"The miracle isn't that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start."
Eliminating Panic Attacks in the Water
Now that we've spent all this time getting you comfortable in the cold, open, yucky, lake water, I would
feel downright deceitful if I didn't admit something to you all: in many of the triathlons I have done, I have
panicked as I begin the swim. ON the times I'm lucky enough NOT to actually panic, I'm still worried that
I might. If this was just a little quirk of mine, I wouldn't feel like it was necessary to confess. But, since
every triathlete I have talked to, (even the good ones), admits that this has happened to them at least
once in their career, usually during their first triathlon, I feel bound and determined to prepare you for this
possibility. I'm not saying that you will panic, I'm just saying that if you do panic, it is pretty much "par
for the course."
What we absolutely do not want to happen is for a panic attack to make you give up. My 100% triathlon
SWIM LEG completion rate is proof positive that you can work through them. If you do find yourself
feeling a little, or even a LOT, of panic during the swim, TRI these techniques:
1) Switch your stroke. If you are starting out using freestyle/crawl, switch over to backstroke or breast
stroke to relax.
2) Do the "Happy Hum" - if you have been practicing it all during the training, then you have created a
Pavlovian type response and will immediately feel calmer when you perform this technique on race day. If
you haven't been doing it during the trainings, then don't blame me when you freak out in the water.
Oops, that didn't sound "coachly" or "pink." What I meant to say is, "then now is as good of a time as
any to begin using this highly effective technique!!!!! To utilize this technique, simply put your face in the
water and blow bubbles whilst exhaling! Make sure that you make an audible "humming" sound while
you hum so that you can literally SEE and HEAR and FEEL the bubbles!!! If you continue to "Happy
Hum" long enough, you will eventually BECOME the light, carefree, blissful bubbles that you are
3) Focus on your breathing. Work on developing a breathing pattern. Count the seconds of your
inhalation and exhale for the same number of seconds. Make sure that you elongate your breathing. Use
the counting to help you breathe in and out more slowly and for a longer duration. Also use your breath
to help you achieve your intentions. In fact, the goal is to use your breath to infuse your body with these
intentions. Consciously breathe in calm, breathe out panic; breathe in confidence, breathe out worry;
breathe in joy, breathe out fear, etc.
4) Seek counseling immediately. If you feel panic either stop at a kayak/paddleboard and tell the
volunteer that you are in panic. They will talk you through it.
5) Use positive visualization. Between now and Event Day, come up with a detailed visualization of you
in the water under calm, serene circumstances. On Event Day, play this little tape in your head when
you start to feel nervous in the water. I imagine myself at one of my favorite lakes, floating on a raft. I
imagine the sights, sounds, feel, and smell of being on that raft on that lake. When I start to panic, I
simply imagine that I am in that scenario rather the triathlon. Any water scenario will work (Jacuzzi,
bath, waterfall, etc.).
In the last triathlon I did, I created a "water friend" - a lovely woman who had chosen to live in the lake
because it was so wonderful. I pretended that we had just met (well, we HAD just met since I made her
up) and started telling her all my "stories" - you know, the fun details and events of your life that you tell
people who don't know you yet and aren't bored by them!!!!! Think of the "lady of the lake" as the perfect
brand new best friend who wants to know ALL about you.
(And NO, I do NOT have a history of taking hallucinogenic drugs!!!!!)
6) Reason it out. Remember that anything you think or feel during a panic attack is highly subjective
and is not usually indicative of true reality. So, rather than hysterically believing your "panic thoughts,"
use OBJECTIVE markers to evaluate your situation. Am I wheezing (which might warrant medical
attention) or am I simply hyperventilating (which requires focused, productive breathing)? Am I
dizzy/about to pass out (which requires immediately contact with support personnel)? Or am I
experiencing some "water vertigo" (which requires resting and finding a stationary, land based focal
point)? The best thing you can do if you lapse into a panic attack is to give yourself permission to stop
swimming and start resting, Then, look around and start objectively listing all the support available to you
on the course. If merely noticing this support is not sufficient to calm you down, then go take advantage
of the support you deserve.
