Help with Open Water Swimming - Its terrifying

Hello Everyone-

Another newbie Tri question. I’ve been doing all my swimming workouts in the pool. I can continuously swim 2K in the pool pretty comfortably. However,

I went for my first open water swim and got about 300 meters out and it was for lack of a better word terrifying. It was like all my training went out the window. I know I can swim the distance (not fast but I can cover the distance) and all of it went out the window once I was out in the open water. This open water swim has crushed my confidence for the whole event.

Is this to be expected? I’m planning on heading back to the lake on Saturday is there any tips you can provide to help ease the nerves?

Go with a friend if you can, that will help your confidence in the water. I found it really helped mine.
Also, build the distance up in the open water. Don’t feel you need to do 2k first time you’re out there. You can continue to build fitness in the pool as you adapt to your new surroundings outside.
The hardest thing to learn is sighting - and I am terrible at this. Practice, practice, practice.

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Welcome to the world of tri. First, yes, it’s expected and normal. I still vividly recall my first ocean swims, which were scary and distressing.

My recommendations:

  • Get a swim buddy. You need to get in the water with someone you know and trust and who will have the patience go out with you over several weeks. (You should always swim with someone, not swim alone, in the ocean, but this is a different level.)
  • Practice getting in and out of the water. You wrote “lake” so you’re probably not dealing with waves, but if you can get to an ocean, you can practice ins and outs (which includes body surfing) to help acclimate you to (and distract you from) the open water. For the lake, if you can, practice fast entries (running if the terrain allows) as you would in a race, and fast exits, as the terrain permits.
  • Focus on navigating with your swim buddy. Another distraction. My friend who got me into open water swimming was some 30yrs my senior (I knew him from the pool) and he zig-zagged horribly. That took me a week or three to figure out but then it became, in a way, a help as I then focused on going straight and knowing where he was (on my right, no, now he’s on my left, and now he’s on my right…).
  • Focus on your technique. Depending on waves (or wind in the case of a lake), your technique may change (but unlikely in a lake). The choppier the water, the shorter your stroke will be. For me, I envision choppy ocean like off-road terrain (it’s rough like Jeeping or MTB’ing).
  • Focus on time not distance in the water.
  • Repeat and repeat.

In summary, yes, it’s totally normal to be freaked out with open water (ocean or lake) swimming. It takes time to get comfortable. In no time, you’ll look back and laugh at how you felt these first times.

Two words: Bilateral breathing. helps me focus on something besides drowning in a lake, and keeps you on a fairly straight path

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Hi CJ,

This is totally normal and something I see all the time with athletes I coach (as a tri and swim coach). Agree with the above comments about going with friends, and also recommend going to a managed open water venue where there are lifeguards on the water, and let them know you are a little nervous. They might be able to stay close to you and offer you something to hold onto if you need. Using a tow float could also help in this regard. Personally wouldn’t recommend sea swimming to newer/nervous athletes until they are more confident, because waves and currents add another dimension to the whole thing.

This feeling certainly something that passes with more exposure to open water swimming, but there are a few exercises you can try to help calm things down in the open water:

  • Take the time to get in slowly and acclimatise - spend some time just getting your breathing control, let some water into your wesuit and move it around to make sure the fit is comfortable, submerge yourself, float on your back for a while etc. This all helps to reduce the effect of the cold water shock which can cause some people to panic. Remember, in a wetsuit anyone can comfortably float on their back, so if you start to struggle in open water, just roll onto your back and try to relax until you calm down a little (again, let the venue staff know when you get in that you plan to do this so they don’t confuse you for someone in trouble).

  • Don’t forget to breathe - the most common issue I see with swimmers new to open water (even if they have been competitive swimmers in the pool their whole life) is the compulsion to hold their breath, rather than maintaining constant exhalation when your face is in the water. If the water is cold, this is further exacerbated. Before you set off, put your face in the water and do several controlled exhalations. If you can’t smoothly breath out, then take more time before setting off until you have relaxed. Focus on your breathing when swimming and aim to keep this as controlled as possible.

  • Remember “continuous” in the pool isn’t the same as “continuous” in open water - turning at the wall provides you with a rest that you don’t get in open water. I like to add some stops. There is nothing wrong with having a break (floating or treading water) before continuing on. Don’t feel like you have to do a long loop - you might be able to swim to the first bouy and back rather than a full loop of the venue.

  • Keep trying! The more often you get in, the more comfortable you will become with the whole thing. Before you know it, it will start to feel normal. Not long after that, it might even start to be fun :wink:

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One thing about open water swimming is that once you get out where you can’t touch the bottom, you are always 90 seconds away from being dead unless you take some positive action to keep from drowning. That freaks some people. But, as you state, you have all the skills necessary to easily keep yourself alive. So, just acknowledge the fear, don’t let it control you and get on with swimming.

