Triathlon Race Day Tips: The Swim

In the second part of this series, the goal is to share a few tips about swimming. Truth be told, I’m still not a strong swimmer. It is definitely my weakest leg as well as my least favorite of the three sports.

Throughout the training cycle, I developed a love-hate relationship with swimming. As I saw my endurance increase, I loved swimming. It was new, fun and refreshing. But when my knee injury struck, my pool time increased – a lot (well, at least for me). It wasn’t bad at first, but after a while, I just got tired of looking at the bottom of the pool and counting, counting, counting.

My open water swimming was another issue altogether. The anxiety is still present and it makes no logical sense. Thankfully, I have good friends who helped me dry my fear tears and try to be ok in the open water. It’s getting better, but still there. I’m incredibly nervous for what will happen come race day, but until then, I’ll just have to do as my coach says and, “Man up, cupcake.”


Here are a few race day swimming tips:

The Swim



Fifteen minutes before the swim start, I take a Gu. You’re going to be out there for a while and obviously won’t be able to fuel, so suck one down now in preparation for the swim.

De-fog your goggles.

This is a tip I just learned and am trying to implement it: before your swim, rub a tiny amount of baby shampoo in your goggles. Once you get in the water, shake-em out.

Do your anti-anxiety drills.


Open water anxiety is something that I’m still dealing with. However, I’ve learned what works for me: I need to do my little anti-anxiety drills. This included getting in the water 15-20 minutes before my wave starts. I need to ease in, get warm and most importantly, put my face in the water and blow bubbles. I have to do this “face dip/bubble drill” at least four times. Somehow, it calms my heart. Then I need to do some sprints to get my heart rate going.

Remind yourself.

One of the most important things I have to remind myself is that my wetsuit is like a lifejacket. It’s near impossible to sink/drown in it – you won’t die.

The swim start.


Where you start in the swim all depends on the race (wave start vs. running start vs. deep water start), so this varies. But a few things I’ve been told over and over again, you don’t want to be in the front unless you’re a super fast swimmer as you’ll get clobbered. I’m happy starting right in the middle. Expect to be kicked, touched, grabbed, etc. I haven’t had anything too crazy, but don’t be afraid of other people’s body contact.

Make friends.

If you’re doing a wave, deep water start (most of my tris were), the group of 25 to 30-year-old women would be bobbing in the water together waiting for the start. If you’re nervous, they probably all are too. I say be casual, friendly and chat it up with the other racers, it helps calm the nerves.

Start steady.

When the gun goes off, I have to remind myself to STAY CALM and IN CONTROL. If all of a sudden I go hog-wild or I wasn’t able to warm-up, my heart rate will surely skyrocket, sending me into an anxiety meltdown. But if I have done my drills, warmed-up properly, and stayed calm and steady, I’m able to ease into my swim.

Find your rhythm.

The most important part of the swim for me is just finding my rhythm. Once I do, it’s makes the swim manageable. Count, sing, breathe on every stroke, whatever it is that helps you find your rhythm, do it.

Passing, drafting and sighting.


As your swimming, it will be easy to find someone and just drafting behind them, eating their bubbles. If this person is a tad bit faster than you, good, stay with them. But if they are too fast, let them go, or if they are too slow, don’t be afraid to surge past them for a bit.

I’m still not very good at sighting, but every third stroke or so, make sure to quickly look up and sight. Look for the next buoy or whatever it is you are sighting off of. Mentally, I use each buoy as a goal.  Swim until you reach X, swim until you reach Y, etc. It helps break up the swim and keeps you mentally sane.



As you approach the finish, there will likely be sand. But when do you stop swimming and walk in? Keep swimming until your hand touches the bottom three times. Then get up, and jog in. As you are doing so, start unzipping your wetsuit and prepping for T1.

I’ve read that a good swim won’t win a triathlon, but a bad swim can lose a triathlon.

What other race-day swimming tips do you have?

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5 Responses to Triathlon Race Day Tips: The Swim

  1. Great tip about when to stand up. I stood way too early (and took my goggles off) at IM Canada and was left stumbling on sharp rocks!
    Lisa Bentley (a multiple IM winner) gave a swim talk before my first half. She said to get in the water and do a couple sprints to elevate your heart rate. That way when you start, it won’t be as much of a shock to go fast.

  2. Katherine says:

    Great tips. Mine include not using your legs too much and letting your rotation move you through the water (glide!). Float on your back if you begin to panic/get tired/need a tiny mental break from the long swim. If you know how to swim breastroke, this can also be a good way to give your muscles a bit of a break and sight at the same time for 1-2 strokes.

  3. Elisabeth says:

    My only tip is if you’re going to be longer than about an hour – an hour 15 you can take a gu mid swim. I knew my ironman swim would be 1:30 minimum and I’d need extra fuel, so about half way through I stopped, pulled a GU out of my wetsuit and sucked it down quickly, then tucked the empty wrapper back in the suit. (You can stuff a GU packet up your sleeve, or if you go sleeveless, like I do, you can tuck it in to the neck area.) Worked like a charm for me. :) My other tip is to remember to have fun! Good luck!

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