Facing Fears (in triathlon, running and life).

by Amy  - March 8, 2019

Today – I want to talk about fear.

Fear is a loaded word but you could say anxiety, apprehension, nervousness, being unsure or just plain being scared.

When I think of my personal journey from a runner to a marathoner and then later from runner to triathlete and finally from triathlete to Ironman all of those transformations – overcoming fears comes up over and over again.

Each change … each journey … each transformation was basically a series of events where I faced and overcome a fear or some fears.

Maybe we should talk a little more often and a little more out in the open about fears, dealing with fears and all that kind of stuff.

I was nervous to sign up for my first group training for a marathon. I was nervous at the start of my first half marathon and marathon. I was stupidly not nervous to sign up for my first triathlon but I was terrified immediately after starting my first triathlon swim. I was really scared to clip into my first road bike. I was simply terrified at the start of my first cycling group ride. Going to my first masters swim class I didn’t sleep the night before. I was a nervous wreck basically the entire 6 months of training for my first Ironman.

I did a bit of research on fear for this article and here’s a link to a physchologist who explains how we have only 5 fears (that can be broken into like a zillion different sub types).

Fear is a basic human response

Teeny tiny baby humans have a fear response. If you make a loud unfamiliar noise … a baby will startle and cry. A lot of books and scientists think that our response to fear is a very basic thing probably to help keep us safe and alive. There are several books written about this directly with dealing with sports and even business. They call the part of our brain that deals with fear the lizard brain or the monkey brain. I am not a scientist … I just read books.

Triathlon Fears

Fear is perhaps one of the strongest motivators for humans. I learned this weird fact back when I was in product marketing. We were encouraged to use fear as a motivator to get potential clients to respond to ads. My boss repeatedly told us, “the two strongest human motivators are fear and greed.” Which is why when you look at almost all advertising they are trying to motivate us to buy stuff by triggering our fear response. Act now or you’ll miss out… this offer is only good for x days, you could lose your chance if you don’t buy our product.

Figuring out how to deal with fear in a modern world is like its own cottage business. There are books and coaches and everything.

Fear and triathlon

I was speaking to a friend about dealing with fear when it comes to cycling on roads with cars. That’s a tough situation. Not even 24 hours later I was asked about fear in swimming in races. Also a tough situation that I’ve dealt with myself. That’s when I thought to myself hmmm… I should write about this.

I’ve heard people describe me as brave. I don’t see myself as brave. But it’s true that I have taught myself some ways of dealing with fears which I’ll share with you.

I think that everybody experiences fears a little differently and each person will handle them a little differently too. So what and how I do it is just my personal experience. I have definitely observed that facing fears in triathlon has showed up in my life as confidence to try other things like rock climbing and podcasting and writing crazy blog posts and sharing them with the world.

I’m always a little hesitant to write about stuff like this because people may say … who are you? or… What do you know? Aha … see it’s a fear and I’m facing it. HA!

I am a runner and triathlete who has faced some fears. I am a running and triathlon coach sharing what works for me in the hope that it might help you if you are sitting at your computer or on your phone thinking ….ugh I really want to do an Ironman this but I keep freaking out in the swim.

Fear not phobia

Just to be clear there is fear and then there is being really really afraid which could be a phobia. I’m not talking about phobia. I am not a doctor I am not giving advice. I’m not a therapist. I am just sharing what I have done and the tips I have accumulated that work for me.

Here’s a link to an article from WebMD about the difference between run of the mill fear and a phobia.

If you have a phobia … you would want actual help from a therapist who helps with that.

My earliest triathlon fears

In my early triathlon days I had (at least) 4 primary fears. Fear of the swim (the start, the kicking, the feeling of not being able to catch my breath, the chance of drowning, fish in the water, seaweed, jellyfish … this is getting to be a long list), Fear of failure (not finishing or being dead last), Fear of Embarrassment (doing something wrong, looking silly, being too slow) and sort of an overall fear with cycling but specifically, clipping in, falling over going fast, turning, going down hills falling and later the fear of being hit by a car.

Triathlon Fears

To recap I wanted to do a swim, bike, run race but I was basically afraid of swimming, biking and being last. Sooooo….the whole thing. Lol. No problem. HA!

For my first race I didn’t know enough to be afraid of anything other than finishing. I worried a lot before the race about being embarrassed for doing something “wrong.”

As it turned out the only part of that race that I even got to do was the swim and that went terribly. I finished it on my back but it was horrible. Which resulted in me being pretty scared of the swim in all of my first 2 years of racing.

Then when I had been racing just a couple of years a local triathlete was hit by a car (drunk driver) and killed. His name was Aaron and while I didn’t know him personally he was a beloved part of my local triathlon community and his tragic death got enormous exposure. That made me face a new fear that I hadn’t had before that I might do nothing wrong and just be smashed by a car.

