For many people, the swim is the most daunting part of doing a triathlon, unless of course you come from a swimming background. The thought of getting into a cold, deep, dark lake can make even the most calm, levelheaded person a bit anxious. Add a few people into the mix and panic can ensue. I was (and still am to a certain extent) a perfect example of that. In a pool, I'm totally fine. It's clear, I can see the bottom and I'm never worried I'm going to see a dead body lying on the bottom (crazy I know). I'm chalking that completely irrational fear up to a scene from the original Jaws when Richard Dreyfuss is diving around a sunken boat, discovers a large tooth and pulls it out only to come face to face with the dead body of the boat owner. Screaming ensues of course. That scene still gets me to this day.
Seriously though, it's not surprising that the swim makes most people anxious. Water is not our natural element. Add a bunch of people with flailing arms and legs all swimming in the same direction and it can be more than a little scary. Even after all my years of doing triathlon, I still get a little freaked out from time to time. The key is to calm myself down right away before my head gets the better of me and takes me down the panic road.
These are the things that help me get through the swim leg in one piece.
A warm up. Personally I think this is extremely important. Especially if it's your first time wearing a wetsuit. Even if the swim is only 500m, as soon as I get my wetsuit on, I will get in the water, walk around a bit to get used to the temperature (especially if it's cold like it was on Sunday) and then work my way up to putting my face in. Once I do that and get over the shock, I'll do some breast stroke and then I'll work my way into freestyle. I'll probably spend about 10-15 minutes in the water swimming, floating, practicing my sighting and just generally getting used to being in the water. This is also the time to test your goggles and make sure they are properly secured and don't leak. If they do, at least you have some time to adjust them. You should also survey the swim course when you arrive so you know where all the buoys are and where you'll need to turn. The event website will usually have a map of the swim with an explanation of the course.
Seed yourself accordingly. Much like a running race, you should seed yourself according to your perceived speed. If you're a faster swimmer and comfortable swimming in a pack then situate yourself towards the front. If you're not, then situate yourself in the middle to the back. However, if you're like me and you're a decent swimmer but you don't like being in a pack, then situate yourself at the back. I usually let my wave go and then I jump in at the back. Sometimes it works out well and I manage to catch someones feet and draft other times I get caught up in a slower pack and can't get out. It's really all about your comfort level. This year I'm going to try situating myself closer to the front but off to the side so I'm still away from the crowds.
What to do if you panic. The first thing you need to do if you start to panic is to calm your breathing down. I find that moving away from the pack, rolling over on to my back and sculling lightly helps me immensely. I usually have to float for a bit and tell myself that I know how to swim, I'm in a wetsuit so I will float, etc etc. Once my heart rate gets back to normal, I'm usually good to go. I know I can swim but sometimes I get so freaked out that I'm convinced that I can't so getting through the swim is sometimes more of a mental challenge for me than a physical one. If you feel like you are in danger or you really don't think you will be able to complete the swim, take your swim cap off and wave it in the air or make your way over to one of the lifeguards that are usually situated in boats or on paddle boards around the perimeter of the swim course.
There is something else I do when I feel like I'm going to start to panic. I start counting my strokes; one, two, three, breathe, one, two, three, breathe and sight. That helps me get into a rhythm which can sometimes be tricky in an open water swim. The other thing I do is concentrate on my form. Am I reaching enough? Am I rolling enough? It's a great distraction technique that usually works wonders for me.
Some other tips that might come in handy:
If you're wearing a heart rate monitor, tuck it under the sleeve of your wetsuit but leave the edge where the start button is, exposed. Most monitors have the start button on the right so if you wear your watch on your left arm, that button will be the one that sits just outside the sleeve. That way when you're pulling the wetsuit off, you can pull it right over the heart rate monitor without accidentally hitting any of the buttons.
Body glide isn't just for running. I use it on the back of my neck so my wetsuit doesn't chafe. I also put it under my timing chip strap and around the ankles of my wetsuit for easier removal.
Bring an extra swim cap or get yourself a neoprene bonnet. Early season races generally have chillier water temps so you might want the extra layer. A second swim cap worn under the one the race provides you, will give you a little more insulation.
Bring an extra set of goggles just in case something breaks on your first pair. I saw that happen to a woman at Sunday's race just before her wave started.
Put your goggles on under your swim cap. That way if you accidentally get hit in the face there is less chance that your goggles will be dislodged. I find this works best for me if I'm wearing two swim caps. I can't pull goggles on over my hair as they tend to pull on all the clips I put in my hair to told it down.
Find a pair of feet that are slightly faster than you and draft. You'll expend a lot less energy. I've done this a few times and it's amazing how much it helps.
Don't wait until you're actually in transition to start removing your wetsuit. I usually unzip mine as soon as I get out of the water and pull it down to my waist as I'm running towards transition. That way half the work is done before you even get into transition.
Your first few open water swims will probably be a little scary. But if you make an effort to practice and get used to swimming in open water, that fear will start to subside. I always find the first race of the season a tough one. I'm sure by the end of the summer, I'll won't think twice about getting the lake and just going for a swim (with my wetsuit on of course!).
Tomorrow: The Bike!