How to Survive Your First Open-Water Swim: 8 Tips for The New Triathlete

Note: This is a post from No Meat Athlete Resident Triathlete and Triathlon Roadmap author Susan Lacke.

Runners often tell me they’d love to check out the triathlon scene, but they can’t (or won’t) swim.

They say swimming is hard, the mass start looks scary, and open water just gives ‘em the heebie-jeebies.  And I’ve got to admit, they have a point.

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Susan Lacke in the swim start of Ironman Wisconsin (she’s the one in the wetsuit).

Most of us log our swim training in the pool. When it comes to our first open-water swim start, we get a reality check when the starting gun goes off.

I wish someone had warned me of this — in the first 5 seconds of my open water swim, my mind rushed with a frenetic string of thoughts:

  • Why are these people so CLOSE to me?
  • Where’s the black stripe on the bottom?
  • Why can’t I see my hand in front of my face?
  • What is that thing floating up from the bottom? Is that a lake zombie?
  • I can’t breathe. Am I going to die?

In spite of all the pool hours I had put in, three minutes into my first open-water swim I was flipped over, doing the backstroke, and gasping for air.  I’m sure the spectathletes on the shoreline were thoroughly amused.

As for the zombie, turns out there was no creature of the undead in the lake — just a stick.

Everyone’s first open-water swim is scary

Usually, so is the second one. To be honest, the third one is, too.  But something amazing happens each time you get back in the water: It gets less scary.

After that disastrous start to my first race, my triathlon friends sat down, listened to my fears, and offered the words of inspiration which I will never forget: “Shut up and get back in the water, Lacke.”

Ah, tough love.

For those of you with a serious case of open-water heebie-jeebies, I offer this same gem to you: Shut up and get in the water. To make your first open water swim a little less scary, here’s what you need to know.

1) There is no such thing as a lake zombie.

Sure, you may think it’s a ridiculous statement, but I have to utter this to myself before every swim start. As a child, I had nightmares involving lake zombies, and even though I know this is an irrational fear, I still get nervous.

Chances are, you have an irrational fear, too — maybe you’re scared of being eaten by a shark, or you’re fearful that you’ll drown and no one will notice until it’s too late.

For every fearful thought, you need to have a rebuttal. If you’re scared of drowning, for example, remind yourself of the many kayaks, swim spotters, and lifeguards surrounding the swim. If you’re scared of sharks, know how rare shark attacks are in your ocean. If you’re scared of lake zombies, well…a good start is to avoid Mexican food and horror movies before bed.

2) There are, however, other creatures in the water. Deal with it.

There will be fish. There will be vegetation. There will be insects.

If you’re like most swimmers, the thought of the critters in the water will send you into a mild panic. Relax. You’ll probably never come in contact with any of these – the mass start of an open-water swim typically scares fish off and clears the area of floating sticks & weeds.

If you’re still scared, just remember — you’re the giant invading their home. Most fish aren’t going to attack you — they’d rather hide in the fishy panic room until you leave.

3) Get the right gear.

A pair of goggles that fog up will exacerbate your nerves. A wetsuit that is too tight will make you feel like you’re choking. A trisuit that isn’t skin tight will act like a net for lake gunk. No one likes to be blind, suffocated or slimy. To avoid this, make sure you go to your local tri shop and get the proper gear, then test it out before race day.

4) Have a strategy.

Triathlon swims typically swim counter-clockwise, with large buoys marking the course to the left-hand side of the swimmers.

Apprehensive swimmers may want to start in the back of the pack. Others choose to swim wide (on the outside, or right, of the pack). Some like to have the buoys directly on their left-hand side so they don’t get lost.

Whatever your preference, make sure you know the pros and cons of your strategy. If an extra minute or two on your swim time isn’t that big of a deal to you, it may be worth it to start in the back to keep your wits about you.

Additionally, know that strong swimmers in the pool aren’t always strong swimmers in open water. Make sure your training includes drills that will strengthen your ability to perform in open water.

5) Keep calm.

I know, I know — it’s easier said than done.

When you’re surrounded by other swimmers, especially during the mass start, you’ll feel like you’re in a washing machine with 700 ninjas. This tangle of legs, arms, and water can be  overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Just focus on what you are doing and where you need to be at the moment. The chaos almost always dies down within the first minute or two of the swim, as the pack spreads out. Stay focused and avoid pushing or kicking someone in retaliation — they likely didn’t mean to bump into you, and anger and frustration will only amount to wasted energy.

6) Breathe & blow.

I use this trick every single time I swim. When we panic in the water, our natural instinct is to flip onto our back and catch our breath, taking in large gasps of air. This is classic hyperventilation, or taking in too much oxygen, causing our heart rate to rise and our head to feel dizzy.

While most hyperventilating people breathe into a paper bag to calm down, that strategy doesn’t exactly work in the water. However, the same principle applies.

