Your First Triathlon Swim

by Pool Builders on 11-19-2011 in Articles

You've done the training and now its race day. First up is the swim followed by the bike ride and then the run. Somehow, even though the swim is the shortest (and some feel the easiest) part of a triathlon it is the part that generates the most dread.

I arrived at the venue for my first race after 5 months of preparation. I had swum countless laps in the pool twice a week; I had even done some open water swims (swimming in a lake). I had purchased or borrowed all of the equipment that I would need, I had even hired a coach who had taught me good technique and answered more of my questions than either of us had thought possible. I was ready.

I felt very confident; yet apprehensive. My self-talk consisted of things like, "I have spent months preparing for this, I have practiced sighting (the art of looking where you are going while you swim), and I used to swim competitively in college. This will be easy." Yet looking out over the lake waiting for the start, I still had many questions and doubts. Can I really do this? What if I get tired? What if I get cramps? Everyone else really looks like they know what they are doing, can I do this?

Once the starting horn sounded I stroked out into to the lake along with 500 other swimmers and instantly started to panic. "What in the world am I doing? I can't swim almost a mile in a lake where I can't even see the bottom! That marker buoy is way out there! I'm already out of breath!"

I had physically prepared for the race but I was not ready for the mental aspects of the swim. But my training and preparation did eventually kick in and since I had invested many hours of practice in the pool and sought out advice, I did settle down and I swam the race just fine.

In this case, the race had a deep water start. Swimmers start several yards out from the beach and tread water until it is time to go. There is a lot of chaos in a tri start. To keep it manageable the organizers will start groups, or waves, of swimmers, usually organized by age.

Let me digress for a minute. In order to keep triathlons competitive for everyone, entrants are organized by sex and age. When you begin the race you will start with your category, i.e. Men 40 - 45 years old or Women 25 - 30 years old. Usually the fastest wave will start first, the professionals or elite racers, and then each successive wave will start every 5 minutes or so.

In triathlon you are really only racing against others in your same age group. Everyone competes on the same course and you know who you are really racing against since your age is literally written on your calf for all to see. Being passed by someone 10 years your junior is much more palatable when you know you are not really racing that person. Although, it can hurt when a 61 year old women passes you on the run course. I have a lot of respect for her and I will never forget that moment. Triathlons have a way of keeping you humble.

Back to the lake. One survival tip for new racers is to start on the outside or back of the pack. This will help you to avoid the inevitable collisions between swimmers in the crowd. It can be very disconcerting to have others swim over your legs and feet or smack you with their arms. Personally, with my back-round in college water polo I kind of enjoy that chaos; most people don't. One of your main goals involved in the swim segment should be to relax, enjoy it, and look at it as stretching and warm up for the bike and run legs. The swim is only about 12% of the whole race. Embrace it.

Having completed many triathlons in every distance over the years I have learned to relax and enjoy the swim. I save my strenuous exertions for the bike and the run. It wasn't always this way. I have had to deal with leaking goggles, cramps, and cold water. I will provide more details on equipment, wetsuits, the correct way to wear your
tri-top and bottom, your goggles, your timing chip (yes, if you don't put it on correctly you may lose it), the swim cap and finally techniques to overcome all of the aforementioned challenges in future articles.

The swim can seem very intimidating. This is real source of apprehension for most people but if you have the knowledge and a little practice it soon becomes a part of the race you actually look forward to. Yes, you can complete the swim with confidence and yes, you can complete a triathlon.

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