Let’s be honest swimming is what makes triathletes special, because it scares the crap out of ordinary people. For most people a few lengths of semi-drowning in their local pool is enough, without adding the concepts of open water, wetsuits and getting booted in the face. Consequently, if you want to stand tall among mere mortals as a fearless giant with a granite jaw, it’s the swim that’ll do it for you.
Even among experienced triathletes, the swim is often something to be endured rather than enjoyed, while newbies find it the part of triathlon that breaks them into the coldest sweat.
For me though it’s the best part of the whole race. Admittedly when I was a kid I used to swim in galas – where I set myself up for a lifetime of mediocrity by not winning a sodding medal.
However such adventures did give me plenty of confidence in the water and plenty of experience of how to at least look like you know what you’re doing. And now I’m happy to share these pearls of wisdom with the more nervous among you in your quest for Phelps-like glory:
Tip 1: Choose your swim cap carefully
Just as you spend ages selecting the right race T-shirt to wear to intimidate other triathletes with evidence of your athletic brilliance, the same goes for swim hats.
A cap with a race name on it trumps a plain one – and any cap with Ironman on it trumps that. The only thing that trumps an Ironman hat is a swimming club hat, because it marks you it as someone who ‘enjoys’ this kind of thing. The only exceptions are bald men who can swim bare headed. It’s one of the few occasions when being a baldy is an advantage – no cap, no towel and no shampoo. Just a quick half-hour cry in front of the mirror and you’re ready.
Tip 2: Join a tri club
Rebecca Adlington didn't become a double Olympic champion by having to battle past a bloke doing widths, and neither should you. With lakes and sea out of bounds for half the year in Britain, a swimming pool is the best place to get the metres in. but this inevitably means mixing it with the public doing breaststroke in the fast lane or some old bloke hanging in the water like a jelly fish.
Take it from me, no matter how many times you splash or ‘accidently’ kick them, they never get the message. You’re much better off joining your local club where you can acquire that lovely permanent chlorine smell after hours of untroubled bull-buoy reps.
Tip 3: Learn to fly or tumble
If you must share your training time with the public, creating a bit of room for yourself is vital. Nothing says: “Sod off outta MY lane more than doing butterfly or tumble turns. Neither will help you in the open water, but they’re an important skill for holding the head-out-the-water-to-keep-hair-dry brigade at bay.
Tip 4: Avoid the cold water weirdos
When you start training in lakes and seas, you’ll notice some people standing out from the rubber-clad crowd by wearing nothing but a costume with all the cold-water protection of a mankini. These are open-water swimmers who are training for some ridiculous venture, such as swimming to Denmark. Have nothing to do with these lunatics because, as I’ve found to my cost, they’ll talk you into a Channel swim or some other salty torture, which was the worst idea I’ve had since I tried to convince some girls I could speak Japanese by shoving some really hot chips in my mouth.
Tip 5: Make your own decision about the piranha pack
The piranha pack is the collection of triathletes who start on the front row of the race, charge into the water as if running from a Westlife concert, before spending the next 750m/1.5km/3.8km cheerfully beating each other up. These aren’t places for the faint hearted. Even as an experienced swimmer, I got duffed up so badly that when I went for a medical examination, the doctor started doing a post mortum. The pack always takes the shortest line, so decide whether to join the punchy fun for the quickest route or stay out of it and take the long way round.
Granted, these tips won’t give you super-hero powers, but there are enough people out in the streets of Britain fighting each other in their pants already. So don your wetsuit and strike out into the murky waters with renewed confidence. I’ll see you on the shoreline!
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