Instead of flipping on your back, stay face-down. Focus on turning your head to get a good breath of air, then stick your face in the water and focus on blowing bubbles at a steady rate. It will force you to regulate your breathing, and will take your mind off whatever it is that’s causing you to panic.

7) Watch where you’re going.

A common cause of anxiety for open-water swimmers is the challenge of navigating the swim. Even though swims tend to be in a straight line with minimal turns, there’s no black stripe on the floor or lane markers in the lake, making it very easy to get off course.

A swimmer who isn’t paying attention to where they’re going can look up and find they are several meters off course. That swimmer will then scramble to get back on course, overshoot the mark, and get even more anxious about zig-zagging all over the water.

To avoid this, practice sighting while you train. Look up as often as you need to see what is ahead of you and whether you need to tweak your direction. On race day, know the layout of the course, including how many buoys you’ll pass and what color the turn buoys are.

8 ) Make a smooth exit.

Don’t ruin a good swim by stopping short and breast-stroking to the exit. Know where the swim exit marker is located, swim with purpose towards it, and don’t stop until your fingers graze the lake bottom. Swim one or two more strokes until you can push yourself up with both arms, then stand up. Give yourself a second to adjust to the change from horizontal to vertical, and exit the water running.

Don’t forget to fist-pump on the way out — you survived the swim, you badass!

If you’re a runner looking to make the transition to triathlon, a new triathlete in search of tips and tricks, or a veteran looking to brush up on your tri-awesomeness, check out the NMA series for beginning triathletes!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Susan Lacke, NMA Resident Triathlete and author of the No Meat Athlete Triathlon Roadmap, is currently sporting tan lines from training that would put a zebra to shame. If you see her in a bikini, please refrain from making candy-cane jokes. Read her monthly column in Competitor Magazine and follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke.

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Comments

  1. I remember being terrified during my first triathlon swim leg – a measly 1/4 mile swim in a calm lake! I’ve since done open water swims in the ocean (waves be damned) with more success. Confidence is key and can really help you overcome those little fears that are, in fact, little.

  2. This is a great post! While Susan cannot convince there are no lake zombies I do concur with most everything else ;)

    The swim is my weakest link AND I don’t race to win (overall, or even my age group) so my tactic is to hold back when everyone goes nuts in the water. I walk about slowly, I stay away from people and I start swimming slowly. I pretend it’s a practice swim. Once I get warmed up, I find that I’m in a groove and also find myself passing others. I save my push for the bike and run, where I feel more comfortable.

  3. Excellent advice, but with one glaring oversight, that ought to be No. 1 on the list here: Don’t let a race be your first open-water swim! Many swim clubs and tri groups offer open-water clinics. Look for one. If you can’t find a clinic, I guarantee many people in a local tri group are regularly getting out for open-water training. Join in. Or just gather up some buddies — never go out in open water alone — and hit a local body of water. Your first race is still going to be chaotic, but by getting in several open-water swims before you take that plunge you can at least eliminate a lot of the other fears and uncertainties.

    • I hadn’t really thought about this, but this is really good advice. I’ll be finding my local tri group to inquire about group open water swim training! Thanks!

    • That is good advice. The US Masters Swimming organization is also a good resource for people looking to find open-water swim practices.

  4. thank you for this!!!! i just (barely) survived my first OWS two weekends ago. it was as horrible as i imagined and then some. now im afraid to get back in the OW, i want to stay in the safe clean environment of my local Y’s pool. i know i have to shut up and get back in SOON!

  5. There may not be lake zombies, but swamp thing and mermen may actually exist. At least, it hasn’t been disproven. :P

    I’ve always been too scared of getting kicked in the face to attempt a large-scale swim like that. It just looks like such a melee in there. I’m not sure how you tri folk do it.

  6. Great tips that I wish I had several years ago. I trained hard, but when it came right down to it I just couldn’t get past the thought that everything in the water was slimy with huge teeth, and I had a target on my toes. I ended up jamming – still some regret… My hat is off to all you who brave the open water swim.

  7. As a “wishing and hoping” newbie triathlete, the idea of an open water swim is literally enough to scare the wetsuit off of me. This article is really great and helps give me a real idea of what to expect. Good info and funny too! I’m bookmarking it so I can reread it often and keep psyching myself up for the big swim! Thanks!

  8. It wasn’t all the people that was scary, it was wearing a wetsuit for the first time in a first time open water swim. NOT recommended. Do an open water swim tri when it is warm without a wetsuit and then practice, practice, practice with one NOT just once but many times to get use to it. I panicked bc I felt I couldn’t get my breath. The wetsuit is tight fitting in the chest and round the neck. I always swam in the ocean and lakes and rivers, no problem & didn’t think I would have a problem but I did. So,get use to the wetsuit, it is a whole new experience.

