Panic and Anxiety at the Start of a Race

caburkecaburke Charter Member
edited May 2014 in Beginner Questions
I received the following question from a local triathlete and thought this group would be a perfect place for him to get answers.

“…I have yet to attend an open water swim and it showed today at St Anthony's (triathlon with a .9 mile swim in a rough Tampa Bay). I swim at North Shore Pool mainly and LA Fitness when I can't get to NS in time.

Well my problem is not the distance. I put in 3k-5k in the pool. It's a panic/ almost asthmatic attack around the 300-400m mark.

Today (before the triathlon) I even did a warm up run and a 200m swim before the race. But to no avail. I've done 5 (Olympic distance triathlons), 4 HIM (half Ironman) and 1IM (Ironman) so experience isn't the factor either, in my opinion.

Do you know of anyone that can coach me/ help me conquer this? I have a full Ironman 17 May. So today's performance was quite a surprise (36 min for 1500m)

Any directions/ referrals or advice would be greatly appreciated.”

Please provide any helpful feedback as he will be following this thread.


  • ForeverSwimForeverSwim Pittsburgh, PennsylvaniaCharter Member
    @caburke Your friend is welcome to touch base with me. You can get my cell off Ron, or you are welcome to PM me with his contact. Love to help him out!
    Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania U.S.A.

  • swimmer25kswimmer25k Charter Member
    I've helped swimmers in the past with similar issues. We found that paddling next the swimmer on open water workouts helped ease some of the anxiety. It was comforting to the swimmer to have a paddler watching them. After a while their confidence was where it needed to be. We didn't spend any time worrying about how far or long they swam. Sometimes it was an easy fix and for others it took a while longer.

    A few years back I took one swimmer all the way across Lake Grapevine outside of Dallas. She had a hard time swimming a simple triangle bouoy course. Somehow focusing on a turn point made her scared. I just had her keep her head down and swim next to my kayak watching only me. A few swims later she finished a four mile round trip.

    It's all in our heads. I think we all would agree that there is something comforting about being cradled by a kayak or some escort craft.
  • Kevin_in_MDKevin_in_MD Senior Member
    There's actually a decent amount of information on this from USAT. Check and the usat website or magazine. They have run features on the subject.

    I work on this with triathletes I coach often and we've been successful so far.

    I'll give the 5 cent version.
    0. If at all possible get an open water practice in before the first race. This is pretty obvious and with a swimmer from the Tmapa Area it seems like a big oversight. For that particular race, you have added advantage of having been able to go out and swim at the actual race sight, that's a huge confidence builder.

    1. warmup, most places don't allow an in-water warmup. If that isn't available ten do 5 minutes or so of running. The relaxation response you get after any exercise will help stay calm.

    2. Assuming you weren't able to warmup in the water, splash some water on yourself before you get in, particularly if it's cold.

    3. Be the first person from your wave into the water and swim once you get in. Most tris will have eaves 5 minutes apart. For many people that five minutes is spent messing around getting into the water slowly wading out, BSing with the other people. Better thing is to be one of the first into the water, then once you get out, head to the edge of group of people and swim, 30 strokes up, 30 strokes back and repeat. In 5 minutes you can do up to 200 yards and still have time to spare.

    4. If it's cold, this is MORE important, not less. I have had people tell me after a race that they thought since it was cold they wouldn't put their face in til the last minute.

    5. Start at the back, after the gun wait 30 seconds before you take off. Sit there and count to yourself, very good at calming yourself down.
  • jenschumacherjenschumacher Los Angeles, CAMember
    Hi @caburke - this definitely sounds like there are areas for improvement in both preparation and psychology. I have quite a bit of experience working with triathletes and open water swimmers on the mental aspects of their sports. I'd be happy to talk to him and can put him in touch with other sport psychology consultants if he's in a different area (I'm in CA) and would like to meet with someone in person. Feel free to pass along my information.
  • SiwashSiwash Member
    Thanks all for the advice and help. From what you've all said and what I've analyzed from my problem during the Triathlon was actually did a warm-up run I swam about 2 to 300 m 20 minutes before the race. When the gun went off I did start slowly however I was taking a breath every stroke and like Chris mentioned my heart rate got pretty high and that feeling which really surprised me because I had warmed up we were not wearing wet suits and I thought I would be comfortable throughout the swim.
    Since then I've done four open water swims. Wednesday I took a sleeveless
    wetsuit and swam a mile and everything went fine.
    Tomorrow morning I'm going to meet the open water swimmers at 8 AM for my last swim in the states and Monday I fly to Spain for race on Saturday.
    The goal before the race, get accustomed to the temperature, to start slow, not
    breathe every stroke at the beginning get
    into a rhythm and finish the swim. Thanks again.

  • JenAJenA Charter Member
    Could this be an acclimation issue? The 'gasp response' triggered by cold water ('cold' being relative) could definitely trigger anxiety and higher heart rates.
  • lakespraylakespray Senior Member
    Siwash wrote:
    The goal before the race, get accustomed to the temperature, to start slow, not breathe every stroke at the beginning get into a rhythm and finish the swim. Thanks again.
    I agree with everything here except I question the not breathing every stroke if this is how you usually train. Hopefully you still have a set pattern, such as every third stroke and your exhaling under water. I believe it's a common error for some competitors to hold there breath at the start of a open water race. You don’t hold your breath while running or biking. Don’t do it while swimming. Not breathing can force you into a anaerobic state which can actually increase the odds of having a panic attack. One of the questions I ask tri's that don't have competitive swimming background is if they understand the concept of rhythmic breathing? Exhaling under water seems natural to us but you'd be surprised at how many adult swimmers don't do this, not everyone had swimming lessons where instructor made you do multiple bobs while making sure you exhaled.

  • @Siwash the race at St Anthony's was a particularly difficult event. That is as close to a national championship event as you can get. The athletes are very aggressive. I have seen them call the swim part of the event in the past. It is truly a washing machine out there and very difficult to swim unless your frame of mind is right. Actually the best training to overcome that kind of anxiety is to do what you did. Get in the fray and hang on. You will be able to get your head right for the next tough swim. Good luck on the 17th.
  • evmoevmo SydneyAdmin
    edited May 2014
    Relevant article today by Swim Smooth, "Developing A Strategy To Overcome Your Anxiety In Open Water."

    I particularly enjoyed Paul's honesty in saying this:

    I was (and to some extent still am) a little phobic of open water swimming, it's the deepness of the water that triggers me off, this is despite having now swum in some of the deepest, darkest oceans on the planet! As a junior this prevented me getting into triathlon sooner as my imagination ran wild with all the possible scenarios that might occur! I still get a little anxious from time to time but confronting this fear when learning how to scuba dive in Thailand 13 years ago really helped. Whenever anxiety levels rise, I simply focus on calming my breathing down with the mantra “bubble-bubble-breathe” repetitively running through my head.
  • johnyGjohnyG Dublin Ireland Member
    thats what i feel before any race,specially if i start fast i think the carbon monoxide goes up in my lungs cos i can't get my breathing right and the tech nick docent work for the first few min.... then i get in too... id love to know why???
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