Swimming is the first event in a triathlon, and oftentimes one of the biggest barriers to entry. Although some people may fear the swim, once you learn the basics and gain confidence it can quickly turn into your favorite discipline. A systematic approach to training based on your capabilities and duration of the event will help you achieve any swimming goal.
Types of Swim Starts
There are several different methods of sorting out athletes to make for a safe swim start. You will be able to find this information in regards to a specific race either on the race website, in the athlete guide, at the pre-race meeting or by emailing the race contact that is usually on the race website.
The most common type of start in triathlon is the “wave start”. Individual athletes are grouped into categories by age and gender in five-year increments. A start schedule will be posted by the race director indicating what time your “wave” starts. Age groups will be assigned a start time depending on the number of participants in each group and in the race itself. Waves are usually spaced approximately 3 minutes apart.
Athletes line up according to their predicted swim pace (this is referred to as “self-seeding”) and every few seconds a group of athletes will start. This type of start is felt to be safer and less anxiety-producing for many people. In 2013 IRONMAN piloted rolling starts at several North American IRONMAN events as part of their Swim Smart Initiative.
All athletes in the race start at the same time. This is not a very common type of start any longer, and very seldom is there a mass start at a race with a large number of participants. If you are doing a triathlon for your first time we would recommend finding an event with either a rolling or wave start.
Beach / Shore Start
Some races start the swim on land, either on a beach or shore line. The benefit of this is having the opportunity to decide where in your appropriate start group you want to position yourself for when the gun goes off. Races that start on land, such as a beach or shoreline, allow you to easily pick that place — front, middle, back, left side, right side of whatever group you are in. If you are not a confident swimmer you can also hold back briefly and start out of the “mix.”
In Water Start
If a swim starts in the water it could either start with the athletes able to stand, or if the water is over your head then treading water. If you are not a strong swimmer don’t start treading water until very close to the start so you can conserve your energy.
Other Start Options
Some races will start with a jump or dive off either a pier, a dock or even a boat or barge.
Courses are usually explained on the race website, in the athlete guide and also at the pre-race meeting. A course is usually marked by “intermediate” and “turn buoys”. Intermediate buoys just help to guide athletes along the course and turn buoys are where an athlete must either go around and head in the next direction or sometimes head back to the start. This is referred to as “rounding a turn buoy”.
GLOSSARY OF SWIM TERMS
Alternate or Bilateral Breathing
When swimming freestyle, turn your head to breathe on opposite sides. Choose a number of strokes you are comfortable with and breathe to one side. Count the same number of strokes and breathe to the opposite side.
Exercise done in the water to highlight a particular body part or technique. For example, fingertip drag is when you purposely drag your fingertips in the water to work on high-elbow recovery.
Fins are worn on your feet and will help you swim faster using less energy but if used correctly, they can help you get stronger and give you more of a cardio workout in the pool.
As you approach the wall of the pool, you will notice what looks like a “stop bar” at the end of the black line on the bottom of the pool. When you near the black bar, tuck your chin to your chest as if doing a somersault. As your body flips over, you will tuck your knees in. You should be close enough to the wall that you will be able to place your feet on the wall and push off into the direction you just swam from. This takes practice, for example, try standing in shoulder high water in the pool and practice somersaults and use your hands to push water over your shoulders as you flip.
The ability to move gracefully through the water without pulling or kicking.
This refers to the leg part of swimming. Kick sets could be done with your arms extended, at your side, with or without a “kickboard” and with our without “fins”. A kickboard helps you to keep your upper body afloat while you work on your legs to improve technique, balance and strength. Fins will help you swim faster using less energy but if used correctly, they can help you get stronger and give you more of a cardio workout in the pool.
A kickboard helps you to keep your upper body afloat while you work on your legs to improve technique, balance and strength.
Length typically describes the length of the pool. The pool can be set up to be 25 yards or 50 yards. Swimming one length would be swimming from one wall to the other.
A lap is when you swim from one end of the pool, turn around at the opposite wall and swim back to where you started. For example, one lap is out and back and would be considered two lengths.
A split is your time for a specific distance of a swim. For example, In a 25 yard pool, if you swim 100 yards (four laps) and your time at 50 yards (two lengths) is one minute, then your split would be “a minute for the 50.”
Touch the wall with your hand, turn around and push off.
Open Water Swimming
Swimming in lakes, oceans, rivers—pretty much anywhere that is not a pool.
The arm part of swimming. A pull set will be one where you'll use a pull buoy and sometimes swim paddles. The pull buoy is designed to keep your legs still and buoyant so that you can focus on just your arms. Swim hand paddles are used to work on power and “feel”, but it is important to use them correctly or you could cause injury.
The movement of when you “push-off” from the wall until the first stroke.
A practice is usually grouped into parts or segments, referred to as “sets”. For example, a drill set could be written as 4 x 50 fingertip drag (30”). This would mean you swim 50 yards or meters (depending on the size of your pool) 4 times in a row with 30 seconds rest at the wall after each 50 “drill” you complete. There are drill sets, kick sets, pull sets and a main set in most swim workouts.
How fish move through the water naturally. Humans have to work to be streamlined in the water. For example, reference is sometimes made to “being streamlined off the wall” which we can accomplish by squeezing our arms, legs and body into a straight line when we push off the wall of the pool.
A split is your time for a specific distance of a swim. For example, If you swim 100 yards (four laps) and your time at 50 yards (two lengths) is one minute, then your split would be “a minute for the 50.”
At practice, warm up refers to an easy few minutes of swimming to get your muscles “warmed up” to be ready for the main part (or main “set”) of a swim workout.
In a race, a swim warm up is very important before the start. There are several reasons for this. Most important is to give your body a chance to adjust to the water temperature and also to try to get a feel for any current there may be. Also, you want a chance to allow your body and your nerves to settle down and get ready for the start.
And just remember, when it comes to swimming, one of the most important things is — confidence.
There are drills to help you with form, and workouts to help you with speed — but without confidence it will be difficult to manage anything beyond staying afloat. Confidence starts in the pool, where you learn to breath, stroke and glide through the water in a calm and controlled state. Confidence grows in the open water where you learn to maintain that calm, controlled state despite the panic that can arise from moving through deep, dark waters.