    • Shawn, I agree with you on this! I just did my 2nd tri on Saturday and was wearing a wetsuit for the first time in a race. I got kicked around in the beginning, which caused me to start breathing too hard in panic. Then the weight of the wetsuit made me feel like I was not going to be able to catch my breath and I panicked more. Thankfully I kept forcing my face in the water, managed to slow my breathing some and was able to finish!

      Now I have to get back in the water and convince myself that I LOVE open water swimming :) :P

      The advice I have for everyone out there is to practice open water swimming before race day and be prepared mentally to talk yourself out of panic. It is such a mental sport and you can work through rough patches as long as you stay positive. Great post Susan!!!

    • I think there’s a couple different approaches to this. Your thoughts obviously have a lot of merit, and is a very viable route for some swimmers. Others, who are scared of drowning in their first open-water swim, are comforted by the buoyancy of the wetsuit — so it can make them feel safer!

      I’m an advocate of getting it all out of the way — the hectic feeling of the mass start, the fear of things in the water, the experience of wearing a wetsuit for the first time — at one time. It’s like removing a band-aid. You can do it a little bit at a time and prolong the discomfort, or you can rip that sucker right off and be done with it.

      But, like I said, everyone has a different way of doing things. It’s up to the triathlete to decide what is best for him or her.

  9. My first open water swim was the day of the race. Let’s just say I would not recommend that others take that approach. I am actually still trying to force myself back into the water after that day. All in all I would say that before I do another Tri I will be over-prepared for the swim – not the other way around.

  10. Kathie Rose says:

    even reading about an open water swim makes me hyperventilate!

  11. My first OWS of this tri season is Saturday and it’s an ocean swim. Thanks for the reminders….it’s a 1.2 mile swim and I just need to stay calm and get in the groove.

    • Totally. You’ve got the right attitude. Stay calm, and know that if you’re feeling a bit scared or disoriented, just try to keep your focus on your stroke, your breathing, and your sighting. You’ll soon “get in the groove.” Good luck! Let us know how it went!

    • Hey Patti….r u by chance doin the Gulf Coast Tri 70.3 in Panama City this weekend….I’m headed that way from mississippi, my first 70.3, but have done numerous Tri’s in the Gulf of Mexico….about 22 events over the last 3 years….all in Florida! Don’t let it freak u out…
      Amy D.

  12. Definitely take an open water swim course. It helps you ease into it and they teach you all the tricks so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I did Swim Art in San francisco and they do a great job of easing you into it. Still, it’s easy to panic in the water and sometimes you don’t know when it’ll come. I always try to take a proverbial step back and think how great it is to be doing this sport and to be out in nature. If that doesn’t work, I just breast stroke for a while.

  13. jAsonW says:

    My family loves to point out my swimming technique is really more like hydroplaneing than swimming. My fear of the monsters in the water prevents me from breaking the water’s surface. I swim that fast! Just not very far. I’d love to do Tri races but the fear is too much. Alas I’m stuck running trails in the forest far away from any monsters. It’s just bear and cougars I need to worry about there.
    PS it sure looked like a shark or piranha feeding frenzy in that picture!

  14. kyndra says:

    i love your posts! i’ve got my first race with an open water swim coming up and while lake zombies aren’t a fear of mine (i’m cracking up pretty hard thinking about them), i’m definitely apprehensive. i’m fine with the open water itself; it’s the mass start that has me scared. honestly, i’m really terrified that all these people are going to swim on top of me and i’ll drown (or almost drown, and look like an idiot). i guess that’s what worries me most because it’s the one aspect you can’t train and prepare for. you can make sure your gear is right, that you can swim the distance in open water, that you can sight and breathe on both sides, and even get familiar with the course . . . but the frenzy of a mass start is something that you pretty much don’t have any clue about until you’re in the moment. your tips are helpful, though. especially the breathe and blow- i’m going to remember that one!

  15. Jon Weisblatt says:

    Great post. I admit the swim is what keep me from trying evan a sprint tri. You may say ther are no lake zombies but I saw the first “Friday the 13th” movie. When jason pops out of the water at the end of the movie? Holy crap!!!! I gotta remind myself there are Jason’s (I think) whenever I go kayaking or swimming in a local watering hole.

  16. Great post, really inspired me to swim. Honestly, i don’t know how to swim, never learnt it. The nearest i came across to swimming was in the beach, but with no swimming training i could hardly keep myself afloat. We don’t have any swimming classes here in my town so i have left it for later when i go out to a bigger town, i will start learning to swim.

    Thanks for the lake zombies/inferi idea, it never came to my mind before, but now am sure it will also add up as an additional problem when i finally start to swim.

    Overall, great tips, keeping a good strategy and sticking to it and staying relaxed helps out mostly with just about anything.

