Olympic Triathlon Training: Dealing with the Swim, Part 3

I have some fit friends and some fit people on the fringes. When I talk to these marathoners and century riders about trying a triathlon, even a sprint it’s clear its the swim holding them back. So I’m sharing a section of my triathlon training guides that deals with just that!

I’m talking really fit people sure your regular marathoners, some qualifying for Boston in their late 50’s. But also my friend’s husband that was running as an elite 6 months after going for his first jog. Cycling junkies doing real (160 km) centuries every weekend as a club. 500+ hour ashtanga yoga teachers and mountain bike racers who also run with legs and biceps like tree trunks. These people are racers, competitors, adrenaline junkies with crazy FOMO who say they would like to try a tri but the swim is standing in their way.

I’m here to tell you that if this is what’s holding you back it doesn’t have to, but I get it. You tell me you sink, you only doggie paddle or your afraid of water that is over your head, dark or not in a pool. You can literally hire (or youtube) anyone to do anything. Go down to your local pool and hire a teacher for a few private lessons or recruit a strong swimming friend like me. Hell, go to a beach with guards when it’s raining. When I was a guard the break from the boredom and the chance to get warm moving would have been welcomed!

The section that follows is from my triathlon training plans (olympic and sprint) and takes up just one of the 27 pages. Here’s how you get prepared for the swim! After that we’ll talk about what a triathlon swim really looks like.


General Swimming Tips: 

The swim… No other part of the triathlon inspires as much fear and anxiety as the swim. The open water with a dark bottom, the scrum of people swimming on top of each other, the chance you’ll be hit by another swimmer’s limb and add to that the anxiety that builds as you stand at the start line waiting. Most come to triathlon from running or cycling and endure the swim portion, to be honest I was the least worried about the swim as a former competitive swimmer, diver and lifeguard and I had to slow down my breathing and take a break during my first sprint. Unless your in it to win it hold back a few seconds and avoid the scrum. You can pass people later.

So let’s talk about how to progress through your swim workouts, stokes and safety. If your swimming at a pool there will be a guard on duty. But if your swimming in open water which I recommend since it mimics race day and is free there are a few safety things to keep in mind. The not eating half an hour before is a good idea but I’ve never seen anyone go under with a bad cramp. More likely exhaustion or a current will get you into trouble. If your swimming in the ocean ask surfers about rips and currents they will know, and it might be why they are there. Should you be dragged out in a rip, don’t panic swim along the beach and let it drag you out, you’ll eventually get out of the rip and you can swim back in then. If you hear thunder get out before you see the lighting. Swimming parallel to the shore, rather than shore out that way your always close to shore if you need it. It’s best to take someone with you to watch you, even better if they are a strong swimmer. Swim where there are people around and even let a stranger know your plan that way they will have their eye on you should you get into trouble. Look up what lakes and beaches are guarded and what hours. Never, ever, swim after dark.

The traditional stroke for the triathlon is a modified front crawl or freestyle stroke. It involves keeping your head up every 2 or 4 strokes so that you can sight. You will likely have to go around a buoy a ways in the distance and so you have to aim for it. Also there will be other swimmers, ideally you will be passing them and so you will need to know where they are too. Another option for your first race especially is the the breaststroke which gives lots of sighting opportunities but is a bit slower. For training and your race its a pretty safe plan to start with breast and transition to a heads up crawl when and if you feel comfortable. The swim will be your shortest event more than likely and so staying with a slower stroke a bit longer won’t cost you a lot of time. Swimmers during a triathlon swim will also make and attempt to save their legs for the bike and the run and try to get as much power as possible out of their arms, another reason for cross training! One of the easiest ways to do this is to keep your fingers tightly closed so you move as much water as possible with those arms each and every stroke. While training keep this in mind and focus on your arms and maintaining a conservative kick.

Fear of water:

Lots of people have a fear of open water in one way or another. It can be water that is ‘over your head’ or ‘dark water’. A long, long time ago I used to be a lifeguard and swimming teacher which in Canada requires a lot of standardized training. There are a number of things you can do to get over this fear from the swimming teacher world which happen to overlap with the phobia therapy world, and that basically boils down to taking it slow. When I was teaching a student to swim at a location like this we would follow a progression that would go something like this.

1. Go to a location that scares you and get in as much as you feel comfortable

2. With a life jacket (PFD) style and a pool noodle pick the first spot that scares you and aim for that, then go a bit further and then scurry back to shore

3. Wearing the same gear go to that second spot and hang out for three minuets, then scurry back to shore

4. Go out further than that point hang out for 5 minuets or until your anxiety goes down and swim a few strokes, as best you can with a PFD and noodle before returning to shore.

