Of the three legs of triathlon, the swim is frequently the greatest cause of worry for many athletes both leading up to and on race day.  This is only natural because we are not born swimmers and it takes time, patience, and focused practice to become comfortable and proficient in the water.  The fact that there have been multiple deaths reported during the swim portion of several high profile events in recent years can add to the fears of an athlete who is already anxious in the water.  However, according to Dr. Lawrence Creswell, a cardiac surgeon at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and a leader in the recently published USA Triathlon Fatality Incidents Study, while the absolute number of fatal incidents during the swim segment has increased in recent years, the number of deaths has proportionally remained the same relative to the total number of participants in the sport; basically the odds of an athlete dying during the swim are not increasing.  Furthermore, the panel conducting the USA Triathlon study concluded that “the swimming fatalities appear to be caused by episodes of sudden cardiac death (SCD)…most often thought to be due to an underlying, often unrecognized, heart problem.”  The bottom line is that the swimming deaths are not an issue affecting beginners only; anybody could have an underlying heart abnormality, regardless of swimming ability.  So what can be done?

The increased awareness of the issue has facilitated a push to educate both race directors and athletes on what they can do individually to help minimize the occurrence of future swimming-related deaths.  While there is no “silver bullet” that will eliminate all swimming-related instances of sudden cardiac death, there are certain steps that athletes should take to ensure that they arrive at an event healthy and prepared for the challenges of the day.  Likewise, event organizers are responsible for designing courses with the athletes’ safety as the number one priority, including a specific and effective plan for how to respond to an emergency.  In a series of articles leading up to your REV3 event, I am offering advice to athletes on how to prepare for a positive open water swimming experience in the upcoming triathlon.  This initial article addresses things that you should already be doing in your training to get ready for the big day.

The first and most important step that an endurance athlete can take before training for and participating in a triathlon is to have a thorough medical check-up with an emphasis on heart health.  Chances are that you’ll pass with flying colors, but even if you feel perfectly healthy there can sometimes be undetected problems and it is best to be proactive and catch abnormalities early.  So have your heart checked regularly, and if you experience any unusual symptoms during training—chest pains, shortness of breath, lightheadedness or blackouts, abnormally elevated heart rate—then consult your physician.  Your health is your responsibility, and you owe it to yourself, your family, and the event organizers to make sure you are healthy enough to compete when you toe the starting line.

The next most important thing you can do to prepare for the swim is, quite simply, swim!  Lack of comfort and confidence in the water is the greatest cause for anxiety among newer swimmers.  The more anxious you are the more difficult it is to relax, and when you’re not relaxed you end up fighting the water instead of working with it.  Try to exhale in a controlled manner—blowing bubbles and humming underwater is a great way to do this.  The more frequently you get in the pool the more quickly you’ll build confidence and develop a feel for the water.  Aim for swimming a minimum of three days a week on a regular basis, and don’t hesitate to swim 4-5 times per week if your swimming needs extra work.  The more you swim, the faster you’ll improve!

Not only is the frequency of swimming important, but swimming with a purpose cannot be overlooked.  Hiring a coach to give you some guidance on stroke technique is invaluable, and you can also get some direction on how to structure your workouts.  Even better, swim with a group or join a masters swimming program.  Learn to use the pace clock.  Not only will you improve more quickly and open a whole new door in learning the language of swimming, you’ll also become more attuned to your body and accustomed to swimming in close quarters with other people, which in turn translates into being less overwhelmed by the congested mass of swimmers at the start on race day.

While you may still harbor some anxiety around swimming in general and open water swimming in particular, it’s reassuring to know that you can become more comfortable and efficient in the water if you commit and work at it a little bit.  Cover your bases and leave no stone unturned in preparing for your race; you’ll gain confidence by ticking off the boxes of things that are within your control.  You can start by confirming with your doctor that your heart is healthy, swim frequently and with other people, and have a qualified swimming coach give feedback on your stroke.  Incorporating these elements in your swim training won’t completely eliminate the risk of a sudden cardiac episode, but they will make you a better swimmer and help you fulfill your responsibility as an athlete to arrive at the starting line healthy, fit, and prepared to race.

In the next article we will talk about specific drills for open water swimming, including both pool simulations and skills to develop in the open water. 

Written By expert swimmer and Pro triathlete Malaika Homo