  17. I remember the first time I felt panicky in the water. I was doing a workout in a man-made lake near Austin, TX called Lake Pflugerville. For some reason, I kept thinking there was a giant alligator (think “Lake Placid”) sharing the water with me. It remains my fastest 1500 meters to date.
    I was fortunate to have training programs where we included OWS, mass starts, sighting etc which left me feeling very prepared on race day. Still, the anxiety sticks around for the first 400 meters or so- until I really get in my groove and get away from some of the other swimmers (unless I think they’ll make better “bait” ;-)

    Wonderful article! I’m sharing!

  18. These are great tips. And while there is no such thing as a lake Zombie, there is seaweed; and i am going to scream the same if either brushes my toe.

  19. This post is great! I’m an injured runner at the moment and I have been swimming a lot because it’s all I can do right now. I also recently bought a road bike and I’m planning to do my first triathlon once I can run again. I know I’m going to be terrified of the open water swim but I’m determined to do it! Your tips are great! And I’m planning to go back and read the NMA series for beginners. Thanks!

  20. you have no idea how timely this post is, thank you! I did my first triathlon (a sprint – with a pool swim) in April. I LOVED it – but am fearful of signing up for one of the bigger races because the open water swim scares the CRAP out of me. I’m afraid of feeling tiny in a vast sea…and of all the things lurking about that I can’t see!

  21. I come from a swim background so the open water swimming doesn’t/didn’t scare me…unless it is in an ocean.

  22. Ah yes, the swim. I’ve done both ocean and lake, and ocean wins out every time. Another tip that I learned when you are nervous is to just use the upper body (not much kicking) until you get your groove. That way you don’t get out of breathe out of the gates…and cause you to panic!

    I am new to this site…and not a vegan, but focus mainly on the veggies :) Looking forward to reading more.

    PS – as a Nutrition Counselor, I am excited to share this blog!

  23. Vanessa Ryden says:

    Great advice! I’ve done my third OWS this weekend and it is DEFINITELY easier!! I completely freaked out my first time and I grew up in socal at the beach every summer (!?!). All this being said, remember, you don’t have to out swim a lake zombie, just the person behind you :)

  24. Great article Susan. It describes my first and second open water tri swim perfectly. They both happened in the last few months. I have put hours in at the pool and can swim a kilometre without much thought. The 2 swims were 400m and 500m respectively and both times I found myself breast stroking gasping for breath after about 300m. In the second swim I got slightly panicky but mansaged to get to the exit without involving the safety team!! Your description of hyperventilating was exactly what it was like. Thank you for the “breath & blow” remedy which I will try however my question for you (or anyone else) is how do you stop yourself getting to this state in the first place?

  25. I wish i had read this BEFORE my first ows. Everything you described happened to me except the lake zombie thing (we dont have zombies in south africa, i think). Thanks for great advice. Hopefully my next swim will go better and that i will do free style and not doggie paddle.

  26. God, I can’t tell you how happy I was to find this post. I have my first triathlon in a week, just got my wetsuit (rental), and took my first OWS yesterday. Not only did I have no idea that I wouldn’t be able to see AT ALL in the muddy water, but I caught glimpses of several lake zombies. All day, I’ve been wondering if I should postpone, but this website made me laugh so hard that I feel confident again. If I have any trouble, I’ll just think: not a lake zombie, not a lake zombie. Thanks so much for posting.

    • I had the same panicky experience last weekend when I attempted my first OWS. Thank goodness it wasn’t the actual tri- just practice- because after about 10 seconds in the choppy water and with boats zooming around in the distance I totally freaked out. My poor husband was right next to me trying to help me but I wouldn’t listen or follow any of his instructions. I think the lake zombie must have swallowed my brain because I completely forgot how to swim. Next time maybe I should borrow my granddaughter’s floaties. :-)

      • I think we had the exact same experience! I tried to pretend I wasn’t scared, but it apparently didn’t work: later, I asked my boyfriend how I looked, and he said, “Like you were drowning.”

        • I’ve never swum in open water and haven’t swum in probably about 20 years…… I went for a swim at the gym 2 weeks ago and bam….. I look again and I’ve been booked for 2 open water mile swims a day apart!!!! Bitten off more than I can chew? Probably!
          I’m training almost every day and its going better than I expected.
          I’m just not looking forward to the experience of half drowning in a frenzy of bodies and swimming like my life depends on it while swallowing liters of micro organisms plant life a fish or 2 and getting kicked in the face all while trying to stay afloat! Nor am I looking forward to zero viz! I cannot swim breaststroke so I’m visualizing a mix between doggy paddle and front crawl! But….. im going to do it anyway! Lifeguards…… Be warned!

Trackbacks

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  7. [...] you up to the neck, and there is someone who keeps touching your toes (see Susan Lacke’s post at No Meat Athlete referencing her fear of lake zombies) left me with a feeling of fear that I have not felt in the [...]

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