Chrissie W on… how to overcome open-water fears

Swimming in the great outdoors can be liberating, fulfilling and fun, says four-time Ironman world champ – here’s how

Chrissie Wellington preparing for an open-water swim

Are you pondering your first open-water race but feeling a bit nervous? We asked four-time Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington how to overcome these fears…


Many people experience apprehension about swimming in open water. But with preparation and practice, you CAN overcome your fears, be in control and ensure that the experience is a) less daunting and b) much more enjoyable. It may not seem like it now but open-water swimming can be a liberating, fulfilling and fun activity!

I suggest joining a swim or tri club. Many members will have been in the same boat and should be able to provide support, guidance and a hand to hold when you first dive in.

I’d pick a race with an ‘easy’, open-water swim – a river, canal or lake with calmer water and no currents or waves to contend with. You may prefer a race with age-group ‘wave’ starts, as it means there are less people in the water at any one time, reducing the risk of fisticuffs. It’s also important to be confident you can complete the swim within the cut-off time. I’d suggest a sprint race to begin with.

The right kit

For equipment, buy a wetsuit in advance – they provide warmth and buoyancy, assist in better form and technique, reduce drag and help protect against sharp objects and flailing limbs.

Neoprene loosens with wear and relaxes in water, so make sure that the fit is snug when you first try it on – as this will be the tightest it will ever be – that you have a good arm reach, and that the neck isn’t too high or constrictive.

I suggest getting two pairs of  goggles – one tinted for sunny conditions, and one clear for if it’s cloudy/dull. Spit is the best free anti-fogging agent around. Depending on the water temperature you may want a neoprene hood, or a second swim cap. And silicon ear-plugs are useful to help reduce the sensation of the cold, or if you suffer ear infections.

On race day, novices should position themselves at the back or side of the start group to reduce the risk of panic or disruption. If it’s a river or lake you may have to tread water (remain upright) or skull (on your belly) before the gun fires. Practise this in a swimming pool.

If it’s a beach start, walk in until it’s deep enough to swim, leaning forward to stop any waves knocking you over. Start swimming (and stay) at a steady and relaxed pace. If you feel yourself becoming anxious focus on calm and controlled breathing, smooth strokes and positive thoughts. You can tread water, slowly turn onto your back or do breaststroke at any time, and remember that there are always safety personnel on hand.

Technique tips

In open water it’s sometimes harder to maintain a uniform stroke due to the varying conditions, the buoys and the proximity of other swimmers. An overly long stroke (with a long glide) can be less efficient because of the introduction of dead spots and pauses.

Hence your stroke needs to be faster, shorter and continuous. Aim for a flattish and wide hand entry (hands enter at 2 and 10 o’clock), with little glide, a high elbow, a backwards pull that comes straight to the side (rather than an ‘s’ shape under the body), leading with the heel of the hand at the end of the stroke to increase the force through the water. Keep your hands relaxed and your fingers slightly apart.

Use training to replicate having reduced visibility by closing your eyes or taking off your goggles (watch out for others!), and also try to swim straight without the black line for guidance by closing your eyes for 9-10 strokes.

Open-water swimming is the ultimate adventure. I have no doubt that your first open-water triathlon will be the first of many!

(Image: Jonny Gawler)


For lots more advice, head to our Training section