The Power of Fitness

Top 10 Mistakes And How To Correct Them For The Triathlon Swim

If you are like me and don’t have a background in swimming you will need all the help you can get and I have done enough Ironman and triathlon competitions around the world to give you the advice you need in order to get through your first race. Throughout 9 Full Ironman events worldwide including Nice, France, Florianopolis, Brazil, Cozumel, Mexico, Cairns, Australia, Mallorca, Spain, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, Santa Rosa, California, Kalmar, Sweden, And Vichy, France I have experienced almost everything that can go wrong in an Ironman swim. From panic attacks, jelly fish, strong currents, freezing water, being elbowed, being kicked, equipment malfunction, blinded by the sun, and more I have experienced it throughout the past 10 years and over 100 triathlons raced. Below are the top 10 tips to get through the swim portion of any distance triathlon the most efficient and comfortable way possible.

  1. You Bring The Wrong Race Suit

Feats of Strength: 14 IronmansPlan out and bring a couple of different options for race day. When I was raced in Vichy, France Ironman last year in 2016 the temperatures for the 70.3 Ironman the day before the full Ironman were in triple digits around 103 degrees but the next day a cool storm rolled through and temperatures cooled off to around high 60’s and low 70’s with rain almost the entire day. You need to be prepared for anything and be sure to pack and wear the correct kit on race day. You don’t want to underdress and make a bad choice that could jeopardize your race and even be a serious health risk. Remember you can always take clothing off but if you are stuck out on the course without enough clothing it can cause you not to finish the race due to muscles cramping and more. I always wear my race suit with compression arm, calf, and quad sleeves underneath my wetsuit so that it makes for a quick transition. Go to the mandatory race meeting for each race to get the inside information on the course, conditions, and advice on how to approach the course. If there are pros or coaches at the meeting make sure to ask them for any top tips they have for you on the course for race day. Take note of the race conditions and your goals and plan accordingly. For Ironman the key focus should be comfort and speed. I always wear a full wetsuit whenever I can for the swim to allow me max float, comfort, and speed.

Go through your race step-by-step. Is your wetsuit suitable for the swim, will you need a thicker neoprene cap? On to the bike, will you be content in a tri-suit for 112 miles, or would padded cycling shorts work better? Layering can be your chief weapon here. You may be cold on exiting the water in the early morning, but warm up through the day. Once into T2, dress appropriately for running a marathon, and importantly make sure you have comfortable footwear. The best way to make sure you don’t miss anything is to follow our checklist (here) – and check the weather forecast.

2. Arriving Late Or Not Giving Enough Time To Set Up And Get Ready Before The Start

Make sure to allow yourself at least 35 minutes when you get to T1 and set up. That means depending on how far away you are staying from the race start you will have to allow for extra time when waking up, eating, bathroom, hydration, and driving or shuttle before the race starts. You have trained for months and invested so much time and money that the last thing you want to do is unnecessarily rushing the start and not being prepared for the race. Don’t risk leaving everything to the last minute while arriving too late at the start. We’re not asking you to acclimatize for three weeks, but being able to familiarize yourself with the course and conditions, and importantly where you need to be and how much time you need to leave to travel to the venue on race-day morning (in the dark) is critical. Arriving early also means that your stress levels – which will be naturally elevated  – will have a chance to settle. Often, it’s not just the athlete you need to consider. If you have friends and family travelling to support, where and how will they be catered for. If you think they cannot cheer you on in relaxed confines, it’ll play on your mind and you can lose focus on the race. Things like body marking, bathroom lines, pumping air in tires, people running around in transition, and last minute fuel additions to the bike can add a tremendous amount of stress before the race. Make sure to take some deep breaths and be calm and collected during set up. Know that the training is done and all you need to do is execute the race and do what you have been doing in your months of training leading up to race day!

3. Have A Plan B…C…D etc. If Your Swim Race Strategy Does Not Go A Planned

To add one of my favorite quotes from Mike Tyson ‘Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face’ is absolutely viable in triathlon especially in the swim portion of the race. Think of yourself as a fighter and breath if these go wrong. Fight vs. flight! Make sure to keep moving forward in the swim as most Ironman swim’s are now a rolling start it makes it much easier for the individual to make their own line and course instead of the typical human washing machine version as it goes with the mass swim start a few years ago. The one thing that can almost be guaranteed in Ironman is that the race will not run smoothly. From a mass swim start to running down the finish chute, there are a myriad of things that can go wrong. Staying positive is critical, but also think Can you swim if you lose your goggles? Could you cope if the swim is ruled non-wetsuit? What if you forgot something last minute while setting up your bike? Try to practice and run through races before the big day so these things become second nature and practice transitions and race day mock ups so that you can run through everything more smoothly.

4. Adrenaline And How To Control It Off The Starting Line Into The Swim

Being able to pace out your effort in an efficient manner is one of the most difficult challenges in Ironman. The swim at the start can help set the tone for the entire race so make sure you are thinking about you effort and heartrate throughout the long swim. I like to think of the swim as a relaxing meditation in a way before the rest of the big parts of the race approach. It’s a way for me to think about what’s ahead and how I will approach the bike and run to have the best possible time during the race. Unless you’re at the sharp end where race tactics might dictate, your fastest time will arise from an even distribution of intensity throughout the day. The key for me to calm myself when I get my adrenaline going or start to worry about the race is to take deep breaths and get back to a nice rhythm and pace. I start picking apart the swim buoys on the course and making each buoy pass by as fast as I can without exerting more effort. I try and imagine myself as if I’m flying through the course with minimal effort.

