Improve pacing and stay calm in open water with these strategies from Dr Izzy Justice and Dinah Mistilis

How to stay calm in open water

(Photo credit: / Spomedis / ITU)

The emotional fluctuations you experience during a triathlon swim have a big impact on your pacing and energy consumption during your race. Humans are primed to respond to any perceived threat or stress.

A chain of events is initiated that leads to the release of the stress hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol, which consume large amounts of glycogen. This is most prevalent during race-day open water swimming, due to the challenges you face. For example, anxiety about the waves or difficulty navigating.

To help you develop a swim strategy that manages these fluctuations, we refer to Emotional Intelligence (EQ), which is the ability to recognise and manage emotional fluctuations in your body.

Start by taking your EQ temperature. Green is the desired emotional temperature to minimise energy consumption and maximise performance. You can think clearly. and retrieve skills practised in training which lead to optimal performance.

Yellow is where stress and anxiety cause fluctuations between skill retrieval and inability to focus and perform well. Stress hormone release is in slight excess. Red is an all-out state of panic, survival is priority and there is no ability to retrieve skills. Lots of stress hormones are released resulting in great energy usage.

If your temperature is green, good. Stimulate all five senses by listening to the water and the calm of your breathing. Observe sunlight through the water and what you see when you sight or breathe. Feel the water on your skin, and the temperature. Doing this is a subconscious way to not think about anything that could be a threat.

If it is yellow, calm your breathing first, then recall ‘yellow card’ thoughts (see panel below) such as your PBs in each leg, or the best feedback. Having this list prepared in advance to regulate your emotional temperature from yellow back to green is key.

If your temperature is red, temporarily change your stroke, or go to boat support if necessary to regain relaxed, controlled exhalation. Recall ‘red card’ thoughts, which include the most important aspects of your life, such as family or friends, and key accomplishments. This list must be powerful enough to get you from a red state instantly back to green.

Managing your emotions in this way helps you to manage your hormones, which are directly related to energy consumption. A good swim will then set you up nicely for the bike and run.


  1. GREEN: Practise enjoying swimming when the going is good. Meet up with friends in good weather, try new, beautiful open-water venues, and practise enjoying the sensations of open-water swimming.
  2. YELLOW: Spend time outside the water building your ‘yellow card’ list of experiences to draw on when you’re feeling panicked. Think about good races you’ve had, good training sessions, and people you know who inspire you.
  3. RED: For your ‘red card’ list you need to go a bit deeper and consider the things that are most important to you in life: your friends, family, the happiest moments of your life. It can help to actually write this list down.

Dinah Mistilis is a certified Emotional Intelligence coach and Total Immersion Master swim coach ( 

Dr Izzy Justice is a sports neuropsychologist and author of Triathlete EQ (