Dealing with Anxiety in Triathlon

The mental side of triathlon is often overlooked and brushed aside with the advice that if you just practiced more, your anxiety will fade, and you’ll be a better athlete. Although more practice certainly helps, there are more strategies you can use to help deal with race day anxiety, open water swim anxiety, and the panic that arises on the bike when going downhill fast. I know that’s not parallel structure, and the English teacher inside me cringes, but I’m moving on because I got an open water swim to go to tonight that I’m already anxious about.

You heard me. I swim in open water often, but each time I’m faced with the same fears: what if I have a heart attack and drown? Who will find me on the bottom of the lake? I imagine the lifeguards abandoning their canoes and kayaks to form a search line to see if they can dredge my body up from the bottom. What if I run into that mysterious abandoned buoy that looks like something died? What if a fish nibbles at my toes? What if I get stung by a jellyfish again? What if that sea grass slaps me in the face when I’m least expecting it? What if something pulls me down, down, into the deep? What if someone swims over me or punches or kicks me? Let’s not even talk about sharks… I’ve seen all three Jaws movies, and I know a thing or two about bull sharks swimming way, way upstream in freshwater.

On the bike, my main fears are: descending too fast and hitting a pothole that will cause me to fly over my handlebars, getting a flat on a fast downhill, getting a bee caught in my kit or helmet and getting stung, not turning in time and hitting a tree, a driver looking down at their phone and not seeing me in time, or running over a squirrel or other creature (I did actually run over a squirrel, and thankfully, the poor thing didn’t get caught in my spokes, but that’s another story).

These fears seem ridiculous when written down in that haphazard list, but these are all thoughts that enter my mind, silly or not. Because the first thing I do when dealing with anxiety is to write down all the things I’m afraid of so that they are laid bare. The second thing is just admitting that I have anxiety, which seems like a no-brainer, but it’s an important step to take before you can actually move on to the strategies and putting those strategies to good use. It’s so important (there’s that word again) because you don’t know when you’re going to have a panic attack, but when it does happen, you can say to yourself, “Wait, this is a panic attack. I’m physically OK, but I have to deal with this.”

Once you see what you’re afraid of and can recognize a panic attack from an actual physical issue, you can move on to the strategies. Here are a few that have worked for me, but if you deal with anxiety or depression all the time, get help from your doctor, see a social worker or psychiatrist, and learn more about yourself. Counseling can do wonders.

Strategy #1: Give your brain something to do after you have identified that’s it’s anxiety and not something physically wrong. I like to count my exhale and/or sing my favorite songs in my head. When I exhale, I say “relax” in my head too.

Strategy #2: Turn the volume down on your fears. That list of fears that you made? Yeah, those will pop into your head often. Turn the volume on those fears down by employing strategy #1 so that your inner monologue is louder than your fears.

Strategy #3: Visualization. See yourself being successful. If you’re swimming in open water, when you arrive on site, look around, note the buoys, where lifeguards will be, study the course, and as you warm up, see yourself swimming effortlessly through the water. This is something to practice all the time.

Strategy #4: Go through all the steps and have a routine: get in, get your face wet and exhale under water a few times prior to swimming, start swimming slowly at first and then build your speed, sighting to stay on course. If needed, recover on your back to settle your breathing, adjust your goggles, etc. Give yourself a limit here before you begin to swim again: “I’m going to take two more breaths and then flip over to my right, and then ease back into the swim.”

The bike is a bit different, but the same strategies apply: make a list of what you fear on the bike, visualize yourself taking on the downhills, low on the hoods a first, and then in the drops, have a safety plan in place if you do fall–my Garmin will alert my emergency contacts and call for an ambulance if I crash, which gives me some peace of mind. Practice outside in a safe environment–low traffic roads or trails are ideal, slowly building your speed over time. Focus on your mental game: following your breath, giving your brain something to do on the ride helps as well.

Lastly, know that you are not alone and that all of this takes time, lots of time. Many athletes deal with anxiety during training and on race day. When I’m out there and feel alone, I think about all of my family and friends who support me as an athlete and coach, and I take their positive thoughts with me too. My head is full of them when I’m swimming in a lake as dark as coffee.

If you have some strategies, add them below in the comments. Thank you!