It is normal to have mixed feelings about the swim portion of a triathlon. Even experienced triathletes can feel nervous about the washing machine-experience that is the swim start. But with the right guidance you can make a first-class start.
Prepare by doing race simulation in the pool and in open water. "During the start of the swim there is so much mayhem," says former Olympic swimmer Chris Hauth, now a triathlete and coach (aimpcoaching.com).
"If you start off by pushing harder and then settling into a more manageable pace once the crowds have thinned, you are likely to have a better swim time," he says.
Jump right in
Workouts that mimic races can give you the edge you need. "Choose one swim per week where, without a warm-up, you jump in and swim 400m front crawl fast," says Hauth.
"Simulate the uncomfortably fast swimming right at the beginning of a race, then gradually swim another 400-600m, slowly stretching out the stroke and settling into your distance freestyle pace."
Pick up the pace
Former pro triathlete and triathlon coach AJ Johnson recommends swimming 25m as hard as you can, holding your pace throughout. The objective is not to increase your distance but to do the 25m faster.
"Every week to two weeks you should see an increase in your speed," he says. Practising sprints will allow you to teach your body to recover faster and find its rhythm after an initial hard effort.
Time your tempo
Using a swim tempo trainer can also boost your swim speed. [A tempo trainer, worn on the goggle strap or under your swim hat, emits a beep to help regulate your stroke.]
"Use the trainer in the pool first for measurement and to find your rhythm," says Johnson. "Set your trainer for a higher tempo so you have a higher turnover for speed. When you hit the open water, use the same cadence as you use in the pool.
"You won't necessarily swim at the same speed but you will swim at the same effort. One can match stroke count and effort for speed workouts and hit the same tempo in the open water."
Warm up, stay cool
Warming up is also vital for a good swim start because it gets the blood flowing and prepares your body for the race. Warm up slowly in your wetsuit, including a few intervals at race pace at the end of your warm-up.
"Being warmed up for the start of the swim makes a big difference," says Hauth. "You get a good sense of what the water temperature and conditions will be like. Warming up on dry land (swinging your arms or going for a short jog) is also fine."
Get to the race venue early enough so that you have plenty of time to warm up properly. "Unless you are a very strong swimmer who can warm up once the race starts, plan on a good 10 to 12 minutes of warming up before the race and, ideally, complete it 15 to 20 minutes before the start of your event," says Hauth. "You'll want your heart rate to come down again and your body to be completely rested prior to a big start effort."
Choose your spot
Starting in the right spot is also critical to a faster start. "If you choose carefully you can avoid the experience of hundreds of people swimming over you. This can be quite daunting, especially when you still have a full race ahead of you," says Hauth.
Weaving around slower swimmers also wastes energy and might mean you swim longer than the race distance.
The waiting game
You could also try waiting. This can work for first-timers or those anxious about the prospect of being kicked. "It is worth waiting a minute, especially in an Ironman, for clearer water so you can settle into your stroke and rhythm," says Hauth.
Find the right feet
Finding feet to follow can be an effective way to boost your swim but only if you find the right feet. "Drafting is a controversial strategy in the swim," says Hauth. "It can slow some people down. If you are caught behind the wrong draft group, one that slows down later in the swim, you have no chance to draft in a way that's beneficial."
Finding a draft isn't a necessary priority but seize the opportunity if it comes along. "A better idea is swimming harder at first, letting things spread out and then noticing who remains steadily ahead of you," says Hauth. "The best draft is one that keeps you challenged - a little too fast, just good enough to give you a great result."
The swim start can throw up surprises but if you follow our suggestions you'll be better prepared for whatever is thrown - or kicked - at you.