7) Don't mistake natural warm-up time for debilitating fatigue. During controlled swimming
circumstances, you are only vaguely aware of the reality that any exercise cycle begins with said
exercise activity feeling "hard" and then progresses to it getting "easier," and then concludes with feeling
"fatigued." On race day, it is easy to forget that you are always struggling at the beginning of a swim
because you haven't yet warmed up. Instead, you think that there is a weight pulling you down and that
you can't make it. The truth is that you just haven't warmed up yet. With each swimming stroke, your
muscles will get warmer and the effort will get easier. If you haven't been counting to your Magic
Number each week, then what the hell did you pay me for if you are going to disregard all my
suggestions? Oops . . . once again, NOT "coachly." What I meant to say is, during our remaining swim
training days, start counting how many strokes it takes you to get "warmed up." If you panic on Event
Day, just start counting down the strokes until your confidence is regained. For me, the magic number is
60 - 80 strokes. (By the way, this warm-up phenomenon is true for the bike and run also - you'll feel your
worst at the beginning of each leg and you'll feel better with each and every stroke/step you take.)
Something I have been doing lately is NOT using my legs at the beginning of my swim. By kicking your
legs, you significantly escalate your heart rate AND your physical frenzy - both of these factors make
you feel more panicked. By starting the event swimming "arms only," you are able to keep yourself
physiologically calmer so that you don't exacerbate your psychological fears and create panic. Once you
have warmed up physically and are feeling good, add your legs into your swim stroke and continue on
your Happily Humming way! (Your Tri Hare, of course, is HIGHLY opposed to this suggestion but he can
take his snotty Royal TRInASS self straight to . . . oops, that was not the least bit "motherly.")
8) Identify the biggest cause for your panic and fix the problem.
a) If you are feeling claustrophobic because of the swim crowd, let the crowd pass you by so that you
can swim by yourself. Also, move to the outside of the pack. The speed demons will be zooming along
on the inside of the swim course.
b) If the choppiness of the water is bothering you, close your eyes and enjoy it for the big Jacuzzi that it
is. Or, set your sites on a fixed land marker.
c) If the water sounds are bugging you, imagine a pleasant alternative. I imagine whales communicating
and make up stories about what they are saying.
d) If you are hyperventilating, recognize that this is probably due to the shock of immersing yourself in
cold water. Your instinctive response to the cold water will be to take quick, shallow breaths. On race
day, you can confuse this altered breathing pattern with panic. You should avoid the problem altogether
by completely immersing yourself in the water before the race start and getting in a few warm-up strokes
(preferably equal to your Magic Number). If you find yourself in a shallow breathing pattern during the
race, correct the problem by remembering that good breathing starts with the exhalation part of the
breathing cycle. Exhale for as long as you can. This will force your body to inhale more deeply and help
you begin to alter your breathing pattern from quick, shallow breaths to slower, deeper, more calming
and oxygenating breaths.
e) Just remember that there is no cause for your panic that a little strategy and creativity can't eliminate.
9) Help yourself by helping others. You are a WOman, da&nit. You are EMPATHIC. You give a hoot
about OTHERS. Put those feminine qualities to good use!!! If YOU are experiencing swim panic, take a
moment a look around. Chances are that you will find another person who is also experiencing some
water distress. Begin helping THAT person by taking pity upon them. Start explaining to that person all
the techniques listed above. The instant you shift your focus onto helping someone ELSE, your distress
will dissipate. You will naturally take your (well, MY:) good advice as you demonstrate it to this other
person. In the process, you will get yourself back on track. The other triathlete will think that you are a
gift from the universe (you are under absolutely no moral obligation to disillusion her and reveal your
I sincerely hope that you don't experience water panic on race day. But if you do,
I look forward to hearing about the clever, inspiring and creative strategies you developed to overcome
it!!!!! And, I'll be thanking you for sharing these strategies with me when I use them in my next triathlon.
Your Ever-Loving, Turtle!