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Triathletes: Fear Not The Swim

Five tips and drills to help with the triathlon’s most daunting discipline


Chris Carmichael—The open expanse of water that greets triathletes at the beginning of a race can be formidable. For runners, cyclists and casual exercisers who are interested in triathlon, the intimidation factor of the swim is often strong enough to discourage entry into the sport. But the swim doesn’t have to be so scary. Overcome your apprehension with these five tips and some confidence-boosting drills.

Embrace your novice-ness
I have to admit, I hate being a novice at anything. It’s not that I don’t like trying new activities; I just don’t enjoy that initial “floundering” stage of the learning curve. I’ve observed a similar sentiment from many of the career professionals with whom my coaches and I work: They don’t like to suck.

To be a proficient swimmer and—more importantly—to be comfortable and confident in the open water, embrace the fact you’re a novice and start working with a skills coach and join a Master’s program. Initially, confidence is the goal. Once you know you can stay on top of the water for the entire distance of the swim, you’ve removed or minimized the biggest underlying fear of the swim: that you will drown.

RELATED: Avoid Swimming Anxiety In Your Next Race

Start with a pool triathlon
In a pool-based event, there’s no mass start, so you can focus on your swim performance without worrying about the thrashing mass of arms and legs. There’s a line on the bottom of the pool, so you don’t have to add the complication of sighting a far-off buoy. And the side of the pool is never more than 25 meters away, which means that even in your worst-case scenario, help is only seconds away. A pool-based triathlon can give you the confirmation that you have the technical skill and endurance to complete a triathlon swim, and once that competency is “checked off the list,” you’ll feel more comfortable starting an open-water triathlon.

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Start at the back of the pack
If you’re starting out in the sport and you’re intimidated by an open-water swim, the back is a good place to be. It’s less stressful, less chaotic and it gives you the opportunity to maintain a pace and effort you’re comfortable with. Even sighting is easier from the back because you not only have the buoy to look for, but also the wake and visual cue of the pack in front of you.

RELATED: Three Essential Open-Water Survival Tips

Use a variety of strokes
There’s no rule in triathlon that says you have to complete the entire swim in a standard crawl stroke; technically, you could dog-paddle the whole thing. There’s nothing wrong with switching to breast stroke or side stroke for a portion of the swim if it helps you regroup and remain calm. These strokes may not be as fast, but they get your face out of the water and keep you moving forward. Sometimes that’s all you need when you’re anxious or tired to bring your heart rate down a bit or catch your breath.

RELATED: Learn To Love The Pool (Really!)

Flip onto your back to rest
If you run into trouble in the water, the only way to take a break is to flip onto your back and float. It’s easier in a buoyant wetsuit, but you can still float on your back without one using little effort.

Being proactive with your swim prep—both mental and physical—will minimize your risk of getting into any dicey situations during a race and make for a more enjoyable experience that will have you wanting to come back for more.

Confidence-Building Swim Drills
Time-crunched triathletes have to get a lot done in a short time, and for novice triathletes that means developing fitness, technique and confidence in the water simultaneously. One way to boost confidence is to incorporate some race-specific drill work into your warm-up or cool-down. Try these:

Pack simulation: This requires three people. Have two of your fellow swimmers start off side by side in a lane. Stay on their feet for the length of the pool. To get an even more realistic simulation, add a fourth swimmer so you have two in front of you and one next to you. It’s also useful to have someone swim right on your feet, so you get familiar with the sensation.

Marco Polo drill: Once a week during your warm-up, swim a length of the pool with your eyes closed—or try to get as far as you can before you run into a lane line. Many athletes will consistently pull to one side based on an imbalance in their stroke. If your right arm crosses the midline of your body and your left arm doesn’t, for instance, you’re likely to pull to the right. This is important to know so you can work on swimming in a straight line and practice correcting yourself after veering off course—a frequent race scenario.

Chris Carmichael is the author of The Time-Crunched Triathlete and founder and CEO of Carmichael Training Systems (Trainright.com), the official coaching and camps partner of Ironman.

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