Your first triathlon swim

There is a saying in triathlon that “whilst you can’t win the race in the swim, you can definitely lose it”! And there is a lot of truth in this.

Psychologically speaking it’s the most stressful part of the race. You have been building up to the race in your head for weeks, and, now, starting at the start line with several hundred other people the adrenaline is coursing through your veins and making you nervous then you are expected to jump in to a cold and unfamiliar and possibly dark environment and stick your head under the cold water! Then the starting gun goes and at the previously calm water turns into a tempestuous mass of flailing arms and legs and you are off!

So proper preparation is essential. Knowing what to expect on race day and preparing for the different phases of the triathlon swim will improve your mental state, helping you remain calm and focussed before the event.

The swim can be split into 5 key areas:

Preparation

Before the start of your first triathlon, you will feel nervous and anxious, but if you take your time to relax, plan what needs to be done, and give you ample time to prepare, you can take away a lot of the uncertainty, and get your race off to the best start. It’s worth practising putting your triathlon wetsuit on a few times too!

Prior to the triathlon, you need to focus on two things:

Dressing for the race

Putting on the wetsuit on is obviously the biggest part of the pre-swim ritual, but don’t forget you need to have something underneath, ready for the bike and run legs, so make sure you are in your trisuit or swimming costume and it’s comfortable and in working order, before you think about your wet suit.

This also means getting your race number sorted out, either on a race belt or pinned to your trisuit if you’ve gone that route. When you register you will get your race numbers, and this might include stickers for your bike and helmet as well as your official race number. If there are no instructions concerning how and where these should be placed, ask a marshal.

It’s not mandatory to use a racebelt, or to wear it under your wetsuit ( you can put it on before the bike) but it does make life easier and is one less thing you need to think about when you get out of the water.

Leave your goggles and race hat where you can reach them before you put your wetsuit on, as they are not designed to be dry and can be a tight and little inflexible.

A word on timing. This a personal thing and will vary depending on how long you need to wait, how warm it is, whether you need a friend to help with the zip etc, so there are no hard and fast rules on when to put your wetsuit on or finish doing it up. Don’t forget that you won’t be able o go to the loo easily once it’s on though.

Before you put your triathlon wetsuit on, it’s important to put bodyglide or your prefered lubricant on where it’s needed. If you are in a long race and use Chamois cream for your cycle, you need to put this on as well. The lube helps in three ways

  1. It helps you get the suit on in the first place, so you need to know which parts stick and lubricate accordingly. The shins, ankles and lower arms are the main culprits, and getting the wetsuit over these ensures that you have enough material to pull the wetsuit up into y crotch, which maximises the material available for the torso, and to avoid tension in the shoulders. This last one is critical, you don’t want the wet suit to feel like it’s pulling your arms down, it’ll add significant resistance to your arm extension and tire you out fast in the swim.
  2. It avoids chafing during the swim. Lubrication will help with your swim stroke but mostly the layer of water between the suit and skin does this, but the main issue, especially with a sea swim is chafing at the neck, which can be exceptionally painful. A thick lubricant where the neck and wetsuit meet is the most important thing here, So either lanolin based, or, dare I say it, Vaseline, will mean the difference between a comfortable swim and a painful neck.
  3. Getting out. At the end of the swim you will pull the wetsuit off inside out, so it can sometimes catch either on your hands or feet, so to avoid this, put a little on the outside of the wetsuit at the end of the arms and legs.

Once you are ready, with Bodyglide where you need it, your trisuit and race belt in place, you are ready to put your triathlon wetsuit on. The key to this is to pull up from the bottom and grip the inside not the outside, so the first step is to pull it all of the way down so that you can grab the inside of the hin. This is not easy to explain, but most wetsuit manufacturers will have videos, like the following from Orca ( a popular provider of triathlon wetsuits) and Swim smooth.

Warm up and prerace

Before the race, there will be a briefing, and you will then walk over to the swim start. As the swim exit will be at transition, the swim Start will usually be some distance away, so be prepared for a walk! Remember to take your race hat and goggles with you, it’s likely that transition will now be closed and you cannot get back in if you forget anything. It’s also important that you don’t take anything with you that you will need later in the race and can’t take on the swim.

