The swim leg: 11 common fears and how to overcome them

The swim may be the shortest discipline in triathlon, but it is often the most feared. Here’s how to overcome the most common swim fears…


01 Learning how to swim front crawl


Most of us have limited training budgets (both time and money), but if there’s one area you might be prepared to invest in, it’s swimming lessons. A respected coach will help you learn correct technique and if you’ve never swum a stroke of crawl before, you haven’t honed any bad habits. Triathlon is focused on fitness, but, in the pool, you can go back to school. So embrace the opportunity to learn. 

Front crawl technique: the key components

02 Not being able to swim the whole course

Most of your training should be interval sessions and drills to add variety and improve performance. But while you don’t want to slavishly tick off length after length in every session, completing the distance ahead of the big day will give you a boost. Just make sure that if you’re practising in the pool, you don’t grab a breather after every length.

03 Having to swim breaststroke

If you want to swim breaststroke, then go ahead. Plenty of others will be swimming breaststroke too. Some will be swimming a mixture of breaststroke and crawl. Some people’s breaststroke is faster than their crawl!

Breaststroke technique for triathletes

04 Going the wrong way

In the open water, there will be support canoes or paddle-boarders shepherding wayward swimmers in the right direction. Make sure you understand the swim course direction (and number of laps) before you start as sometimes there can be late changes due to conditions. Pay special attention to the size and colour of the buoys and any fixed landmarks that will help you sight the correct line.

05 Being hit and swum over

Mass swim starts can be frenetic, but unintentional whacks can be avoided by positioning yourself to the rear or side of the field. “I was petrified of being swum over in my first race,” says multiple world champion Leanda Cave. “I swam wide and took a longer line to the first buoy. Sometimes the long way around is actually quicker.” 

Even if you lose a little time by swimming further, it’ll be a more enjoyable experience and put you in good stead for the bike and run.

Open water swim: crowd control tips

06 Lost or leaky goggles

Lost or leaky goggles can be irritating, both metaphorically and literally – if you’re in a chlorinated pool – but rarely end races. To mitigate risks, test your goggles in practice close to race day, and bring a spare pair in case the elastic snaps. You can also put the strap under a second swim cap, to reduce the chances of having them pulled off.

07 Getting cramp

Yes, it’s excruciating, but it doesn’t have to be disastrous. If it’s a wetsuit swim, the buoyancy of your neoprene will prevent you drowning. If you’re in the pool, you can grab the side and pause for a moment. Rest assured, as well as a debut triathlete you’re a valued customer, so there will always be a helpful canoe or lifeguard prepped to rescue you.

08 Wetsuit fills up with water and sinking

Firstly, wetsuits are supposed to fill up with water. That’s how they keep you warm. This did happen to Chrissie Wellington in one of her early triathlons, but she’ll happily admit she made the cardinal sin of borrowing a suit she’d not tried on. As long as you make sure it fits snugly, then you won’t become waterlogged. It simply doesn’t happen.

09 Being the last out

For sprint- or Olympic-distance racing in the UK, it’s likely to be in a pool or wave starts. Competitors will set off at different times, so no-one will spot the slowest swimmer. If you do emerge last into T1, you’ll be guaranteed the biggest cheer from those in awe that you’re doing what they aren’t – being brave enough to give triathlon a go. 

“My biggest fear was the swim,” says GB Olympian and successful coach Michelle Dillon. “Coming from a running background, I wasn’t the strongest swimmer, so I joined a swim squad and put in the hard work.”

10 Can’t control breathing

Struggling for breath can catch even the most experienced triathletes off guard. If the race rules allow, have an acclimatisation dip. This can be particularly useful in the UK, when the initial chill of the open water can zap your senses. 

If you can’t fully submerge, at least try and get your face wet. Starting towards the outside or back of the field, means a few extra strokes, but makes for a more relaxed and enjoyable swim. If you do struggle to regulate your breathing, stop, tread water or hold on to one of the race canoes if it’s close enough, and take a few seconds to calm your mind and body before setting off again. 

11 Not knowing what lurks beneath

Yes, it can be eerie piling face first into a murky lake, but it’s a bad look for the race if competitors are chomped up by a rabid swamp creature. Whatever’s down there, it’s a safe bet it’ll be more scared of you than you are of it. 

“I was terrified,” British pro Alice Hector, says of her first race, aged 14. “Somehow I got in and did the whole thing head up, at the back with the safety canoe in close attendance.


“Five years later I went to Loughborough University and every week in the summer went open-water swimming at the very same venue in Market Bosworth. I just kept going back and stayed close to the water’s edge and gradually the fear subsided. It was through regular exposure and a determination on my part to be good at the sport.” 

Open water fears: overcome lake swim panic attacks

Chrissie W on… how to overcome open-water fears

Open-water fears