A few years ago, watching an open-water swim left a lasting impression on me. It was at the Cayuga Lake Triathlon in Ithaca, NY, where my wife, Alice, was participating in the 1.5K relay leg.
I watched five waves, each with some 80 participants, start the swim. Each time the same pattern unfolded: Following the start, 10 percent of the field swam steadily and confidently down the course. Another 20 percent swam reasonably well in their wake. Fully 70 percent swam uncertainly at best, barely at all in some cases, stopping frequently, switching to breaststroke, turning on their backs. Generally they took 5 to 10 minutes to settle their nerves before making steadier progress.
Alice, a skilled swimmer with 30 years of pool experience, who had swum two miles and more at Total Immersion Open Water camps, was among those who looked overwhelmed and unable to swim at anything like her true ability until the field spread out.
New triathletes have a right to be a little timid when it comes to the open-water swim. Even 2008 Olympic open-water silver medalist David Davies said he felt "violated by people swimming all over me." If an Olympic medalist feels that distressed, what chance does a triathlete have of being comfortable in a chaotic swim start?
Actually, a very good one.
When it comes to swimming, the majority of triathletes have a more urgent need to learn how to be comfortable than to increase speed or fitness. Here's my four-part prescription for new triathletes to maximize their chances of a safer, happier swim in their first race and every race.
1. Learn Balance. This is the primary skill that gives you a sense of having control over your body in the water. In TI, balance is the foundation for every subsequent swimming skill. Learning to control that sinking legs sensation gives you confidence you can learn to control other things—like anxiety in open water. And feeling support for the water brings an overall sense of calm.