Q: How can I avoid getting kicked in the face during the swim start?
A: The swim start in a triathlon is a nerve-racking time for most triathletes. It is a mesmerising moment for spectators, as it looks like a majestic monster thrashing away in a wave of white water, but if you’re a triathlete in the middle of the chaos, you should know how to take care of yourself.
As a simple rule, if you are not a confident swimmer then you need to stay to the side or to the back of all the other swimmers. This will dramatically reduce your chances of being kicked by another swimmer. However, some races have limited space and if everyone is going to the back then this strategy isn’t going to help you much – and you’ll be a long way back from the start line.
You can ask others around you if they have done a triathlon before and what time they expect to do for the swim. If you do this it will help you to relax you and also give you an indication whether you’re in the right area of ability. If everyone around you seems faster than you, move further back. If others seem to be nervous and roughly the same ability as you then stay near them as they are less likely to bump into you.
If there is a countdown to the start of the race – for example one minute, or 30 seconds – then float onto your front with your feet up behind you, your arms out to your sides and your head out of the water looking forward. The wetsuit will help to give you buoyancy and the starfish shape you are forming will keep people at an arms’ length away from you. Having your feet up will stop people getting too close to you and even swimming over you, and help you to start faster. If you are treading water in a vertical position when the gun goes, you’ll find it harder to get started and because your legs aren’t up other swimmers are more likely to swim over you as they only have your head and shoulders to climb over. Practice this start position in open water and swimming pools so you are used to it.
A final technique is to keep your head up for the first few strokes at the start of the race. Not only will this make it easier to see where you’re going in the initial, busy stages of the swim, it also means that your head is out of reach of other people’s feet. However, having your head out of the water does present a problem. Unless you have practised swimming with your head out of the water, your legs will drop when you lift your head. With practice you can still keep your legs and feet high in the water with your head out of the water swimming like a water polo swimmer, which is also how you should sight to see where you are going.
Turning points are also likely to be congested and this is another area where you could potentially get kicked in the face, so swim wide of any buoys to avoid swimming too near to others. Remember also that it is very easy to push someone slightly to give you more space. By pushing someone in the hips they will move quite easily away from you. A final tip is to wear your goggles under your swim hat. That way if you do get kicked in the face at least your goggles won’t come off your head.
Ralph Hydes is a running, duathlon and triathlon coach. He has helped numerous athletes reach international level competition, including Sir Rocco Forte, who has become one of the top athletes in the world for his age group, and who Ralph has trained since 2001. Ralph offers one-to-one coaching and designs individual triathlon training programmes. He is also the author of the DVD, “Flexibility for triathletes and runners”. Find out more here.
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