Hyperventilating, panic and cramp – it must be open water swimming!

One of the things I really love about triathlon is that I am not very good at some of it. That may seem an odd thing to find enjoyable, but I really relish working out the science of being good at something and then putting it into practice and seeing if I can improve. Right at the top of the list of things I am not very good at is open water swimming. I think I am a reasonably good swimmer. I spent five years of my childhood in the Middle East and then Canada – two places where during the hot season you live on the beach or by the pool. I learned how to swim early and have always enjoyed it but I have not done much of it.

When I started training for my first triathlon at the beginning of this year I was slightly surprised at how little distance I was able to swim. I was gasping for breath after two lengths – just 50 metres. I had no idea how I was going to manage a 1,500m triathlon swim? But I needn’t have worried. With regular training sessions the endurance came quickly and now I swim a straight kilometre once a week with no problem and will aim to increase that distance over the winter. The real challenge wasn’t distance, it turned out to be taking the swim from the pool into open water.

Water is water right? If you can swim in a pool then surely you can swim in open water. Wrong!

I learned how different the pool and open water are when I did my first triathlon in July. The swim was in the lake at Eastleigh Lakeside and was 400m long – a distance I have done many times in the pool. After about 300m I found myself completely unable to catch my breath and when I stopped to do breast stroke and settle myself down my breathing was almost uncontrollably quick and I felt as though my wet suit was too tight around my chest. At the time I put it down to having gone off too fast. I finished the swim OK but it wasn’t a pleasant experience. The difference between pool and open water was reinforced in the swim at the National Relay Championships, this time a 500m swim. On this occasion I started hyperventilating at 300m and had the same feeling of my wetsuit restricting me. In addition to that, in my mind the 200m left to the finish suddenly became a swim marathon. Doubts crept into my mind and I questioned whether I could finish. As the doubts took hold the absurd thought crossed my mind that I might drown and no-one would notice! Somehow I finished but I was mighty glad that the relay format gave me an hours break before I had to get on a bike. I was in pieces. So what is this all about?

The first port of call for me was the Internet to do some research. The most encouraging thing I discovered immediately was that the experience of hyperventilating and feeling your wetsuit is too tight around your chest is very common in novice open water swimmers. It is all part of a feeling of mild panic that in some cases develops into full-blown panic attacks. These are the physical manifestations of a problem that is more in the mind than the body. You see we humans are creatures of habit and don’t like change. We are used to the sanitised environment of the pool where the water is warm and clear, you can see the bottom and follow a blue line and for half of every length we have the safety blanket if all else fails of simply standing up. And although we don’t ever consciously think about it we are secure in the knowledge that we are never more than a few yards from the side. Suddenly we are placed in this wild environment where the water is cold and we can’t see or touch the bottom and don’t know what creepy crawlies are swimming around us. The unknown makes us anxious. Place 40 other swimmers alongside us in a race situation, some swimming into our space and bumping into us and the tension increases. The result can be the symptoms of panic that I experienced. In my research I read about cases much worse than mine where people had to be hauled out of the water by the safety boat unable to continue.

Having identified the problem I needed to work at putting it right. Time to get some coaching. So it was that I found myself in a wetsuit standing in the water at Eastleigh at 6.00am on a late September morning, the sun not fully up, with open water swim coach Dave. I explained my situation. Before we swam a stroke Dave spent half an hour doing some theory and emphasising the importance of getting your body used to the open water before you start racing. He went through a routine.

The routine starts with getting into the water gradually. Get your feet wet, immerse your body and let what water is going to enter your wet suit seep in. This is always a shock, especially in late September when the water temperature can have been no more than 16C. Dave’s point was that you want to get that shock behind you before you swim or race. Finally he had us put our faces in and heads under the water. Nothing radical but it ensured that before I swam a stroke I had acclimatised my body to the water.

The next tip was the simplest but the one that has made the most difference to my open water swimming. Breath every second stroke. I can’t breathe bilaterally (i.e. every third stroke which means breathing on alternate sides) so in the pool I breathe to the left every fourth stroke. Breathing every fourth stroke means you are holding your breath for more than three-quarters of the time. In the open water when the distances are greater that puts an unnecessary strain on your body and is a big contributor to the hyperventilation issue.  When you think of it like that it is not a surprise that it causes problems.

Finally Dave recommended not to kick. Kicking tires your legs out and puts more strain on your body. Most people swimming any distance in the pool kick simply to stop their legs from sinking. With the added buoyancy a wet suit gives, sinking legs is not a problem so Dave saw this as a chance to save energy. The only exception was at the start when you may be trying to swim fast to find clear water. He also recommended kicking hard in the last 100m before exit to wake your legs up before you try to run out of the water to transition.

