More Details More Details

The first race discipline is many people’s nightmare. Here’s how to turn it into a dream swim.

The challenge of swimming in open water is, for many triathletes, one of the things that brought them to the sport in the first place. But a bad first experience can leave you wishing the swim away as you stand on the start pontoon.

New and improving triathletes might not reach a stage where they’re leading into first transition, but they can re-assess how they approach the swim to make it a more enjoyable experience. That’s the first step to training more in open water and, over time, getting faster so that you can stick with the pack and feel you’ve given the first discipline your best shot. We’ve spoken to four experts who all love the open water to show you how to have your best swim ever this season.

Dan Bullock

“Most triathletes come to swimming with some fundamentals, they might find it exhausting, they might be very slow, but they’ve kind of got a stroke. Sometimes people feel a little bit embarrassed to admit that swimming lessons are what they need. You’ve got to give it time.

“If you do 10 years of something, and that’s a generally accepted measure to become elite in something, suddenly you’ve got the bandwidth to be able to push the mechanics into the background, like riding a bike. At first you’re thinking about which gear you’re in and falling off so it’s hard to focus on the roads as well, but suddenly when the bike becomes an extension of you and you know where the gears are and where the brakes are, you’ve got more bandwidth to pay attention to the road, and you become a safer and better cyclist. I don’t think people appreciate how much time you need to become a comfortable and relaxed swimmer.

“From a swim coach offering swim lessons, I’m sure people are a little bit suspicious when I tell them that they need to take three lessons a week for six months. But I can’t accelerate what’s taken somebody who’s been fortunate enough to learn as a child and just do that overnight. What we have done quite well at Swim For Tri is give adults an awareness of their body position, introduce some special drills that give you external feedback, to give you an awareness of what your body position is in the water.

“As a coach I find a lot of people put up barriers to learning. It’s a defence mechanism. That’s frustrating if they won’t allow themselves to be coached. You’ll have a guy who has his lung capacity measured and it’s reduced and suddenly that’s his excuse; but I’m working with disability groups in the morning, I’ve got a girl swimming under two minutes for 100m with lower limbs missing and an arm missing. And I’m thinking, you know what? She’s breaking two minutes for 100m front crawl, you’ve got a slightly diminished lung capacity and four perfectly good limbs, you could give this a go if you wanted to. We can break through that if you relax and you trust me, but people really want to get their excuses in and once they let that go we can work together on it.”

Five Ways To Get A Good Start

  1. Warm up
    If a swim warm-up isn’t an option, have a dry-land warm-up ready. “Have a gentle jog, do some active stretching, and recreate the front crawl action. You’ve got to get the blood upstairs!” says Keeley Bullock.
  2. Calm down
    Get down to the pontoon early so you’re not flustered, sight the course (looking for land-based markers rather than relying on the buoys) and talk yourself through your swim.
  3. Move to the outside of the pack
    The very best swimmers should take the shortest route, but for the rest, aim for the outside of the pack (so if you’re turning right around the first buoy, start on the left). Start further forwards if you’re confident, otherwise start at the back.
  4. Seed yourself
    Ask swimmers around you roughly what time they’re aiming for in the swim split and try to place yourself with similar-paced people to you. You’ll find it easier to draft off them and be less likely to be slowed down or swum over.
  5. Spread out
    Most age-group races have deep water starts. Make space around you by becoming as flat as you can in the water before the start, sculling to keep your position steady.

This is a preview of an article from issue 41 of Triathlon Plus magazine. Save time and money by having every issue delivered to your door or digital device by subscribing to the print edition or buying digitally through Zinio or Apple Newsstand.

You’ll find loads more triathlon news, reviews and insight at

Visit our Facebook page at and follow us on Twitter @TriathlonPlus.