14 triathlon swimming tips for race-day

Some of the best swimmers in triathlon pass on their top tips for a successful race-day swim, including Lucy Charles-Barclay, Flora Duffy and Richard Varga

Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for IRONMAN

1. Conquering fears

Race-day fears come in all shapes and sizes. So the first thing to do is use positive visualisation; a powerful tool that all athletes, no matter what their ability, can use to overcome negative thoughts.


For the swim, you need to think about what’s scaring you, so you can use the right approach to feel comfortable and improve your performance. Many people struggle with murky water – totally alien when you’re used to training in a pool – but this fear generally stems from unfamiliarity. You can get over this by practising in open water as much as possible before race day – and keep facing it until you’re desensitised. That way, what normally triggers your anxiety loses its power.

Irrational fears (seriously, there are no sharks in that lake!) need to be dealt with. Practice can help here, but distraction tactics may actually work better for you. Focus on the moment – on the physical act of swimming and perhaps repeating a technique phrase over to yourself – and you should feel the anxiety fade. Taking your mind off your fears and engaging with the physical actions of swimming will help you to relax. Practise this in open water prior to the race so that it comes naturally on race day when your anxiety levels will be much higher. That way, you’ve the greatest chance of getting the best out of yourself on race day, and hopefully nailing that PB.

Caroline Livesey, 2nd Ironman UK 2015

2. Mass swim start

It’s not a secret; the start of a triathlon can be daunting at all levels. To avoid the mêlée, follow these suggestions:

Start at the back. For those of you that are novice open-water swimmers, allow everyone to start and then start your swim. This should allow you to have clear water and navigate the swim course in peace.

Try to minimise the amount of people immediately around you, so begin at the far sides of the start line. I always try to start at the far right or left (even if it’s a longer line to the first buoy) of the start line to reduce the washing machine effect.

Breathe! If you start to get panicky during the swim then focus on your breathing. Try deep breaths in and out, emptying your lungs each time. If you do swallow water, or get knocked by another swimmer, use breaststroke to catch your breath, regain composure and then carry on with front crawl.

Flora Duffy, Olympic and world champion

3. Dealing with cold

The first thing to remember is to never allow yourself to get cold before you enter the water. Do a warm-up jog with plenty of clothing on to raise your body temperature. Then put your well-fitted wetsuit on while also keeping warm socks and gloves on. If there’s a delay until you can enter the water then put a jacket on over the wetsuit and do a land-based warm-up like press ups, etc. Enter the water at a gradual pace – don’t just cannon ball in – but remember there’s also such a thing as going too slow. Finally, remember to always keep your body moving.

David McNamee, Ironman UK winner 2015

4. Swimming straight

As triathletes, we spend countless hours swimming up and down the black line in a pool. Come race day there’s no black line, only a couple of buoys in the distance. Once in the water, it’s difficult to see the buoys because of athletes in front or next to you splashing. So sight big and use a landmark behind the buoy, as in a building, a dock, mountain peak… that lines up with a buoy on the course. Sighting big will allow you to sight less, and stay on course much easier.

To sight, lift your head as high as needed: In calm, flat conditions only lift your eyes out of the water; while in wavy conditions, you’ll need to lift your head out of the water – and remember to do so at the top of the wave. Sighting at the top of the wave will allow the best visual of the buoy.

In choppy and unpredictable conditions, sight two or three times in a row (every other stroke) as it’ll be hard to see the buoy. The first is to sight the buoy, the second to adjust direction and third time to ensure you’re going in the correct direction. Repeat every 20secs or so.

Practice makes perfect. The next time you’re at the pool, incorporate sighting practice into your workout. For example, every fourth length sight every 5-6 strokes. Simple but effective.

Flora Duffy, Olympic and world champion

5. Dealing with currents

Open-water swimming in different conditions is a technical and tactical skill. For me, it doesn’t mean the shortest way is logically the fastest way. So it’s very important to know the course before the race.

Try to get as much as possible information from the internet and locals swimmers and, if possible, try to visit the course at the same time of day as your race will start before race day. It’s important to analyse how and where to swim.

Always look which way the current goes and how strong it is. If the current goes from left to right, my choice on the start line is from the left even if, optically, it’s longer. The current can then push you to the first buoy and you
can swim with it. If you choose the right side, you’ll end up swimming against the current, which is slower and therefore the energy costs will be greater.

My suggestion for currents in rivers is not to swim where the tide has the biggest power. Fighting against it is a losing battle. Avoid this by going to the side where the current has the lowest speed.

Richard Varga, 3 X ITU World Aquathlon Champ

6. How to draft

The best place to draft in the swim is on somebody’s hips, as you get a bigger draft benefit and you don’t have to worry about hitting feet. It also means that you’re not reliant on the lead person’s sighting. Remember that the faster the lead swimmer is going then the quicker you’ll be, so try and avoid contact. That said, it’s technically easier to sit on someone’s feet. But, if this is the option that you feel more comfortable with, just remember that you’re trusting their sighting and that you want to sit just off their feet. The closer the better but hitting their feet will slow you both down.

David McNamee, Ironman UK winner 2015

7. Bilateral breathing

The most essential aspect of swimming is to relax in the water. As soon as you tense up, your entire stroke starts to fall apart. So I recommend to do what comes the most natural – either to the left or right breathing, or bilateral (both side). And also to be flexible.

When I race, the majority of my breathing is every two to the left with the occasional every four when possible mainly because most of my swim is in the red zone, and the occasional bilateral to have a good look around to navigate and see who’s swimming around me. But in training I recommend varying your breathing patterns for specific sets, like this hypoxic one with bilateral breathing:

12x100m at steady pace:

1 – breathing every 3 strokes, breathing every 2 strokes

2 – breathing every 5, every 2

3 – breathing every 7, every 2

4 – breathing every 9, every 2

Repeat x 3 with 30sec recoveries.