Some people take flip flops or disposable shoes with them for the walk and will collect them later, just make sure you don’t take anything you cannot afford to lose.

At this point, you’ll be waiting around, so if you can do a warm up or stretches then do so, or just take a few deep breaths and relax! This is supposed to be fun!

If the start is in waves, make sure you know which one you are in and listen out for the marshals to call your wave. Then it’s off to the start and your first race! Good luck!

The start

The type of start will depend on the type of water you are swimming in and the organiser’s preference but there are three main types for open water swims; running starts, water starts and rolling starts.

There are several styles of triathlon swim starts, from simple run or dive in start to the infamous 5m jump off a ferry at the start of the Norseman race. Knowing what to expect and how to handle it will help you start the race in the most relaxed way possible. It’ll also help you plan your warm up if you are not going to get access to the water early.

Mostly the type of start is dictated by the water and the organisers. If a wide beach is available, a running start is most likely, whereas a deep lake with a wide boardwalk might lead to a mass diving start. In any event, if you are not comfortable with the swim, keep an eye on where the most competitive swimmers are, and position yourself away from them, you don’t want to get sucked into their battles!

Waves

Larger races tend to be split into groups based on either pace or age group, and the race briefing will outline any waves in your race. Generally, a waved race will use different swim caps for different waves, so make sure that you are in the right wave and wearing the right hat, if appropriate.

Keeping to the right wave means you’ll be with people of roughly similar levels of performance and ability which will make drafting easier if that’s the way you plan to race, and mean fewer people will be streaming past you, which can be demoralising if it’s your first race.

Water safety

Safety is of paramount importance to race organisers, especially on the swim and bike, and you will probably be counted in and out of the water. For a running start, this may mean you will be counted into a holding pen in advance of the start, and held until the organisers are ready to start.

Just a word of caution. NEVER dive into water you don’t know. If in doubt get in feet first. Also be wary of steps, ramps and jetties as these will be slippery, so be careful walking down to the water’s edge.

Water starts.

The best start for the beginner is a water start as this gives you the chance to get your self wet and used to the water before the race begins. Get some water into your wetsuit and get your face wet as soon as you can. The sooner you get your face wet the faster you’ll be able to relax into your stroke, and similarly, getting water into your suit will help your wetsuit move more freely and build an insulating water layer that will keep you warmer.

If you can, stretch your wetsuit up by pulling up at the neck as this will give your shoulder and chest a bit more space which will also help your stroke.

You’ll be led into the water and have a few minutes to get ready before the start, so make sure you’re positioned where you want to be and pointing in the right direction before the starter’s gun. Also, use this time to look for sighting landmarks and see where turning buoys and markers are positioned.

If you’re in a river, there are two other things to be aware of. Firstly, there is a bottom which means weeds and rocks which are likely to be closer to the surface at the banks than in the centre. Secondly, the river will be faster in the middle than at the edges. This will help you on the downstream but slow you down on the upstream, and you may want to position yourself accordingly.

Look at some of the faster waves, and see where they swim if you are looking for some pointers! Don’t be scared if you see people struggling on the swim, they may be out of position or not strong swimmers or have done no training, so don’t let them make you doubt your abilities!

Beach triathlon swim start

If the beach is raked and sandy, chances are you’ll have a running start off the beach rather than a water start. In this case, you’ll start on the beach and run into the surf until you reach a depth where it’s more efficient to swim than to run, and you can dive in and get going. If this is the case, try and get to the water before you lined up for your start, and get water in your wetsuit and on your face at the very least.  Don’t forget that it can bunch up as people hit the water as they will be slower than they were on the beach.

When you transition from running to swimming is up to you, but the sooner you can swim the better, as you are just putting off the inevitable! Chance are the early strokes will not be full strokes and you will see people doing dolphin kicks or breaststroke at the start of the water is shallow.

Diving triathlon swim start

Where there is a jetty and the water is deep, a diving start is an option. In this case, people will be lined up along the side of the water, and dive in once the starter says go! If this is your kind of start, give yourself a bit of space if you can and dive shallow, you don’t need to go deep, it’s more efficient to get into your stroke early.

