Let’s face it....an open water triathlon swim can be a bit uncomfortable.
Whether it’s the large crowds of people pushing or elbowing on the beach or in the water for precious space, the physical adrenaline rush of the race start, or simply the fact that swimming is potentially the most “dangerous” part of a triathlon, swimming problems are something every triathlete has to deal with.
Heck, I’ve personally been racing triathlons for nearly ten years, and I still get nervous before mass triathlon swim starts - not to mention a little apprehensive about what type of open water conditions I might experience. I’ve spoken with many experienced professional triathletes who still have occasional “panic attacks” during the swim, in which they simply need to stop swimming for a little while, tread water, and catch their breath and their nerves.
There are 5 primary problems that tend to be issues during the triathlon swim. So here they are, along with what you can do about each one.
The less prepared your body is to swim, the more likely you are to get short-of-breath, experience a panic attack, or simply have a less than stellar swim. An inadequate warm-up also means you may not be prepared for water temperature, water conditions, buoy sighting and other open water swim variables.
So what’s the perfect warm-up? If you are allowed into the water prior to the race, you should do 3-5 minutes of easy swimming, in which you stop a few times to adjust your goggles and make sure you know where the buoys are. Then thrown in 3-5 progressively harder efforts that last about 20-30 seconds each. Really go hard on these – as hard as you plan on starting for the actual race. Then cruise back to shore and get ready for the race start.
If you have no time or no ability to get in the water for a warm-up, then you can use my favorite “dry land” warm-up: 5 sets of 25 big, explosive jumping jacks, each separated by 5 push-ups and 5 arm swings in every direction. This is an easy one to remember and you can do it just about anywhere.
Ideally, you should know weeks or months before a race that the water will be cold, and if this is the case, you can condition your body with cold showers, cold baths and swims in cold water. The more cold exposure you can get, the less the cold water will bother you or cause you to be “breathless”.
It can sometimes be more energetically demanding to warm-up in cold water before a race, so I often resort to the dry-land warm-up I described above if the water will be cold, rather than warming up in the water. And remember - you should have also already warmed up for the run, and if transition area allows for it, the bike too – so you’ll be plenty warm by the time you actually get into the water.
In addition to a full sleeve wetsuit, you can also stay slightly warmer with a neoprene swim cap and booties (and some races even allow gloves, but ask first).
While cold water can leave you breathless, warm water can leave you overheated, panicky, and very uncomfortable. In warmer conditions for which a wetsuit may be optional, make sure you’re comfortable swimming in your wetsuit in warm water (you can test this in your local swimming pool if they allow). If you find yourself extremely uncomfortable in the wetsuit, then skip it. You can always wear a legal swimskin suit if you still want that extra speed.
For warmer water races, you may also need to swim more slowly than you had planned, and pay close attention to your heart rate and perceived exertion. If you find yourself overheating, become “panicky” or getting a rapid heart rate, then stop and tread water, and when you’ve recovered and caught your breath, keep going at a slower pace.
Dirty water is a personal pet peeve of mine. I simply don't relish the fact that I could be swallowing parasites, duck and goose poop, dead fish germs, or any other nastiness that is occasionally encountered in briny or stagnant water.
If I know the swim is going to be dirty, I take a few precautions. First, to boost my immune system and give myself some natural antibacterial activity, I use oil of oregano and Echinacea-goldenseal extract a few days prior to the race and a few days after the race. I put it in my mouth, hold it in there for 20-30 seconds, then wash down with a glass of water. I also do a digestive cleanse after the race with some kind of anti-parasite gut “sweeper”, such as Capracleanse.
Finally, I simply try to breathe less when I’m swimming in dirty water and when I do breathe, try to look behind me and over my shoulder – both of which result in less potential for swallowing nasty water.
Often, a race has either bright sun reflecting off the water into your face or foggy, poorly lit conditions. For the former situation, I wear tinted goggles, and for the latter, clear goggles. In other words – it helps to have a couple options for goggles, and to bring both to the race!
You may also find that other competitors, water chop or excessive waves block your ability to properly see buoys. In this case, use stationary objects on land that you can use for sighting, such as poles, trees, large buildings, or simply the beach or land along the body of water. You may also need to breathe more frequently and sight more frequently so you’re able to see where you’re going more often.
There’s also no rule that you can’t simply stop, tread water for a second, find the buoy, then keep going. Even the fast swimmers do this because they know that stopping for a moment saves time vs. swimming in “blind” zig-zag motions during the whole swim.
So those are the top 5 triathlon swim problems and what you can do about them. Do you have swim problems of your own? Comments or feedback or tips to add? Leave them below, and be sure to check out Pacific Elite Fitness for even more coaching tips and triathlon help!
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