Triathlon Race Swim Tips

Swimming, January 29, 2020

Open Water swimming is a tough thing to grasp if you are new to the sport, in fact even some experienced athletes still struggle with it! Read on to find out what we recommend to work on your Open Water swim skills. Go away and practice these regularly so come race day you are ready to take on what ever the race gives you.

Build Confidence

This is very important.  Being comfortable and confident in a variety of water conditions will make your Triathlon race experience much more enjoyable and you will perform better for that.

Following are a few key tips that will help you build your confidence



The more open water swimming you do the better.  

Plan some open water training before the race.   If you aren't able to get to the race venue to practice then do some sessions at a location with a similar sea state.  Grab some training partners so you can simulate swimming close to others, and learn the affect drafting has.  If you aren't familiar with the location then check beforehand if there are any tricky currents or rips to be aware of.  If you are swimming on your own let someone know what you are doing and how long you expect to be, and use a Blue Seventy Tow Float so you can be easily seen from boats in the area.

Relax in the water and enjoy it

This may be difficult to do initially, but remember that you are wearing a wetsuit which is designed to keep you afloat.  Don't fight the water, feel it, know how it behaves, where your floating point is when you are treading water and don't forget to breath deep controlled breaths. Find out how enjoyable open water swimming actually is when you are in control.

Panic attacks do occur, but learn how to deal with them

Panic attacks happen, it may never happen to you, or it may happen regularly.  Panic attacks can even happen to the very best Professional Triathletes. I had my first panic attack a couple of years ago, after 25 years in the sport!  It was a horrible experience, but I got through it.  I actually wrote a Blog about it which you can read here.  The main thing is you have to stop moving, relax (yes it's hard to do that), put your hand up for a rescue boat to come to you, and take a few minutes to gather yourself.  It will pass and you will be back swimming a few minutes later like nothing happened.

Ditch the bilateral breathing

Breathing bilaterally (breathing to both sides) in a pool is an important part of your swim training.  It teaches you to develop a smooth and even stroke, and is a great way to limit and control your breathing for aerobic benefit.  But in the open water, especially a race situation, it is restricting you from performing to your best. Forcing yourself to breath every 3rd or 5th stroke means that you are restricting the air getting into your lungs which carries the oxygen your muscles and brain needs to operate on. When you are in a race you are working at a higher work rate than training too, so the demand for air is even greater.  

But don't forget how to breath bilaterally in the open water, as you need to be able to breath both sides to see what's going on around you, avoid waves and keep the sun out of your eyes. I actually find training to breath every stroke is even more useful as you aren't waiting seconds before your next chance to grab some air or have a quick nosey at the person next to you to make sure you're still right in their draft.

Practice in your wetsuit and fit it properly

Having a properly fitted wetsuit is so important to make your Open Water swim more enjoyable, and get the most out of your own performance.  A poorly fitted suit can be uncomfortable, restrict your movement and chafe your neck badly.  Check out this video on how to correctly fit your wetsuit.

Spend some time swimming in it in the pool before the Open Water and feel how it affects your arm movement and buoyancy.  Altered buoyancy can actually change the way you kick so you have to know what to expect when in a race.


Race Start

Check the waves

Triathlons tend to take place at very safe beaches for swimming and not often at a Surf Beach so you won't find massive rollers crashing in, but as with any beach there is a chance of an On Shore Wind and this may cause some chop to contend with.   Ocean or Lake swims can still get a decent chop.

Check your entry point

Most races are a Wave or a Rolling Start, which mean you run into the water to commence your swim. 

Before the race wade into the water up to about thigh depth, where you know you will be running to shortly, and check for drop offs, rocks or other debris and what the surface is like.  You will also be able to feel if there is much of a current to contend with.  Return to the beach to run in as you would in the start and find out how many steps it takes you to get to mid-thigh depth.  At this point if you are training you may want to start swimming, or if you are racing you may want to practice again, and a bit faster, maybe add a Dolphin Dive if the depth allows for it (more on this later).

