Tri Challenge: Breathe deeply to conquer wet suit anxiety
July 25th, 2011
03:10 PM ET

Tri Challenge: Breathe deeply to conquer wet suit anxiety

Since January, six iReporters have been training in the Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge. We’re following along as they prepare to compete alongside Dr. Sanjay Gupta in the August 7 Nautica NYC Triathlon.

Well here we are, staring down less than two weeks until we jump into the Hudson River! Wet suits are allowed for this race as long as the water temp is below 78°F, and because the water temp has not reached this level in the history of the NYC Tri, we 6-Packers have all included wet suit swims in our training.

We swam in them several times while in Hawaii in April, including the mini-tri we did on our last day there. That swim did not go well for me, and I have come to decide that it was due to “wet suit anxiety.” Frankly, I have more anxiety about the swim than I have admitted to myself and others.

The first time I put on my wet suit in Hawaii (actually it was the second time; the first time we all put them on backwards and had to start over), I was comfortable swimming in it in the ocean. But on the day we did our mini-tri, something changed, and I found myself hyperventilating on the swim. I think I had started out swimming too fast, got winded, and then blamed the tight fit of the wet suit for not being able to catch my breath when actually I couldn’t catch it because I was hyperventilating.

Memories of that Hawaii swim drove me to practice a real-life river swim in my wet suit, just so that I would know that I had done it when the time came to take the Hudson plunge. So this past Sunday, after I had celebrated a 50-mile-ride milestone earlier in the day, I rested a few hours and then hit the river with friends Gena and David, to do a wet suit swim in the Etowah river.

I donned mine about a mile upstream from where I would exit, but because I was tired from the morning’s ride, we paddled a little farther downstream before I jumped in. My greatest concern was that the river was quite shallow in spots, and I didn’t want to scuff against any rocks or logs that might tear it. Gena and David paddled along about 20 feet to each side of me to make sure I stayed in mid-channel. As usual, I started off swimming smoothly, rolling, stretching and breathing bilaterally as I have been doing for miles all summer in the pool. Maybe this time it would be OK.

I practiced abdominal breathing to lessen my feeling of chest constriction, but no such luck; here came that familiar shortness-of-breath feeling that pulled my attention to the fit of the wet suit on my chest. I wish I could say that I worked it out, that I got my mind over matter, slowed my strokes, breathed abdominally and finally hit a stride, but I really never did. What I did accomplish was good practice of my resting strokes (side and back), and of my self-talk that enabled me to go on downstream.

I’m not gonna lie: I was very glad to get out of that water last Sunday. I had righteously earned that long bubble-bath that was waiting at home! Three lessons came out of the water with me: (1) Do not take comfort with any sport for granted– things may (and will) change when you least expect it.(2) Know your resting plan and practice that too; and (3) Friends that help you train add fun and blessings.

So… will we or won’t we be wearing our wet suits into the Hudson? That decision is out of my hands, so I plan to succeed under either scenario. If we do, I will enjoy the extra flotation, and if we don’t, I will probably not hyperventilate. One thing is certain: When I take that leap into the Hudson with all of my new best friends, it will be a moment that I will never ever forget.

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soundoff (67 Responses)
  1. hmmmm

    Isn't the Hudson contaminated right now? Swallowing toxic water accidentally is no fun at all!!

    July 25, 2011 at 17:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Meghan

    So, should I bring my wetsuit to Hawaii? 😉

    July 25, 2011 at 17:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Jenny Y

    Get some wetsuit lubricant! That makes a world of difference! I got a wetsuit lubricant and sprayed it on my new wetsuit and it makes the wetsuit ride a lot more comfortably, with no pulling against my skin. It makes it so much easier to get into and out of the wetsuit and to really shimmy it into the best position on my body. My swim was 2.5 miles in the cold Maine ocean, and so I sprayed extra around my neck, where a wetsuit often chafes. Love the lubricant! I used official wetsuit spray on lubricant, but a friend of mine told me that "personal" lubricant also works very well...

    July 25, 2011 at 18:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Oscar

      Hi everyone I am new to LOST Swimming, and dtrepsaeely want to come out for the Saturday AM swim on the 18th. (That's tomorrow!!) Unfortunately, I have been unable to find my wetsuit from last year.Is there anyone out there who has an extra, or would be willing to lend me their wetsuit for this one Saturday?? It would be greatly appreciated!Please let me know as soon as possible by responding to this comment, or via email @ . Thank you again! Chris

      September 12, 2012 at 06:54 | Report abuse |
  4. Chartreuxe

    Wearing a Lycra 'skin' under a wetsuit also helps with comfort as well. A skin makes a big difference in putting them on and off, too. Try it.

