Terrified of Open Water Swimming? Face your Fear!

Written by Pam Kallio, USAT Level 2 Certified Coach and Kona-Qualifier


According to the statistics provided by Triathlon Business International at their recent conference, the number one reason that more women don’t want to get into triathlon is their fear of open water. Considering that most states are land locked, this should not be surprising. I grew up in Northern Illinois and while there were plenty of lakes around, at the time, I was into showing quarter horses and rodeoing; I did not grow up with a background in swimming, much less open water swimming.

It’s a fact; if you want to do triathlon, you are going to have to face that fear of open water sooner or later. For those of you who have no fear or if you grew up swimming in oceans or lakes, realize how lucky you are and that not everyone is like you. Some of us will most likely always need some self talk as that swim start approaches.

I did my first triathlon when I was 47 years old and would not put my face in the water because I was scared. I have since completed 16 IRONMAN races and numerous other distances, including qualifying and racing Kona two years in a row.

I won’t tell you I have five easy tricks and you will never have to deal with your fear again, but I will share the lessons I have learned and what has worked for me and the other athletes I coach.


  1. You have to practice in open water. If this is not possible because you live in the middle of a desert than you will have to simulate it as best you can. Triathlete Master Swim teams are great if you can find one that will remove the lane lines and practice mass starts in groups of five to 10. This will at least get you in the zone of what it will be like with much thrashing and kicking going on around you. If you can practice in open water, do so. It will be worth the drive. There are several new products on the market that serve as flotation devices and will also allow boaters and other watercrafts to easily spot you in the water.
  1. Ask yourself what you are afraid of. If you are honest with yourself it might not be the actual open water, it might be the mass start of an IRONMAN or the large waves starts of a Half IRONMAN or any large race. There is something about a gun going off that tends to send your hear rate soaring on its own. If your answer is the “crowded water” or no space to yourself, then you will really benefit from any kind of group swim, even if its just crowded lanes at your local pool. However, if your answer is truly something about open water that frightens you, then you have to tackle it. The first step is to acknowledge it. Pushing it aside or pretending that it doesn’t exist won’t make it go away.
  1. If open water itself is the fear factor. In many instances it can be the depth of the water, water temp, the fact that lots of open water is murky and you can’t see what critters may be out there with you. If you are afraid of drowning, ask yourself if this is realistic. If it is and you don’t have confidence in your swim skills, fitness level, strength, or stamina then start taking lessons and join a Masters swim group. This is the easiest of all to fix. Practice builds confidence and confidence overrides fear. Most open water swims, but not all, are wetsuit legal. The extra buoyancy provided by a wetsuit will do wonders to help you overcome any confidence issues because you will absolutely float!
  1. Ensure your wetsuit fits properly. While a wetsuit will give you the extra confidence from buoyancy, if the wetsuit doesn’t fit properly it can cause a new set of issues for the athlete to deal with. Getting a wetsuit with the proper fit is mandatory. When a wetsuit does not fit correctly in the neck and is constricting through the chest and shoulders, it causes a feeling of tightness which, in turn, may cause many people to start to hyperventilate. There are several brands now that offer a minimal neck line and less a less constrictive chest designs.
  1. Focus on your breath and on your form. It is proven that your mind can only hold one thought at a time. If you feel yourself starting to panic, don’t think about it. Instead, focus on your exhale and make sure that you exhale completely, empty all the CO2 out of your lungs. The inhale will happen on its own. Often, when you start to panic, your breath will come in short, choppy gasps and you will not get a full lungful of air. Repeat this mantra, “Good air in – stroke, stroke – bad air out, stroke, stroke;” get it? This brings me to my next point…
  1. Have a Mantra. Focus on your form and think “long and strong” or “perfect body position.” Again, keep your mind busy on something that generates positive action. Keep your head down; once you look up and stop swimming it’s harder to get started again. Just keep your head down, breath, and keep your mantra going. Suddenly, you will realize that you are swimming well and enjoying it!


Just remember, if you believe in yourself, you can do it. Practice, practice, and more practice will give you the quiet confidence you need to not only swim in open water, but to really begin to enjoy the freedom it allows you. You will see some amazing things. All the little mind games work, the Zen approach of being “one” with the water, zipping your “Seal” skin or your “porpoise” skin on, or seeing your favorite Pro attacking the swim start and then trying to simulate it. You will find the right “switch” for you so you can learn to embrace the swim. The sea life in an ocean swim make it completely enjoyable and if you are in Kona or St. Croix where the water is so clear that you can see the multitudes of colorful fish, you might even forget you were ever terrified of the open water.

Visit Coach Kallio’s website to learn more about her coaching philosophy and training programs: www.trik2kalliokoaching.com.

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