The flailing arms and feet, churned-up water and apparent absence of all decorum that mark the beginning of an open-water swim can put new triathletes off.
It's been a problem for newcomers to the sport for a long time, but race organisers have begun to take note and act - novice waves have been introduced at many races around the country.
"Triathlon can be daunting for newcomers," says Darren Roberts, triathlete, coach and author of How Triathlon Ruined My Life (Upfront Publishing, £9.99).
With this in mind he has just launched Rookie Training Days with Staffordshire-based Chase Race (www.chaserace.co.uk).
"Even though rookies make up 80 per cent of race competitors, in the past they just have not been catered for. Our Rookie Training Days are a great way to ease the transition from pool to open water and from sprint to Olympic distance - as well as boosting confidence and know-how - making it all more fun, friendly and enjoyable. We've introduced rookie waves at our races and hope other organisations will do the same." We went along to a Rookie Training Day to find out more.
It's made clear early on that preparation is paramount. Have a checklist to ensure you don't forget anything. "Halfway through one open-water swim I remembered I'd left my cycle shoes in the van," recalls coach and former British triathlon champion Rick Kiddle (www.rickkiddle.com)."I spent the rest of the swim planning the quickest way to sprint to the car park and back. A ticked list means you can focus 100 per cent on the race."
Practise transitions. Then practise them some more. Lay everything out in order of use. Ensure sunglasses are laid open, inside the bike helmet, which should be positioned so it can be lifted straight onto your head. Set your bike up in a low gear, facing the direction of the bike exit.
Lay out your cycling and running kit to one side of, or behind (never underneath) the bike. A bright towel or mat behind your back wheel will help you find your bike when you're disorientated after the swim. Look for other immovable landmarks to help you find your spot.
Perform a pre-race warm-up to ensure your bike is race-fit. Check your tyres for 'about-to-happen' punctures, such as cuts, which often have small stones embedded. Keep a safety pin in your kitbag so you can prise these out.
Master parasympathetic breathing - taking in air slowly through the nose and out through the mouth. This will help you feel calm and it also oxygenates your body in preparation for racing, says Kiddle. Practise until you can perform three or four of these breaths in a minute. Do this while treading water before moving into the deep-water start position, floating on your front, hands gently sculling.
Don't bother putting plastic bags over your feet to help you put on your wetsuit. "You simply need to shift the material away from your extremities and onto the body," says Kiddle. "So aim for the leg cuffs to sit two to three finger-widths higher than your ankle bone, with the arm cuffs the same distance from your wrists. Keep adjusting the suit until it feels right." This may not be clear to you until you are in the water. Do at least four to five minutes of swimming to warm up, including some stretching out and short efforts to raise your heart rate.
Check that the 'inner flap' of material is tucked neatly inside the zip of your wetsuit - otherwise it can catch as you try to unzip. Ensure the cord end is fastened to the Velcro patch on your lower back, within easy reach.
It's important that you practise swimming in your wetsuit rather than simply training in the pool and donning your suit only on race day. You'll benefit from extra buoyancy but the suit's material will tire you out if you haven't done at least three open-water swims before the race. To help reduce fatigue, perform your arm recovery with a slightly straighter arm. This uses the flexibility of the suit under the arm to your advantage.
Always have two pairs of goggles in your kitbag - one with tinted lenses for sunny days and the other with clear lenses for dull weather. Store them in protective cases to prevent scratching and damage. And don't simply take them out, pull them on and dive in: a hot face plus cold water inevitably equals steamed-up lenses. Before you race, spray anti-fog solution on each lens, then run the goggles through water before putting them on.
Taking the plunge
Don't shock your body by leaping straight in. "Entering cold water quickly takes the blood away from the heart and brain - so do it slowly," says Kiddle. "Acclimatise by walking into the water if possible, so your feet and legs become used to the temperature. Dip your hands in, then splash water onto your face and neck before immersing yourself up to your shoulders."
Adopt a slow, steady swim style, breathing to one side. To ensure you stay on track (and if breathing to the right), 'sight' by briefly lifting your forehead and eyes as the right arm is extended in the water and about to pull. Think of the mantra 'breathe and sight and breathe and sight.'
Save your legs so they are fresh for the run. Keep them together, trailing but still horizontal, and let the buoyancy of your wetsuit act as a pull buoy.
Start kicking for the last 20 to 30 metres; this will pump blood into your legs, preparing you for standing up and running.
As you complete your last arm pull, grab the neck of your wetsuit and scoop up water in one swift move. This will ease the material away from your skin and make it easier to remove.
