Here's a common scenario: You completed your race prep, your transition area looks perfect, you even did a little warm up run- and a bike for you overachievers. You put on your wetsuit, walked down to the swim start, and the nerves kicked in. All of a sudden, you start to doubt your ability to finish this little ole swim, even though you've gone 3x as far in the pool.
You wade in up to your waist, fight off the urge to wade back out, take a deep breath, and start swimming- as fast as you can because it's SOOOO COOOLD! You hightail it back to shore and line up for the start, shivering with either cold, nerves, or anticipation. Maybe it's a little of each.
The race starts and you go- a little on the fast side because it's so COLD. Halfway to the first buoy, you can't catch your breath. You try treading water, you try swimming on your back, but nothing works. You end up doing a kind of vertical breaststroke interspersed with attempts to put your face back in the water and swim freestyle, which leave you panting for air again and again.
Try this instead:
- Arrive at the water's edge 20 min prior to your start. Give yourself 5 min to wade in gradually.
- Finish with a couple dunks all the way under. Give yourself enough time to recover your breathing after each one. You will be shivering by this point.
- Swim freestyle SLOWLY for about 40 strokes. Watch out for other swimmers coming at you (in both directions.)
- Stop, catch your breath, then swim SLOWLY back to the shore. If you've experienced the panic syndrome already, it's OK. That means you won't have to deal with it during the race. Tell yourself that it's almost impossible to sink in a wetsuit. Swim all the way to the shore, until your fingertips drag on the bottom.
- Swim freestyle again at about medium speed, about halfway to the first buoy. Practice sighting to get your mind off how uncomfortable you are.
- Turn around and swim back to the shore. You are probably feeling REALLY tired right now. That is a side effect from the adrenaline wearing off. It will go away in about 5 min. The key is to keep swimming until you feel good.
- Keep your body horizontal- breaststroke with your face in the water works well. When you let yourself go vertical, it takes A LOT of energy to get horizontal again, making your situation even worse.
- Check your watch. If you have time, do 1 more out and back: medium speed on the way out, and faster on the way back. Practice your race exit when your fingertips drag on the bottom.
- Line up for the start. If you timed this correctly, you shouldn't have to wait for more than 5 min.
- When you start the race, swim easy at least halfway to the 1st buoy. You will pass most of the people who sprinted the start and succumbed to the "cold water panic."
- If you feel the breathing issues coming on again at any point in the race (around the buoys, when you get bonked by somebody, when your goggles get foggy) slow down a little and get your breathing back into a rhythm.
- Finish strong, no matter how you feel. Swim until you feel like you're climbing up the bottom. You won't have to wade through the water that way.
As with all things Triathlon, practice makes perfect. It may take 3-4 races to get this right, so practice your warm-up in the pool and open water until it becomes part of your pre-race routine.