5. Sighting And Going Straight In The Swim

The fastest point in any direction is a straight line so make sure to try and do the same in the triathlon swim. It’s easier said then done but I always like to swim a bit to the right or left of the main ‘mob’ of swimmers and get my point and straight line directly to the first turn buoy. Over the entire swim course you must pick your head straight forward out of the water every so often and sight where the buoys are on the course to go straight and save time. In the early morning you might have the sun in your face at any point during the swim so I like to wear goggles with some sun tint to them to see a bit better. Make sure those goggles are snug and no water is getting in as well as anti fog wipes before the race. Look for the red buoys as they are usually the turn buoys and are the most important as you don’t want to swim past them but cut right by them on the turn.

6. Proper Breathing And Leg Use During Swim

Breathing is the most important aspect of swimming in my opinion as you get into a zone and preform the proper swim stroke. Whatever you are used to and makes you comfortable during the swim use that technique during the race. If you have to breath every stroke make sure to do that until you find your rhythm, relax, get into the zone and breath every other stroke to be a bit faster through the water.

7. Poor T1 Set Up

Once again… practice, practice, practice your set up as you encounter the longest part of the triathlon cycle during the event. The bike is something you need to give complete respect and time to be the most comfortable as you set out for the 2-7 hour ride depending on the half or full ironman distance. On race day, you need to be comfortable, pure and simple and a good bike fit is the first step towards both speed and comfort. Make sure your T1 set up is clean and organized as it can be and set things up in order. I like to leave my cycling shoes in front along with socks and then some coconut water and a GU energy gel to eat and drink while I put on my gloves and snap my helmet on for the bike.

8. Minor irritations become major issues

Before every Ironman and or long distance endurance race I always lube up and put Chamois Butt’r in my tri suit, cycling shorts, arm pits, neck and shoulders, and anywhere else there might be friction and chaffing. You might be able to get away with it in shorter races, but not addressing minor issues can lead to major problems in Ironman. If you’re prone to wetsuit rub, making sure you’re lubricated around the neck is vital. Due to hours of run and bike training many age-groupers suffer with tight hip flexors and hamstrings. If you don’t take time to stretch on the bike – getting out of the saddle once in a while – you may find the first few miles of the marathon particularly painful. Likewise, look after your undercarriage with the right application of cream. If you’re not changing into bike short, 112 miles can be quite a toll in an under padded tri-suit. I take small sample of the Chamois Butt’r with me just in case or put a partially used bottle in my T2 bag for the run as I progress off the bike if any has rubbed off. Nip guards are a great way to avoid chaffing in that area as well and sunscreen is a must in hotter climates. Another way to avoid sunscreen is to wear a full tri-suit along with compression arm sleeves that help with vibration from the roads on the bike as well as the sun from burning your skin.

9. Coming Out Of T1 In The Wrong Gear And In The Mass Of Athletes

One of the most common problems I see in triathlon races is clipping in and out or on the mount and dismount line at the race as athletes are trying to frantically get on and off there bike in and out of T1 and T2. Don’t let this happen to you and make sure you are prepared in every way on the bike, shoes, clips, and gears before the race. As you approach the mount line be sure you are in the proper gear before heading out as if it’s a hill you could just fall over and lose all your nutrition in the process and get hurt in the process. Take your time and go to either side of the mount line on the course to get on properly and not cause a scene. It not only lessens the risk of a chain snapping, brakes rubbing or aerobars coming loose, it also gives you peace of mind in an unnaturally tense environment in the build-up. Even if you think your bike is in tip-top condition, it’s worth double-checking – saving a few watts of power through a properly lubricated chain equates to big gains over the long distance. If you forget to check beforehand, there is usually a mechanic on site for last minute help. Finally, a common problem is either loose or completely incompatible cleats on bike shoes. It’ll be a painful pedal mashing experience if you cannot clip in. Make sure if you are using speed play cleats or any cleats that require lubrication that you do so before the race starts. I had an incident on the bike during the 70.3 Austin Ironman where I could only get one shoe clipped in during the first 20 miles of the race as I eventually got the other one clipped in and had no idea you had to lubricate the cleat. Make sure that doesn’t happen to you as I lost energy during the entire bike leg and on into the run was tired.

10. Say Thank You And Have Fun On Race Day

Ironman and other various endurance events are largely community based and volunteers come out in droves to help out as they are proud to help all the athletes. Make sure to say a big thank you to as many people as possible. That includes the race volunteers and those who have helped get you to the start line. Ironman might be a long solo day, but it’s the support network that helps you through, so however grumpy you feel because you’ve missed your target time, or chowed down too many energy gels, remember these loyal folk and they’ll stay with you every step of the way. Last but certainly not least have fun during the race and try to find your zone at your pace. Be open to talk and chat with fellow athletes along the way as they have the same goals in mind and it could help the time fly by.

  • Since 2015, Ironman has introduced a ‘rolling start’ to most of the Ironman branded races worldwide so the open water swim has been less hectic and safer than previous Ironman competitions which is a good thing. In the video below it shows just how crazy a ‘mass start’ can be off the beach. I did Ironman Nice, France in 2008 with a mass start and it was terrifying however I was able to relax and posted my fastest ever Ironman swim to date. This video is to illustrate that it can always be worse and to remember to relax and find your pace and line with your swim. Remember to breath and take it in stride 😉

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