Races are the exciting part of your journey, an opportunity to put all of your training, focus, and intent into action. After months of dedicated, hard work amid the rest of your busy life, you have the chance to execute your goals. Although you might prioritize training around specific races (A versus B races), any race is a chance to prove your mettle on the racecourse.
You must have a race plan, but you can’t expect everything to go according to that plan. Even in training, things go wrong or differently. Ultimately, you must execute a race with the cards you are dealt that day. A wide variety of situations can come up, and you need to be poised to respond.
Not only do you need to know the swim course layout, you should also know the setup of the course. Seeing the course map or viewing it from a dock the day before the race can give you some idea of what to expect, but examine it a little further to understand some of the finer details. For example, what are the expected or current wind conditions, where does the sun typically rise, and is it normal to have fog on race mornings? These factors could influence your choice of goggles. Of course you’ll want to know the direction you’ll be swimming in, how the buoys are lined up, and where the relative halfway point will be. Pre-swimming some of the course is ideal because it doesn’t take much of a wave to block your line of sight as you navigate the open water on race day.
Lining Up for the Swim
Before you line up, consider whether the race is a mass start or wave start, your relative swimming ability and overall confidence level, and relevant weather conditions. More races are adopting rolling swim starts, which limit the anarchy of a typical mass swim start and enable you to seed yourself with athletes racing at a similar speed. This makes the swim less congested, so you don’t have to swim over people quite as much. Rolling starts also reduce the immediate pressure of the starting gun and can help eliminate the classic triathlete mistake of starting the swim too hard. You always want to be in a place of power and control so you can get comfortable with your swimming as quickly as possible.
Unless you are an elite swimmer, don’t line up in the middle. Line up to the outside. If you’re nervous at all or if you are a less accomplished swimmer, don’t be in a rush to get going. Line up toward the back, and when the gun goes off wait there a few seconds and then gradually build into the swim to avoid putting yourself into distress. If you’re a reasonable swimmer (45 minutes or less for 70.3 or 1:30 for an Ironman), you’ll be eager to get going, so find your way to the outside.
Executing the Swim
The biggest factor in whether you will swim to your trained potential is your ability to swim in a straight line. Although there has been much talk about drafting during the swim, most amateur triathletes are better off consistently swimming from buoy to buoy. If you do this and find you can swim with others, drafting is an added bonus. However, be advised that putting your race in the hands of another athlete or blindly following a person who passes you might put you in the wake of a bad navigator zigzagging through the water.
I tell athletes that to navigate the swim course efficiently, they should plan to sight on every sixth stroke, which they can then adjust depending on conditions and their rhythm. This is just a baseline, but during an open-water swim it’s easy to become distracted and forget to do it. When you first get going, you might need to sight more frequently, perhaps every fourth stroke, as you endure the splashing and flailing arms of hundreds of other swimmers. If conditions are calm and you are in a really good rhythm in the middle of the swim, you might be able to extend that to 10–16 strokes. Be aware that extending it can be detrimental to performance. I have watched swimmers take a more relaxed approach and sight every 20th to 25th stroke, and they meander all over the course, overswim, and get out of the water later.
To properly navigate a course, you need to understand the mechanics of sighting. Avoid looking into the sun as much as possible either by adapting your sighting strategy or perhaps by mixing in some bilateral breathing. If the sun is directly in line with a buoy line, you might need to look beyond the buoy line. Scan the exterior of the topography of the swim course to look for terrain features, buildings, telephone poles, or antennas that line up with the buoys. Are you swimming toward a land feature such as a peninsula, or are there some trees you can use to sight? You might look laterally at the shoreline or coast to gauge your forward movement in a straight line. In foggy or low-light conditions, you might need to look back at the buoy line to see the buoys you have already passed. Practice these scenarios as much as possible in your open-water swims. Use your observations to refine your strategy in the moments before your race begins.
No matter how strong a swimmer you are, be conscientious about the effort at which you start swimming. Whether it’s the 1.2-mile swim of a 70.3 or the 2.4-mile swim of an Ironman, you’re going to be out there for a long time, so you want to be careful about your takeout effort. You want to get off the line in good fashion, but you don’t want to start out panicked with maximal effort, either. I call your takeout effort “easy speed,” meaning it should be calm, fluid, and controlled, focused on swimming well in a straight line. You will still be traveling relatively fast (and possibly even keeping up with those panicked swimmers), but don’t allow yourself to get to maximal effort. Many people make the mistake of going out at a really hard effort because either they’re so eager to start or they want to secure a good swim split. Unless they are elite swimmers, going hard doesn’t usually correlate with going fast, or certainly not any faster than they would be if they remained calm. Think about being long and strong with length and strength; in other words, swimming with good form. If you do that, you’ll actually swim as fast or faster than you would if you were going out as hard as possible and fighting the water and the other swimmers in your way. If you go out at an 80% effort, it will keep you calm and smooth. After swimming under control for a minute or two (about 100 strokes), you can reset your brain after the stress of the race start is behind you. This way you avoid the possibility of completely blowing up and having to recover and rebuild.
From a controlled, fluid start, you should ramp up to a steady and strong effort known as metronome swimming, a consistent rhythm dictated by your swimming fitness and abilities. Focus on swimming well and navigating the course in a straight line.
When you’re about 50 to 100 meters from the end of the swim, start thinking about the first transition area. Some athletes start to kick harder toward the end of the swim, claiming it improves blood circulation to their legs, but all it does is raise heart rate and put them in distress as they enter the point of the race when their heart rate is about to peak. Finish the swim the same way you started, calm and controlled heading into the transition.
The more habitual and automated your process is in transition, the better off you’ll be. When you exit the swim, you go from a prone position in which your upper body is doing much of the work to an upright position in which your legs will be doing most of the work. Focus on remaining mentally and physically calm and do everything precisely the way you planned, without rushing. The pros are fast even through the transition area, but they’re engaged in a different level of competition. As an amateur, you’re engaged in an individual time trial. Being systematic in T1 is more important than being fast. If you get your heart rate down and avoid stress, you can ramp up into good riding more quickly when you get on the bike. T1 is all about making the best use of your time with as little energy expenditure as possible.
En route to the transition area, strip off the top of your wetsuit and remove your swim cap and goggles. Mentally review the process you’re going to execute after you get to your bike. Take just enough time to put on your bike shoes, helmet, and sunglasses just as you practiced in training. The clock is running, but don’t give in to panic; keep moving as calmly and efficiently as possible.
Many athletes feel as if they need to kick-start their fueling process in T1, but given the fact that your heart rate is likely at its highest point, your body’s ability to absorb calories is at its lowest point. It’s best to wait until you are out on the road and pedaling consistently, even though you haven’t had any calories for a while. You might want to take in some water, especially if you consumed saltwater or lake water. Otherwise, your stomach is likely to have a high concentration of sodium and other electrolytes, so just drink water to quench your thirst and wait on the electrolyte drinks for the same reason you don’t take in calories. Just be patient; there will be plenty of time to start your fueling and hydration process on the bike.
Adapted from Fast-Track Triathlete by Matt Dixon with permission of VeloPress.