If its a big issue for you, I think it helps to actually get out in some open water and get comfortable floating around and generally getting comfortable with the fact that no matter what happens you’re not going to drown. You need to get so your mind knows your “safe place” is 2 seconds away treading water or floating on your back, etc, not XXX hundred yards away back on shore.

You are not alone in this - I’ve been there! I still have some nerves but am a lot better at managing it and actually swimming. Things that helped me have already been mentioned: having someone there, taking your time and getting used to the water, remembering to breathe (especially out), and keeping on trying.

Sighting is the key…you need to learn to pick a landmark on shore and sight it every 5 strokes. Also get a swim bouy…in case you get tired you can just grab it and float…it also makes you much more visible to boats etc on the water. Are you wearing a wetsuit? Make sure it fits well and doesnt constrict your chest and arms.

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Thank you everyone for the quick responses. I do feel better that I’m not alone in this and I greatly appreciate everyone’s input.

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Hey newb here. I can’t do 2k continuously in a pool…i basicallly learned to survive in water when i was a kid and started training in pool in november last year.

Finally got around going in open water and while it’s different, i liked it more to a certain extent.

I had my buoy (which i didn’t use…) and i had a sleeveless wetsuit.
First the water not being as irritating was nice.
Then, looking at the wildlife underwater (while i still could see it) was super nice too
And then last but not least, the wetsuit magic is AWESOME. Floating and treading water is so much easier. Ended up swimming the longest ive ever swam in a session, with some breaks though.

Then i did some open water swimming last weekend when camping, only armed with my goggles. Although it was harder to get momentum without the wetsuit, and waves were also in the way, i still managed to get through it, while still taking breaks. So no matter what distance you have to cover, remember that you can always just tread water (which im horrible at by the way) or even go on your back to catch a breathe and relax.

In the first group i went to practice with, there was this lady that was super panicky, so she’d keep comforting herself, telling herself that she could do it and what not…and I then learned later on that 2-3 years ago, she couldnt even put her face in the water without panicking… So if she can do it like a boss, you can do it!

still freaks me out a bit, even though starting at 8-10 years old (can’t remember exactly) we had to do a 30-minute water survival test at Boy Scout Camp. The ocean adds another mental challenge. Its all in your mind so go out and practice!

Hi. Been there as well!! It still scares me after 2x 70.3s.

I needed to use the rescue boat the first time I went out onto a lake.

The things that helped me were, frequent swims but not necessarily very long at a lake/ocean with lifeguards, build up slowly ( swim out 50m and then back until if feels less terrifying, then 100m out and back etc), remember in most events there is great support via lifeguards so you are not hundreds of metres from safety but much less, wetsuit and salty water helps(!) us float. Don’t hold your breath despite every instinct telling you to do so!

As I say practice, practice in an area with support if possible.

Begs the question, what happens to boys who fail the test…?


Shame and ridicule by your mates IIRC. It was the 70s, long before political correctness. Think we had to do 10 minutes using pants as flotation device, 10 minutes treading water, and 10 minutes in the HELP position.

That was how i remember it in the mid to late 80s.

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I find the swim bouy a real mental benefit. I basically know I cant die with that. I like to really focus on watching my hand enter the water with the sun coming through the water. Soothes me and slows my hr/anxiousness. take a break out in the middle of the lake, float around, look around and enjoy it. Open water swimming is pretty special once used to it.

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Those were the days. At YMCA camp we had to tread water holding a brick above our heads while singing camp songs. I did the blow up your pants thing in gym class in junior high school.

Between stuff like that and hanging out at the pool all summer, I’m very comfortable in the water. But I still respect it. No one is totally drown proofed :wink:

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Yeah, a few years ago a few of us went a little too far out from shore in Manele Bay and that gave me renewed respect. Same year I was doing daily mile swims from Honua Kai resort down to Black Rock.


Thank you everyone for the help. I went back out today and it was a great experience. Went from terrifying to dare I say it fun. Couple of changes based on all of your suggestions

  1. Wore a wet suit.
  2. Had my wife follow me with a kick board and fins
  3. Swam with a open water buoy that I dragged behind me.

I ended up dong 1450 yards and actually enjoyed it. Having someone with you and that little $30 buoy really helped. So my only question is come race day I can’t use the buoy to help re-align or if I need to take a break. As such a little nervous about not having the safety net but I def made big strides in the lake today.

Ohh and I’m in Colorado so ocean swimming is available for me.

Thank you again everyone as with your help in just a couple days I was able to make big strides in my open water confidence.


If you need the extra security, remember you can always hang on to a rescue kayak in a race. They should know well enough not to give you forward progress. In my first race, we were swimming across a river only a few feet below flood stage and i didn’t stay high enough before the turn buoy, needing to swim as hard as i could against the current to make the turn. Luckily there was a kayaker there and i grabbed on for a minute or so until i recovered.