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July 5, 2012 7:51 AM   Subscribe

Triathletes and swimmers: How did you stop having panic attacks in open water?

I am a marathon runner turned triathlete and have completed several triathlons and a few Half Iron distance races. I'm currently training for my first full Ironman. I'm a strong runner and cyclist and swimming is definitely my weak part of the race. I know this and I know I need to work on this - great!

I've taken a Total Immersion Swim course and it was helpful. In the pool I'm fine. In all the triathlons I've done in the past two years, the open water swims went well. However, for whatever reason I've somehow develped these panic attacks in open water? The first one I had was during a Half Iron distance several weeks ago and it was horrible. Normally if I start getting a little panicky in the water, I'll just flip onto my back, calm my breathing and we're good. However, this was not the case. I was literally hyperventilating the entire time, could not get into any sort of rhythm and just kind of dog-paddled my way through the 1.2 mile swim. It was a disaster.

I live near the ocean, so two days ago I walked down there and jumped in for a practice swim. Same deal - panicky hyperventilating every time I stick my face in the water to the point of choking and flailing. After a 1/4 mile I called it quits. What the hell!?

I'm interested in any ways to overcome this. My current plan is to keep trying (obviously) and I just bought new swim goggles. What else can I do? Halp!
posted by floweredfish to Health & Fitness (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have someone who is out there with you who can talk you back to a relaxed state when this happens?

Although I have a fear of open water (being in the middle of the ocean with who knows what beneath me), I've never had panic attacks. But I DO have a history of panicking in tight spaces.

I recently learned to spend lots of time in the 1ft high crawlspace under my house while rewiring it, and the mantra that I kept thinking was, "this house has been here longer than I have, and it will not collapse on me" as I expanded my lungs slowly into the floor joists right above me, and tried to feel the house breath back. Maybe there's a similar thought process you could employ, about feeling part of the water, working with the forces of pressure on your lungs. Some hippy nonsense for sure, but in lieu of an owner's manual for my adrenal system, it relaxes me pretty well.
posted by hanoixan at 8:12 AM on July 5, 2012

I had the same problem when I started open water swimming and I'm a very strong swimmer. The solution for me was spending more time in open water - not necessarily swimming (and certainly not training-type swimming) more just bobbing around getting the feel for the water moving with currents and waves. Take a flotation aid or wear a wetsuit, but make sure the wetsuit isn't tight to the point that its hard to breathe, and just hang out.

I also recommend taking a buddy along. It helped knowing that if something happened I could always grab his foot and not be alone. Just floating out in open water, chatting with my swim buddy really helped me relax. Plus once you get comfy its good to have someone around to practice swimming overly close with for those packed triathlon wave starts!
posted by the_shrike at 8:21 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Strange question but...have you started taking any new medications? I had a mildish phobia--one that I was always able to mentally 'talk' my way out of or ignore using controlled breathing--that was significantly enhanced when I started taking a different antidepressant.
posted by skye.dancer at 8:32 AM on July 5, 2012

Oh! And I should have also mentioned...have you added any new foods or supplements to your training diet? (e.g. protein bars, protein powders, sports drinks) Sometimes food sensitivities can augment or trigger panic attacks (been there, done that).
posted by skye.dancer at 8:37 AM on July 5, 2012

Find a group of open-water swimmers in your area and practice with them. The swim leg of the triathlon can be very difficult - you are not the only person to deal with this. Slow development - move into the water until you can lift your feet, move further out every time, can help as well.

It it important to have a healthy respect for the Sea.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:08 AM on July 5, 2012

It sounds to me like you have a slight anxiety disorder that is only triggered by certain, challenging situations.

Given that a freakout in the middle of a lake/ocean could have fatal consequences, I suggest that you seek professional help. Some sort of visualization & desensitization therapy might be in order.

Common-or-garden-variety therapists may not understand or sympathize with your situation ("don't swim!")...a sports psychologist might be the best route. If a quick Google doesn't help, perhaps you chould check out the sports medicine or human kinetics departments at the nearest university.
posted by wutangclan at 1:18 PM on July 5, 2012

Best answer: I encourage you to really concentrate on telling yourself a calming and encouraging story before you swim. Visualize the experience you want to have. This totally helps me every time I swim especially when my previous workout didn't go well. That is all behind me. TODAY I am going to swim strong with good form or whatever I need to work on.

Start slowly. Get in the water, get your chest in the water. Stick your face in and bubble bubble bubble. All with your feet on the ground. Once that feels ok, start to swim slowly! I see people go out and KICK AND SWIM like crazy. That would make me winded and start off hyperventilating! I like to start out easy which helps me warm up and build my confidence.

I swim with a masters group and they do organized open water swims. I highly encourage finding a similar group. Find a Masters Club in your area.

Also, was the water cold for these recent swims? The first open water swim I did, the water was in the mid 60s and even though I had a wetsuit on, it took my breath away and I started to FREAK! Even now that the water is 75 degrees, I still need to get in and acclimate before I start swimming. I don't even like getting in the 80 degree pool!

You have had successful open water swims, you can do the distance and you will get past this. You are not alone! I swim in open water 2 times a week. I get nervous belly before each one. Even a friend who did an Iron Man confessed that she has a hard time sleeping before she came to an open water workout with me!
posted by rachums at 4:10 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My problem is the cold water and the unknown bottom below me. I tell myself calming things like "You have an inner fire" and "Animals don't like splashing, so they'll swim away if you get too close." Knowing the facts about what you're doing-- that it's reasonably safe and you took measures to make it safer-- can help you rationalize your way out of a panic attack. I know what to look for in, say, hypothermia, or rip tides, so I do little check-ins, like, "Can I feel my limbs? 100% or less?" and "Was it safe to get in today? Is the current safe now?"

I also try to focus on technique. Is my roll all it could be? Is my breathing steady? I can often fight down panic by focusing on keeping on going.

Maybe you could get in the water near shore and paddle around, gradually moving outward and treading until you feel safe enough to keep going. If you show yourself that you can be safe at every distance from shore, you might be able to train your body not to flip out.
posted by blnkfrnk at 12:37 AM on July 6, 2012

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