    July 25, 2011 at 18:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. jason

    that is a fun race. The Hudson is super polluted though. I made the mistake of swallowing some water the first time I did the race and was very sick. The wet suit makes swimming much faster as you are more bouyant... Enjoy!

    July 25, 2011 at 18:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. travass

    you really want to wear a wetsuit! makes the swim way faster and easier. i always seem to go back to my sleeveless suit even when the water is pretty cold as i find it less restricting and more comfortable. maybe try one out. good luck!

    July 25, 2011 at 19:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. babs

    Definitely a skin under the wetsuit. And maybe the fit is wrong. It takes a very good sales person to know how to properly fit a wetsuit and pick one for the task at hand. There is a great line of suits with a special lining that creates glide so that the suit really moves with the body rather than sticking to it. They're a bit on the expensive side but well worth the extra $ and because of the glide factor, they're much easier to don and remove.

    July 25, 2011 at 19:21 | Report abuse | Reply
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      September 13, 2012 at 20:35 | Report abuse |
  8. R

    Better start taking those antibiotics before and after that race. Also, and very important, is antibiotic eye drops.

    July 25, 2011 at 21:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. bs

    A skin or lube will help, however remember that it is a *wet* suit, not a dry suit. Some water is supposed to get into a wet suit and then warm to body temp. This water inside the suit also provides a sort of lube to make the fit more comfortable. When you first put on your wet suit it may well be a bit sticky and uncomfortable, but if when you get in the water you take a few seconds to tug at the neck and wrists to let a little water in, it will quickly become much more comfortable.

    July 25, 2011 at 21:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. bm

    I am just as warm and way more comfortable when the wetsuit isn't as super tight as every expert seems to recommend. Try a larger size!

    July 25, 2011 at 22:58 | Report abuse | Reply
    • bs

      You definitely don't want "tight", "form fitting" without being tight is what you want to aim for. Too loose and it impedes movement and also the extra bulk works to pump water in and out, defeating the insulating properties of the wet suit.

      July 25, 2011 at 23:13 | Report abuse |
  11. gwgalt

    I have been competing in races since I was very young, foot and bicycle races and swimming. Something I have noticed about my body is that, no matter how much training I do, I tire easily the first minute or so. I think this is because it takes a minute for the brain to synchronize oxygen flow, blood flow and movement. Once your body becomes so synchronized, you will be able to just fly. Just don't panic or give up before that happens.

    July 25, 2011 at 23:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. PeterG

    I encountered this same sensation during my first several wetsuit trials. I thought the suit was too tight and was restricting my breathing. Eventually I figured out that I was just swimming too hard and I was, literally, out of breath, A pool has lane lines, sides and ends, so it is easy to gauge distance and speed. These are absent in open water, so it is very easy to go out too fast and go anaerobic without realizing it. The trick is to relax, and slow down.

    July 25, 2011 at 23:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Fifi

    Maybe it's a psychological hangup he has about being weighed down, but if your wetsuit feels like it's squeezing or constricting you, then you need a bigger size. A properly fitted wettie should feel like it's "embracing" you. The buoyancy of neoprene takes some getting used to, but I've swum in very thick wetties (New Zealand waters...freezing!) with no problem.

    July 26, 2011 at 01:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Tri-Doc

    Did 2 triathalons this summer after a few months of training – open water swims were both in lakes where you cannot see the bottom. My swimming training was ~3/4mi in pool and was never much of a struggle and was SHOCKED by how hard I found the two open water swims (1/2mi and 1/4mi). Wore a sleveless full wetsuit and also had that sensation of chest tightness you describe. Between getting kicked in the head and face a few times and people swimming over me causing near panic and having to constantly stop and look for buoys and realign myself, I was totally exhausted by swims that I thought were going to be relatively easy. I've actually been depressed by it and not sure where to go from here because I don't look forward to having to get in the water for another open water swim after those experiences. Swam harder and more often for the second shorter distance swim (1/4 mi) and while I was out of the water sooner, it really did not feel any better. Tried sooo hard to go slow and take it easy and relax and wait to get my second wind but it never came (normally comes after 4-6 laps in the pool) and wound up doing alot of sidestroke to rest but keep going.

    Any suggestions??? I am otherwise in great shape and exercise twice a day every day (lift an hour during lunch and aerobic after work i.e. swim, bike or run) and I'm feeling like maybe I'm just not cut out for this 🙁

    July 26, 2011 at 11:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • T

      You're not alone! My first experience was horrible. I had a panic attack and had to stop every few minutes. I was shocked at how exhausted I felt after the first few minutes and it took about 3 miles on the bike before I was fully recovered from the swim trauma. BUT it does get easier! Try to get some open water swim practices in, the pool is no comparison. I can swim 100s of yards in the pool and the first 100 in an open water swim can feel like too much. Also start slow, we have a tendency to rush into the water and start exerting too much energy too soon leaving us exhausted in the first few minutes. Start in the middle of the pack, watch your breathing, find a comfortable pace and the swim will be much easier.

