Becoming Comfortably Uncomfortable to Successfully Navigate the Swim Start

February 23


It’s still preseason for triathletes in the northern hemisphere, and ideally this time is spent focusing on skill improvement that leads to greater efficiency and ultimately faster times. The preseason is the time to identify performance limiters and develop strategies to minimize or eliminate them. Many choose to focus on things such as drill work in the pool to improve their stroke, track and hill run workouts to improve leg strength, and high intensity bike intervals to improve ftp in hopes of improving upon their performances from the previous season. Goals are set, race registrations completed, miles are logged, and everything goes according to plan until the gun goes off at the swim start to begin the first race of the season. Within a few seconds the race envisioned by many athletes will go from a celebration to a matter of survival. Suddenly, they can’t catch their breath, there’s no room to execute the “proper” swim stroke, they’re being punched and kicked by everyone in their immediate vicinity, and the only thing they want to do is escape. For all intents and purposes their race is over. They may hang on to a rescue craft, regroup and eventually finish the opening leg of the race, but the rest of the day will be spent trying to make up for a horrible swim.  Unfortunately, most of them have probably experienced this same situation with regularity in their previous races and will continue to do so until they make a concerted effort to become more confident when placed in similar surroundings. Gaining confidence will require them to get out of their comfort zones, and too many people just don’t want to do that.

From a statistical standpoint the swim is probably the safest segment of a triathlon. There are usually fewer reported injuries in the swim segment when compared to bike crashes and weather-related incidents on the run. There are also safety personnel located within every 100 meters of a swim course, making it the most closely-supervised segment of the race with regard to safety personnel. From a physiological standpoint, the swim is also less taxing on your body. Yet, the swim segment is the most intimidating segment of the race for most athletes. Why? Some will say that they just don’t feel comfortable swimming in open water, yet they have no problem splashing around in the surf on vacations, or water skiing behind a boat moving at 30 miles per hour. It’s not open water that frightens them. it’s the physical contact, confinement, and not having the proper swim technique conducive to triathlon swim starts that sends them over the edge.

You can spend as much time as you want swimming in open water to reduce or eliminate your fear of triathlon swim starts, but its valuable time wasted that could have been spent learning to become a stronger swimmer in the pool. Why? Because most open water swim sessions, especially among novice triathletes, are nothing more than feel-good social gatherings that in no way, shape, or form simulate race day conditions. Such swims are usually done with small groups, no physical contact, wide open spaces with no confinement, and cancelled or postponed if the water is too choppy or cold. If you want to improve your race day swim skills, you need to simulate race day swim conditions as closely as possible. It’s not rocket science. You already do hill repeats if you’re going to run on a hilly race course, and train in the heat for races in warmer climates. The good news is that you can improve your race day swim skills for FREE! It doesn’t require you to go out and purchase some new high-tech gadget. It simply requires you to engage in specific systematic training designed to progressively get you out of your comfort zone and build confidence.

Even in the most crowded of triathlon swim starts there are no more than two or three swimmers in direct contact with you at any time during the swim. Sure, there may be two thousand on the swim course, but only two or three are in your immediate personal space. You can deal with this fact much better than thinking that you are going to be swimming in a group of two thousand. Two or three is a manageable number. This is a scenario that can be replicated in the pool once a week with your training partners and can yield big gains. Instead of sitting on the pool deck waiting for an entire lane to empty so you can swim in protected waters, look for opportunities to swim with others. Maybe schedule one day a week where you and some friends do the same workout together and share a lane. Do some repeats of 25 meters where you all leave at the same time and swim as a small group in a congested manner. You’ve got to learn to find your breathing rhythm and stay relatively calm when you’re being pushed around and swallowing water. You’ve also got to learn to alter your swim stroke in confined spaces. That’s never going to happen when you’re doing glide drills or working on your perfect recovery in perfect swim conditions. Remember, the swim start chaos usually only lasts for the first one or two hundred meters and then things begin to spread out a little. You don’t need to learn to swim in chaos for the entire swim, only long enough for the chaos to subside. Since more and more long-distance races are no longer allowing pre-race swim warm ups, you would also be wise to include workouts that include no warm up. Structuring your training to replicate race day conditions is the key to building confidence. You’ve got to learn to become comfortably uncomfortable.

Finally, you need to use a little common sense on race day. If you’re feeling anxious, don’t place yourself in a situation that increases your anxiety. Start near the back, and off to the side. Give yourself some room to use the first few hundred meters as an “in-race warm up”. This will allow you to find your rhythm and pace, leading to confidence and self-assurance early on. Even if you are a fast swimmer you’ll benefit from the slower start because you won’t waste valuable time hyperventilating and hanging on to the side of a paddleboard or kayak. You’ll be able to build into your race pace and pass the slower swimmers as things thin out along the course. Stop spending valuable training time trying to swim, bike, and run like the world class athletes because it’s never going to happen. Start structuring your training to become the best athlete you can be with YOUR abilities. Don’t waste time trying to be a better swimmer, cyclist, or runner. Learn to train for triathlon, and the specific demands of the sport. At TRISUTTO we don’t teach swim, bike, and run. We teach TRIATHLON!