Ohhh, the dreaded swim start. It is a cause of anxiety for many triathletes. But, employing just a few simple steps before the race ever starts, you can have a successful open water swim and transform that anxiety into speed and exit the water charged for the bike.
Race morning in and of itself is cause for anxiety, nervousness and excitement for most athletes. It’s why we do all the hard training, right?! No need to add extra stress by arriving late and getting in a time crunch to get your things set in transition, warm up, and get to the starting line. I recommend to all my athletes to arrive about 1.5 hour before the start of the race. If you arrive early, first of all, you get the prime spot on the bike rack! But not only that, you also have plenty of time to set up in transition and get to the swim start to perform a few simple tasks that will greatly reduce your anxiety before the gun goes off.
First, know the course. Observe the buoys and know which way to navigate around them. Most races have course maps posted on their web site, or will have a map in your race packet or posted somewhere at packet pick-up for you to study before race morning. So, confirm what you see in the water race morning, with what you studied on screen or paper.
Second, do a thorough land recon. Note where the actual starting line and swim exit are on the beach. If it’s near enough, (if you arrived 1.5 hours before show time, you have plenty of time to do this!) walk down to the exit and find something tall and stationary to sight on directly behind the swim exit. Swimming in the Gulf in SWFL makes for a very bright, sunny, hard-to-see swim exit! While at the swim out, check out the terrain you will be exiting. Go from thigh deep water where you will get back up on your feet, to well up on the beach. Are there shells, rocks, troughs in the water, ditches or holes on the beach to negotiate? Know the path to get back to transition. Repeat this terrain recon back at the swim start. Go well into the water, look for sandbars that may be too shallow to swim over, you will need to be prepared to walk.
Second, do a thorough water recon. Is there a current? Test this by “sitting” in the water, lifting your feet off the bottom and see if you move. This will determine where you line up on the beach and at what angle you swim toward the buoy. You can also observe this later by watching the athletes in the waves ahead of you. Are they getting pulled off course? You can then adjust accordingly. Is there incoming or out-going tide? Are there waves, swells? You may need to breath to only one side in order to avoid waves crashing in your mouth. You can time your swim exit with the waves to help carry you in to shore.
Third, warm up for the race by swimming. Most races allow this only until the first wave goes off, so if your wave is later, you should continue to move and stretch on the beach between your warm up and your start. Warming up in the water prepares your body for the sensation of the water, especially if it is cold, and prepares your neuromuscular system for the upcoming motor input. If you are about to swim, warm up with swimming, rather than running or biking. After I’ve warmed up, I like to float on my back to relax and calm my nerves and mind.
Fourth, mentally prepare. While waiting for your wave start, visualize yourself successfully completing the swim. “Hear” the gun go off, “see” yourself enter the water, navigate around the buoys, exit the water. If negative self-talk starts, put up your stop sign and turn it around to positive affirmations. Take some deep, calming breaths.
If you employ these techniques, you should stand ready at the start with a smile on your face, high-fiving your friends, ready to rock the swim. In How to Have a Successful Open Water Swim, Part 2, I will discuss techniques to use during the swim to have you exiting the water charged up for the bike.