The last few moments before the gun goes off to start a triathlon can be absolutely nerve-wracking: tension is high, swimmers are jostling for position at the start line, and the air is buzzing with anticipation for the day ahead. Even the most seasoned athletes have a hard time keeping their nerves from jangling before the start horn blares. While a case of the pre-race jitters is normal, you don’t want your anxiety to reach a level where it begins to negatively affect your race. This is especially crucial during the swim portion of the event since a swimmer’s ability to float and breathe effectively are directly related to staying calm and relaxed. Experience is the best teacher, but it helps to have an idea of what to expect beforehand and to have a plan so that your race morning goes smoothly without any additional stress. That way you can focus on doing the task at hand, enjoying the accomplishment, and having fun!
There are several things you can do on race morning before it’s time to hit the water to prepare for a successful swim. First of all, arrive at the race site early enough to allow yourself plenty of time to set up gear, warm-up, use the porta-potty, put on your wetsuit, drop off morning clothes bags, and get to the swim start. Listen to music if it helps you stay calm and focused, and take deep breaths to relax your muscles and slow your heart rate. I like to avoid high stress areas on race morning, so I’ll usually set up my transition spot and then go off to do a run warm-up somewhere nice and quiet on my own before heading to the swim.
If the opportunity to warm up in the water is available then by all means take advantage of it! One of the biggest favors you can do for yourself is to get in the water for a significant swimming warm-up of at least 10 minutes to acclimate to the temperature and find your rhythm. Warming up in the water also gives you a chance to see the swim course from water level if you haven’t already so you know what to look for once the gun goes off. If athletes are not allowed in the water for a swim warm-up, then a set of swimming bands is a good alternative to simulate a swim-like motion and warm up your arms. In cases where the air temperature is cold and you’re worried about getting wet and then standing around freezing while waiting for your wave to start, consider bringing a towel or jacket to wrap yourself up in and sipping a hot beverage to keep your core warm. Whatever you do, don’t underestimate the importance of a good warm-up!
For cold water swims, a full wetsuit works best to keep you warm. Wetsuits also provide extra buoyancy which a) reduces drag and makes you faster and b) is helpful for flotation if you find yourself in distress in the water. You can wear a neoprene cap or double up your swim caps to conserve body heat, and pulling your cap over your ears or wearing earplugs will also help. Neoprene booties are an option to keep your feet warm. If the water temperature is on the warmer end of the spectrum, you might prefer a sleeveless wetsuit, a speedsuit, or even just wearing your regular tri suit. Just because it’s a wetsuit-legal swim does not mean that you HAVE to wear a wetsuit! In any case, don’t forget to apply Trislide or some other type of lubricant to help prevent chafing around your neck, under your arms, and anywhere else that might rub. Also, make sure you have a good pair of goggles that don’t fog up and are an appropriate color for the conditions on race morning. Having properly functioning equipment will help your day go more smoothly and reduce unnecessary anxiety.
As your swim wave is lining up, it’s important to consider your swimming ability and comfort level in the water when choosing a starting position. If you’re a stronger swimmer and don’t mind turbulence and a fair amount of contact with other swimmers then you may be comfortable lining up front and center. If you’re a less confident swimmer then you’ll probably be safer choosing a spot off to the side or hanging towards the back of the group. Regardless of where you line up, if it’s an in-water start try treading water horizontally to create a little space around yourself so you’re not immediately tangled up with other swimmers. Remember to take deep breaths to lower your heart rate and calm yourself while you wait for the gun to sound.
Once you start swimming, stick with your race plan and avoid getting caught up in the frenzy and starting off too fast. If you’ve spent sufficient time training for the swim you’ll have a good idea of what sort of pacing is appropriate for you, and you’ll be attuned to what sort of physiological responses are normal for you when swimming at race pace. If you haven’t been able to put in some good training time then it’s probably best to start off conservatively and build your pace if you feel good. Find your rhythm and sight every 6-10 strokes to stay on course. Do your best to avoid getting flustered and keep swimming if you get bumped or kicked by another swimmer; stopping and starting again wastes energy and increases your chance of being run over from behind. However, if you experience any unusual symptoms such as chest pains or light headedness or you’re gripped by uncontrollable panic, then stop and roll over if needed, breathe deeply, and raise an arm to flag down a kayak for assistance. There is no shame in needing help and it’s better to be safe than to become another statistic.
If you prepare effectively for the swimming leg of a triathlon including having regular heart health check-ups, swimming frequently and with a purpose, practicing open water swimming skills and drills, and preparing mentally and physically on race day with a good swimming warm-up, you will be well on your way to having a successful swim and an enjoyable triathlon experience. Best of luck at the races!