few weeks ago I took part in my first triathlon in 18 months, I'm a new father and for those of you who have kids, you'll know the reasons for the break. The 1500m swim was in a lake with a beach start, there were around 500 people taking part in one wave off a beach no bigger than 20m or so. It was like being in Times Square or Piccadilly Circus but in a wetsuit, busy would be an understatement.
I found myself in the middle of things upon entry and was seized by a sense of panic. I was clawing at the water (which felt like air) and bodies, people were on top of my and underneath me. I couldn't get enough air into my lungs. What did I do?
I needed to relax so I did what they say not to do unless you are retiring from the race and turned onto my back. I floated there for a good few minutes to relax my breathing and to let the crowds pass. After about 5 minutes I flipped back and continued my swim. What should I have done?
Well, for me what I did worked, but if the rescue team had seen me, they would have retired me (not sure what that says about the rescue team - though I purposefully didn't raise my arm so I won't hold it against them). But I have looked into it since the race and got some useful tips, most are common sense but worth spelling out anyway.
The reasons people panic in open water swims vary from person to person and depend upon the conditions of the day. Here are some and commonly known ways to avoid it:
Water temperature: This is one of the most common reasons for panicking as it makes breathing harder even without exertion. We've all felt that shock when stepping into an extremely cold shower. For me, I was in a cold lake but I had acclimatised myself by entering it beforehand in an attempt to warm up.
Going too hard: Just like the other disciplines, if you go off too hard and too quick, you will get out of breath. Couple this with water temperature, this can be the cause of panic. Easy solution is to control your entry speed. You've trained at a certain speed, stick to it, this way you won't exhaust yourself before the first buoy and you'll soon notice you are overtaking most of those who overtook you because they went off too hard.
Swimming in a wetsuit: If you're not used to it, swimming in a wetsuit can bring on panic too. They are more restrictive than you may realise and ill fitted wetsuits can rub and sometimes feel like they are strangling you. Get used to swimming in a wetsuit before the race in controlled conditions, I use an out-door pool. Ensure you have been sized correctly and that you have used lubrication around your neck wrists and ankles to avoid rubbing. Once you are used to a wetsuit, you'll soon love the sensation of the additional buoyancy to have and the feeling of gliding through the water with less resistance.
Cramp: Cramp is fairly common in the water, if you're foot or calf goes into spasm it is both painful and in the middle of a lake hard to deal with bringing on a sense of panic.
Sheer volume of people: When, like me, there is a high volume of people in your race or wave and this makes you uncomfortable, position yourself either at the back or off to the side or if you are a particularly strong swimmer, at the front. Anywhere but the middle. You will avoid the kicks and punches from the other triathletes. This is where I went wrong. I found myself slap bang in the middle and had forgotten what a fight it can be at the start of the swim.
Creatures in the depths below: I'm afraid with this one you just need to man-up. If it's a real concern, research the waters you are swimming in and perhaps avoid sea swims in certain parts of the world, such as the Shark Fest swim off of Alcatraz Island.
Nick Merry is a founding partner in Take a Challenge, he has participated in numerous Triathlon, Running and Cycling events over the years. He has been on the teams of high altitude mountain expeditions including Kilimanjaro (19,341ft), Elbrus (18,842ft) and Muztagh Ata (24,757ft) as well as much smaller peaks around the UK and the Alps. Click here to read more about Nick's story.