For many triathletes, the swim is a warm-up, something to merely be endured before buckling down to the serious work on the bike and run. There's nothing wrong with this approach; however, regardless of the love-hate relationship many triathletes have with swimming, a good swim can set you up—at least psychologically—for a great race.
Below are three tips to help you get a good start and begin the day on a positive note.
Train for the Lactic-acid Fest
Unless you purposely relegate yourself to the back of the pack (a good strategy for a beginning or slower swimmer) and let all the other swimmers go first, you will go into oxygen debt at the start of the swim.
Even before you hit the water, pre-event excitement or anticipation will likely have your heart pumping. Once the gun goes off, you'll scramble to find a quick pack of swimmers before bearing down on the first buoy and trying to hit the turn in a bit a clear water.
Regardless of the distance of the event you are racing, in an ideal world you would do your best to stay aerobic and swim easy at the beginning of the race, then gradually build up to race pace and maintain a steady effort.
Sounds great, but nothing is perfect, least of all a triathlon start. So what's a triathlete to do? Train for it. In workout sessions during the racing season I'll often have athletes swim longer race-pace sets of 200 to 500 meters where they take out the first 100 meters at a sprint to teach the body to process lactic acid before quickly recovering and settling into a sustainable pace. A weekly set of 8 x 200 or 4 x 500 with a quick start will help you become able to tolerate fast-paced starts.
Get in a Good Warm-up
There are several reasons why you want to include a solid pre-race warm-up before every event. First, you need to get used to the water temperature (cold or warm) and ensure that your swimming muscles are loose and primed for action. In addition, the swim warm-up provides a good opportunity to check out the water conditions.
Even if you were able to pre-swim the course in the days before the race, wind sweep, currents and surface chop can all vary from day to day. Once you have some sense of how the race-day conditions may affect your swim, you can find a starting position that will work for your speed, ability and goals.
If possible, you may also want to swim to the swim exit and check out the bottom and make note of obstacles such as rocks or debris that may impede your ability to run or dolphin dive (that series of running and shallow dives that resembles a dolphin's surface swimming) to the exit.
Finally, if the course was not set up in time for you to pre-swim it, you can stroke over to the first buoy, if permitted and practical, to check out landmarks that may be useful for sighting.
Find a Good Spot
When it comes to the start, there's no one-size-fits-all solution. What works for one athlete may be far less than ideal for another, so don't necessarily follow the crowd. You do yourself and other swimmers no favors if you seed yourself inappropriately.
Think in terms of a road race. Starting at the front line when you know you cannot run five-minute miles is not wise. You may feel like you get a great start and go faster overall, but you more than likely end up going out too fast and finishing with an overall slower time. In addition, you force faster runners to go around you, increasing the chance you may get bumped or tripped.
In the water it can be even worse. You may have faster swimmers plowing over the top of you, and you may end up in no-man's-land without a pack to pull you along.
Whenever the first leg of the swim is long (300 or more meters to the first buoy), you will have a better swim by starting a little wider and angling in so that you have less traffic and limit your chances of getting bopped in the head by someone's arm or foot.
There are other important aspects to having a fast swim. Navigation is vital since no matter how fast you swim, if you veer off-course your swim split will be slower than it should be. Effective navigation is all about efficient sighting, so learn how to incorporate sighting into your stroke.
Although drafting in swimming is legal, it is often overrated, and some swimmers spend too much time and effort looking for just the right feet to follow. The ideal person to draft behind is someone who is just slightly faster than you, does not kick much and swims straight—it can be challenging to find someone who fits the bill exactly, so swim your own race, and if a swimmer seems to be the right speed, take advantage of the draft for as long as you are able. Still, regardless of whose feet you're on, be sure you stay on course.