Yes, the open-water swim start can be a daunting experience – there’s no point suggesting otherwise – but it’s not nearly as hard, difficult or scary as you might imagine.
Much of the anxiety comes from extrinsic factors in the aquatic environment around you – depth, cold, lack of vision and having other swimmers within close proximity. The key at the start, and during the race, is to avoid panting or holding your breath. Holding your breath increases anxiety further, things start to feel out of control and you may begin to panic.
If you feel yourself becoming anxious, focus on intrinsic factors that you can control, especially calm and controlled breathing, long exhales in the water and smooth hand entry and arm strokes.
Generally, there are three different types of starts: deep water (floating), a beach start (on the beach, or ankle-to-knee deep) and dive starts (unusual in long and age-group racing). If you’re not in the first waves/heat, watch the earlier waves to see the route taken to the first buoy. This’ll give an indication of currents and the best line to take depending on experience.
Beginners should position themselves at the back or the side of the start group, to give themselves a clearer area of water and avoid the main melée. Yes, you may swim further than those who start at the front or middle of the pack, but you’ll reduce the risk of panic or disruption.
You could also delay your start slightly to allow the other swimmers to take off, giving you a clear space of water. Beginners should stick to the outside of the course over the inside because of the turns around the buoys, while experienced athletes should take the shortest distance to the first buoy.
DEEP-WATER FLOATING START
1. You will need to skull on the start line, your heels should to be close to the surface of the water and behind you, with your head up and forwards (but don’t lift your neck too high).
2. I try to use wide sweeping movements with my arms and legs to create some extra space for myself. Athletes will jostle
for position, and will creep forward in anticipation of the
gun going off.
3. Be aware of what is happening around you, and as soon as the cannon sounds use a whip kick or side scissor kick to quick start your acceleration. This can be practised in the deep end of a swimming pool. Move into your normal swim pattern.
Beginners should simply walk into the water as far as they can until it’s deep enough to start swimming. Lean slightly forward to stop any waves knocking you over. More experienced triathletes will ‘dolphin’ to quickly move from shallow to deep water. My dolphin technique is as follows…
1. Get as good a run down from the beach to the water’s edge as you can. Granted, you’ll be doing this with a lot of people around you. But do your best to focus on your race and getting as much speed up as you can into the water.
2. Enter and run through the water until it reaches about knee-height. At that point, do a high-knee run, lifting your legs out of the water.
3. When the water is above knee-height, take a shallow dive or leap forward, gliding for a few yards under water (don’t dive too deep), grab the sand with your hands to stop you being forced back by a wave, and bring your feet under your hands to prepare for the push-off.
4. Use your feet to push forward at an angle so you break the surface. Then take a breath and dive just under the surface of the water again. When ‘dolphining’, keep your head tucked between your outstretched arms with your biceps squeezing your ears. When it’s deep enough, start swimming.