Overcoming Open Water Swim Fears

July 18, 2021
It is in our ability to step into our fears with action that allows us to overcome.

The fear of open water swimming is extremely common. Rarely, do I work with someone who has no open water swimming fears. In fact, I believe everyone has some level of discomfort or anxiety with open water even if they don't like to admit it. For advanced and regular open water swimmers, this fear has evolved into a healthy respect for open water.

Open water swimming introduces a vast amount of unknowns. For example, the different swimming environments (ocean, bay, lake) and whether this environment is enclosed by land or open to a bigger body of water. When we let our minds wander and think about what might be in the water around us, like seaweed, fish or jellyfish. Or even thinking about greater fears, like sharks in the water or sharp objects on the lake or ocean floor.

Then, adding in the dynamics of a race tend to heighten our level of anxiety. For example, hoping the race is wetsuit legal due to a lack of comfort in swimming without a wetsuit. The distance and design of the course itself plays tricks on the mind; like the shape of the swim, how far out the farthest buoy looks and feels, the number and placement of buoys (sparse or close together). Then, once the race starts, the battle of finding your own space in the water begins. People swim close to and in front of you, potentially knock off your goggles or swim cap, or even accidentally detaching your swim buoy. The feel of the tight wetsuit coupled with existing anxiety and your face submerged in dark water can greatly heighten anxiety.

So how do we work to overcome these fears? The first and most important step is by acknowledging your fears and recognizing that everyone has them. It is in our ability to step into our fears with action that allows us to overcome. Here are strategies to consider trying, broken into two categories:  training and racing.  


  • The number one way to work through it, is to do it. Get in open water swim practice as frequently as possible. The easiest way to do this is to join your local tri club (most of you have) and take advantage of their open water swim sessions. The advantage of these is they are lifeguarded and others will be swimming with you. Never swim alone in open water.
  • You must be able to put your face in the water. Existing anxiety, a tight wetsuit and dark water can make it difficult to keep your face in the water and keep moving forward. A great way to practice this is by swimming underwater in the pool. This works your breath control and helps to work through feelings of anxiety which is elicited when we hold our breath underwater. For example, swim a 25 as far as you can underwater until you must come up for air. Approach the surface, take a breath, then finish out the 25 underwater. Do an easy 25 freestyle back. Repeat this three or four times and add this into several weeks worth of pool swim sessions.
  • Focus on stroke count and sighting. When you focus on stroke count and sighting this keeps the mind from wandering, keeps you moving forward and keeps you on course. Ideally, you should be sighting every 6-12 strokes. So, focus on counting your arm stroke to 10, then sight, count to 10, then sight, etc.
  • Master the ability to breathe bilaterally and to your non-dominant side, these are essential skills to become your most confident self in the water. While it takes a long time to master these skills, your confidence in any swim session is amplified. You know you can easily breathe to either side if there is chop, swells, other swimmers or turbulence around you.
  • Practice swimming in a tight pack with people around you. This is a great exercise that I like to do as a team. Swim at the same pace and very close to each other. With each practice like this, you get more comfortable swimming close to others, and learn how to breathe and vary your stroke as needed to swim successfully and finish at your best.


  • Get in a good warm up. If it's race day, get in the water and get used to the temperature. Get a feel for how deep the water gets as you progress forward and when you should dive in if it's a run-in start. Do a 5-10 minute easy warm up with your face in the water to get used to the taste, color and feel of the water and which way the current is flowing.
  • Have a plan for when anxiety peaks. For example, when the urge to stop is strong or anxiety seems to be at it's worst, move to breaststroke or sidestroke. This way, rather than stopping or treading water, you are still moving forward, just in a different style. These strokes (vs backstroke) are great alternatives because you are still able to see your surroundings and stay on course. Have a plan in place on how long you will stay in this position (example, 10 strokes) then, move back to freestyle.
  • Know that in most races (always check the athlete guide) you can rest on the water support boats/paddleboards when you need to. The only rule here is you cannot use them to push yourself forward once you start swimming again.
  • When it comes to chop/swell/turbulence/etc and how to master your form in open water, read Achieve Your Best Open Water Swimming

Remember, the very best way to overcome your open water fears is to get in open water as much as possible. With each open water experience, you step into your fear, learn something new and build your confidence in what you can achieve.

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