hundreds of open water swimmers thrashing at a race start

How to manage crowded start anxiety in open water swimming races

Posted on: BY: Saga Svensson
Tags: crowded starts | open water swim start | panic | psychology | visualization | water anxiety

If crowded open water race starts give you anxiety, you are not alone: many open water swimmers admit to experiencing discomfort ranging from nerves and fear, to outright panic at the beginning of races. Swimming while being shunted and grabbed from all sides can be especially daunting for beginner swimmers and those new to open water swimming races.

In this post I provide a few strategies to help you manage negative emotions around race starts and to prepare yourself to be physically and mentally bulletproof when in close proximity to others in open water races.

Who knows? Being prepared for everything a start can throw at you, and understanding that many other swimmers also struggle with nervous starts, could actually turn your weakness into an advantage and have you relishing that dreaded starting line melee after all.

Don’t be such an eager beaver

If you are not worried about winning or shaving seconds off your finish time, the best thing to do – especially at first – is to simply avoid the crowded start altogether. You can place yourself in a position that looks less crowded, or right at the very back you prefer, and wait for the race to start. After about a minute, the rush will have settled down and thinned itself out and you should be able to calmly join the general flow at an opportune moment. If your race uses timer chips you may be able to do this without even adding time to your result.

Sight more at the start

One obvious way to avoid getting in human tangles at the start of a race is to pick a less crowded route. When there are tons of people shoulder-to-shoulder all travelling at different speeds, you sometimes just have to swim, endure, and muscle through. Under those circumstances, sighting more is easier said than done. In situations with a little more room though, and as the racers spread out, pockets of people and space develop and a tiptop sighting game can allow you to avoid bottlenecks and the dreaded touch of another human.

Iconic picture of Janet Leigh screaming in the shower in the Hitchcock movie Psycho(1960)

Exposure therapy

It’s wise to start off at the very back of the pack for your first race, so you can get a feel for things, then next time get a bit closer, gradually gaining experience and becoming more and more psychologically accustomed to the closeness of others and what to expect when you get knocked, grabbed, or even [gasp] swum over.

Like with anything anxiety-inducing, the more exposure you get to barging, the easier it will get, until it hardly rattles you anymore.

For the same reason, it’s an absolute must to get as much exposure to the closeness of others in your race preparation as possible. This can easily be done in the pool with a willing friend (sadistic or annoying friends are best for this task). Practice lane swimming with them swimming close to you. Gradually have them swim closer and closer and accustom yourself to their presence. Think about how you feel. Are you frightened or panicky? Are you tense? What happens to your stroke? Let yourself experience these sensations and emotions as fully as possible in the moment so that you can start to recognize your reaction.

It’s not half as scary when it’s a friend (even an annoying or sadistic one) and you’re not in a race. You can set the boundaries according to your own anxiety levels and increase the permitted violation of personal space when you feel ready – which might take a few lengths or a few weeks. If you can get to the point where your partner is literally climbing over you and still find your rhythm afterwards, you will be ready for anything on race day.

You can also do this as a mutual exposure therapy exercise. It’s a hell of a workout too, and one which will help fortify you for the energy-sapping salmon run of a real open water race start.

Relax and breathe

Be sure that you are fully expelling air when people are close, rather than tightening up with short tense breaths. That panicky drowning sensation that threatens to make you seize up in a race, even when it is not full-blown, can be caused by a subtle and sneaky build up of CO2 caused by not properly changing the air in your lungs. Without breathing hard, take full breaths into the depths of your lungs and fully expel as much as possible so that you are not sapping your life force, which feeds negative thoughts perniciously.

Recognize your emotions and voice your thoughts

Try to understand your body’s reaction and embrace what you are feeling. Tell yourself what you are experiencing and why. It’s just crowded because you’re at the start. That person wants to touch you about as much as you want to be touched. A little bump won’t affect you because you are a strong confident fishy, bumping and gliding.

Tell yourself what you need to do – i.e. relax and breathe. You might find it useful to create a mantra for this situation or to work on visualizations specifically around bumping others.

woman meditating cross-legged in a forest

The magical mantra

Personally i have worked on the idea that bumping into someone, rather than negatively affecting me or panicking me, will have the affect of relaxing me completely from toe to head. When I feel a bump i immediately doubt that this can be possible as i am jolted from my stroke, miss a breath, swallow a pint of lake… but i say my little mantra – “it will just relax you more…” and like magic i feel a strange relaxed glow begin in my toes and radiate up through my body and everything is calm and beautiful again. I can smile, and despite being in my worst nightmare – grappling with multiple anonymous panting frogmen in a dark and bottomless lake – i find i am actually enjoying myself.

Disclaimer: Our swimming adventure content is not intended to take the place of specific, current, local advice from qualified experts. We strongly recommend that you consult with professional safety experts and take all necessary precautions should you undertake any adventure activity, especially in open water. Swimming is a HAZARDOUS activity. Never swim alone or beyond your ability. There is the possibility of physical injury, emotional distress and/or death, and you assume the risk and responsibility for any such results.

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