I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails recently about the swim portion of the triathlon.  I used to be so scared of swimming and had a major panic attack during my first triathlon, resulting in me needing lifeguard assistance and my one and only DQ (disqualification).  It took me a handful of races before I was comfortable in the water, and I continue to have ‘off’ race days where I am scared to get into the lake. But I’m getting better!

I decided to ask Coach Marni what she thought about swimming and what advice she gives athletes….  Take it away, Coach Marni!


Open Water Swimming (OWS): Is it more mental or physical?


OWS can be a combination of mental fears as well as physically being unable to swim efficiently in open water. It’s important to recognize that the only way to be a better OWS swimmer is to practice and to address both strengths and weaknesses. Here is a blog I did on swimming that may help explain some thoughts on swimming.


How can you physically prepare for the realities of OWS?


Don’t fear the distance and doubt yourself. Like everything in life and with sports, it is difficult before it becomes easy. It’s important to work hard and dedicate time to improve your fitness in the pool so that you improve your lung capacity and swimming muscles, but keep in mind that you do not have to be fast to earn your finisher medal at a triathlon. Many triathletes feel they need to be fast in the pool or worry about being last out of the water in a race and rush swim-training/fitness. But there are no rules as to how fast you have to swim to be a triathlete. Take all the time you need in training in the pool and rest on the walls to learn how to swim with good form.

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If swimming is your weaker sport, be sure to dedicate 2-3 sessions a week to swimming. The most important thing is learning the proper swim skills which can be done by working with a swim coach, taking lessons (Total Immersion swimming lessons) or watching videos on YouTube (Caitlin wrote a great post on this entitled Best How To Swim YouTube Videos). I would recommend to not spend your time in a workout doing "speed" sets for the first 10-20 sessions in the pool (limited to 30-40 minutes) if you are a new swimmer/triathlete. This way, you will not exhaust yourself in the pool or compromise other cardio workouts (run/bike).


The ultimate goal is to be able to swim the race distance by race week so progress slowly so that as you learn skills you also improve your endurance and stamina. Strength training will help with upper body and core strength and stretching after the workout (as well as doing a dynamic warm-up such as arm circles or stretch cord exercises) can also help with physical prep for a triathlon and OWS.


Additionally, when it comes to races, consider lake or river swims over ocean swims as you will likely have less chop and waves which will be easier for your first few racing experiences. A pool triathlon, such as the Ramblin’ Rose races if you’re in North or South Carolina, may also be a nice tune-up to practice transitions and pacing.

How can you mentally prepare for the realities of OWS?


Don’t put psych yourself out or get overwhelmed. You want to prepare for all the controllables, such as weather, the layout of the course , race start times, people around you, and your pace during the event. Before a race, you want to warm-up in the water (if allowed and weather permitting) or on dry land to get the blood flowing. This will help with your heart rate when you start the event.


It is important to practice in open water, preferably in a group or with others several times before the event. I usually recommend for my athletes who are not comfortable in open water or feel swimming is a weaker sport, to "train" in the pool for fitness gains (2-3 times per week) and then add 1 additional open water swim practice every 7-10 days just to get comfortable in the open water.


The most important thing with sports is to be confident. The moment you doubt yourself, your heart rate will go up, your digestive system may get out of whack (tummy upset/GI pain) and you may find yourself losing form and expending more energy than needed. Before a race, take a few minutes on race week to visualize yourself in the open water and how you plan to execute your race day swim. Do not be afraid to start near the back and to the outside so that you can swim in clean, smooth water.

What’s your #1 piece of race day advice for triathletes who are nervous about swimming?


Give yourself some credit for what you are about to do on race day. Training for one sport (ex. running) is challenging but now you are training and racing for 3 sports! There are many people who are afraid to start the journey of learning new skills or something that is challenging. Take your time and not rush the process. Your primary goal on race day is to execute your training with your current level of fitness.


Keep in mind that your first race doesn’t have to be your last race.  You can only get smarter and more skilled at anything you try for the first time. Oh – and have fun!!


For more tips:

So You Wanna Do a Triathlon Series

Open Water or Pool Swimming?

All Triathlon Posts



  • Jackie July 16, 2013, 12:54 pm

    I’m one of those panic-in-the-open-water swimmers but strangely I only panic when I wear a wetsuit. I want to do another tri but I haven’t been able to figure out why I can’t swim in a wetsuit. I’ve tried everything and no one seems to be able to explain it. I’m a medical triathlete mystery I guess.

    How often do you swim in open water Caitlin? Maybe it’s just a matter of doing it again and again…

    • Mollie July 17, 2013, 10:38 am

      Jackie, I also seem to struggle with the wetsuit. For me, I think its the neckline giving me a choking feeling which adds to any anxiety I already have and keeps me from getting my breathing pattern right. Good luck! I’m going to keep trying, but my next race is in very warm water so I won’t need the wetsuit anyway.

      • Jackie July 17, 2013, 2:27 pm

        Me too. I did my one sprint without a wetsuit but it’s not ideal since it does make you faster to wear it.

