How to Get a Fast Triathlon Swim Start

The swimming section of the triathlon is most people's weakest spot -- how can you get a good start and surge ahead of the pack?
The swimming section of the triathlon is most people's weakest spot -- how can you get a good start and surge ahead of the pack?
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

The second the gun goes off, you realize you're no longer in a race. You're in a battle. You weave around people, trying to get ahead. Arms lash into you, as others try to get their bearings. You dash into the cold water, running as hard as you can until you get to the point where you can finally start swimming. The battle's not over yet, though, as you now have to avoid being kicked in the head and body by your fellow competitors. Once you get past the mayhem, you can really focus on having your best triathlon ever.

The triathlon start is one of the most chaotic in all of sports. First off, it starts with the swim leg, which tends to be the difficult part of the race for triathletes. Swimming is an incredibly challenging sport to begin with, but the swim portion of a triathlon takes place in open water, providing a whole slew of other challenges to contend with. Some competitors may not get a chance to train in open water and therefore aren't used to the different environment. You have to navigate through currents, waves and undertows, which force you to look up occasionally, or sight, to make sure you're still on course and swimming in the right direction.

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You're also swimming in close proximity to others, so you have to learn how to negotiate both waves and other people without kicking anyone or being kicked. Many triathletes also use a wet suit, and if you haven't trained much while wearing it, you have to adjust to the sudden buoyancy the suit provides.

Whether the swim starts in the water or on land, all racers have to deal with not only getting themselves in the water quickly, but avoiding getting kicked by other racers trying to establish their positions. It's a brutal way to start a race, but if you prepare yourself mentally and physically, you can avoid having a disastrous start.

How can you make your triathlon swim start as smooth and as fast as possible? Read on for more advice.

Assessing the Triathlon Swim Course

If you know the course well, you'll be ready.
If you know the course well, you'll be ready.
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One important aspect of a successful triathlon swim start is knowing the course as well as possible. Most triathlon organizers design a swim course in one of the following patterns:

  • parallel to shore
  • out and back
  • triangle
  • rectangle

Parallel to shore means that majority of the swim course takes place parallel to the shoreline. The out and back course has swimmers swimming half the length of the distance out into the body of water, swimming around a buoy, and heading back to shore. Triangle and rectangle courses map out these general shapes in the water with buoys, and swimmers travel around the outside of the buoys.

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Secondly, factor in the water type. Both salt water and fresh water have elements that can affect your race. Salt water can keep you afloat a little bit better; however, you'll definitely want to invest in some good goggles to keep it out of your eyes. Ocean swimming means you also may have to contend with little critters that could really put a damper on your swim. Jellyfish stings and sea urchins can cause some serious injuries.

With fresh water you don't have the salt to prop you up and make swimming a little easier. While you probably won't have to deal with fish and other creatures, you'll have to watch for vegetation growing from the bottom of a lake. Algae won't hurt you, but getting tangled up in it could be frustrating.

It's extremely important to know the type of start the race will have. If possible, practice it well before race day, whether or not you can access the actual course. Typical start types are:

  • Land. You begin on the beach or in ankle-deep water and run to the point in the water where you can dive in and begin swimming.
  • Deep-water. In this variation, you begin in the water. When the starting gun goes off, you'll propel yourself forward from this stationary position
  • Pontoon. Here you start on a pontoon in the middle of the water. When the gun goes off, all of the swimmers in the wave will dive into the water.

Even if you're prepared and know the course, race day jitters can hurt your star. How should you prepare on race day? Read on to learn more.

Reading the Triathlon Swimming Conditions

Will you have to wear a wet suit on the day of the race?
Will you have to wear a wet suit on the day of the race?
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On race day, you'll want to prepare as best as you can. The first way to do this is to attend the course conditions talk. Race directors assess the course before the race starts, and they'll explain how temperature, wind and surf may affect you. Miss this talk, and you could make multiple mistakes that lead to a disastrous race.

Weather conditions are an extremely important aspect of a triathlon, but they really affect how you tackle the swim portion. If the water is too warm, you may not be allowed to wear a wet suit. Likewise, if the water is cold, wet suits might be mandatory. Race day shouldn't be the day to try swimming in a wet suit for the first time. High winds and surf may also affect your ability to wear a wet suit. Knowing how winds and waves are behaving will help you judge how to tackle the course. Misjudge, and you could end up swimming well out of your way.

