Don’t let a panic attack destroy your race

How to deal with a panic attack during the swim leg

At a recent Olympic distance Triathlon, which starts with a 1,500m swim leg, on exiting the water and running into T1, an athlete of mine yells, ‘I had a panic attack at the start of the swim’. My first thought was to work out how or why this happened and then to set about fixing the problem – mistake number 1! In triathlon, as with a lot of sports, there is no use pondering on something that has happened. It cannot be changed and is some homework for after the race, not during.

Being someone who is competent and enjoys the swim leg, including the times getting hit in the head, a panic attack was something that I have never personally experienced, so it was going to be a learning lesson for me too. The closest I had come, was a couple of minutes before the start of a 3.8km open water swim, I realized that the inside of the goggles I had just put on, may have as well been painted black! Check your equipment folks, well before race morning!

Panic attacks happen well before the swim has even started

After the race, we were able to chat about what happened to cause the attack. Its then that I realized the panic attack may have started from the moment the athlete arrived into transition that morning, not just during the actual swim itself.

Don’t let a panic attack destroy your race. On reflection, there are factors I believe helped contribute to the panic attack, more than what just happened during the swim:

– Comment made by athlete hours before the start, ‘I hate swimming at this venue’
– The athlete also notice a larger than normal swim wave start size
– Lack of solid swim warm up before the start
– Lack of open water swim sessions leading into the race
– Introduction of previously unused nutrition just prior to race start (a high caffeine drink of all thinks!)

It is clear to see here that whilst a kick in the face or being swum over early on in the swim, may have been the catalyst for the panic attack, we can also see that it was a lead up of events from early on in the morning, that may have created a perfect storm.

On a positive note, the athlete was able to get her race back on track during the swim, by doing everything right. Realizing that it was in fact a panic attack and that she was actually still able to breath (despite what her brain was telling her), she was able to slow her breathing down, inhale and exhale fully, do breast stroke for a short time to compose and move away from the crowds, before continuing on to a solid swim.

So remember a positive attitude from the moment you wake on race morning will set you up for a great race.

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