I see swimming as the first barrier of entry in triathlon. It is not really the physical aspect of it (most people can actually swim the distance breaststroke!) but more the mental fear of open water swimming.
In this article, my husband and I gathered our 15 steps to help you survive the swim portion of a triathlon:
1. CHECK THE CUT-OFF TIME BEFORE REGISTERING
Each race organizer will set a maximum amount of time triathletes can spend in the water. It is called cut-off time and it can be found in the athlete’s guide.
In most cases, the times are generous and are simply set, so the location can be released to the public or the following race can take place.
2. VISUALIZE THE COURSE
Most of the races will have the swim course available on their website. It is great to know the exact location, but quite useless until race day.
Once you arrive at the location and when the buoys are placed, the swim course makes way more sense. Make sure to check it carefully: how many buoys are there, do you turn clockwise or counterclockwise, which color should you follow (for races with multiple formats).
The buoys might seem big when you are on land, but you might have difficulties seeing them when you are swimming. A great tip I received was to look for a big tree or a house which is in the direction of the buoys. When you are in the water, it will be way easy to follow those.
3. WEAR A WETSUIT
When wetsuits are allowed, I definitely recommend using one. My husband and I rented ours for our first races so we could try different models, and later on invested in a new one.
The added buoyancy that they provide is fantastic, especially for beginners.
4. GO IN THE WATER DURING THE WARM-UP
When we bought our wetsuit, the shop owner recommended that we always let some water in the wetsuit before the race start. This water will warm up and keep our bodies warm.
Needless to say, we included that in our warm-up before each race!
5. START AT THE BACK OF THE FIELD
There are two types of triathlon start: a mass start where triathletes start at the same time and a rolling start where a couple of triathletes start at a given interval.
For mass start triathlons, a common mistake for beginners is to start in the first positions. If you are a great open water swimmer, you won’t have an issue, but you would also not be reading this article ;). For all other triathletes, you will experience what is called the “washing machine”. Dozens or even hundreds of swimmers will go over you and the first part of your triathlon will be a nightmare. If that happens to you, try to move as quickly as possible to the side of the field.
The best is to start the swim at the back of the field where the swimmers will be more of your level (you will see me there as well 🙂 ). You won’t start with the first, but your experience will be much more enjoyable.
For rolling starts, it is important that you estimate as best as you can your swim time during the registration process. If you overestimate your swim capabilities, you will also see a lot of triathletes taking you over. It will however not be as bad as the washing machines in the mass start triathlons.
6. DON’T START TOO FAST
It takes quite some time in the swim that triathletes around you are the ones who swim at the same pace as you. Once that happens, you will be able to settle in your rhythm and enjoy more the swim portion.
Pretty much everyone starts too fast and fades after a couple of hundreds of meters. The best option is to start at the back of the field, focus on your breathing, and try to find your own rhythm.
7. STAY RELAXED NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS
Probably the most important tip of this list as it can happen anytime during the swim portion and always comes as a surprise.
You can’t avoid receiving kicks in your legs or having someone inadvertently touch your goggles. The question is not if it will happen to you, but when! And when it does happen, remember to stay calm. Switch to a slower breaststroke cadence until your breath and your heart rate are back to a more normal level 🙂
8. AVOID KICKING TOO MUCH WITH YOUR LEGS
Knowing you will need mostly your legs for the cycling and running portion of the triathlon, it is a good idea to save your legs as much as you can in the swim. With the added buoyancy of a wetsuit, you will soon realize that you are swimming straighter than usual.
If you plan to swim breaststroke, saving your legs is not really an option with that stroke. Instead, I would try to swim freestyle for a couple of strokes and then switch to breaststroke.
9. REST WHEN NEEDED
As written in a previous article, triathletes can rest during a triathlon. They can stand on the ground, hold on to a buoy, or a stationary kayak as long as they don’t make any forward progress.
If you feel tired, take advantage of this option instead of going out of the race immediately. If you don’t ask for assistance and finish the swim within the cut-off time, you won’t be disqualified.
10. DON’T HESITATE TO SWITCH BETWEEN DIFFERENT STROKES
The fastest swimmers in a triathlon are all swimming freestyle, it is simply the most efficient swimming stroke. As beginner triathletes, it might be the opposite. I used to be faster swimming breaststroke than my husband swimming freestyle 😀
As I became more confident in swimming freestyle, I started to switch between the two strokes. My goal is to swim more and more freestyle. You would be surprised how many persons are doing the same.
11. SIGHT REGULARLY
In open water, there is obviously no black line that you can follow to guide you. It is relatively easy to swim straight while swimming breaststroke. However, it becomes much more challenging while swimming freestyle. There are a lot of drills which you can practice in a pool. The goal is to sight every couple of strokes without sinking your legs too much. If you realize you are way off the course, simply switch to breaststroke, go back in the right direction, and switch again.
12. USE DRAFTING TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
Swimming next to the hips or legs of the swimmer in front of you will help you save energy. This drafting advantage is absolutely allowed, but it is something that requires some practice in training.
13. FOCUS ONLY ON THE COMING BUOY
When you analyzed the course, you saw how many buoys there will be. When you are in the water, simply focus on the coming one, don’t get too distracted with the next ones.
14. THE END OF THE SWIM WILL COME FASTER THAN YOU THINK
Once you reach the last buoy, you should start seeing the swim finish. At first, you will get a boost of motivation but after sighting a couple of times, you might think you are not moving forward. No worry, it happens to me all the time! The end will come faster than you think.
15. REMEMBER TO SMILE ONCE YOU GET OUT OF THE WATER
Once you are ready to touch the ground with your feet, remember to smile. It doesn’t matter how your swim experience was, there will be plenty of photographers who will take pictures of you 😀