Swimming Open Water? Don't Panic!!

Swim Club -

Swimming Open Water? Don't Panic!!

Open water season will be upon us soon and shortness of breath, potentially leading to panic attacks are one of the most common issues amongst novice swimmers. In this week's blog, we talk about the physiology behind the problem.

It's all about the CO2

Your breathing and heart rate are largely controlled by CO2 levels in your blood stream. In simple terms, when you start to exercise, you create CO2, which accumulates in your blood. You have receptors in your bloody system which detect the rise in CO2 and they send a message to your heart and lungs to 'speed up'. When you stop and sit down, your CO2 production slows down and so does the heart and lungs.

It's important to understand that CO2 is the key factor, not oxygen. It's a build up of CO2 which is the significant trigger, not a lack of oxygen. Consider when you're gasping for breath in open water, it's more likely a build up of CO2 which is causing the problem, so when you're trying to get air in.... you should probably be more concerned about 'blowing out'.

Remember to breathe out

Forgetting to breathe out in the first 200m is a very common habit and during that time, CO2 is building up in your bloody stream. Suddenly the CO2 levels hit such a high level that it sends 'alarm bell signals' to your heart and lungs. You've been so preoccupied with everything and everyone else, that you've just allowed it to happen and then suddenly it hits you.

It happens to the most experienced people and can range from being very out of breath after 200m, to a full on panic attack. Wetsuits don't help as even the best fitting ones are pretty tight across the chest!

Our top tips for your open water start:

1. Breathe every stroke. People who learn to swim at a later age are commonly told to 'bilateral breathe'. There are various reasons for this, but in cold water, all you're doing is limiting your breathing. You wouldn't go for a run and only breathe every 5 foot strikes, so don't limit your oxygen intake when swimming.

2. Exhale under the water to get the CO2 out but remain calm and relaxed. If you exhale too forcefully, you can also panic. Stay relaxed and allow the bubbles to trickle out into the water as you exhale. 

3. Empty 75% of the air in your lungs, NOT 100%. If you empty 100% of the air, there is a physiological response which requires you to immediately breathe back in. Try in now, exhale all of the air out of your lungs and you will feel a 'bounce back' as your lungs immediately inhale to go back to their normal size.

4. CO2 is linked to exercise intensity, if you go too hard, you'll create more CO2. Ignore everyone else, swim at your own pace.

5. Focus on your breathing and relaxation. Ignore the things going on around you, it's those things which create the anxiety and it's those things which prevent you focusing on breathing and relaxation. Swim in your own world, if you get distracted, calmly get back to your own world!

6. Expect to feel tight chested in the wetsuit. No, it's not too small for you, that's just how they feel, especially when the water is cold. You need to relax and solve the breathing issues, not buy a bigger wetsuit.

7. The shock of cold water will make breathing more difficult. Gradually acclimatise yourself and focus on relaxed and deep breathing as you do so. If you're not wearing a wetsuit, this is even more important. Enter the water slowly, monitor your breathing and gradually work your way to being fully immersed to avoid the symptoms of cold water shock. 

8. No matter how experienced you are, consider wear a swim float. This is even more important if you're swimming skins rather than wearing a wetsuit as you have no buoyancy. We've seen cold water shock and panic attacks in very experienced swimmers so those risks will always be there. Be safe and wear a float. 

9. Experience counts. This is really simple... whilst we still see panic attacks in experience swimmers, those people who have more experience know what to expect and how to deal with it. If you're new to the sport, don't take any of the above for granted. 

Join our coached open water swim sessions

We deliver an open water swim session every Wednesday & Saturday from April 17th. The location is perfect for novices and you can swim in skins or wetsuit. To read more and register GO HERE

Need a new wetsuit or buying your first?

We've got a range of wetsuits in store and a huge amount of experience! If you're buying from us, you're welcome to try them on and we can ensure you get the perfect size and fit. We're based just off junction 27M6, in Wrightington, Lancashire. Call us on 01257 251217.

The Endurance Store