Of the three disciplines, the swim is often the most daunting for the newcomer to triathlon. Especially when swimming in open water, the first discipline in triathlon presents a unique and challenging set of requirements over and above the distance to be swum, including:
- group starts;
- swimming in a wetsuit, and
- sighting to ensure that you swim in a straight line
Definition: native to an open water swim start, a ‘wave’ in which anywhere from 50 to 400 triathletes begin swimming at the same time. Often compared to jumping into a washing machine with a few hundred strangers, the first few seconds are both challenging and a wee bit scary if you haven’t done it before.
Tips to maintain sanity:
Wearing 2 swim caps – due to the endless array of arms and legs flailing around at the start of the swim, wearing 2 swim caps will help keep your goggles in place. Put the first cap on, then your goggles, then the second cap over the goggles. Also great for keeping your head warm!
Practice starting from a prone position – you will be wearing a wet suit, so you will therefore be buoyant. This will allow you to lie face down in the water waiting for the horn to start the race, thereby putting you in the correct position to swim as opposed to treading water and then trying to assume the correct body position once the race has already started.
Be honest with yourself about your own speed and find your place in the pack – if you are a faster swimmer then you will be able to lead the way without being swum over. If you are slower in the water but try to lead from the front then expect to be swum over by faster swimmers, which is not the most enjoyable way to start a race. Know your pace and if you are slower in the water, hang back and make your time up on the bike!
Practice starting/swimming in groups – like any new skill practice will make perfect. If you are a member of a swim/triathlon club, practice swimming in same direction in the same lane in groups, and do the same for prone starts. This will help you get used to manoeuvering in close quarters, thereby settling your nerves come race day.
Swimming in a wetsuit
A wetsuit offers increased insulation for the UK’s chilly waters (all open water swims in the UK require wetsuits), as well as increased buoyancy that is an important safety measure. The only draw back of a wetsuit is that your shoulder mobility is limited. Because your body is buoyed up by the wetsuit, you can get away with kicking less during the swim, thereby preserving your legs for the bike and run legs. Having said that, here are some tips to using a wetsuit.
If possible try on before using – you want to make sure that the neck sits properly (in that its sealed around your neck) and also that the shoulder movement isn’t impeded too much. It will be to a certain extent, but if its too tight you will have to work much harder to move your arms, and you will fatigue faster because of this. If you are hiring a suit for the season (Triathlon training part 1) this may not be possible, but try to make it to a shop and try before you invest.
Train in the wetsuit – don’t wait until the day of the triathlon to use the wetsuit. Your stroke mechanics will change due to the wetsuit, so by training with the wetsuit you will get used to the change in movement and will become accustomed to swimming in it.
Lube up – make sure you use an appropriate lubricant around the back of your neck as well as your ankles and wrists. The ankles and wrists are for ease of removal during the first transition, but the back of the neck is to defend against chaffing during the swim (i.e. you will be twisting your head from side to side, and if your neck is not lubricated you will be be red raw by the time you get out of the water…when you sweat during the bike and run this is not at all pleasant.)
NB: DO NOT USE PETROLEUM JELLY!! This will decay the neoprene on the wetsuit prematurely, so instead use chafe ease, available at wiggle.co.uk (http://www.wiggle.co.uk/natures-kiss-chafe-ease-90g/), and the best £9.00 you will ever spend…your skin will thank you for it.
One of the most challenging elements of the open water swim is that you don’t have the lines (like an indoor pool) to guide you. Without sighting a 1500 metre swim can easily turn into an 1800 metre swim, so its important to practice this.
Sighting means finding a point on the horizon that will work as a reference point during the swim to ‘keep you in line’. By referring to this point every 4-6 strokes you will make sure that you are swimming the required distance and not adding additional distance by zigg-zagging all over the water.
Tips to improve sighting:
Open water practice – practicing in open water is the best way to get used to including sighting when you swim. The best venue for this in London is the Serpentine at Hyde Park, and the best deal for swimming in the serpentine is to join the Serpentine Swim Club (www.serpentineswimmingclub.com). For £20/year (no, that’s not a typo) you can swim in the Serpentine from 6am-9am, 365 days a year. The club is a great mix of young and young at heart, with races all summer and a great sense of community…highly recommended.
Sight in the pool – just because you are in the pool doesn’t mean you can’t practice sighting. When you are warming up/cooling down get in the habit of sighting, finding focal points at the end of the lanes and finding them every few strokes. Your stroke will need to be adapted every time you sight, so the more you practice this vital skill the more easily it will become second nature…and the less likely you are to forget when you are racing!
Hope this helps, and next stop, transition one and on to the bike!