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Outdoor swimming requires mental strength. Follow these top tips to overcome your fears.

How to stay calm in open water

(Photo credit: / Spomedis / ITU)

Swimming in open water can conjure up images of Jaws, the Loch Ness Monster and giant man-eating squid. It can bring with it horror stories of being punched or kicked in the face, lost or broken goggles, and being pushed under water. Your mind can wander to all sorts of interesting, even scary, places. Thankfully, with a little bit of mental training and preparation, you can have an enjoyable swim during your next open-water triathlon. Here are some tips to help overcome any fears you may have.


The more you can guide your thoughts, the more likely it is that they’ll remain positive. Find a mantra to repeat to yourself – “strength”, “power”, “smooth”, “fortitude”, “perseverance”. Pick a word that has meaning in your life or is an important part of your race-day strategy and repeat it in your mind as you swim. You can also count your strokes, sing a song or recite your favourite poem. I like to combine these strategies by counting my strokes and then saying my mantra when I breathe. The goal here is to keep your mind occupied and focused.


Unless you’re concentrating on following someone’s feet, it’s not a bad idea to close your eyes when your face is in the water and open your eyes when you breathe. Opening your eyes when you breathe will help you spot the next buoy and continue swimming straight. Closing your eyes when your head is in the water will keep you from seeing the shadows and natural undulations in the water that can conjure up negative thoughts. When your eyes are shut, focus on a positive mental image like your kids, your partner, a car you lust after, your favourite holiday, standing on the podium at Kona or anything that you associate with being calm.


These methods help you stay in the moment by focusing on a certain aspect of your experience. The most common technique is focusing on your breathing. As you breathe in, focus on your chest expanding and filling with air. As you swim, focus on steadily exhaling through your nose. Other ways to practise grounding include focusing on swim technique by monitoring your body’s position in the water, focusing on the physical sensation of the water gliding past your body and focusing on the sound of the water rushing by your ears.


Find out what works for you and plan accordingly. If you don’t want to risk being kicked in the face, line up on the outside of the pack away from everyone. If you don’t like to be pushed under, avoid the front-middle of the pack. If you have a hard time regulating your breathing, make sure you do a warm-up swim before the race and then start out easy when the gun goes off. Know your vulnerabilities and plan your race strategy accordingly.


The key to success with all these tips is practice. Whether you’re swimming laps in the pool or training to swim in open water, you’ll use these mental techniques more successfully on race day if you’ve practised them in training. Just as you increase the efficiency of your swim stroke by practising technique, you can increase your mental strength with practice. is the online home of Triathlon Plus – the best source of triathlon training advice, triathlon gear reviews and triathlon news.

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