“How can you, the master of the swim panic, offer advice on getting through a triathlon swim??”
It is precisely for that reason that I can offer advice. I panic in the water. Not so much any more, because I have learned over the past few years how to combat it, but I still have those moments when I feel like I can’t breathe. Case in point was my most recent race, the 4th Central Florida Triathlon Series in Clermont. I was clipping along about half way to the first turn buoy when a large (LARGE) man cut right in front of me (obviously he was off course and was trying to correct himself). As I came up to site he went directly over my arms and on his kick swiped my goggles from my face and caused me to take a nice big gulp of lake water. To clarify, and to remind those of you who follow me, I have throat and nerve damage from thyroid cancer, so any “tickle” in the back of my throat can cause my airway to seize up and I cannot breathe. This did not happen to the full extent that it has before, but it did cause me to panic a little while trying to cough and get cleared. A kayak was nearby so I made my way over and grabbed on, hacking up a lung, trying to get my goggles back on, and trying to convince the support person that I wasn’t dying. After about three minutes I pushed off and completed the swim (beating the guy who did this to me as well) in 12:40 (400m). Taking off the 3:00 lost I was right where I had been in years past, so it was a bit disappointing.
I recount all of that to say this: two years ago my race would have been over, but because I have mentally gotten through so many with this happening I have learned how to make it through despite these issues that arise. Beginner in triathlon often state that the swim is what gives them the most trouble. It causes the most anxiety and is the hardest for people to prepare for while training (either because they only have access to a pool or they have no access to water at all). People also make the mistake of looking at the swim as “just” a certain distance, and not worth training for as much as running or cycling because proportionately it is such a small part of the full race. This is a mistake. The swim may be just 2% of an Ironman, but a bad swim can mess you up mentally for a full race, and a good swim, coming out of the water feeling strong and in control, goes a long way during a long day.
So I am going to offer some hints and tips that I have learned in the 4 years I have been racing. Some are well-known, and some may not be, but all have become important in my views and experience. Take from it what you will, and feel free to add to the list in the comments.
Prepare for the Race Conditions
You should never start a race without ever training for the conditions expected. If it’s a lake swim, find a lake. If it’s an ocean swim, get in the ocean. A pool will NEVER prepare you mentally for the race. We see this all the time at St. Anthony’s. I usually race this event as part of Team in Training (TNT), and TNT sends groups from all over the country for this event. It is always amazing to us Floridians when we meet up the Saturday before the race and see the groups from Ohio, New York, etc. as they gaze at the course and see the waves, the chop, the current. PAnic is all over their face. Those of us that live here sometimes forget how lucky we are to have access to the ocean 12 months a year.
Race … A LOT
I would personally suggest racing as much as you can afford to race. You need to get comfortable with having people around you at the start and while making turns. Race shorter races, like sprints and olympics, leading up to your 70.3 or 140.6 events. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, you do in training can prepare you for a race environment. Get out there as much as you can.
Make Sure You Can Handle the Stress
Deaths happen in triathlon. We all read the papers. We all see the race reports. Recently in Australia we lost a racer that was otherwise healthy. It happens. KNOW YOUR BODY. All but a very few of the deaths in these races were during the swim, and not from drowning, but from heart issues. The swim is stressful, and if you are not ready for it physically or mentally you are asking for trouble. Get checked before training even starts. The American Heart Association has a 12 step assessment for athletes that you can follow. Use it. In addition, know the warning signs and HEED them. If you start feeling chest pain or discomfort, shortness of breath, etc. then get out of the water or raise your hand for assistance. Gutting out pain, or being an “Ironman” is not worth dying for. Be smart.
Never Use New Gear On Race Day
This should be a given, and not specific to the swim. It’s a triathlete’s mantra. But it is amazing how many people still do it. New goggles, new wetsuit that has never been worn (see my reference to the norther TNT teams above), a recently fitted bike that has never been ridden, shoes that have never been run in, nutrition strategy not tested in training. Don’t make this silly error. There will be times that it is required, say if your goggles break and you have to use a back-up pair (or none at all), but that is rare. Use everything during training.
This might be an issue in Ironman branded races, as there are some course that will not allow you in the water prior to the start. This has been addressed recently as part of the Swim Safe initiative but can still be a problem in river swims from a dock (Augusta for example). If they allow it, get in the water before you swim. It will do wonders for your mental state. Trust me on this. I have my routine now. I get to transition, get set up, then I head to the water … regardless of how I am feeling mentally. Sometimes just sitting in it helps me, and I have had much fewer panic instances since adopting this policy.
The mantra of the Fat Slow Triathlete is “Swim Calm, Bike Strong, Run Steady”. You’ve heard me say this before I am sure. There was a reason for this collection of words. I panic in the swim, so I need to swim calm. My strength was the bike, so I bike as strong as I can. My weakness is the run, so I focus on a stead gait and pace. When you get in the water don’t try to race from the whistle. Find a spot of water that is “clean” and get into a rhythm. Focus on your breathing and your sighting. I have even used, at some races, a 15 second count off when the gun fires. I walk into the water, letting all the Type A’s run ahead, to the count of 15, then I start swimming. I usually stay with this until the first buoy, whatever that might be, and then start pushing a bit harder. I cannot tell you how many times I end up passing the Type A’s that ran into the water.
So there are my tips. Most are no brainers I am sure, but I hope it helps some of you. Just remember that, unlike the bike and the run, it is much harder to stop if you get tired in the swim, but you are allowed to do any stroke you want as long as you are unaided, and you can grab onto a kayak/paddle board/canoe and rest as much as you want, so if you feel the need, raise your hand and get help. Better to get through and race another day.