You should also swim around for 5 minutes or so to warm your muscles up and elevate your Heart Rate, even do a few faster strokes to simulate the race effort you will be doing shortly.  This will do a lot to help calm the nerves and ready you for the task you're about to encounter.

Running into the water

Depending on the tide it may be a longish run to the water, 20-50m.  You don't want to take your first arm stroke already anaerobic as this is a sure way to create panic.  Instead you want to run to the water at a comfortable pace.  The faster and more competitive you are the quicker you will have to run, but if you are just wanting to get through the swim and keep within yourself then don't rush this.  

Run into the shallow water lifting your feet out to each side over the smaller waves so you are clearing the water.  As it gets deeper this will also get harder to do, to the point you will be slowed down, and working too hard, if you keep running.  At this point it's time to start Dolphin Diving.

In a Mass or Wave start  race, If you are a more nervous swimmer and don't want to get clobbered from an over-zealous swimmer, then just wait a couple of seconds after the starting hooter and let the melee go off ahead of you. All of a sudden the water will be clearer, people will be friendlier, the vibe a bit more chilled.  That could make all the difference for a great experience.

Dolphin Diving

A dolphin dive is a shallow dive where you push forward off the ground with your legs and dive just under the surface of the water. When dolphin diving, keep your head tucked between your outstretched arms with your biceps squeezing your ears. Do not look up. This is important for both speed and safety, and you will probably lose or dislodge your goggles as soon as your face hits the water. 

Start with shallow dolphin dives and push off the ground each time to propel yourself forward.

Dive under the waves breaking in front of you. As soon as the wave starts to form, dive deep enough to touch the sand with your fingertips. Find the calm spot under every wave and let the wave go over your head. Push forward off the ground so, rather than coming straight up, you continue to move forward the entire time.

Depending on the depth of the water you may have to do a few of these.  The Dolphin Dive is much faster than running, and done properly is faster than swimming too, so you should definitely do it if you get the chance to.  If you stop to think about it you will probably get knocked by a wave or another swimmer, so practice the Dolphin Dive a lot so you are comfortable with it.

As soon as you can't Dolphin Dive again it's time to start swimming.

Get swimming

As soon as you have to start swimming go for it and just keep going.  Keep in mind that there are probably dozens of people behind you, so stopping right now may result with an accidental bump in the back of the head.  Yes people will be knocking you and you will get bumped around a bit, but you trained for this.  The main thing is you are heading for the first Turning Can and hopefully getting a bit of a draft from a faster swimmer in front of you.

You will be surprised how quickly the Turning Can has come, and before you know if you have turned for home and having a great time.


Exiting the water

Some races are an M Shaped course, or Triangular, which requires you to exit the water at halfway, before reentering for the 2nd half of the swim. So having good exit technique can make for a much better performance.

Head for shore

As you round the Turning Can and start heading for shore you have to grab a sight of your exit point. You may still be a few hundred metres from shore, but the sooner you can sight it the better.  Hone in on this point and keep checking that you are online.  You don't want to be in the middle of a great swim only to find a lapse in concentration means you're heading off course in the final section.

As you get closer to shore you may even find there's a small swell behind you to help push you in.  Don't let up your effort as you near the beach, there may be a bit of flow back with the retreating waves, so that could stop you moving forward momentarily.

Terra Firma

As soon as you feel your fingers touch land take one more stroke and then stand up.  Try to avoid standing just because you see the sand beneath you, it may still be too deep.  

Once standing your first instinct might be to run, but you should start to Dolphin Dive, and continue doing so until you are certain the water is about knee deep.  Now is the time to stand and start running. 

Running out of the water

Keep in mind you have been horizontal for some time now, and probably working quite hard. So as soon as you stand up the blood may flow from your head, and you may feel dizzy, perhaps even stumble a bit.  Take your time regaining your balance here, slowly start jogging and bring yourself up to speed as you feel your legs again.


Congratulations, you're done....time to ride!