to other experienced swimmers in your group. Being together allows for better safety and camaraderie and makes for a good time.

If you’re doing an event, recruit a friend or teammate who’s about the same speed as you are and suggest that you swim together.

Head Back to Shore

If your anxiety becomes too high and you can’t get it under control, swim toward shore and exit the water. This is the smart thing to do before getting yourself into trouble in a panic situation. There will always be another open water swim. Your safety is the number one priority.

Ask for Help

If you’re really in bad shape and your stress levels have gotten the better of you, ask for assistance. If you’re in a race, safety personnel should be nearby to lend assistance. If you have a kayaker with your training group, the pilot can help. Even another swimmer can lend assistance. The key here is not waiting until you’re in full-blown panic mode because then it’s very hard for anyone to lend assistance.

Due to the unpredictability of open water swimming, the possibility of any swim becoming stressful is real. The key is to realize this and be prepared in case it happens to you. This means knowing what you’re going to do to calm your nerves so that you can finish safely or exit the water should you need to. Whether you’re going to flip on your back for a few minutes, say calming things to yourself, talk to someone, or abandon the swim, or a combination of tactics, just having a plan in place is calming in itself.


  • Open Water
  • Triathlon


  • Open Water
  • Triathletes
  • Triathlon