Paul Hawkins, Outlaw winner 2010

8. Being dunked or kicked

Open-water races nearly always have mass starts. With so many people around you in a small space, swimming in every direction and at different paces, you’re bound to come in contact with some people during your swim.

It’s a scary thing to be dunked or kicked in the swim. The best thing you can do is to not panic and remain calm. If you feel you need attention and help, swing your arms in the air and this’ll signal for the lifeguards to assist you.

If you feel a little claustrophobic, try starting on the sides or let the mad rush of the front athletes go ahead so you’re not caught-up in the middle of it. Don’t swim too close to the feet of someone else because they might decide to have a strong kick, and one that can be in your face.

Henri Schoeman, Olympic medallist

9. Facing choppy water

Dealing with choppy water can be daunting. The biggest issue is usually nerves, as soon as you tense up and the adrenalin starts pumping you stop focusing on what you’re doing. Panic attacks are surprisingly common, even among pro athletes.

The best way to deal with a new challenge is to get as much practice beforehand as possible. Look out for open-water training days and lifeguard-patrolled beaches leading up to a race. There’s really no substitute for spending time getting used to the conditions and there are plenty of groups that are regularly getting in the open water. If you can relax and enjoy what you’re doing, then you’re most of the way there.

When in the water, think about the rhythm of your stroke. You need to adapt your stroke rate to the waves so that you aren’t recovering or breathing just as a wave is falling on you or pulling on thin air as you come off a wave.

Generally a faster arm turn over is better in choppy conditions; it’s no use stretching and reaching for a long and relaxed pool stroke if the water is disappearing from underneath you. Having said that, you still need to make the most of the water you do catch.

Harry Wiltshire, Outlaw winner 2012

10. Swimming around buoys

The tightest line to a turn buoy is the fastest route around the course. It’s a strict rule that, even in your local midweek aquathlon, a herd of alpha males with blinkers on will swim like charging rhino for exactly this spot. If you’re fast then, by all means, join the stampede, get the line you want and you may gain 5secs; the tightest line around the turn is the best place in the swim to split the race up, and taking it could just get you the win.

The trick is to accelerate on the way in, get as tight as you possibly can (I take the rope attaching the buoy to the water bed) keep your head down and your cadence up, curl your body around the buoy and with a big kick, accelerate out of the congested spot as quickly as possible.

If you go for the tight line and you aren’t one of the fastest, then someone is going to swim over you. As soon as you lose momentum you risk the rest of the pack piling over the top.

Harry Wiltshire, Outlaw winner 2012

11. Dizziness on swim exit

Experiencing dizziness after a swim in a triathlon is a very common thing. There are some factors that can contribute to this such as cold water, a wetsuit being too small and the sudden change from horizontal swimming to a vertical running position.

A triathlon is an endurance event mainly on the legs. Don’t start too fast and use your arms mostly in the swim. About 200m from the finish of your swim, start kicking to get blood flow to your legs. This’ll reduce the sudden amount of blood flow from your head/upper body to your legs and will reduce – or even prevent –dizziness after your swim.

Henri Schoeman, Olympic medallist

12. Sea swim exit

Plan the exit of your swim. It could be dangerous if you swim to an unknown shore where you can get smashed by rocks. There are a few types of waves to deal with: spilling, surging and dumping waves. Spilling waves appear when the top of the wave falls down the front of itself, and these are the easiest to judge. Surging waves don’t break and can easily knock someone over, dragging them out to sea. Dumping waves break with great force in shallow water. They’re powerful, dangerous and normally occur at low tide.

When you swim against the waves, don’t fight with them and aim to swim underneath the wave, trying to find the rhythm between your strokes and the waves. Swimming with a high cadence, good catch and a high body position is crucial. Another option is body surfing. This is an enormous advantage. You get to the shore much quicker and save energy costs for other disciplines.

Richard Varga, 3 X ITU World Aquathlon Champ

13. Running in shallow water

This skill may sound straightforward but mastering it’ll save you valuable seconds and energy in a swim exit. In approaching the swim exit I prefer to swim as close to it as possible. When I can no longer get a full downward arm stroke I know it’s shallow enough to stand up. Place both hands on the floor and drive up and out of the water with the arms and legs.

When running in the shallow water imagine you have a small hurdle under each foot. The extra lifting of the leg when running will help you gain speed without having to drag your legs through the shallow water. Attempting to run with your legs half submerged can be tiring before the bike leg.

Lucy Charles-Barclay, Ironman 70.3 world champion

14. Wetsuit removal

Unzip wetsuit. Once you’re running out of the water find your wetsuit zip cord and unzip. If you have one of the new Huub quick-release zips like me, by pulling the cord up and slightly to the left the whole wetsuit back opens instantly.

Hat and goggles off and remove sleeves.
I always take my hat and goggles off next for two reasons. One, to see where I’m running. Two, so when I take my arms out of the sleeves my hat and goggles get stuck inside one of the wetsuit arms. This frees up your hands for the next steps.

With your wetsuit at your waist run to T1:
This opens up your chest allowing you to replace much-needed oxygen after the swim and makes it easier to run.

Step out of the wetsuit: Use you hands to pull
the wetsuit down as far as you can. Then, with one foot, stand on the bottom part of the
other leg’s wetsuit and pull your foot up and out. Repeat on the other side.

Place wetsuit in designated area, box or bag: Make sure you put your wetsuit away in the correct place to avoid any penalties. For Ironman racing this is usually your blue T1 bag.

Lucy Charles-Barclay, Ironman 70.3 world champion