Master removing your suit in less than 20 seconds. While running out of the water, reach up and behind with your left hand to undo the Velcro tab behind the wetsuit neck and continue to hold. (If you let go, it will snap shut and stop you unzipping.) With your other hand, reach behind for the cord and start unzipping. With your left hand still holding on to the Velcro tab, yank the wetsuit material just over the left shoulder, no further, and then use your left hand to do the same with your right shoulder, but roll it all the way off. Then take the right hand to the material on the left side and repeat rolling it off. Pull the upper part of the wetsuit down to your waist, then run to transition.
As you reach your bike pull the wetsuit from the side over the hips and down the thighs. Then move from one leg to the other, lowering the material 'concertina-style' to below your calves. Don't turn the material inside out - it will just make the wetsuit even harder to remove. Practise kicking your legs free. First bend the supporting leg and kick the other free - then use your free foot to stand on the wetsuit and 'snap-kick' your other leg free.
On your bike
Have a professional bike 'fit' to ensure you and your bike are working in harmony. "Swimming and running are all about technique and training - but cycling is equipment-led," says Mike Taylor, owner of Bridgtown Cycles in Cannock, Staffordshire (www.btownbikes.com). "A correct fit will boost your cycling performance by five per cent and - because you'll feel fresher and pain-free - your run by 10 per cent."
You can also pre-empt problems or repairs by having your bike serviced every six months. Ask if you can watch to learn at least a little about its mechanics.
Learn simple but essential procedures such as changing an inner tube and putting the chain back on. Park Tools' Big Blue Book of Bicycle Repair (£23.99) has step- by-step guides to solving many problems.
Always carry a spare inner tube, pump and tyre levers - and know how to use them.
Invest in cycling shoes and pedals. "A fixed shoe allows you to 'lock on' to your bike and pedal more efficiently - improving your times by 20 to 25 per cent," says Taylor. "Once mastered you'll never go back. Practise on a turbo trainer or leaning against a wall, then move on to cycling with one foot clipped in and building up speed before clipping the other into place. Expect to pay £50 for shoes and £30 for pedals.
Use thin elastic bands to keep your cycle shoes in place on your pedals in transition. Slip the elastic through the heel loop of the shoe, then fasten to the crank arm of the chainset. Once you start pedalling the elastic will snap or come off.
Become familiar with every inch of your machine. "I know if my saddle has been moved a fraction of a millimetre," says Kiddle. "Find an empty open space - a car park is perfect - and pedal around slowly to improve your balance and emergency stops. Practise slowing, stopping, then moving off again, using low gears and your front brake to maximise control."
Don't neglect cornering; every aspect of your cycle needs practise. Approach the corner wide, then go through its apex creating a straight line. Keep the inside leg up and the outside leg down on the pedal.
For the run
Forget socks. "They're pointless for runs less than Olympic distance," says Roberts. "A little talcum powder sprinkled into your trainers makes them much easier to pull on to wet feet." But he likes to wear socks for anything beyond Olympic distance.
"If you use elasticated laces ensure that you practise with a hot and sweaty foot to be certain the laces open enough and that your foot doesn't scrunch up the inner sole," says Kiddle. "I use a lightweight racing shoe and take out the inner sole. But I run on my forefoot and I know the shoes don't rub."
"Warning - elasticated and locking (those with knots in) laces can speed up putting on your trainers but they can snap in the adrenalin-fuelled haste of transition," says Roberts. "My advice? Go with normal laces, cut down in length, with a toggle on the end. The toggle automatically locks the laces in place when you pull them tight."
You'll need fuel for anything more than a super-sprint distance, says Kiddle. Take a gel before the race or grab one in transition and run with it until you reach the water station, when you can guzzle it down.
Alternatively, save transition time by taking a gel while on the bike, suggests Roberts. "Tape the gel to your bike's top tube across the part you normally rip off. 'Work' the gel off and squeeze it into your mouth like it was a toothpaste tube."
Most run legs offer a water stop. Always grab a mouthful even when you don't feel you need it, says Roberts.
Don't judge your performance against what everyone else is doing. Set your own goals and aim to improve on them next time. And don't be fooled by appearances. "Just because someone looks the part and has all the kit doesn't make them more of a triathlete than you - don't be intimidated," says Roberts. "I've watched professional triathletes leave transition on the wrong bike and start the run with helmets still on. You're racing the race, not each other."
Chase Race Rookie Days, sponsored by Aquasphere and Science in Sport, are held in Barton Marina, Staffordshire, and Blue Seventy Lake in Reading. They cost around £70. For more details visit www.chaserace.co.uk.