5. Repeat steps 2 – 4 with just the PFD

6. Repeat steps 2-4 with just the noodle

7. Repeat steps 2-4 with just you

With this process go as slow as you need to over as many visits as it takes. It’s okay to go back a few steps each visit or if you anxiety is raising rather than lowering as you move to the next step. Make sure to take a patient friend who isn’t scared and a strong swimmer with you who will get in and encourage you. Bonus points to them if they go with the same outfit! You can even hire a swim teacher from a local pool or a phobia therapist if you need to. As a swimming teacher and on slow days as a life guard I got asked to do this sort of thing all the time. The swim comes first in triathlon when race day nerves are at their highest. I recommend doing as much of your training in open water as you can so start on this early. On race day there will be lifeguards in the water with you some with boards, some in canoes some with flotation devices. More than likely one or two swimmers will need to be pulled out due mostly to a panic attack. Deal with this early so that won’t be you.

If you’re interested check out my Etsy shop for more information.


What does a triathlon swim look like, hype vs. reality

It’s not that bad, really it’s not. First of all recognize that all the scary posts you’re reading are written by people who are also scared by the swim and they are talking about the front of the pack. And by the way, they are pretending that they, and you are on your way to winning. Let’s get this out of the way, in general triathlon people take themselves far too seriously!!!! See all the extra exclamation points. You’re probably not going to win your first one or your third one if you do let’s just agree it will be a happy surprise.

The front of the pack at the very start of a BIG race can be like they say, limbs flying everyday churning the water white. Kicks in the face an elbow to the head. But… there is no reason for you to be there. Hang back even 30 – 40 seconds and you will be essentially swimming by yourself. Except that you won’t be, a few other stragglers will be not too near you. Also, there will be life guards surrounding you the entire way. Some in boats, some on paddle boards and some in the water. In a sprint it’s typically once around the bouy, and two laps for the olympic so your not really ever as far out as you think you will be. Think about this for a second, for safety and liability reasons a life guard has to be in catching distance to you the WHOLE TIME.

So say you’re doing awesome and you’re catching up to that scary front line of swimmers, good for you. The thing is by the time you get there it’s not scary anymore. Some of the slower swimmers that insisted on starting at the front have dropped back and you’ve already passed them. That crowd has thinned and spread out due to the natural abilities of those front line swimmers. By the time you get to the front it will feel a lot like when you started at the back. No kicks, no elbows. Chances are you are not in a huge race with thousands of competitors either but rather a smaller community race with a couple of hundred. It’s a big lake/ocean and there is plenty of space so no one has to swim on top of each other. It’s not that bad I promise!

But it’s not all sunshine and butterflies either. The worst part, the part that still gets to me as a former competitive swimmer and lifeguard is 100% mental. You know those race day jitters that get you going out too fast and bonking on your road race. They start building the week and the night before you line up. The morning of its only gotten worse. But they are also race specific, maybe 5k jitters barely register anymore but lining up for your first 1/2 or full feels like 10 coffees all at the same time. Then there is the pre-amble speech that you don’t listen to but rather fixate on what’s about to happen, but today you’re in a bathing suit. Now it’s time to run into the water and that’s when people panic.

But it’s really not as bad as you expected. That wetsuit your wearing is giving you an unreal flotation boost, the thicker the suit the bigger the boost. Double check the rules of your race though for maximum thickness allowed. Your pulse might be through the roof, your breathing rapid and shallow so you stick with breaststroke at the start, maybe even heads up. But with in a few hundred meters you realize it’s not that bad. But your body hasn’t yet received that message, your heart is still racing and your breathing like an asthmatic in pollen season. That’s OK it will take a few hundred more meters for your body to calm down, then you can put your head in and transition to your planned stroke. If the panic is really bad, pull over if you can, but just tread water for a bit and calm down. A guard will likely come check on you (and likely offer some encouragement) but take the time you need let your brain and body settle and continue on. This will all be over in half an hour, 15 minuets if it’s a sprint.

Don’t let the swim hold you back

You just have some extra training to do. Think back on your previous accomplishments, you can do this too! Prepare physically and mentally for the swim and you’ll be fine. Recognize that you might have some panic the day of and why that might happen, its normal. Start later, start slow with breast stroke, tread water if you have to. This only adds to the sense of accomplishment you’ll have when you cross the finish line. It’s one of the worlds best feelings, like getting married or graduating when you complete something you really truly thought you would never be able to do!

So fellow triathlon people is this good advice and what other tips would you offer if it’s the swim holding someone back from giving a tri a try?



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