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How to avoid the panic in open water swims or triathlons. by k.n.*

Complete in a calm state the open water swim in a triathlon, and set the pace for successful next two legs.

It has happened to many triathletes and some open water swimmers at the start of the race, it has been discussed a lot and it still remains as one of the greatest fears for new triathletes. The start of the open water mass swim, the 1st leg of the triathlon, and the initial shock to the system,  as to what is about to follow later on in the race is what I am talking about. Complete this part successfully and you have the right predisposition to a good race. The intimidating first meters can create a havoc and panic to newbies, at the blow of the whistle, with the situation getting out of hand. Triathletes have reported breathlessness, panting, inability to take in enough oxygen, the feeling of claustrophobia, and all that with the restrictive micro environment of the snug wetsuit multiplying this uncomfortable situation. It is just too stressful to overcome with the start of the race.  

Each race under your “belt”, produces an experience that is so valuable in your “bank of memories”, giving you ammunition and know-how to tackle a messy situation. Your assessment of current fitness will prescribe and predict up to a point how fast to start and how to distribute your efforts, where to position yourself ( middle or back of the pack based on number of starters), how spread is the beachfront, and where is the safest cleanest pathway given a calculated trajectory. Been able to “read” the current water conditions will give you much more know-how as to the currents (against or supportive), and having done your “homework” well in advanced with your wetsuit and identifying any discomforts that might surface. The info and experience gained above will yield a tremendous amount of confidence for open water swimming if analyzed and implemented correctly. If confidence equals calmness, and calmness equals a clear mind to take decisions as per race-day situation, to implement a race strategy, then you stand better chances for the swim leg outcome.

Each important element to consider for the open water swim, needs an answer back, to every kind of  calling, and a clear calm mind is needed. As a small word of advice to first timers: position yourself at the middle or the pack, or maybe even the back tiers, work your way in the front tiers according to your  current rate of perceived exertion and if your fitness allows you to do so. If struggling to enter a stable state regarding fitness, don’t take risks, stay at the back complete the swim- leg and exit in the least stressed mind. In the possibility of getting caught up in a very tight and antsy pack that is wrestles and shows little to no cooperation amongst swimmers, then try to politely  distance yourself from it, take the risk to swim a bit longer but with more tranquility in the swim leg. It is better to cover a bit more distance Vs having to fight and risk a punch or a severe shock in your perceived effort, disturbing your flow of output neglecting that there are still 2 long triathlon legs ahead. If you end up been the “recipient” of a punch in the face or stomach that leaves you in distress, stop, take a few seconds to regain calmness and ability to breath normally and if no pain continue on. You need to understand  that everybody is fighting for the straightest  line to get from point A to point B, (the shortest distance) and those sighting often will use this route, if most swimmers will do the same , there will be a bottleneck  and probably collisions.  So be prepared for any contingency.

A few final points to remember in this panic avoiding situation, will be to reduce intensity, calm your heart rate, breath-out often, and exhale the excess of Co2 buildup, recover from hyperventilation, exit messy packs, and always try to remember that the pulling , punching, and aggression observed by co-athletes is not personal, you just got in their way during an anxiety moment, till everybody reaches the  next buoy

Stay calm and the swimming of the Triathlon is over!


*Kypros Nicolaou is an Exercise Physiologist, graduate of the University of Alabama, an ACSM certified Health & Fitness Instructor, holds an ITU  Level II Certification as a Triathlon Coach, and is a multiple Ironman & Half Ironman Triathlon finisher. He is coaching Triathletes online, teaches Functional Training at ryltoday, and performs Exercise Physiology assessments at the Cyprus Sports & Research Center.    info@ryltoday.com

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