First-time wetsuit tips, deflating hyperventilation and swimming straight

Credit: Phil Cole/Allsport
I got a letter the other day from Clifton May, a Slowtwitch reader. He listed three problems, all of which seem to be common to new triathletes.

I asked him if I could reproduce his letter, as I thought my answers might be useful to other readers. I've segmented Clifton's letter, posing and answering one question at a time.

"I just completed my first triathlon. Everything went pretty well except for the swim. I had a few problems in the water.

"The first had to do with swimming in a wetsuit for the first time. I wasn't prepared for the added buoyancy and it felt very strange when I started to stroke. I've read some articles about the differences but wasn't able to take the time to discover them for myself beforehand. My remedy for this will be to practice with the wetsuit in a pool before the next race."

As problems go, this is a good one to have. Most triathletes do find swimming in a wetsuit unfamiliar, maybe even unnatural, but they also generally find swimming in a wetsuit easier. I find that it only takes two or three times swimming in a wetsuit to get the hang of it.

If you own a fullsuit -- long arms -- it takes a couple of times swimming to get your arm muscles used to it. It's like wearing a bicycle helmet for the first time. The added weight makes your neck sore for a day, but then your neck muscles are used to it. Same with a wetsuit. It just takes a time or two for your arm and shoulder muscles to adjust.

Make sure, though, that you don't work against the wetsuit. If it's a one-piece fullsuit, you'll want to swim in it very relaxed, with a long glide phase after the catch, and perhaps a little extra body roll. The newer two-piece fullsuits are a bit less restricting, but one-piece suits are just fine to swim in if you follow the guidelines above.

"I can only describe the second problem as hyperventilation. I haven't researched the clinical description of this condition but the term itself sums up what I felt like when the gun went off. I put my face in the water and started out to the middle of the lake but instead of expelling my breath in a slow, steady fashion like I've become accustomed to, I felt a loss of breath and had to turn my head prematurely to get some air. I sputtered and gasped like this for a couple of hundred yards, never quite feeling the same rhythm I do in the pool.

"I don't know if this was a nervous reaction to my first race, my first time in deep water, or some other anxiety but it really threw me for a loop. The swim was only a half-mile so I was able to flounder my way to the finish, though it wasn't much fun. I've focused a lot on the swim and have done several workouts where I go 2,500 yards or so without too much strain. I wonder if you've heard of such a thing before and if so, what you recommend I do to avoid it in future races?"

This is a legitimate problem, but still easy to overcome. My guess is that temperature is responsible for your feeling out of breath to a greater degree than is explainable by simple exertion. A chilly pool is still going to have its water heated to the high 70s. Normal lap-pool temperature is 79 or 80 degrees. That temperature would feel downright hot in the ocean, and warm in a lake. If you swam in the open ocean you might be exposed to water in the 60s or colder. In the San Francisco Bay area the water could be as cold as the low 50s.

Even for experienced triathletes, water in the 50s will take your breath away, even if you're wearing a wetsuit. If you're not used to cold water, just expect that phenomenon to occur. Fortunately, it's momentary. As soon as your face becomes accustomed to the reality of the temperature, your face and lungs might not like it, but they'll adjust.

The solution to this problem is to warm up. I always warm up in the water prior to the race, and I'll first get into the water 20 minutes prior to my wave going off. This takes some planning. I'll usually start the whole hassling of pre-race paraphernalia about 90 minutes prior to the gun, and 30 minutes prior I'll be ready to head for the water. I leave myself a little cushion in case one of the many of this sport's lines happens to be overlong -- body marking, or "T3" (as I call it), where athletes who pride themselves in lightning-fast T1 and T2 transitions feel no guilt about sitting down and reading the Sunday paper at their leisure (I'm convinced this is because the rest of us don't wait for them during the other transitions, and since we must wait for them in T3 they exact their revenge).

One other thing: I'm pretty good at dealing with people who try to climb up my back or crowd me out in the first couple of hundred yards of the swim. But these nasty techniques of mine took years to perfect, and I neither recommend them to you nor expect you to be able to master them while still a neophyte. Some of your anxiety may be due to the boorish behavior of certain Neanderthal swimmers in our sport. Best to avoid them by lining up on one side or the other of the swim start.

Because of the problem you list below, I'd make sure that I breathe on the side where I can watch the group -- better to keep an eye on where you're going.

"The last, and possibly most annoying, problem was my tendency to swim in perfect 90-degree arcs to the right or left depending on which side I breathed on. If I breathed on the left, I would turn that direction and so on. Do you have any tips for learning to swim in a straight line or how to stay on a less circuitous route around the buoys? I'm also curious about how to orient myself without coming to a complete stop in the water to lift my head up and look around."

Here's what you're doing: When you breathe -- say you're breathing on your left -- your right arm, after the "catch," is crossing over the centerline of your body while you turn your head to breathe. I'd be willing to bet that when you breathe you've also got your feet spread way apart during your kick in order to compensate for this bodily gyration you're executing under the water.

A couple of things will fix this. First, it might not be a bad idea to occasionally swim with a leg buoy, or one of those small innertubes you put your feet through. This will keep your legs from splaying, which will in turn expose the jacknife at the waist and crossover of your arms -- movements that would otherwise go unnoticed if your feet were not tethered to each other.

Second, ask somebody on the pool deck to watch you for an out-and-back swim of the pool, and to tell you if you've got a crossover with the arm opposite your breathing side. If so, then swim another out-and-back, placing your hand during the catch off a little to the side. In actuality, of course, it won't be out to the side, it'll be straight in front of your shoulder, where it's supposed to be. It'll just feel like it's angled to the side. Then ask the person on the pool deck how that was. Keep doing this until your hand does actually catch the water in front of your shoulder. Repeat this exercise often, because you'll easily revert to your old crossover stroke unless a third person tells you where your catch is executed.

Until you fix this problem you'll be snaking your way through the water like a destroyer in an antitorpedo zig-zag pattern, wasting a lot of energy. And, if you're breathing predominantly on one side, your crossed-over arm will be pushing water to the side as your hand gets back to the centerline of your body. That's going to make you scribe fine little arcs, which is what you're now doing.

As for sighting while in the water, there are some tips. First, it's a good idea to draft off another person while swimming, and this is perfectly legal and ethical. (Here's a different view on drafting). Four times out of five, the person in front of you will probably have a pretty good idea where he or she is going, and you can let him or her do the navigating for you, within reason.

I'll still look up every eight strokes or so, and I'll do that as part of a natural movement of the stroke. I'll breathe off to the side, and then look ahead for a quick moment as my breathing-side arm is recovering. If you don't get a good glimpse, just look again on the very next stroke. Don't stop in the water unless it's absolutely necessary.

It's also a good idea to figure out in advance what you're going to be sighting while in the water. During my warm-up, while I'm out there a ways, I'll turn around and look back to shore and see what it looks like -- what I should sight off -- so that I'll know what the heck I'm shooting for when I round the last buoy and head for home.

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