Triathlon Training: Tips for Overcoming The Intimidation Factor of the Swim

By Chris Carmichael

The open expanse of water that greets triathletes at the beginning of a competition is intimidating. That is an almost universally true statement from novice triathletes, at least those who didn’t come into triathlon from a swimming background. For runners, cyclists, and casual exercisers who are interested in triathlon, the intimidation factor of the swim portion is often enough to halt or delay their entry into the sport. Fortunately, there ways you can overcome your apprehension about the swim, and in no time you’ll be able to look back and laugh about your initial fears.

Embrace your Novice-ness
I have to admit, I hate being a novice at anything. It’s not that I don’t like trying new activities; I just don’t enjoy that initial “floundering” stage of the learning curve. I’ve observed a similar sentiment from many of the career professionals my coaches and I work with. You don’t like to suck or be slow because you’ve grown to value the skill and speed you have in other areas of sport and life.

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To be a proficient swimmer and – more importantly – to be comfortable and confident in open water, you need to embrace the fact you’re a novice and start working with a skills coach and masters program. Initially, confidence is the goal. Once an athlete knows he or she can stay on top of the water for the entire distance of the swim, you’ve removed or minimized the novice’s biggest underlying fear of the swim: “I will drown.”

Start with a pool triathlon
There are some big benefits to making your first triathlon experience a pool-based event. There’s no mass start, so you can focus on your swim performance without worrying about the thrashing crowd of arms and legs. There is a line on the bottom of the pool, so you don’t have to add the complication of sighting a far-off buoy. And the side of the pool is never more than 25 meters away, which means that even if your worst-case scenario comes to life, help is only seconds away. A pool-based triathlon can provide the novice athlete with the confirmation that they have the technical skill and endurance to complete a triathlon swim, and once that competency is “checked off the list” they feel comfortable attempting an open water triathlon.

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Start at the back of the pack
If you’re going for a PR or you’re trying to win the race, you’re not going to want to start in the back. But if you’re starting out in the sport and you’re intimidated by an open water swim, the back is a good place to be. It’s less stressful, less chaotic, and gives you the opportunity to maintain a pace and effort level you’re comfortable with. Even sighting is easier from the back, because you not only have the buoy to look for, but also the wake and splash of the pack in front of you.

Use a variety of strokes
There’s no rule in triathlon that says you have to complete the entire swim in a standard crawl stroke. Technically, you could dog-paddle the whole thing. Novice athletes need to remember that there’s nothing wrong with switching to a breast stroke or side stroke for a portion of the swim. These strokes may not be as fast but they get your face out of the water and keep you moving forward, and that is sometimes all an anxious or tired athlete needs in order to bring the heart rate down a bit, catch your breath, and calm down.

Flip onto your back
If you run into trouble during the bike or run you can stop by the side of the course for a break and your effort level goes to zero. In the water, the only way to get the same break is to flip onto your back and float. Although it’s easier to float on your back in a buoyant wetsuit, you can float on your back without one using little or no effort as well.

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From a technical standpoint, using a variety of strokes and flipping onto your back are simple to accomplish. The hard part – and the most important part – is recognizing the need to employ these strategies and having the conviction to race your own race instead of getting drawn so far into the excitement of competition that you put yourself in a potentially dangerous situation. Foolish pride gets a lot of novice triathletes into trouble, and that’s not where you want to be.

Confidence-Builder Drills
Time-crunched triathletes have to get a lot done in a short time, and as a novice triathlete that means developing fitness, technique, and confidence in the water simultaneously. One way to enhance confidence is to incorporate some race-specific drill work into your warmup or cooldown. Try these:

  1. Pack simulation: This requires a total of three people. Have two of your fellow triathletes or swimmers start off side-by side in a lane. Stay on their feet for the length of the pool. To get an even more realistic simulation, add a fourth swimmer so you have two in front of your and one next to you. It’s also a good idea to swim with someone on your feet as well, so you get used to the sensation.
  2. Marco Polo Drill: Once a week during your warmup, swim a length of the pool with your eyes closed – or try to get as far as you can before you hit a lane line. Many athletes will consistently pull to one side based on an imbalance in their stroke. If your right arm crosses the midline of your body and your left arm doesn’t, for instance, you’re likely to pull to the right. This is important to know so you can not only work on your ability to swim a straight line but also so you can anticipate the scenario you may encounter in an open water swim.

Chris Carmichael is the author of “The Time-Crunched Triathlete” and founder and CEO of Carmichael Training Systems, the Official Coaching and Camps Partner of Ironman. For information on Official Ironman coaching packages and camps that include race entries to sold-out race, visit or call 866-355-0645.

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