Replace Open Water Anxiety with a ‘Cocoon of Calm’
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on August 19th, 2011

After two competitors died during the Nautica NYC Triathlon on August 6, it was inevitable that the statistically-odd nature of how such deaths occur was bound to grab attention again. Both fatalities occurred from heart attacks during the (current-aided and relatively quick) swim leg. According to the American College of Cardiology, the risk of sudden death in a triathlon is about twice that of a marathon — 1.5 deaths per 100,000 triathlon participants compared with 0.8 deaths per 100,000 marathon participants. Of 14 deaths that occurred in triathlons between 2006 and 2008, 13 took place during the swim. Why is it that over 90 percent of fatalities occur during a leg that accounts for only 10 percent of race duration?

According to Suzanne Atkinson M.D., a TI Coach from Pittsburgh, there’s a good chance it’s the extreme anxiety that many triathletes feel in the chaotic conditions following the swim start: “I work in an Emergency Room where the percentage of fatalities is much higher than in a doctor’s office.  Does that mean ERs are dangerous? No, it means that ERs see a higher percentage of really sick people. Similarly tri starts may not be inherently dangerous in and of themselves, but they provoke a ‘fight-or-flight’ response in a high percentage of participants. This causes a state of heightened adrenaline, and increased blood pressure which greatly increase the likelihood for a sudden myocardial infarction (what we call ‘heart attack’), dysrhythmia (rapid beating which doesn’t allow blood to flow out of the heart), or torn aorta.   If it’s going to happen at any point in a triathlete’s training or racing experience, it’s going to be following the start of the swim leg.”

Like Suzanne, I want to emphasize that what I write here is not meant to infer that racing triathlons is dangerous. Your chances of becoming a statistic are vanishingly small. But the anxiety-verging-on-panic that is the most likely reason so many fatalities occur while swimming is a relatively common experience. While rarely fatal, it is certain to hurt your overall performance–and compromise your enjoyment of the sport.

Even experienced and accomplished pool swimmers can feel overwhelmed by the confusion and congestion that routinely follows the start. Indeed the silver medalist in the 2008 Olympic open water race, UK swimmer David Davies, said he felt “violated by people swimming all over me.” If an Olympic medalist feels that uncomfortable—while swimming amongst athletes whose expertise at pack swimming rivals that of Tour de France riders in the peloton—what chance does a triathlete have of achieving a sense of comfort in a chaotic triathlon swim start? Well, actually a very good chance, but first let’s examine why the fight-or-flight response occurs.

One effect of triathlon’s explosive growth is that each weekend several thousand new triathletes—the vast majority inexperienced swimmers who have never experienced pack swimming in open water—line up on some shoreline to undertake the most extreme challenge in swimming—an open-water distance swim in often-chaotic conditions.  I can’t think of another task in broad-participation sports that equals this for sheer stress potential.

Last year, my wife Alice swam a 1.5k relay leg at the Cayuga Lake Tri in Ithaca. I watched five waves, each with some 80 participants, start the swim. Each time the same pattern unfolded: Following the start, 10 percent of the field swam steadily and confidently down the course. Another 20 percent swam reasonably well in their wake. Fully 70 percent swam uncertainly at best, barely at all in some cases, stopping frequently, switching to breaststroke, turning on their backs. Generally they took five to ten minutes to settle their nerves before making steadier progress. Alice, a skilled swimmer with 30 years of pool experience, who had swum 2 miles and more at Total Immersion open water camps, was among those who looked overwhelmed and unable to swim at anything like her true ability until the field spread out.

I write here to address this very common situation, not the rare fatality. Watching this persuaded me that the great majority of athletes have a far more urgent need to learn how to be comfortable than how to increase speed or fitness. At least in swimming.  So here is my 4-part prescription for new triathletes to maximize their chances of a safer, happier swim in their first–or any–race:

1. Learn Balance. This is the primary skill that gives you a sense of having control over your body in the water. Learning to control that sinking-legs sensation, makes you receptive to the idea of learning to control other things. Just as important the process for learning balance is also an exercise in calm, observant thinking. In the Total Immersion Self-Coached Workshop DVD, Balance is the foundation for every subsequent skill. And the feeling of effortless flotation it engenders is your strongest defense against fear-of-drowning in an open water race.

2. Practice Mindful Swimming Replacing reactive thinking with calm, observant, reflective thinking habits is integral to the process of learning balance and every subsequent skill in the TI method. But what starts as a skill-acquisition strategy lays the foundation for the most important skill of open water racing: The ability to exert control over what and how you think in an environment where you may not be able to control much else. When teaching TI Open Water camps I always tell our students the most important thing they’ll learn from us is how to create a “cocoon of calm” in the midst of exterior turmoil.

3. Practice (and Race) with a Tempo Trainer An inevitable result of the fight-or-flight response in open water is a shift to high-rate survival strokes, which greatly increases respiration rate. Faster, shallower breaths make you feel light-headed, making an uncomfortable situation far more so. Using the Tempo Trainer to encode a strictly-controlled tempo in your nervous system prior to the race – then using the aural input as a tempo governor during the race will also control your respiration rate. Set the TT at 1.30 sec/stroke or slower.

4. Avoid the rush. Wait 30 seconds after the starting signal before you begin swimming, and/or start at the perimeter of the pack. TI Coach Dave Cameron of Minneapolis says: “I remind my triathletes of pythagorean geometry: On a 200-yard stretch, if you start 60 feet outside the most direct path to the first buoy, you’ll only swim one yard farther to get there.”

What if Anxiety Happens?