If you are not comfortable diving in, then jump and start swimming once you are in the water. It’s not as quick but you’ll be more relaxed if this is your first triathlon start. Just be careful walking to the start, chances are the jetty will be wet and slippery, and you don’t want to end the swim before it starts!

Rolling triathlon swim start

Where there are large numbers and a slipway to enter the water, then a rolling start might be used. In this case, essentially there is no mass start, and people enter the water when they are ready to go, and their times are unique. Competitors will line up and walk down the jetty, and once they pass a certain point, their race has started.

For beginners, this can be a good and bad way to start. It’s good because there is no mass start so competitors are spread out much more than they would be with a mass start. However, this means drafting is more difficult, simply because there are no big groups, and it’s less likely that you will have the chance to warm up before the start.

Regardless of the start format, remember to position yourself where you feel comfortable, take a note of your sighting landmarks and get your face wet and used to the cold water as soon as you can, as this will help you get comfortable much sooner.

The swim

Pacing, sighting and awareness of the crowd are key to getting safely to the end of the swim, and having practised in the same type of water will make you much more comfortable throughout the swim.

Swimming a triathlon’s not like practising in a pool, You’ve got other people in close proximity, no lines to follow and turns to deal with. So there are few triathlon swim tips that can help you minimise your swim time and increase your enjoyment.

Safety

Firstly, and most importantly, if you are in difficulty turn on your back and stick your arm up! The water will be filled with marshals in Kayaks and boats who are only interested in keeping you safe, and there is nothing wrong with holding on to a kayak for a bit of a rest! This won’t eliminate you, just give you the chance to recover before you start out again.

If you really cannot finish, the marshals will take you back in, but if you can continue, do so.

Pacing

The anxiety of the pre-race wait, the excitement of the start and the panic from getting your head underwater give you loads of adrenaline and you’ll probably find yourself shooting off at the stat of the triathlon, but remember, it’s a long race and you need to save some energy for later! If you had the chance to warm up then you should be more comfortable in the water and used to getting your head under, but if not, then slow your pace down and get used to the water before you put the hammer down.

Getting your face under is key. You will be more comfortable and streamlined, making you faster and use less energy than you will if your face is out of the water. So one of the most important triathlon swim tips is to take the time to get your face in the water at the start.

Drafting

Swimming is all about hydrodynamics, and the more streamlined you can make yourself the better. This includes making the most of the turbulence from others to get ahead. Like with a bike, there is a wake of lower pressure water behind and slightly to the side of a swimmer which is easier to swim in, so competitive swimmers will seek to get on the toes or hips of other competitors and make the most of the tow. Most triathlon swim tips pages will have this as their main tip, but it takes practice and confidence, so if you are not a good swimmer, it’s probably best avoided, but if you are confident, this is easily the fastest way to swim.

Other people

The swim can be chaotic, with several hundred arms and legs thrashing about and seeking any space they can find. The drafting technique will get you to the end faster, at the expense of a couple of whacks here and there! If this is not for you, that’s totally fine! Starting towards the back can keep you out of the danger zone until you become more confident, but you will be slower.

Buoys and turns

In most races, there will be a couple of turns which you must go around the right way. Whilst these are great for sighting, they are a bit of a bottleneck as everyone wants to take the shortest route. there is a chance of collision at this point, so just stay wide if you are uncomfortable,

Sighting

By far the biggest factor in the speed of your swim is the distance you travel! In a pool you have nice clear water and a convenient line at the bottom to follow, but not in open water! The lack of visibility coupled with a big open area and a face-down position means that going off course is inevitable and it’s not unusual for people to swim 25% further during a race, taking you 25% longer and using 25% more energy.

Sighting involves two things. Firstly, you need to have specific landmarks to follow, and preferably two on each stretch so you can line the two up. If there are turns in the face you’ll need landmarks for both. turning buoys are obviously good for this as long as they are colourful and large enough to be seen from a distance.

Secondly, you need technique. you’ve probably spent the last couple of months training your self to keep your head in the water and only look to the side when breathing, but you also need to look ahead from time to time! The key is to lift your head either after or before you take your breath every few strokes to see where you are going. This will disrupt your stroke so you need to find the right balance.

