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How to survive the triathlon start

Kevin Koskella provides some triathlon swimming tips that will help you to survive the start of the race and, having done so, swim in a straight line.

The start of a triathlon can be nerve-wracking, tiring, intimidating, frustrating, and even discouraging. 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 to be 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, and 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. Do not 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. Do not 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 you are preparing for a race that has 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?

This is a major challenge to open water swimming (and even swimming in a pool with lane lines), and the key lies in one of our other fun challenges in swimming, breathing.

Here are some tips to help you swim straight:

  1. Doing alternate (or bi-lateral) breathing would go a long way toward 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 2 strokes on the left, 2 on the right, then go to 3 breaths left, 3 right. Then try 2 on the left, 1 on the right, 3-1, etc. Find what works 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 on each stroke and drive it forward
  5. Practice the One Arm Drill (in The Complete Guide), 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.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • KOSKELLA, K. (2007) How to survive the triathlon start. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 41/ April), p. 13

Page Reference

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

  • KOSKELLA, K. (2007) How to survive the triathlon start [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.