Updated: Apr 21, 2022
Racing is back, and new athletes are joining the ranks of triathletes everywhere. Often, coaches will hear from athletes that they need help with a specific skill for triathlon, and while I can only speak for myself, I hear most about SWIMMING! Athletes have a variety of swimming needs:
Learn how (general).
Swim in a wetsuit.
Swim the pool.
Swim in open water.
The most significant need is SAFETY. Athletes need to be SAFE when they're swimming, and they have to be prepared for what they're going to face. While this list isn't all-inclusive, here are some things you can do to prepare yourself for the swim portion of your race.
Be able to swim farther than the race distance.
Know about the body of water that you're swimming in. Is it a lake? Is it the ocean? Is it a swimming pool?
Is the race possibly wetsuit legal? If yes, you need to practice in your wetsuit. (Yes, you can swim in your wetsuit in the pool if open water practice isn't possible.)
Do you know how to signal if you're in trouble?
Where do you position yourself for the start so you don't get caught up in the combat-swimming washing machine?
Be aware of SIPE (Swimming Induced Pulmonary Edema) symptoms.
Let's take these one at a time.
I do recommend being able to swim farther than the race's swim distance. Why? Swimming in open water is not straight line swimming. Let's say that the race is 500 yards in an open water environment. You'll need to be able to navigate around other swimmers, start/stop suddenly, navigate turn buoys (possibly a few yards away from the buoys), AND stay on course. All of these items can add yardage, and suddenly your 500-yard swim could be 600 yards or longer.
Action Item: Make sure that you're programming a distance that is at least a few hundred yards longer than your race. If you're working with a coach, they'll ensure that you're swimming appropriately to complete the distance.
You need to know about the body of water that you're swimming in. If you're swimming in a pool, then you may already be used to that environment. The only other question there is if you'll be sharing a lane while you're racing (almost a guaranteed yes!). If you're swimming in a lake, river, or ocean/gulf, you need to know what type of start (deep water? beach?) you'll be doing so you can practice that specific start. Additionally, lakes and rivers can have waves and currents, just like the gulf/ocean. One recent 70.3 race told participants that the river levels were so low that they may be able to 'walk' part of the swim. My guidance? Swim as long as possible and try not to stand up. Standing up in a river is dangerous because you don't know what you could step on. Some of the largest waves I've experienced were in a lake, so be prepared for whitecaps and chop.
Action Items: Know how to breathe bilaterally (both sides) so that you're not breathing in water due to chop or swimming too close to other athletes. Practice deep water starts in either a pool or open water by treading water for a minute, then start swimming. If you can practice at the race site, all the better!
If your race even hints at being wetsuit legal, you need to practice in it and practice often! You may have access to open water when you can practice swimming in your wetsuit regularly. However, if you don't have access to open water, you can still practice swimming in your wetsuit in the pool. It's essential to do this as a wetsuit will feel very uncomfortable and tight the first couple of times you use it. Your shoulder and arm motion may be slightly different, and that will take some getting used to.
Action Items: If you have to wear your wetsuit in the pool, get in your wetsuit to start your pool session. Swim as long as you can stand it without overheating. Once you're feeling warm, you can take off your wetsuit and finish your swim. If you have open water, practice swimming in your wetsuit regularly.
Practice sighting so that you swim in a *relatively* straight line. Sighting also helps you see where other swimmers are and how far you are to the next buoy or swim finish. Being able to continue to swim while sighting keeps you moving forward at a rapid pace and keeps you in a good swim position. Sighting is an article unto itself, so here's an article about sighting, 'crocodile eyes' style: https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/how-to-sight/
Action item: Practice sighting in both the pool and open water, when possible.
There may be a time on the swim course where you're in trouble and need help. It could be panic or a leg cramp or that you're helping someone else. Regardless, you'll remove your swim cap and wave it around to get the attention of the kayakers/boaters who are assisting on the swim. They'll come over to help.
Action Item: Practice removing your swim cap and wave it around. On a side note, if a kayak does come over, do you know that you can hold onto it as long as you're not making any forward progress?
Positioning yourself to start the swim may be one of the most significant decisions you need to make all day. If it's a pool swim, you're going to be told what lane and what position you'll start in. If it's open water and you're a confident swimmer, you can opt to start near the front so that you can get off to a quick start. If you're a nervous swimmer, you can start in the back and on the outside. Look out to the first turn buoy. If you're turning right, start on the outside left. This will keep you from getting run over by swimmers making a beeline to the turn buoy. By staying slightly wide of the pack, you'll potentially have clear water. The same goes for going around the buoys. Stay slightly wide to avoid the crush next to the buoy.
Action Item: Look at the map of the swim start and know where you're going to position yourself for a successful swim.
Be aware of SIPE (swimming-induced pulmonary edema). There is an excellent online article by Triathlete on this topic. In its most basic form, SIPE is a condition where "the lungs fill with fluid and blood when there is greater than normal pressure on the pulmonary capillaries" during heavy exertion events (like triathlon). Some refer to it as drowning from the inside out. While rare, SIPE can happen. Being in a wetsuit and in cold water can increase the pressure enough to cause SIPE. There's currently no way to prevent it, but knowledge is power. Notify your doctor if you're swimming and have heart-related symptoms like shortness of breath or chest pain.
Action Item: Make sure that you're aware of SIPE and its symptoms. Do not "electrolyte load" the day before a race, as it could increase the risk of developing SIPE (source).
Using these items as starters, you can prepare yourself for your triathlon swim. Happy training!
Maria Netherland is a Northwest Florida-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Endurance and Youth & Juniors Certified Coach as well as a NASM Certified Personal Trainer and Performance Enhancement Specialist. Coach Maria loves working for athletes of all abilities, military athletes, and new triathletes as they pursue their goals. Maria is a veteran of the US Army and a United States Military Academy at West Point graduate. She can be reached at email@example.com.