The swim portion of the triathlon is easily the most daunting for multisport athletes. Chances are, you’ve already spent considerable time running and are more or less comfortable on a bike — but swimming, not so much. That’s ok; you’re doing this multisport thing to step out of your comfort zone. And, like other new triathletes before you, you’ll figure out the swim portion. We’d like to make the swim a little less daunting, so here are some helpful hints to get you going:
Getting Started and Getting Help
The swimming portion ranges from .5 to 2.5 miles in triathlons. It’s the first sport you tackle in a tri. It sets the tone for your race so you want to be physically and mentally comfortable in the water.
Especially if you’re a total newb to swimming, it’s best to start slow and welcome guidance. “Get with a qualified swim coach; don’t try to hack it,” says D3 Multisport’s Founder and Director Mike Ricci, a Level 3 USA Triathlon Certified Coach and USA Triathlon Coach of the Year. “The swim is the most technical piece and takes up the most time to learn if you don’t have the swim background.”
Allow yourself enough prep time to get in the proper swim training for race day. “Although all you really need is a Speedo and goggles, [training for] swimming is most time inconvenient,” says professional triathlete and Olympian, Dirk Bockel. The amount of time you spend training is going to depend on your current physical fitness and comfort in the water.
Training for swimming focuses on three main areas: fitness, form, and mental state. It’s common to stress out about the swim. New triathletes tend to “get a lot of anxiety,” says Ricci. This is where practice, practice, practice comes in handy.
In the Pool
Although any stroke is allowed, most triathletes choose the freestyle stroke. (“As a courtesy, don’t do a wide breaststroke on race day,” says Ricci.) You’ll want to get comfortable with the stroke and breathing on both sides for two main reasons: If you’re not comfortable with breathing technique in the pool, matters will be worse in open water, also, being able to breath comfortably on both sides will give you more options for sighting.
What is Sighting
Sighting is a technique used to keep you swimming in a straight line. It will help you navigate the swim course without having to rely on the swimmer in front of you (who may or may not be reliable). To sight properly, only lift up enough to get your eyes out of the water. Then turn your head to breathe. “Sighting is a skill you can practice in the pool using a bottle or other object. Pick your head up a little bit and try to keep your eye on the bottle or target,” says Ricci. Once you feel like you’ve gotten the hang of sighting in a pool, try it in open water, using a buoy or the shoreline.
Come race day, “Try to sight every four strokes,” says Ricci.
Swimming can be stressful for several reasons—a constricting wetsuit, open water, and masses of people make for a high pressure situation. Take all these factors into account during your training. Luckily, you can start preparing in the pool.
Well before race day, try on your wetsuit. “Wet suits are very constricting,” says Ricci. “It’s best to try your wetsuit in the pool.” This will help you get used to the tight feeling that can often cause anxiety. Once you’re comfortable swimming with in your wetsuit in the pool, try it in open water.
Swimming in open water is something you can really only get comfortable with by doing. If you’re struggling, try focusing on something specific that you have control over: breathing, form, or sighting. Practice in open water as much as possible before your race.
Come race day, the swim will be a whole new vision, with hundreds of athletes entering the water. That in itself is stressful. You will probably get punched or kicked or knocked. “None of it’s personal,” says Ricci. It’s just the nature of the sport. To help his clients prepare for the chaos of the swim, Rici will put several people in the same swim lane at the pool. If possible, grab some friends to try it out—it’s a great way to prepare for the bumps you’ll get during your race.
There will be a designated area in the water to warm up. “Always warm up on race day. Get used to the water. A little bike, a little run, and a little swim,” says Ricci.
If this is your first race, be contentious of your starting position. “Don’t go to the front if you don’t belong there. Start at the back, and ease your way into it,” says Ricci. If you aren’t a strong swimmer, starting at the front will cause more trouble for you and more stress for the other competitors. That being said, “if you’re a decent swimmer, go hard at the beginning to get away from the masses,” says Ricci. Know where you’re at and pace yourself. You don’t want to start out too fast and get worn out or hyperventilate.
“If you feel like you’re in trouble, roll on your back and float, and catch your breath,” says Ricci. Once you’ve caught your breath, resume swimming, and if necessary, change up your stroke.
Drafting is a controversial technique that involves swimming close behind someone who is faster than you. Doing so allows allows for an easier swim for you since you’re basically swimming the path they’ve already cut—their wake. Drafting is allowed during the swim, but do it with respect. “Draft off their hip and not their feet, says Ricci. “You’ll get as much draft, and you’ll avoid hitting someone’s feet.”
Once you’ve made it out of the water, it’s on to the biking!