Open water fears: overcome lake swim panic attacks

Hate murky water – or deep, clear water – and the thought of beasties that may lurk therein? Read on…


Almost every swimmer, no matter how experienced, has some sort of mental block regarding open-water swimming.


For many it’s anxiety that’s distracting enough to make them swim off course, miss drafting opportunities or over-exert themselves.

But for an unfortunate few, it can be a real fear that disrupts their breathing to an extent that might ruin their swim and risks causing a panic attack.

>>> 8 ways to beat open water nerves

It’s easy to oversimplify the problem as a general dislike or fear of open water, but chances are there’s a specific aspect of it that triggers your anxiety. Some classic ‘triggers’ include:

– Murky water
– Deep clear water (causing a feeling of vertigo)
– Cold water
– Claustrophobia from the wetsuit and/or the swimmers nearby
– Plants or fish brushing against you
– Disorientation

The trick to overcoming your mental block is to identify and address it in a controlled way. Gradually expose yourself to the trigger in a setting that’s safe – perhaps with a friend or coach or at one of the open-water introduction sessions organised around the country – so you can progressively get used to dealing with it while remaining calm.

For example, some years ago I was coaching an athlete who struggled when other swimmers were nearby as she was scared of being splashed in the face. So we agreed that during training I would swim beside her and deliberately splash her from time to time.

We treated it as a bit of a game and gradually increased the amount of splashing. The next time she raced she just thought back to our sessions and was able to take confidence from knowing she could now cope.

Dealing with these sorts of mental blocks takes time and patience though, which is why you should continually work on your skills, both in the pool and open water where possible.

People new to open-water swimming often find they feel unbalanced by the waves and chop – especially swimmers that use a gentle stroke with a slow arm turnover.

A good way to deal with this is to swim with a more ballistic style, using a bit more punch and a slightly faster turnover. This should increase your stability and, in doing so, help you feel more comfortable.

If you’re travelling abroad to a major race, it’s well worth getting there a few days early to swim on the course in the build up. Getting out there with some friends is a great way to get used to race conditions before the race itself.


For lots more swimming advice head to our Training section