      July 26, 2011 at 17:04 | Report abuse |
    • Terry

      Just finished my 2nd Alcatraz Triathlon – one of 10-12 sprint and Olympic distance triathlons I've completed in the last 6 years. I ran into the same experience you had – hyperventilating and anxiety at the start of this years race – it was the first time I had experienced it since the first tri I did 6 years ago. You did exactly what you need to do when presented with it on race day – press through it.

      However, one trick I've learned in training has helped keep it mostly at bay – once every couple of swim sessions, work yourself to near exhaustion and then rather than rest, work on recovering on the move (ROTM) – develop a pace that keeps you moving forward while still allowing you to recover a bit. We do this naturally on land, but it is scarier in the water. If you can find that pace, especially without resorting to side or back strokes, you'll be more confident and able to handle that momentary anxiety/hyperventilation that can come at the start of the race when your adrenalin throws your breathing and heart rate into levels you aren't expecting so early in the race.

      August 1, 2011 at 14:53 | Report abuse |
  15. rebel

    Wow – I'd never heard anyone express this, but this is exactly what happened the first time I tried scuba diving in the ocean. I'd practiced with scuba gear in a pool (no wetsuit). And I was swimming in the ocean regularly so I wasn't uncomfortable with that. But once I got the wetsuit on (and all the scuba gear) I got in the water and after swimming just a few strokes was completely hyperventilating. I felt so much chest constriction that I completely freaked out and had to get back on the boat. I thought I was just a wimp. Good to know that others have had similar reactions.

    July 26, 2011 at 18:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Nina

    THANKS everyone for all the great advice and stories!

    July 28, 2011 at 22:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. brickstrainingmomma

    A few things that have worked for me, as I have experienced exactly what you are describing: let water in from the top and wrists as someone has said. It works miracles for getting that pressure off your body. I do this when I get in to warm up several times, while waiting for the actual start (assuming you are in the water waiting) and sometimes even in the middle of a swim if I feel constricted – it has helped like I could never imagine. Also, be sure to get a warm up in before the start IN the water (assuming it is allowed and feasible). I swim easy for about 10 minutes, it raises the heartrate and helps you relax (sounds contradictory, but it is true). Warm up has really helped me. Finally, if I get too anxious and find my rhythm is all off because of it, I will transition to some breast stroke. I know a lot of people also do the float on the back thing, or backstroke, but I am just not comfortable there either. Breaststroke for me is a strong stroke for me, allows me to keep moving forward, allows me to breath easier (assuming waves are NOT coming straight on) and I can sight and get back on course (I find as panic or just chaos creeps in my sighting goes awry and I get off course). I have actually passed weaker swimmers doing freestyle while swimming breaststroke so it works for me, perhaps not everyone.

    Good luck, can't wait to hear how it all worked out. I will say I prefer to swim in a wetsuit no matter what the temp of the water – it provides bouyancy which allows for better rest and recover if you do get into a situation, and definitely impacts my swim time (I actually have faster swim times in open water as compared to my pool times – probaby from race/open water adrenaline and the benefits from the wetsuit!)


    August 3, 2011 at 12:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Nina Herself

    Well, I conquered the NYC Tri: 3 hours 57 minutes, 14 seconds! Very surprisingly and happily, the swim went well for me! The river did not seem dirty (at least it did not smell), and the current was, indeed, flowing as fast as we had heard it would. Some really big waves started coming in, but I just body-surfed over them, and that worked out. No breathing issues, and a VERY memorable 23 minutes and 56 seconds! 🙂 Why am I suddenly paying so much attention to minutes and seconds??? 😀

    August 10, 2011 at 21:15 | Report abuse | Reply
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  20. Gene Helfman

    Much good advice here, and it's always helpful to realize what seems to be a personal weakness is really a commonly experienced issue. I'm an accomplished distance swimmer with much open-water background and I've twice terminated ("chickened out") of a swim because of wetsuit anxiety. One tip that helps, especially in cold water (I swim in Puget Sound and we seldom see temps above the low 50's): if you can, bring along a gallon jug of hot but bearable tap water (keep it wrapped in your wetsuit for insulation prior to race time). Pour it down your back and front so it gets into your legs and arms (here we also use hoods, gloves, and booties so they get a warm sluice too). This reduces the shock of having very cold water enter your suit, something that can cause hyperventilation to begin with. By the time ambient cold water leaks into and equalizes with the warmer water in your suit, you've gotten over the cold water shock hump (sorry–there's nothing you can do about exposed skin such as your face). Divers do this all the time.

    July 8, 2012 at 00:11 | Report abuse | Reply
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