That was really tough for me to deal with and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. I actually modified my cycling behavior based on that event for years. I didn’t fully stop riding. I bought an indoor trainer and I avoided that particular road for 2 years.

Why even bother facing fears?

This is a legitimate question because we don’t actually have to face our fears. We can – if we want – just avoid the thing that is triggering our fear response.

If you are afraid of heights. Stay on the ground. If you are afraid of swimming in the ocean just do running races. If you are afraid of busy roads ride inside or on trails.

Unless what is triggering our fear response is something we want to do.

We don’t have to do a triathlon or an Ironman. We can just choose not to do it.

If I want to do a triathlon but I’m afraid to swim I have to either give up my desire to do triathlon or deal with my fear.

But how?

Leaning into small fears

I’ve have heard some people say that fear can be an indication that something is important to you.

An example of this is test anxiety. You are only nervous about taking a test if the result is important to you.

I’m not sure if that relates to triathlon. But maybe part of the call of Ironman for me was that I was nervous to try it. Maybe.

Triathlon Fears

I don’t think you can 100% avoid fear or being afraid

I think everybody is afraid sometimes. It’s a very natural response. Primal. It’s maybe responsible for keeping us safe. I have read that there are people who’s fear response doesn’t work (their amygdalae are damaged or something like that) and it’s actually dangerous for them to not have a fear response.

You have probably heard of the flight or fight response. You can work to train yourself to feel afraid or to feel fear and still move forward.

The easiest example of this is military, law enforcement and fire rescue training. Stuff like that. One thing that people who hold these jobs train to do is to keep going when their fear response kicks in. They practice being faces with a specific set of circumstances and what actions to take in that scenario.

Firemen practice going into a building that is on fire. Police practice facing off with a scenario where a person has a weapon. I think I thought that firemen and policemen just weren’t afraid in those situations. That might not be quite right.

Years ago I was listening to a podcast with a former military guy…I don’t remember the exact details. He had retired and now did fitness or business coaching. Which would be why I was listening. I will never forget when he spoke about this and explained that it wasn’t that he wasn’t afraid. He said he was frequently afraid. But that fear was familiar to him. He knew how to keep working even while he was afraid. He saw the fear as a step in the process. The strategy was to know how to keep going and making good decisions even while you feel afraid.

That’s an extreme example but if you look at your life you probably have thousands of small examples where you have trained yourself to manage at least a little bit of fear and keep going.


Think about when you cook. Pretty much all of us boil water in pots and heat up things on pans in ovens. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t burned themselves at one point or another in the kitchen. Most of us don’t completely stop cooking forever because of that. We learn to acknowledge that fear, take steps to manage it and keep going.

When I was a kid my dad’s apartment had a broiler in the bottom of the oven. I don’t know why but we had to light the broiler with a match. Step one turn on the gas. Step two strike the match and reach into the broiler and light it. Sometimes if it took a few tries to light the match, a little bit of gas would build up in the broiler and it would do a little WHOOSH and you’d pull your hand back real quick to not get burned.

Once my timing was too slow and I singed all the hair on one arm and even the tips of my eyebrows. I still remember that. After that I did not want to light the broiler anymore but my dad did not allow me to never do it again. He simply said to me that I had to face it. This is perhaps not a stellar parenting moment but whatever. I don’t actually remember all the details of how we did that. I still get a little jolt of fear when I light a grill or something but I do still go ahead and do it. I use a very long lighter now.

Fear doesn’t feel good

That’s sort of obvious, right. It feels icky to be afraid or nervous. Mostly.

The only actual experience I have with dealing with fears is my own and then some of helping my kids, friends and coaching clients through their fears. I’m not a fear expert or a psychologist or anything like that.

When I am afraid my stomach clenches, I get a weird taste in my mouth, my heart races and I tremble. Sometimes I cry if I’m in a spot where I feel like I have no control. I don’t like that feeling of being afraid at all.

Okay so what do you do when you have a fear and you don’t want to have that fear anymore?

I can only tell you what I do what I have done to get me through my fears in triathlon.

Fear vs. Thrill

Some folks love being startled or scared. They intentionally seek out the adrenaline rush that comes with going through a scary situation.

Getting over fear can be exhilarating.

Examples include: haunted houses, surprise parties, roller coasters, sky diving. There’s probably more. Here’s a link to an article about that in The Atlantic.

Triathlon Fears - Curvy Mountain Road

Cycling definitely has a thrill to it. Going fast down a hill can be thrilling. I think also crossing finish lines is a related feeling. That’s one reason maybe so many of us repeat long races. That’s my opinion.