Unless you do a lot of open water swimming, a good way to practice is to put a water bottle at the end of the lane when you are swimming and try to sight it as you swim towards it.

Mastering your first triathlon swim exit

Well done, you’ve finished your first triathlon swim! Now all you need to do is get out and you need to be aware of the effect that swimming will have on your legs when you get out and have the presence of mind to find your bike.

standing up after 30 mins lying down makes the blood rush to your legs and away from your brain which can make the triathlon swim exit tricky if you are not prepared.

If you are in a sea swim, with a good sloping beach, you’ll exit along the seashore, but if it’s a lake or river, chances are, the organisers will either have created a ramp or pontoon to help you get out, manned by helpful marshals to get you over the initial transition safely.

The triathlon swim exit has three key phases:

Preparation

As you approach the end of the race you need to make sure that you are lined up with the exit, so continuing to sight for a specific point on the shore is a good idea, and make sure that you are aware of other competitors as it can get a little congested at the exit. If it’s a beach exit, be aware that the water is getting shallower so rock or increased amounts of weed may make a full stroke difficult.

It is also worth changing your kick for the last 50m or so, as a quicker, lighter kick will help you with the next phase.

Water exit

When you exit the water you’ll are likely to be a little dizzy and have wobbly legs, so you need to be careful, and if marshalls offer you help, take it! This is a function of the transition from the horizontal to vertical coupled with the reliance on upper body muscles for the last 15-30 mins depending on the length of the swim.

Your body prioritises blood flow to the muscles that need them most, which for the swim are the chest, arms, and back, rather than the legs, which are fluttering away lightly at the back. When you leave the water, the priorities change and blood rushes down to the legs, where the sudden increase in blood flow makes them feel wobbly and you become unsteady.

At the same time, you become lightheaded as blood to your brain succumbs to the forces of gravity as you stand up.

This is going to make you feel temporarily weak as you rely on legs that have pretty much been asleep and are now waking up and being asked to work a bit harder, so care must be taken as you stand and walk up the ramp.

Similar to the later Bike to Run “brick” training, it’s worth doing a little bit of training to acclimatise your self to this, perhaps by doing a talking lap of the pool at the end of a hard set, rather than just cooling down in the water.

Heading to transition

The triathlon swim exit will be near to transition, but you’ll still need to either run or walk to get to your bike.

Be careful here, don’t forget you are likely to be a little uncertain on your legs and the ground may be slippery.

Assuming you are feeling OK, this is a good time to start preparing to move your wetsuit, and you should be able to pull it down all the way to your waste before you get to your bike. So, pull down the zip, and remove your arms.

A good trick to keep your stuff together is to remove one arm, and then take off your swimming hat and goggles, keeping them in the arm still in the wetsuit. you’ll then find that, as you pull the wetsuit off this arm, you’ll be able to leave the hat and goggle in the wetsuit.

Removing your wetsuit

Removing your wetsuit when you are tired, excited, wet and cold can be daunting, but with a bit of practice, you can make it easy.

Assuming you’ve followed the tips on the swim exit, you should have the zip down and the wetsuit around your waist with your hat and goggles safely tucked in your sleeve before you get to your rack.

When you get to your rack, you can finish removing your wetsuit, and it’s best to turn it inside out as you do so, it’s easier and make sure you don’t rip the neoprene, so pull down from the top, rather than trying to pull the wetsuit off by the ankles.

You’ll find that spraying a little lubricant on the outside of the suit ankles will help you here, as the feet will just slip out.

Just be careful here as you can unbalance easily and fall over when you are removing your wetsuit, so feel free to lean on your bike rack ( not your bike!) and as you have pulled the wetsuit inside out, it’s Ok to stand on it to make it easier to pull your legs out.

Place your wetsuit tidily near your bike ( remember there are other competitors), then prepare yourself for your bike leg. At this stage, you may want to make sure your number is on straight which is much easier if you are using a race belt. 

One last tip, just because you have been exercising in water, doesn’t mean you don’t sweat, so make sure that you have a drink here. This is especially true after a sea swim as the salt can dry out your mouth and lead to dehydration.