“You can’t win the race in the water, but you can sure leave your race in there.” –Anonymous
There are three realities when it comes to triathlon starts: No two starts will be the same, everyone will experience at least one terrible start and every athlete has a different path to a perfect start. Kick off race day right by adding these skills to your swim-start toolbox.
Familiarize yourself with the course and starting area. Watch the waves in front of you to see how they go off—take mental note of the way the pack moves. If possible, do a couple starts during your warm-up routine. Important things to notice and factor into your own swim are currents in the water (caused by flow or wind), distance to the first turn buoy, width of starting area versus how many people are in your wave and the starting procedure (run, dive or tread water).
Choose a place to line up within your wave based on two factors: your swim ability and your race experience. Novice athletes and beginner swimmers are strongly encouraged to start at or near the back of the group to avoid much of the aggressive chaos right after the gun. Until you have no hesitation about being hit, kicked, pushed underwater and/or losing your goggles, then the back of the pack is smart.
Experienced athletes and strong swimmers should be near the front of the pack. If you are comfortable in the chaos but can benefit from a draft in the water, start in the second row, and let the group move you along—remember drafting is legal in the swim. A front-of-the-pack swimmer can benefit from starting to the outside edge to find some clean and clear water to save a few extra seconds.
Same goes for rolling starts: Better swimmers should seed themselves first, while beginners should enter toward the end of the line.
The Actual Start
Stay calm and control your effort just after the gun fires. With adrenaline surging and no real distance markers in open water, your breathing is the most accurate way to tell if your pace is sustainable. No one will remember the leader to the first buoy, but you’ll never forget sprinting too hard in the first 200 only to flip onto your back or hold onto a safety boat to regain your composure.
The First Turn Buoy
Being stuck in or behind a large group at the first turn buoy is similar to a traffic jam on the road: It doesn’t move! Fortunately, there are no rules regarding how close you have to swim around the turn buoy. If there’s a mass of people, swim 5–10 meters outside of the buoy to avoid the chaos and maintain your speed and position.