Name it, say it out loud, write it down.  

When I know that I’m afraid I literally ask myself what am I afraid of and I say it out loud, I write it down and if I can I’ll share it with somebody I trust.

There is something crazy empowering that happens when you say it out loud. What is inside my head and seems like a huge thing sometimes when I say it out loud seems small and manageable.

For example, I’m not a huge fan of heights. Running over our one bridge here in Miami I had this completely unreasonable fear that I would trip on one of the drainage holes and fall off the bridge and into the water way down below. Even more unreasonable I was actually fearful that I could fall through one of the small drainage holes. These are small holes. It’s not actually possible but I would get a pinch of anxiety as I got near them and I would avoid them.

Until I said it out loud and then it kind of went away. I was in a group dodging these silly holes and I was with somebody who said … why do you do that. That meant dodging the holes and making the whole group shuffle around. I just said – I have this weird fear that I’ll fall through the hole. Then I laughed because when I said it out loud it didn’t make sense. Once I said it outloud I could reason it out that it wasn’t possible for me to fit through those little holes and if I tripped I would be stopped by the wall.

With swimming in races I was afraid of 2 things. First, drowning. Obviously that is undesirable. Second, after that first race I developed a fear of panicking in the water. Panic in the water is really unpleasant. Fear of fear is really unpleasant.

Naming these fears didn’t make them go away. But it did get me started making a plan and taking action. I very aggressively took swim lessons and forced myself to do a lot of open water swimming until I was comfortable in the water during race starts.

Experience and practice helps me a lot with fears.

What is most likely?

I get anxious when I’m doing something for the first time. First day of a new job, first day at a new gym, first swim practice. You get the idea.

Usually I can push myself through this with two simple questions.

What’s the worst that can happen? And then … how likely is that?

For me I was really nervous starting masters swimming. Super super nervous. So very nervous. I was sitting in the car at 5 am in a dark parking lot where I knew nobody staring at the stairs to the pool deck trying to work up my courage to just walk in.

I asked myself what was the worst that could happen. Well, I could be embarrassed and they might say I was a terrible swimmer and they could ask me to not come back. That’s not too bad actually first of all. I already knew I wasn’t a good swimmer. That’s why I was there. And I didn’t have a place to swim already so if they asked me not to come back I would be where I already was. Then I asked how likely is that to happen. I wasn’t sure but not very was my guess. So I took a deep breath walked up the stairs tried it and the actual situation was fine.

Is it true? Is it really? How do I know?

Fear feels unpleasant.

Sometimes it’s just in our head and we’re actually okay. Being able to figure it out is really helpful. Dealing with mid swim panic is something that I have dealt with. I have also used this technique to decide whether to continue in long races.

Once I was swimming in a race – short swim maybe 400 yards. My brother was in a wave behind me. I panicked in the water and was either doing breast stroke or even on my back when he popped his head up and said, “what are you doing?” I don’t remember what I said. But he said, “you can swim. The swim out is right over there just swim there.” I looked and I saw that he was right. It was close. Also that simple statement of “you can swim.” reminded me that I can swim. So, I did. I just put my head down and swam. That was the beginning of the end of my personal swim panic.

I share this with people all the time. If I feel panicky in the water this is what I do. Fist I asses. I ask myself am I actually in an unsafe situation? So far the answer has always been that I’m safe. I’m swimming in a triathlon. I’m close to shore, there are lifeguards nearby. I’m either swimming, floating or treading water with my head above water.

Then I take a second and find 5 things that I can actually observe right now. I was taught this as a grounding technique. The idea is to stop the worry cycle in your mind and bring you back to the present moment by focusing on things happening right now and right here.

Then I state (to myself) what I want to do. I want to finish this swim. And I remind myself that I have the skills to do that. “I can swim.” I know that’s true because I have swum a lot.

‘I can swim’ is my swimming phrase. It matches the rhythm of my kick and I’ve finished tons of swims just repeating that over and over. I can swim, I can swim, I can swim. Not too fancy. But true.

I wrote these actual steps out in a printable to help you with this technique that I made if you think it will help.

Find somebody to lead you

This is my number one tip. This is one reason that coaching or mentorship can be really helpful.

If you have a fear of something and you can find somebody who is an expert at what you want to do or even just somebody who has done it and loves it. It helps a lot.

When I was dealing with my swim anxiety I made a point to swim with my tri club a lot. As often as I could. Once a week. Each time I was super nervous. The practice was helping for sure. I was getting used to the feeling of being nervous in the water.

Then I started swimming with a person who LOVED swimming in the ocean. I wrote about this years ago here.