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Take the time to walk along the shore and look at how the course is set up. How many buoys are in the water? How many turns will you have to make? Knowing the water markers will help you figure out what you should sight during your swim and help you anticipate any turns.

Finally, don't panic. If you've prepared yourself by training well and familiarizing yourself with the course and conditions, you'll be well-equipped to have a good swim start. Panicking at the start could lead to not only a disastrous swim, but it could endanger your life. You want to survive the swim, not drown. Take a deep breath and do the best you can.

Looking at the race day conditions is just one aspect of having a fast triathlon swim start. Training, warming up and lining up are also important elements of a successful start.

Read on for tips to help you with the technical aspects of a triathlon swim start.

Tips for a Fast Triathlon Swim Start

The start from land can get crowded, so be careful of getting pushed around.
The start from land can get crowded, so be careful of getting pushed around.
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Sure, you can know the course and conditions, but the actual swimming is important, too. If you don't have access to an open water venue to practice, don't worry. Swimming in a pool is still a great way to train.

In the pool, work on your stroke technique and make it as efficient and smooth as possible. Once you've got the basics down, incorporate flip turns into your workout to prepare for swimming continuously.

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You also need to be able to swim in a straight line. Pools tend to have lines along the bottom that you can use as a guide to swim straight. Sadly, there's no line painted on the bottom of the ocean. During practices, try swimming with your eyes closed to see how straight you can swim.

If you're near open water, dive right in. Training in a pool is great, but open water is its own beast. Learn how to navigate waves. Practice sighting, a technique to keep you on course. After several strokes, look up and glance around to make sure you're still swimming in a straight line. Wear your wet suit so that you understand how it affects your buoyancy in the water. When putting it on, give yourself plenty of room near the shoulders so you can rotate your arms easily. Also, practice the type of start you'll do on race day.

On race day, definitely warm up. Test the water temperature, and swim if you can. Otherwise, perform a dry land warm up. Get your body nice and loose -- especially your arms. Do plenty of arm swings, and take a short jog and stretch.

Lining up for the start is one of the most important parts of the race. Be honest with yourself about your swimming skills. If you're not a strong swimmer, don't line up at the front of the pack. You're just asking to be swum over and kicked in the head. Hang back and let the better swimmers start ahead of you.

When the gun goes off, start as strong as you can. Avoid churning through the water and relax into your stroke as soon as possible. The sooner you can establish a rhythm, the better off you'll be.

Even though you've still got the whole race ahead of you, the hardest part is over. Now it's time to have a great race.

Read on for other tips on fast triathlon swim starts.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Edwards, Sallly. The Complete Book of Triathlons. Prima Publishing. 2001.
  • Murray, Ian. "Avoiding Panic At The Swim Start." Triathlete. July 30, 2009. (Sept. 3, 2010) http://triathlon.competitor.com/2009/07/training/video-avoiding-panic-at-the-swim-start_3403
  • Koskella, Kevin. "Beginner Triathlete: What You Need To Know For Your First Race-Day Swim." Triathlete. May 15, 2009. (Sept. 3, 2010) http://triathlon.competitor.com/2009/05/training/beginner-triathlete-what-you-need-to-know-for-your-first-race-day-swim_498
  • Koskella, Kevin. "Incorporating The Flip Turn Into Your Swim Workout." Triathlete. September 11, 2009. (Sept. 3, 2010) http://triathlon.competitor.com/2009/09/training/incorporating-the-flip-turn-into-your-swim-workout_4285
  • Kostich, Alex. "How to Warm UP Right for an Open Water Race." Active.com. (Sept. 3, 2010) http://www.active.com/swimming/articles/how_to_warm_up_right_for_and_open-water_race.htm
  • Tyler, Paul. "10 First-Time Tips From Everyday Triathletes." Active.com. (Sept. 3, 2010) http://www.active.com/triathlon/articles/10-First-Time-Tips-From-Everyday-Triathletes.htm
  • Watson, Lance. "Start to Finish: Owning the Open Water." Active.com. (Sept. 3, 2010) http://www.active.com/triathlon/Articles/Start_to_Finish__Owning_the_Open_Water.htm