It’s not the end of the world if you still feel your heart, breathing and stroke rates getting away from you. Here are two tips for how to handle that:

Hit the ‘Reset Button’ TI Coach Brian Vande Krol of Denver is coaching a new triathlete, whose first race is next weekend yet can only swim a few pool lengths. When Brian asked what her goal is for the swim leg, she said it was not to panic. Brian replied that it’s highly likely she will feel panicky at some point and suggested she make it her goal to recover from any anxiety attack. He advised “Go to Sweet Spot (a relaxing position designed to provide a calm space in open water). Contemplate life and how great it is to be living it in such a vibrant manner for a few breaths, then a few more breaths visualizing how you want your stroke to feel, and then get back to it in a calm, easy manner.” Learning to turn a bad experience into a good one can be more valuable and satisfying than a race with no adversity.

Practice ‘Yoga’ Breathing. Mike Daley, who coaches TI in Milwaukee and Chicago has many clients from Wisconsin where there have been three tri-swim fatalities in the last three years. “I teach all my swimmers to use Yoga Breathing as their standard vehicle for resting at pool’s end while practicing mindful swimming. Rather than use the pace clock, take three to five cleansing breaths between repeats. Focused breathing has proven effective for calming nerves, lowering heart rates, and centering. When they feel their heart rate elevate, they roll to Sweet Spot (we call it Otter Float) and take a few Yoga Breaths.  When they feel calm and centered, they roll face down again and begin stroking quietly.”

Become the ‘Quiet Center.’ I personally love pack swimming and swim better with close company than alone. A primary reason I enjoy it so much is that it sharpens and deepens my focus. When swimming with others in open water, I observe their strokes and turn it into a game, testing my ability to swim with a quieter, more leisurely stroke than anyone around me. In fact I enjoy it so much I’m sometimes sorry to see the race end.

Terry practiced Being the Quiet Center on his way to winning the 60-64 age group at the US Masters  National 5K Open Water Championship on August 6 at Coney Island.


11 Responses to “Replace Open Water Anxiety with a ‘Cocoon of Calm’”

  1. Saad says:

    Great post!

    I find real comfort using the TT in OW, If I start feeling some kind of panic I just close my eyes and pretend that I am at the pool. It worked really well for me 🙂

  2. Catherine says:

    The date 17th August 2011 was the first time I swam in open water in my life! Some people in the Minnewaska Lake asked: “Are you panic?” Actually I was panic before swimming. It was luck for me that the days before I swim rainned heavily, so I couldnot know how deep was the Lake.
    The water was cloudy and looked like a big sheet of cloth in green color. And the most important one was Terry always beside me during I was swimming. I remembered that I had two times felt in panic, but I just rolled back in a sweet spot postion. During I was in sweet spot, I looked at the blue sky, the trees, the big rocks…..then all of my body relaxed. As I knew that I was ready, I rolled back and started to swim in free-style. To all of the beginners, please spend much time in practicing sweet spot. If you ask me how can I know that I have passed, the answer is you can sleep in sweet spot position in water.

  3. Celeste says:

    Thanks for the great tips on keeping calm in OW events for newbies like myself. I just found out that TT is not allowed in a biathlon event I’m training for…my first. And TT has always been my faithful companion in all my swims keeping me calm n focused. It got me worried but am glad to find timely alternative solutions here. Thanks Terry.

  4. Few topics I’ve written about have brought such immediate and emphatic response. Thanks to all of you for confirming how important this is. And Catherine, I hope we can find time for one more swim at Minnewaska before you leave New Paltz to return to Taiwan. It’s been a real privilege to have you and Rosie visit this summer. We look forward to visiting you in Taiwan.

  5. Bob Needham says:

    Great post Terry. This should be mandatory reading for all triathletes.

  6. Terry,

    I recently competed in The Beast Of The East, an Olympic distance in a cold, dark, mountain lake, in Co. Wicklow, Ireland. It is my longest swim to date and I really did not enjoy the prospect of entering the water. I watched the first wave head and wondered. Then my wave waded in, to swim out 50 yards to await the start. On my way out, I deliberately took less breaths, closed my eyes several times and generally used your technique of a “Cocoon of Calm”. I rounded into the final leg actually laughing into the water and delighted I was so enjoying the whole experience. Your techniques really work, many thanks, Jim

  7. Well done, Jim and thanks for sharing your news. Whenever I feel misgivings in the midst of a challenging open water swim, I remind myself to smile. It always works.

  8. Radu says:

    I did my first open water event in August this year, 1500m in a mountain lake, but i have a little problem, while i was a great pool swimmer i have fear
    of the open water and it took a lot of mental strength to get over that in order to compete. What i hate is that because of this fear i have to avoid most long distance events.
    Any suggestion would be welcomed (except a psychologist 🙂 )

  9. You won’t need a psychologist in order to enjoy open water, in almost any setting, including the congested –seemnigly chaotic–environment after the race start. Didn’t the blog provide enough guidance on how to program yourself to resist anxiety? I also encourage you to post queries on the “Outside the Box: Open Water Swimming” or “Swimming in Triathlon” conferences on the TI Discussion Forum.

  10. […] This article has been excerpted from Laughlin’s blog, where you can read it in full <; […]

  11. anka says:

    Good to read this. For me, it was no problem to swim in open water, in the sea, for my first triathlon in 2010. Then I swan in a river, a very different feeling than swimming in a lake. The odd thing is that now, after three years, I do not feel so comfortable anymore and I prefer to take the start among the last participants, in the last lines of the crowd. It is much, much better when you are not a very speedy swimmer and do not fight for a place on the podium.

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