This past weekend was Chinook Classic Triathlon in Calgary. I opted to volunteer rather than race and was part of the water safety support crew.

It was a reasonably mild morning with air temperature around 12C but reports were that many racers were a bit chilly standing on the beach waiting for the start. The water temperature was said to be 19C. It looked like about a 1/3 of the racers warmed up in the water in the 15 minutes leading up to the start.

Should you warm-up?

This is a matter of personal preference and everyone has their own tolerance for cold. With most open water swim warm-up periods, you can get in but typically have to get out a few minutes before the start. It can be helpful to know how much time you will be required to stand on land after the warm-up period ends and before the race start. If you think you are going to get cold and become stiff and tight, then don’t warm-up in the water.  Consider warming up on land by either jogging on the beach or doing arm circles and swings.

Mass starts

Many larger races these days and most of the Ironman brand events have moved away from a mass start. Instead, athletes are first put into groups based on their predicted swim times and then narrowed further as they approach the water’s edge. The start line is four meters wide and usually four to five athletes are sent off at a time, five seconds apart. It is quite orderly!

The Chinook race, however, included two mass starts. All long course athletes (about 40) were sent off on their two loop swim course together. Forty-five minutes later all Olympic distance athletes (about 220) were on their way. Talking with athletes at the finish line, feedback was that the Olympic swim start today was “chaotic, like bumper cars, a washing machine” but also “challenging, exciting” and some even said, “fun”.

Think about your starting spot!

Depending on your tolerance for getting bumped, kicked and possibly swam over, choose your starting spot accordingly. If you want some space, start on the side or in the rear of the pack. Or, even wait a few seconds if you want no one around you. Staying calm when swimming is very important and you will be better off having a slower start if it will minimize anxiety when you start swimming.

I was stationed at the farthest buoy on the course and I was able to support a handful of distressed swimmers during both events. Every single swimmer who hung on to my kayak for a rest shared the same struggle. Any guesses? Breathing and anxiety.

Remember to breathe!

Nearly ever swimmer, regardless of swim ability, will experience some degree of anxiety when swimming in open water. It can be from a tumultuous start, going out too quickly, swallowing or choking on water, feeling claustrophobia from a tight wetsuit, cold and or dark water, disorientation, weeds, etc.  Irrespective of the cause, anxiety tends to cause swimmers to hold their breath between strokes. The result is a build up of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the system. When this happens, our body’s response is to trigger rapid breathing to try to quickly rid the excess CO2. This can progress into hyperventilation which can then cause further anxiety and a viscous cycle ensues.

At the race on Saturday, I shared the same message with every single swimmer who was holding on to my kayak; “breathe”.  I talked them through calming down their breathing while resting. I had them try to prolong their exhales to rid their system of excess CO2. Once they were able to catch their breath I encouraged them to start swimming again and to remember to exhale when their face was in the water.

Strategies to help you exhale when swimming

  1. Practice in the pool.  Go to the deep end – can be near a ladder – and practice the “sink down” drill where you will exhale slowly, and allow your body to sink down in the water.  Count to five while you are exhaling and then resurface. If you find you start to sink but then bob back up, it means you still have lots of air in your lungs. When you bob back up, continue exhaling and you will eventually start to sink. If you are only exhaling through your nose, try using your nose and mouth to exhale air faster.
  2. Once you are able to calmly exhale and sink down, move to chest high water. Now try to do several sink downs in a row. When coming up for air, jump off the bottom, take a quick breath when your face is out of the water and then sink down again exhaling. Repeat this three, four, or five times in quick succession. Doing sink downs like this simulates the rhythm of swimming where you inhale and exhale while never holding you breath.
  3. Last step – swim a length and while breathing every three strokes say “bubble, bubble, breathe” into the water. You literally say the word “bubble” on the two non-breathing strokes and then take a breath on the 3rd. It might feel silly but when you actually say “bubble” into the water it forces you to exhale. Remember this drill if you start feeling anxious when swimming as it is a great way to ensure you are exhaling and can help you swim more calmly.

If you struggle with anxiety in open water, do practice these drills and ensure you are not holding your breath when swimming. In the LYNX group swims we do these drills year round, because not exhaling when swimming is extremely common among new and veteran swimmers alike.

If you need help learning how to swim calmly in the pool or open water, private sessions are available. Contact to book.

We want to help everyone swim their best and have fun doing it!

Coach Mary