I consider myself a very good swimmer; I know how to swim well. My strength is in swimming pool swimming. Recently, I have been open water swimming in the ocean. I always swim right to the edge of the buoy in the ocean.

However, I started wearing googles and it has been all downhill. I cannot see the sea bottom and it has completely put my off. You name it; sharks, drowning, all types of fears. It results in my keeping my head above water and failing bi-lateral swimming. I cannot even swim far out without getting scared.

My question is: I want some techniques to develop this mind over matter and was wondering what helps?


  • 1
    You seem to have a certain degree of thalassophobia. This is a psychological issue, and I'm afraid it's off-topic for a physical fitness forum. You might have more luck at the cognitive SE: cogsci.stackexchange.com
    – Alec
    Commented Nov 22, 2015 at 14:16
  • 1
    @Alec This question is seeking specific training advice to deal with training and race day conditions. If your looking to close something leave this one alone and look up my questions :)
    – Jason
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 20:32

5 Answers 5


The switch from the pool to the lake/ocean can be challenging. Google on "overcome fear of open water swimming" or "panic attack triathlete water" and you will find that you are not alone.

There are two aspects of your question:

  1. Overcoming fear in general when training/doing sports and
  2. Specifics with swimming.

Overcoming fear in general when training is personal. Doing things gradually more challenging works for me.

Specifics with swimming is related to breathing. Waves, cooler water, noise, a new wetsuit and obstacles (sea grass, frogs, snakes, other swimmers at the start of a race) in the water are all factors that can throw your breathing off-balance and cause you to hold your breath and thus not exhaling enough. Not exhaling increases the level of CO2 which in its turn increases the feeling of anxiety and even panic. And more anxiety makes you more sensitive to the factors which then impacts your breathing, i.e. it is easy to fall in a vicious circle in open water swimming.

What to do? Here is a short mental program (similar to other recommendations e.g. swimsmooth): Detect that you are about to fall in the vicious circle. For a few strokes (e.g. 5-6):

  • Slow down the stroke rate.
  • Focus on exhaling under the water
  • Focus on relaxing
  • So you think breathing is going to drive me back to my far swimming; I used to swim very far out and then return. Sounds like CBT Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 6:03
  • Not really cognitive behavioral therapy. Compared to other things that can be scary, e.g. downhill skiing in really steep hills, breathing is difficult in itself when freestyle swimming in open water. The counter intuitive thing - based on my experience what you can find written on the topic is to focus on exhaling
    – FredrikD
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 15:19

I get the same feeling except I can't swim well. What I do is to just float there, look at the bottomless depth, and try to recognize that the water is holding me up. Additionally I try to swim down a little and allow myself to float up. This worked best for me the one time when I did it with a snorkel.


I had the exact same issue, where I felt fearful and a little panicky while swimming in the ocean even though I swim for an hour at a time in a pool. For me, what helped was just doing it over and over, while telling myself that there was nothing to be afraid of, that I was a string swimmer and could easily make it back to shore. I found that, when swimming at the same beach, it gradually got easier and I was calmer, but then when I went to a new beach it started over and gradually got better. So, if you are like me, just practicing will make it go away eventually.

One spot in particular is on Curaçao, where the island falls off sharply. Just a few hundred meters off the beach the bottom drops away very steeply. You're swimming along, seeing the bottom very clearly, and there is a sudden line where it goes to complete black. It took me a number of times to stop getting panicky when swimming beyond that.


I am not an expert or a doc, but IMHO paying attention to your inner instinct and fear is normal and being fearful of the sea is normal. Sea is not our natural habitat, and we are not the top predators there. Individuals do get attacked by sharks, medusas etc.

  • This is just a comment and not helping in answering the OP's question in anyway
    – Prasanna
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 6:38

I'm a bit bewildered that you say your problems started after you started wearing goggles. Were you able to see the bottom of the ses before that? Or did you just close your eyes?

If the latter is the case, I would say you should try using goggles, but closing your eyes like you used to.

You see, one great obstacle in both open water swimming and scuba diving is that all mammals, including humans of course, have a diving reflex. When we get water on our face, we instinctively close our epiglottis. In the pool you have long since overcome this, but in the ocean it comes back. It comes back to me every open water season. (Where I live, open water is not a year-round activity.) And it usually takes some getting used to when you practice at taking off your mask and replacing it during scuba diving.

With that said, I think you should have an easier time getting past it in a rather clear ocean, than we do over here in murky lakes. So I'm confident that you'll do fine after some practice.

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