Monday, June 20, 2011

Panic Attacks (in a triathlon swim)

A friend of mine raced in an Olympic distance triathlon on Saturday and had a panic attack the second he hit the water at the start. He's not your typical triathlete though, he has been doing tris for the last two decades, has done numerous Ironmans and qualified for the Ironman worlds in Kona last year and the 70.3 Worlds in Clearwater the year before. Strangely this is the second panic attack he has had in two races.

I gave him my "take on it" in the hope that it will help somehow but then I thought I'd adapt my thoughts for anyone else that has experienced this sickening feeling. For the record I had my own panic attack/near death experience at the Alpe d'Huez triathlon a couple of years ago, so I'm not immune and I know what they're like.

So here's my take on it for what it's worth: -

My buddy freely admits he was under prepared and hadn't swam for 3 weeks. He's strong though and very fit. In my opinion the lack of swimming shouldn't have done more than taken a minute or two off his time at worst. I think his biggest mistake was not warming up by doing 500 metres swim/drills (or a full ten minutes of swimming). The fact that the water was undoubtedly colder than the pool and he didn't use a wetsuit probably magnified the problem.

A proper swim warm up in ANY distance tri is the difference between me being in the top half and the bottom half of the swim, so panic attacks aside, I reckon anyone that doesn't do a full and intensive warm up are giving away heaps of time and potentially spoiling their day because of a panic attack.

Don't forget we are not meant to be swimmers, we are land animals and probably one of the least adapted land animals to water. So suddenly going from a near resting heart rate to potentially anaerobic at the start of a triathlon is going to give the body, heart and mind a bit of a shock to say the least. Throw into the mix cold water and I'm sure many would experience some degree of shock.

(Cold water is something we don't have to worry about in Malaysia but when we travel elsewhere it can be an even bigger shock for us softie warm weather types).

So why did I have a panic attack at Alpe d'Huez? That's easy: -

1) I was under prepared
2) The reservoir we were swimming in didn't allow us into the water until 2 minutes before the start there was no warm up (it was a hydroelectric dam & French bureaucrats running it)
3) The water was pretty darn cold
4) I hadn't swam in a wetsuit for months if not a couple of years

The combination was a recipe for disaster. Having said that, I'm fairly sure that a 10 minute brisk warm up would have eliminated all my problems. (If I did this race again I'd go for a jog first in my wetsuit and be first in the water once we were allowed to go in).

I hope that those that have panic attacks don't consider this article too presumptive. I've addressed my take on panic attacks that occur at the beginning of a swim start as I have had personal experience of this.

However, another of my close Ironman friends has swim panic attacks mid swim. He says these are due simply to being out in the middle of nowhere in the ocean or a large lake. That's a different trigger I guess and I don't feel qualified to comment on that one. I'm sure he'll be interested if anyone has experienced that sort of panic attack and found ways to combat it. I'll forward any comments onto him, so please do share.

Additional Feedback: -
One of the comments left on this post by Ann, was that she used to have panic attacks. However, subsequently she realised they weren't actually panic attacks but rather she'd gone out to fast and I assume she'd gone anaerobic.

Pretty scary in a race let me tell you, YES I'VE BEEN DAFT ENOUGH TO DO THAT TOO. In fact that was the closest I ever came to dying. I shot out from the start, went anaerobic in a big way and then got swam over by the chasing field. I literally could not move my arms and could barely keep my head above the water. I got to the first turn buoy and hung on. Once I recovered I swam the course gingerly and finished the race, scared, embarrassed AND EDUCATED.


Bryan Payne said...

VERY GOOD ADVICE!!!! I'm definitely going to use it. In terms of your friend he sounds like an absolute idiot and water pussy. No wonder you like him. haha


Ann Brennan said...

I made the best discovery about my panic attacks in the swim. They aren't panic attacks. Instead I discovered I was started too fast just like in a running race but because I am in the water, I feel panicked. So now, I get in put my face in before the race starts and breath. The when the race starts I count long slow strokes and I don't panic. About halfway through my last swim I thought to myself, "Shouldn't I have panicked already?" So glad I don't do that anymore.

JohnP said...

Sounds like your friend is making up pussy excuses for getting his ass kicked by someone significantly less experienced than him.

It was probably traumatic as he watched me pulled away from him in the swim. He calls it panic attack but it was more likely he just started crying. Poor guy....

armouris said...

more info on panic attack here - FAQ on Panic Attack

wilddog said...

I had a bit of a panic attack on my first tri - mostly, i think because of what you suggest as it was a beach start.

I am usually pretty comfortable in the water so i was quite taken aback when i started to do the 'water boatman'

I experienced it on a deep dive (50m) many years ago and now am more aware of the sensations that lead to panic attack.

I did the PD trial the other weekend and because of some time in the water, and no pressure, all was fine. I will see in a few weeks. Good post though said...

What a great post Simon. I am starting out in tri events this year and have swum in open water twice and I have panicked twice and have considered packing it in twice. I don't know what else to do and it's deeply frustrating. I can swim laps and laps in the pool but as soon as I start my strokes in the open water my heart rate sky rockets. I feel a tremendous level of fear. I would switch to breaststroke for awhile and as soon as I switch to the freestyle the sensation would kick in again.

Sigh. I will do some warm up before the swim though I never actually did that. Maybe I'll get different results...

Simon said...

Thanks Bryan, and yes he is a pussy, Canadian too but what can you do?

Ann, excellent feedback thanks, I'm sure many people's panic attacks are caused by going anaerobic at the beginning of a race - I'll add that to the article.

Thanks for the feedback John, interesting theory and I suspect you're right.

A, thanks for the link on Panic Attacks, very interesting reading.

Wilddog, thanks buddy, good luck in PD, keep getting in the openwater and you'll find it all comes easier. I can't imagine having a panic attack in a 50m dive, very scary.

R, Stick at it buddy, I'm sure the more you do the more "natural" it will feel. There's no shame in doing breast stroke either (just don't start at the front, people get a bit upset being kicked in the head by someone breatstroking). One of my best buddies uses a combination of freestyle and breast stroke and still often gets on the podium.

Anonymous said...

I did the Mallorca 70.3 last weekend and panicked again, though not as bad as last year during Wimbleball 70.3. This time I went off slow and still had an anxiety attack but managed to get on top of it by doing some breast stroke and visualising some very pleasant thoughts, in this case my two kids, and acted like a switch and I calmed down almost straight away. One other tip maybe to avoid any caffeine before the race (and I'm going to try this next time)and tell yourself that 2 mins on high octane swimming in the pack will probably cost you 20 mins on the run.

Thanks for all the advice any one who posted with tips. I'm certainly going to warm up next time, even if it is 6.00am