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Surviving the Triathlon swim section

Kevin Koskella provides some practical advice for the swim section of the triathlon.

The start of a triathlon can be nerve-wracking, tiring, intimidating, frustrating, and even discouraging, but do not let all this get to you! The start for everyone is a crazy cluster of splashing, starts and stops, physical contact, and swimmers trying to separate from each other.

Here are some tips for dealing with what some consider being the most challenging part of any triathlon:

1. Expect the worst. Go into the event, expecting that the start will not be easy. Know that you will bump into people, others will bump into you, but 99% of the time, it is all by accident. Also, know that the chaos at the beginning will not last for the entire swim; it will break up quickly as different speed swimmers separate.

2. Prepare. Learn the course before the gun goes off. There is nothing worse than having to wonder which way to turn around the upcoming buoy.

3. Don't panic. Keep your breathing from getting short. Stay as relaxed as you can while everyone else tries to get pole position. Do not let others being frantic affect your state of mind, and realize that 99% of the other swimmers are just trying to find some open water and are not out to hurt you!

4. Stay to the outside. Many will try to stay to the inside, as close to in line with the first buoy as they can get. Don't follow the pack. Start outside and work your way in as you approach buoy #1. You may not get perfectly clean water, but you will save yourself from much of the madness.

5. Run until the water level is at your knees. This will maximize your time on land without being slowed by running through water.

6. Use shorter strokes to get through the chop. If you are swimming in the ocean and it is a choppy day, this technique helps tremendously. Once you get to some smoother water, go back to long strokes to maximize efficiency and conserve energy.

7. Practice. Swim in the open water often when preparing for a race with an open water start. The more experience you can develop getting used to the conditions and variables in open water vs pool swimming, the better off you will be mentally on race day.

How do I swim straight in the open water?

Here's a quick guide to swimming straight:

  1. Only doing alternate (or bi-lateral) breathing would go a long way towards making you swim in a straight. If you are comfortable with this, breathe every three strokes, and you will be much more in line with where you want to go.
  2. If you cannot get enough oxygen while breathing bilaterally, this can be a big problem on a distance swim. Practice swimming and breathing two strokes on the left, two on the right, then go to three breaths left, three right. Then try two on the left, one on the right, 3-1, etc. Find what works for in keeping you in line and stick with that plan in your race
  3. Practice sighting less often, as this will disrupt your stroke rhythm and balance
  4. Keep your strokes long and extend that arm out in front of each stroke and drive it forward
  5. Practice the One Arm Drill and pay attention to your arm pull, making sure you are not crossing in with your hand
  6. Practice open water swimming. Being used to the environment will get you more comfortable, and you will intuitively pick up on swimming straight out there

Should I wear a wetsuit?

It depends on if wetsuits are allowed in the race. Most of the age group races allow wetsuits. In this case, by all means, use a wetsuit! You will be able to withstand cold water and be given the gift of buoyancy by your apparel, which will make it a lot easier to get through the swim.

Can I swim another stroke besides freestyle?

Yes. Although freestyle is the fastest and most common stroke in triathlon, beginners may benefit from an occasionally few strokes of backstroke or breaststroke to regain their breath.

It's my first race. Where should I line up at the beginning of the race?

Stay towards the back and to the outside (away from the first buoy). If you start in the pack, you will get clobbered and likely lose more energy fighting against the conditions than if you get cleaner water and take the first buoy a little wider.

Should I use a heart rate monitor?

If you are used to using a heart rate monitor when you train, it may help you during a triathlon at specific points, like transitions, to keep your heart rate from getting too far out of whack. However, for the swim, it will be impossible to look at your watch and keep track of your heart rate while you swim and try to see where you are going at the same time.

How often should I "sight"?

First of all, find out how many buoys there are and learn the course before your race. This will limit the number of times you need to pop your head up to see where you are. Ideally, you can find an object like the swimmer in front of you, or the next buoy, to focus on when you lift your head. Otherwise, taking a peek every 6-8 arm cycles should be adequate.

How often should I breathe during a race swim?

If this is your first race, don't get hung up on this. Breathe when you need air, even if that means every two strokes. However, as you get a race or two under your belt, learn to take a bilateral breath or every three strokes. This will help with navigation and keep you a little straighter.

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • KOSKELLA, K. (2006) Surviving the Triathlon swim section [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Kevin Koskella coaches masters and triathlete swimmers in San Diego, CA. He operates the website, a resource for beginner to intermediate level triathletes looking for help with swimming. This article has been produced here with his kind permission.