And as you walk down to the start there is always this excited tension that grips everything. You might be having a conversation that only you hear in your head. “Will I do well today? Can I handle the jostling in the water? What did I get myself into?”
It’s the nervous space between the two worlds in triathlon that are bordered by the training that is now done and the actual race that hasn’t yet taken place.
It’s the perfect time to set yourself up at the swim start for the ideal beginning of that second plot of triathlon turf that has happened so rarely over the past year and a half! It’s that thing called a race!
Here are my Seven Great Swim Start Tips to get your race day pointed in a very positive direction-
Get your body moving before you hit the water for the swim start. If you can spin a few minutes on your bike and/or run for 5-10 minutes to get your heart rate up then do that. However, some races will require everything be in transition the day before. So you won’t be able to warm up that way.
Next option is to get in the water and swim for 3-4 minutes very easy. If even that is not possible, at least swing your arms in circles both forward and backward just before the start to get blood into them.
For races where you will be running into the water, know the bottom! Are there rocks you need to be aware of? Is there a quick fall off into deeper water? Will it drop off and then rise back up a bit before truly getting deep enough to swim? Plan your entry position and speed accordingly!
Even in lakes there can be water movement especially if there is wind and chop. Try to figure out in advance if you will be pushed off the most direct line to the first buoy. If so, compensate on either your swim start location or swim to an angle so that you don’t go off the shortest line for the course.
A race is a race and there will always be nerves to contend with that can end up having you set a pace at the start that feels ideal but that is a bit too fast. To counter that do, what I call “soft pedaling” with your arms.
What this means is to keep up a good turnover rate, but back off on the force you are exerting on the water by 10-20%. Keep your arm and back muscles relaxed. Avoid that “all out” feeling. Practice this on say a set of fast 50’s in a pool to get the hang of going fast without pulling hard. That will help you from over-pacing in the first 3-5 minutes of the swim.
Sometimes there can be some panic, especially in the opening moments when everyone is trying to settle into a good swim rhythm and find their position in relation to other competitors. There can be body contact and jostling. For some this leads to panicked breathing where you feel like you are hyperventilating and not getting enough oxygen.
Should you find yourself starting to go there, DO THE OPPOSITE. Instead of trying to get more air in faster, slow your stroke down just slightly and go to alternate breathing. When you hyperventilation, there can be too much oxygen being taken in.
This ends up causing your body to hold onto the oxygen it in the blood rather than releasing it. Slowing the rate will actually signal your body to release the O2 in the blood so that the air gets delivered to all parts of your body. And the plus of alternate breathing is that it will help calm your mind as well.
No matter what takes place at the start and in the first moments of the swim, keep moving. If you stop swimming, anyone behind you will not know you are stopping, and they can run into you. This is not good for either of you! So, unless you need to stop to readjust your goggles or cap, as best as you can keep moving. This minimizes the chances of having the big collisions.
Some races, like the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona, have non-wetsuit saltwater swims. These swims present a different kind of challenge that other races may not. It has to do with the abrasive nature of salt water. Yes, even though the salt is dissolved, there can be rubbing in the armpits and thighs, especially if you have hair in either of those areas. The solution is to put Vaseline or any other kind of water-resistant lube in those areas.
But before that, here is a tip about applying sunscreen. Put it on prior to going to the race and apply it without your race kit on so that you get it on all the areas where your kit can ride up during the event and expose skin. You can miss those tender areas if you have your kit on when you apply sunscreen.
With these tips you are now ready to tackle one of the great challenges in sport, which is a triathlon of any distance!
I am the Founder and CEO at Mark Allen Coaching. I am proud to have been voted in an ESPN global poll "The Greatest Endurance Athlete Of All Time." During my multi-sport career I won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship six time, the inaugural Triathlon World Championship at the Olympic Distance in Avignon, France, and at one point in my career I won 21 straight races across every derivation and distance. It was a great career, but that's all it would ever be unless I was able to share all of the experience and methodology we invented long before smart watches, power meters, and flashy uniforms. That's why I started Mark Allen Coaching, as a way to return to others at least the part of the gifts I received.