I have returned to blogging with a forage into what is arguably the scariest part of a triathlon – the swim. Everyone is at least a little bit worried about the swim, and these fears are only heightened if you are a newcomer to the sport. Triathlon is about doing hard things and challenging yourself, and conquering the swim leg is no different. Might as well learn to enjoy it – you can’t do a triathlon without the swim. This article braces you for what will come your way, and ends of with some tips to ensure you get things right on race day. Take what I say with a pinch of salt, and enjoy the read!
What the swim is actually like
The swim start is an absolute dog show. Firstly, standing on the start line, no one really known when the gun will fire, it is one of life’s great mysteries. Sometimes you patiently wait for a few minutes while at other times, you’ll still have your goggles on your head and will be chatting to the person next to you. Invariably someone much slower than you has managed to squirm their way to the front (the epitome of this was seen in a running race I did, where 3 elderly ladies lined up side by side on the front row, ahead of thousands of people in a narrow road. When the gun fired they proceeded to start walking. Don’t be a plonker – you will get run [or swum] over).
The drama doesn’t end there. Behind you, a raging mass of bodies are trying to claw their way over you. Hopefully you manage to find a bit of space where you can actually swim, but not before you have gotten into a physical fight with those around you (seemingly anything goes, street rules apply). Be prepared to get kicked in the face, have your leg grabbed (or at least tickled throughout the swim) and stare deeply into the eyes of the person next to you whenever you take a breath. After about 200 meters of swimming you come to the realization that you’ve started way, way too fast and you start looking for life guards to come to your rescue. It’s at this point I usually question why I entered the race in the first place, and mentally list excuses I could provide for pulling out. Hopefully you decide the reasons to continue racing outweigh those that suggest you stop and settle into a better rhythm – at some point your arms become numb to the pain, and swimming doesn’t feel so bad. I find the rest of the swim fairly relaxed, with the exception of going around buoys marking the way, at which point everyone gets into a fight again for the shortest line.
In a triathlon swim if one thing is certain, it is that you are going to take a massive mouthful of water in at some point. In fact, you’ll be lucky if it’s only one mouthful…This is usually proceeded by a fit of coughing and some breaststroke to help get your breath back. Take a moment to recover, celebrate that you are still alive and then jump right back in.
I know I’m supposed to be focused solely on the race, but in the middle phases of the swim, my mind tends to wander. Perhaps slightly irrationally, it is usually to sharks. I would prefer not being nibbled on by a shark (though I’m pretty sure that would count as a decent excuse to quit the race). I protect myself from attack by these magnificent beasts by swimming in a pack and making sure I don’t lead the race by myself (well at least that’s the excuse I use to make up for my poor swimming ability).
At some stage you’ll have to return to shore. The swim back in always seems to take forever, with the shore never getting any closer. Eventually you will reach the shore, at which point you either get hit by a massive tsunami-sized wave launching a surprise attack, or you attempt to stand too soon and find yourself at an awkward depth which makes running in almost impossible. While you may think your traumatic experiences are all over on dry land, unfortunately all the blood is stuck in your top half, so you dizzily wander around trying desperately to remember where you left your bicycle and how to escape the stranglehold of your wetsuit.
What I would recommend
I generally start to one side in the swim. Even if the route is slightly longer, it really helps having a bit of empty water to swim through. Another option is to wait a little while after the gun has fired before heading off, just to give the people ahead of you time to get away. As I get more confident in my swimming ability I have started lining up around others of similar swimming ability, with the shortest line to the buoy. I’ve also taken to viciously defending my position from people trying to push in (what I really mean is that I stare disapprovingly at them and hope they back down).
Practice swimming in open water. I know for many people this is tricky, but there are lots of skills required for open water swimming, that one neglects while swimming in the pool. Chief among these is sighting (i.e. looking where you are going), because you don’t want to swim any further than you have to. It is a slightly strange feeling having to look forward while swimming freestyle. During the race, make sure you find a big, recognizable marker which you can swim towards. I often use something on land, because those little buoys just don’t cut it, especially in the ocean.
Practice how the race is going to play out. You will start fast and then settle into your rhythm. Practice this beforehand, so your body is used to going out hard and then dialing back the intensity. When race day comes around your body will know what to expect, and the fast start won’t come as such a surprise.
And finally, don’t watch Jaws (or any variation thereof!) the night before your race. Enough said!
With a bit of practice you can progress from being terrified of the swim to looking forward to it. I’ve experienced the immense satisfaction of seeing my times improve, my confidence grow and exiting the water closer and closer to the front. It’s well worth the effort.