We would swim and when we stopped she would be smiling and say, “did you see the fish over there? Weren’t they beautiful?” I didn’t see them because I was keeping my eyes closed … thank you very much. I swam with her weekly for months. Her love and her passion and her joy shifted how I looked at what I was doing.

Fear Triathlon Swimming

She wasn’t a coach. She was a friend. I had a coach at the same time who pushed me to ride in conditions I was fearful of. He would ride with me in wind and rain. He had me repeat turns where I was nervous. Gave me drills to improve on things that scared me. Forced me to go down hills over and over again.

There is a part 2 of this story. I was also swimming with a coach. I told my coach that in races I would start and then very quickly be out of breath and begin to panic. Just struggle through the rest of the swim.

Two things happened there. Pretty much every swimmer on deck shared that they had that happen to them. So I felt much better about myself immediately. And then my coach designed things in the workout to help me practice that specific situation and feeling. I learned to replicate it and recover and keep swimming.

There you have it. That’s how I have so far dealt with my personal fears in triathlon. New fears pop up all the time. In Louisville in October I learned that I need more practice going up and down technical hills in cold and rain. I just keep plugging along. I’m not perfect.

Road Cycling and Fear

If a person is cycling and they are hit by a car it does not usually work out for the cyclist. I know many adults who have given up cycling because of this fear.

Speedy Cycling - Triathlon Fear

I don’t judge that. Not at all. I may make that decision for myself at some point. Risk vs. Reward is a personal decision that each of us make. There is no wrong decision. Nobody actually needs to ride a road bike if they don’t want to.

For me I decided to keep cycling. I try to make the safest decisions that I can. For me that includes riding indoors during the work week. I wear a helmet, I don’t wear headphones, I cycle with people I know. I choose well traveled routes and tell myself that matters, I wear bright clothing and lights. I understand that there is always a risk of somebody else in a car or on another bike causing me to have an accident. I can’t control that risk. I simply try not to focus on it. Instead I focus on the fact that I enjoy it. Which is true for me right now.

I remind myself that hundreds of thousands of people ride bikes in the US daily and they are fine. I only hear about the tragedies. That’s just the way news works. I run my questions, what’s the worst that can happen and how likely is it?

Then I play the future game. Am I going to be okay with my decision that I didn’t do this in the future?

With skydiving the answer is yes. I do not think I am ever going to look back care that I didn’t skydive. But for this moment cycling is a yes for me and that’s how I make it work.

Let’s hear it!

Are you letting your fears keep you from doing what you want? What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Would you appreciate some help?

Two … okay three …action steps for you

You can download a grounding technique (I call it the Panic Buster because it stops panic in it’s tracks) which I use in swimming and I’ve used it in big races where I found myself unsure of where to go on. Simply fill out the from here. It’s part of my resource library. If you are already on my email list you know how to get in there and if not simply fill out the form here.

If you have a triathlon fear that you’d be interested in talking about. I’m happy to walk you through it. You can reach out to me via email or I’ve set up a time once a day for a consulting call that you can schedule. Just follow the instructions below. Like I said, I’m not a therapist but I am happy to answer questions – in fact, I love that.

If you have a friend who is struggling with something you can share this with them. Sharing these posts helps me reach new people which is a great thing.

Save this for later — pin it to your favorite Pinterest board.

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Amy Stone (she/her/hers) is a life coach who helps adults in blended families. She is a mom, step-mom and a step-grandma. Other random fun facts include that She is a 7-time Ironman triathlon finisher and many many marathons and shorter races. She created amysaysso.com.

  • Oh my gosh! I wrote a post called “Facing my Fears” which I published today. Funny how that happens!

    Off the road, I”m a nurse practitioner and I use grounding techniques a lot with my anxious teenage patients. They work really well. I need to try them on myself!

    • That’s so wild. Fear must be a theme right now. That’s interesting that you use it with Teens. I don’t really remember the first time it was taught to me. But I do find it super helpful.

  • Good article. My wife is a 70.2 competitor, but the whole atmosphere at the races is super intimidating to me. Before I met her, I didn’t even know people other than experts do anything like that kind of competition. Anyway, I’m thinking about trying at least a sprint distance race at some point. My first fear is actually just entering. I’ve never competed in any kind of athletic competition in my life – never even knew anyone before my wife that had – and the idea of just trying is scary as hell, since I’ve never challenged myself to do anything athletic in my entire life. The second thing is the swim. I’m just now starting to learn how to swim in a pool, but the idea of being in open water WITH OTHER SWIMMERS and not being able to see the bottom is terrifying. Ugh. Anyway, great article. It’s good to know that some of the really fit people (like my wife) that seem like super hero immortals also have fears, even if it doesn’t show.

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