So after 30 minutes of acclimatizing and teaching I set off for a short swim putting Dave’s suggestions into action. No problem – I swam a very relaxed 200m. After a few suggestions on technique I then set off on a full lap of the lake – 350m. The new breathing pattern work perfectly. I felt completely in control and relaxed for the entire lap. I didn’t feel any of the building fatigue and breathlessness that I felt when I was last in this same lake. I then completed two further laps with a short rest in between each without any problem. 1,250m of open water swimming without a problem. Without doubt a successful lesson.

The chance to practise further is limited as the open water swimming season is coming to an end. The lakes around us are all closing for the winter at the end of September. That gave me the chance for one more session. I decided to go to the lake at Reading for this one because they have a much longer lap – 750m in total.

I put all of my new learning into practice. With the water temperature a chilly 14.5C the acclimatisation process was a bit of a shock but well worth doing before I started swimming. I then did one lap as a warm up using a very easy stroke and stopping once about halfway round to adjust my goggles which were letting in water. That was all fine and I arrived back at the beginning feeling OK. I gave myself 2-3 minutes to have a breather and then I set out on my first full 750m lap. I concentrated on not kicking and breathing every second stroke. I soon found a nice rhythm and before I knew where I was I had finished 750m in complete control. Not a hint of breathing problems.

I think it would have been a good idea to call it a day then. 1,500m is an average sized training session for me but this was probably harder than a 1,500m pool session because of the cold water and the fact that I was constantly swimming with no end to push off every length. But I felt good and so, after a short rest and a natter with the guys at the start, I set off on a third lap. Once again all was fine until I got to about 500m and then bang – cramp! This wasn’t a little muscle spasm in the foot or slight twitch in my thigh, this was a full on calf cramp. It felt like the whole of my calf muscle had knotted up into a ball and I was in a world of pain. I was fortunate on two counts – the first that I was just rounding a buoy when it struck and I was able to grab hold of it while I tried to relieve the cramp and second that the safety kayak was about 30m away. He heard my shout and came and got me. The cramp went briefly and I had one more go at swimming back to the start but it soon came back. My session was over and I enjoyed the ignominious experience of being towed back to the start behind a kayak squealing in pain each time my calf muscle knotted up.

You would have thought that I would have driven home with my tail between my legs but not a bit of it. I was thrilled that I had managed to swim 2,000m in open water remaining in complete control of my rhythm and feeling completely relaxed. But for the cramp I would have comfortable finished my third lap. I just need to understand why I got cramp – I have never had it before like that.

So that is the end of my first triathlon season. I have only managed to race twice but there is no doubt that I am hooked. I am already planning what I am going to do next year. I want to have my year mapped out before the season starts so that I can organise myself. I want to race four or five times in such a way that I can train, peak, race and recover for each race. I also have my eye on something quite ambitious towards the back-end of next year. So watch this space.

For now I want to get back on the road and do some running. I tried my injured calf out today for the first time in two weeks. I had walked a mile on Friday to give it an easy workout and had no adverse reaction. This morning I set out to jog a couple of miles with the sole aim of seeing how the leg felt. It began to ache a little after about a mile and so I took the sensible option and stopped running and walked home. Yes you read that correctly – I took the sensible approach. After my cock-up two weeks ago I am willing to be as patient as I need to be in my running comeback this time. I am still cautiously optimistic that I will get a half marathon in before the end of the year.


6 responses to “Hyperventilating, panic and cramp – it must be open water swimming!

  1. Charlie Souza

    I had the same “panic” sensation on my first practice in open water with a wetsuit. That situation made me second guess my swimming abilities, which I’ve always been so confident about. Your testimonial offered hope. I’ll definitely follow your advice on my next tri which is coming up very soon. Thanks!


  2. I am a 58 yr old male who also started running in 2010. By last year I completed 7 marathons and several halves and then last year tried some dualathlons. Of course I saw the majority of people doing tri’s and made up my mind that this year I would enter an Olympic tri. How hard could it be? I was briefly a lifeguard in my early 20s but that was 37 years ago. Like you the swimming was harder than I remembered to get started. I live in Manitoba, Canada so it was all done in a pool.

    My tri is scheduled for August 15 of this year but at the last moment I decided it would be better if I completed a Sprint tri first which I did this past June. And to be honest I could have written the exact same paragraph that began this piece in your blog. I couldn’t breath. I couldn’t get settled using any stroke and I was just glad when 750 meters was over. Not a good experience. This week I leave to do some camping beside the lake that will host the tri in August. I will get in as much swimming as I can with the suit and will follow your recommendations. This has been an encouragement.


    • Thank you for your comment Randall. I wrote that post almost almost 3 years ago. I have done lots of open water training and races since then and slowly but surely I have got on top of it. It just takes time and patience. The key for me in races is not to go off too fast. A gentle first few hundred yards until I find a rhythm. It amazing how often I end up passing the guys who went off too quickly. Good luck with your tri in August.


  3. This is something i experienced in a practice swim a few days before a tri and during the tri itself. Started off fine then it set in aftet 200m. Found your piece very helpful and will put into practice before my next tri in 4 weeks.


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