As the triathlon season draws closer up here in Canada, swim clubs begin race simulations. This can include deep water starts, swimming around a buoy, swimming in packs, grabbing ankles, or anything else to simulate both the congestion and the changes of pace that occur in a race. Our coach even had us practice clearing water out from our goggles. Not only is open water swimming generally an area of discomfort for many new triathletes, but throw in the complexities of a pack and many get there race off to a bad start. So, here are a few important things to consider to get your triathlon started…swimmingly.

Do a warm-up:

Try this: jump in a pool and swim a straight 400m from the get-go. What happens? Your heart rate jumps in the first 50-100m and never comes down. What about when you do a warm-up first? You can actually manage into your pace without the heart rate spiking. Therefore, if you start the swim without prepping, you will likely spike your heart rate and find yourself short on breath. Instead, do a good warm-up where you do some strong accelerations and then settle into a stroke, letting the breathing come naturally. Also, use this as a chance to practice sighting and get a sense of the shoreline profiles particularly if this is a location that is new to you. Plan to be in the water a good 20 minutes before your gun time so that you also have time to pick where to place yourself in the group to start. Which leads to…

Think about where you are starting:

If the race is a “rolling” or “time trial” start this point doesn’t really matter. Just follow the person in who went before you. However, the majority of races are mass starts, even with smaller waves. This means that before the race starts you can give yourself an advantage or disadvantage. Here’s a fairly common swim course profile:

Lakeside Sprint Swim Course

You are starting between the 2 green buoys, but this could just as easily be a beach start or a start from a dock. The course is a rectangle, which could also be a triangle, but either way you are making what is close to a 90 degree turn at the first buoy. Now I have added a blue shape and a red shape by the start line:

Lakeside Sprint Swim Course 2

The blue dot is the enthusiastic swimmers, those ready to battle and race the swim leg. They are going to line up the shortest distance to the first turn buoy. The red oval is the less confident swimmers, the more casual racers, or those who have been given advice as to how to avoid a melee in the swim. They line up even outside of the race start area, farthest from the direct line to the first turn, in order to find open water to swim in.

No single starting space is better than the other, rather you need to base your start on your swim skills. If you are a decent swimmer and line up in the red oval, you are giving yourself a disadvantage of extra distance. If you are a weak swimmer and line up in the red circle, you are giving yourself a disadvantage of high contact swimming. Here is a 3rd alternative that is definitely one to try out: The 2nd or 3rd row behind the red circle. The strongest athletes are going to go out very hard, so if you are behind them you will have open water quite quickly, in less than 10 seconds. In the course profile shown, this does mean that everyone from the red oval is going to drift over towards you as you get close to the turn buoy, but by then you should be well settled into your stroke.

Plan your starting effort:

If it is a beach or shallow water start, do you want to run or jog? Dolphin dive? It can be very easy to get carried away into a sprint into the water, but is your cardio prepared for a sprint into the swim? If a dock or deep water start, do you want to go hard for 20 strokes to try to get ahead of the pack? Or, would you rather go slow for 20 strokes and let the faster swimmers get out of your way? Again, it’s your race, so you need to decide, but you should definitely go in with a plan and one you have practiced. For example, because I line up behind those who go fast, I go moderate at the start and let them get out of the way. I also find that it is easy for me not to run out of breath if I don’t go too hard out of the gate. Others I know go hard on a 2-stroke breathing pattern, get ahead of the crowd, then settle into a pace and switch to a 3-stroke pattern.

Be prepared to sight soon:

If you rely on the pack around you to go in the right direction, you can get off course very quickly. Rather, by 20 strokes in you should start into your regular sighting pattern (usually every 8 breaths if 2-stroke breathing, or 9 for 3-stroke breathing). Watching many race starts, you will always see whole packs go off in the wrong direction. Usually what happens is that if you get 15 to 30 degrees off course you start your sighting and are looking at the wrong buoy. At this point you will see lifeguards on paddle boards or kayaks arguing with lost swimmers who are now going to set their slowest swim time ever. Save yourself the grief and don’t rely on others to know where they are going.

Cover photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ericsurfdude/