If you have ever been to watch a triathlon as a spectator, or as a competitor waiting for your wave to go, you will have watched the field get stretched out immediately on the swim leg. You will have seen competitors immediately floundering in the water. I am one of those competitors. My swim times in triathlons regularly stretch to five minutes longer than when doing the equivalent distance in a swimming pool. This blog post is for those of you out there who share my fear of open water swimming and would like some help sorting it out.
Let’s be brutally honest, the biggest barrier to triathlon entry is the swim. It is the hardest of the three disciplines to simulate in a training environment, and there are a range of factors outside of your control that can seriously affect your performance (aside from having your goggles kicked off by a fellow competitor – yes, it has happened). Additionally, in the UK the water will most likely be very cold. I have too often fallen back on the comfort of the Duathlon and missed out on some fantastic triathlons to avoid this discomfort.
The good news is that there are ways to navigate the waters more easily and ensure you have an enjoyable race. I’m not pretending I made these up myself; rather this list is a collection of the best strategies I have come across to date. Happy swimming!
Get active as soon as you hit the water
The temptation to float, testing the buoyancy of your wetsuit and saving energy, when you hit the water is considerable but if you watch the pros they will get in and get moving. The quicker you warm up, the easier the swim will be. Many athletes experience a shortness of breath from the initial shock of the cold water, so getting moving to improve blood flow will help you get warm quickly before the start gun gets the race underway.
Position yourself carefully
If you’re open water swimming’s answer to Michael Phelps, get to the front. If not, position yourself to the rear of the wave and on a flank. There is nothing more disconcerting that the feeling of people swimming around, over and under you. Find a clear path of water and your race will be far calmer, thus easier.
Choose the right stroke
Most triathletes will swim front crawl, simply because it is faster. This post is for less experienced triathletes and I am going to put forward the case for breast stroke if you are lacking confidence. Firstly, you will be able to see (work out where you are going) far more easily if you are looking ahead. Secondly, the regular breathing of breast stroke will allow you to keep calm and get into a steady rhythm. Finally, I would argue that unless you are a strong swimmer the gains from front crawl in time are minimal and an efficient and steady breast stroke need not ruin your timings.
Expect panic, stay calm
You will experience a sense of panic and disorientation. That is normal. Keep calm and collected, it is acceptable to lay off the accelerator briefly to control your breathing and orientate yourself. Canoeists will be with you every step of the way.
Don’t go in blind
If you are preparing for your first triathlon, it is important that you have experienced swimming in a wetsuit and in open water before getting into the lake. It is a very different feeling to swimming in an indoor pool. Of course, the wetsuit will keep you warm and give you extra buoyancy but can also feel quite constricted and may even cause you to adapt your stroke. Don’t wait to find that out on the day.