In each of my first several triathlons, I had the same experience. As I stood on the start line, everything was totally under control. I had trained. I had even done some open-water workouts. I knew my goal pace. I had picked my line to the first buoy. Now it was just a matter of going through the motions.
Then, bang! Chaos. An all-out running sprint into the water sent my heart rate skyrocketing before I was even wet. Fighting off feet and elbows stole the last bit of oxygen remaining in my muscle cells.
I was so panic-stricken and so desperate for escape by the time I started swimming that I had no concept of race pace. I just started swimming as hard as I could—regardless of the race distance—and kept swimming as hard as I could until the nightmare was over.
When the entire race was over and I had gone back to training, I forgot about the shocking difference between the swim experience I had prepared for and the actual swim experience. So I went right back to training for the swim as a time trial. But a triathlon race swim is not a time trial. It's an absurdly protracted swim sprint that is usually preceded by a running sprint.
Upon finally waking up to this reality, I realized that I could not prepare optimally for race performance by training for a straight swim time trial. Surely, training to sustain a certain goal pace from the swim start to the swim exit is the foundation for optimal performance—perhaps 80 percent of the equation.
But the other 20 percent of my training should prepare me specifically to get in way over my head in the first two minutes of the race and then hang on for dear life the rest of the way, because that's how it always goes.
I'm not talking about preparing for swimming in a group or practicing water entry technique. I'm talking about training for the triathlon swim as a necessarily poorly paced endeavor, given the need to start fast and escape the stampede.
And I'm also talking about training to race the triathlon swim in a pre-fatigued state, which is an inescapable reality of mass beach wave starts. Following are six methods I recommend to train for the triathlon race swim as it really happens.
Death Sprint: This method couldn't be simpler. In your main set, start swimming at all-out sprint speed, as though you are competing in a 25-yard race. Continue swimming until you are totally exhausted.
It doesn't matter how far you go or how soon you start to slow down. (I usually start slowing after 40 yards and make it about 300 yards before crying uncle.) The point is just to prepare your body and mind to the experience of a protracted sprint.
Push-Up-Sprint Superset: Get out on the deck and do a set of push-ups (or modified push-ups with your knees on the deck). Complete as many as you can, minus one or two. After doing your last push-up, immediately dive into the pool and perform a 50-yard sprint.
This little exercise will prepare you to begin a maximum-intensity swim effort when fatigued from prior non-swimming activity (similar to fighting through the surf and beating away fellow triathletes).
Sprint Plus Time Trial: After warming up thoroughly, swim a 50-yard sprint, rest 15 seconds at the wall, and then swim an evenly paced, maximum-effort time trial at your race distance. This is a good workout to do in the peak phase of training, within a few weeks of your race, because it is especially race-specific.
No-Stop Intervals: Complete a normal main set but without ever stopping. Instead of resting at the wall after completing an interval or set, push off and swim a slow freestyle stroke for half the designated rest period, then turn around and go back to the wall. Begin the next interval or set as soon as you reach the wall. There's no wall to hold onto during the race, so sometimes it's good to pretend there's no wall to hold onto in your workouts.
Long-Entry Swim Start: If possible, do at least one or two open-water swim workouts before each race. While you're there, replace your normal swim-start practice with a long-entry swim start. Position yourself approximately 100 yards from the water. Run as quickly as you can across the beach and into the water. Plunge forward and swim as hard as you can for one minute.
Hypoxic Sets: Complete a normal main set, but begin each interval with a hypoxic start—that is, by not breathing in the first six to 10 strokes. This will challenge you to regain control of your breathing during a high-intensity effort without slowing down. A triathlon swim usually begins in a state of oxygen deficit due to the anaerobic nature of sprinting into the water and fighting off fellow triathletes, and also due to sympathetic nervous system arousal.
Optimal race performance depends on preparing your body and mind as specifically as possible for the demands of racing. When you train for the triathlon swim as a straight time trial, you are not training as specifically as you ought to. But by adding the above methods into your training regimen, you will be.
Active Expert Matt Fitzgerald is the author of several books on triathlon and running, including Brain Training for Runners, Runner's World Performance Nutrition for Runners (Rodale, 2005) and Triathlete Magazine's Essential Week-by-Week Training Guide (Warner, 2006).