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Swim Tips for Triathletes

By Lisa Wolf

swimSwimming… it’s a love/hate relationship among triathletes. If you grew up as a swimmer, you can experience the thrills of being one of the first out of the water and hearing the crowd cheering for the front runners. For many, it’s something to be endured so you can get to your “happy place” on the bike or run.

Unlike running or biking, swimming is something that doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Humans are not aquatic based; we are mammals who are most comfortable in a vertical position, not horizontal. Add in an open water environment with murky water, wetsuits and a large crowd of thrashing swimmers, and it can be a very daunting proposition.

However, with proper training and expectations, you can have a great start to your race. Here are few items to consider:

  • Swim regularly. Most athletes like to do what they are best at (i.e. cycle or run) and are loath to spend time in the water because they don’t enjoy it or aren’t good at it.
  • Find a Masters team (www.usms.org) or a local triathlon club. Interview the coach and ask about his or her experience. As triathlon season approaches, I gear portions of my practices to open water events, which include skill sets (sighting buoys, crowd swimming and race strategies). Included are specific swim sets to mimic the elevated heart rate/adrenaline rush and then settle the swimmers into a steady state swim. Athletes also get “what to expect” race day talks and emails which includes advice about nerves, transitions and nutrition. 
  • Don’t overreach for your first events. Consider an event with a pool swim or a sprint triathlon with a short lake or river swim if swimming is not your strength.
  • Consider entering an open water swim event to gain experience and comfort in open water. This can be considered a training swim with less pressure of the ‘big day event.” 
  • Do NOT depend on your wetsuit as a floatation device. If you can’t comfortably swim the distance without a wetsuit, then don’t enter. Practice in your wetsuit several times prior to your event, as it completely changes your body position in the water, breathing pattern, and can cause anxiety if you are not familiar with it.
  • Invest in a few sessions with a swim or triathlon coach if you cannot join a group swim. Triathletes will spend thousands of dollars on bicycles, power amps, nutrition and running shoes, but skimp on the swim preparation. A few one-on-one sessions with a coach go a long way to making your triathlon successful. You will gain invaluable advice on swim technique and mental preparation that will allow you to expend less energy during the swim and build your confidence. 

The swim portion of a triathlon can be challenging but with proper training, preparation and knowledge, it can also be the start of a great personal accomplishment.

Lisa Wolf is a certified coach with USA Triathlon and USA Swimming. Her swimming background also includes a Level II ASCA certification and Level II certification with USMS.

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