  • Kinsey July 16, 2013, 1:02 pm

    I totally agree with this. Open water swims can be terrifying the first few times, but once you get in the rhythm and think about that huge feeling of accomplishment when you complete an open water swim, they start to feel less nerve-wracking.

  • Sara @ LovingOnTheRun July 16, 2013, 1:09 pm

    I have always thought that the open water swim would be the hardest part for me if I ever did one! Whenever I see everyone start out it looks so clustered and scary to me – loved this post!

  • Ali July 16, 2013, 1:42 pm

    Since the Miami tri is going to be in the ocean, how are you going to prepare for it? Will you be doing some training in the ocean? Is it a lot different (and scarier!) than a lake due to the currents?

  • Angie July 16, 2013, 2:06 pm

    My advice is not to think about the whole distance when you start, just aim for the buoys. Usually the turn buoys in a sprint tri are no more than 200-250 meters apart. So, break the swim into chunks instead of contemplating 500, 750 or more meters in total. Also, there is no shame in taking a break and doing backstroke to catch your breath and get your heartrate down. My hubby did a sprint with a swim in the Chesapeake Bay as his first open water swim, and he hadn’t counted on the choppiness of the water. So, he took a number of backstroke breaks to re-center himself and calm his heartrate down.

    You have a lot more to do after the swim, so it’s important that you aren’t spent coming out of the water!

  • Amanda July 16, 2013, 5:37 pm

    This is such a great and helpful post! I would love to do a tri someday but I would definitely be weak in the water. I love, love, love to swim! And have been swimming since I was little but never competed in a swimming race so these are really good tips!

  • Angela @ Eat Spin Run Repeat July 16, 2013, 6:42 pm

    This is such a timely post! I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a triathlon sometime in the next year or so, and am currently looking into getting a bike. I’m a spin instructor but when it comes to “real bikes”, I’m definitely a beginner! The open water swim however, is the part that scares me the most. It’s mostly the whole getting kicked in the face thing and not knowing what’s at the bottom of the water, but I suppose the tip about starting near the outside would help to overcome those two things. Thanks for the advice!

  • Sierra @ Always, Sierra July 17, 2013, 1:21 am

    My friend asked me a couple weeks ago if I wanted to do a mini-triathlon with her, and my first question was, “The kind where the swim is in a pool, right?!”. I like swimming but I have a long way to go before I feel like I’d have strength to tackle an open water swim in triathlon conditions (aka random fists and knees and feet flying all around me). The are really great tips to head in that direction!

  • Kelly July 17, 2013, 2:36 am

    This is a great post. I have done a lot of sprint tris and swimming is my best sport, however I still have to talk myself down from panic at the beginning of tris haha. The physical part is not the problem and I do a lot of open water swimming where I am fine but something about everyone crowded together, it usually takes me a minute or two to get in the grove. I also find that when I panic my breathing for swimming is off. It’s definitely a hard sport mentally but well worth it, I have got a lot of friends into tris and they are always most scared about swimming st first and then love it!

  • Dominique July 17, 2013, 1:27 pm

    so my husband just got into doing tris in the last year and just signed up for a full triathlon in colorado next summer. i was wondering if your husband (or you) have any advice for how to be a supportive partner while the other one is training. thanks.

  • Kim July 17, 2013, 4:04 pm

    While not a triathlon, this is sort of related to the open water swim: I was an ocean lifeguard for several years (in North Carolina, in fact) and I don’t consider myself a strong swimmer, but rather a smart swimmer (as far as the ocean goes). In the case of being a lifeguard on the beach, I had to help a lot of people get out of trouble and the best way to deal with the ocean was to stay calm. Like you and coach Marni alluded to in this post, when you panic, you are making the situation a thousand times worse for yourself.

  • Sydney @ Trust the Skinny Cook July 17, 2013, 5:58 pm

    Having been a swimmer my whole life, I know swimming would be my strongest sport. But throughout my 15 years of competitive swimming, I have never done a single open water race… mostly because I was a sprinter. I’m afraid that I won’t be nearly as good at swimming in rough water! Does anyone have any good resources that can help you find a good place to practice? I would be too scared to just drive up to some random lake and jump in… you’d never know if it was safe!

  • Laura July 18, 2013, 4:55 pm

    Hey Caitlin,

    Just wondering now that you have increased your workouts how are you altering your diet (if at all)? I always seem to struggle to adapt my diet around my changing work out schedule. Usually, I just listen to my body but I find that I often underestimate how much I need to eat to fuel myself even for the next day. I especially notice this with swimming because usually when I get out of the pool I’m starving.

    With your new half ironman plan do you have a diet plan included?


  • Elsa July 22, 2013, 6:37 am

    I’ve been loving all your tri posts – you’ve inspired me to try it out! The swim would definitely be my weak sport and because I’m in Australia the swim part would be in the ocean. That means a couple of extra things – waves, currents, and SHARKS!

  • Jo March 3, 2014, 11:29 pm

    Do you know if the NX2 wetsuit you are wearing is still available? I feel so claustrophobic in a full, long sleeve wetsuit with a high neck. Your’s is awesome.

    • Caitlin March 4, 2014, 7:43 am

      I rented it from Wetsuitrentals.com. They sometimes sell the wetsuits at a discoujt!

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