May 26, 2014

Open water relaxation tips for triathletes

Maybe your wetsuit starts to feel tight around your chest as the race director counts down to the start. Or being unable to see the bottom sends your heart racing a bit – along with the belief that, any minute now, someone’s going to clock you in the head and knock your goggles off. Perhaps that feeling of being inside the world’s biggest washing machine has you swearing you’ll do a duathlon next time. I’m no elite swimmer. I wouldn’t even really call myself a good swimmer. Let’s just file me somewhere around “probably not going to drown”. But what I am is motivated – to learn whatever I can that will make me more efficient and effective in the water, getting me out of there sooner and hopefully in a good position in the pack. Maybe you can relate? If so, read on.

Tips for staying calm and getting the best out of your swim in a race:

1. Warm up
Why the heck should you waste energy doing more swimming than you have to before the race even starts? Well, I discovered I feel better after swimming an hour than I do for the first 15 minutes. Particularly if you’re new to swimming in a wetsuit, a short warm up might be just the ticket to easing pre-race nerves and getting the blood flowing.

2.   Swim through it
If you’re like me, when you get in the water and get at ‘er, you might experience initial feelings of “I can't find a rhythm,” “I can't hold my body position,” “I can't catch my breath." I suggest trying this in the pool as an experiment, where you know you’re safe. Start out quick enough that you’re uncomfortable. Then, instead of stopping and grabbing the wall to catch your breath, try swimming through it. There are lots of things you can do to calm yourself and find that settled, easy rhythm without having to stop. Such as…

3.   Focus on one thing at a time
For the sake of argument, let’s start with breathing. If you’re having a big problem with this, it’s going to be difficult to focus on anything else. Maybe it’s windy and there’s a lot of chop. Or you’re in a dense, ambitious crowd, and you feel like all you get when you turn to breathe is a mouthful of whitewater. Resist the urge to raise your head up and forward out of the water, which will make your legs sink and slow you down. Instead, relax your neck and allow your head to find a level position. Let your head follow your body roll to the side to breathe.

Other attention points might be straight-leg kick, body roll, good catch. Just concentrate on one at a time – it’ll give you something clear to think about without being overwhelming. Every so often let that all be and focus on how the water feels. Can you feel pressure through your pull? Is there a dead spot in your stroke? Somewhere you're losing momentum? Sometimes I’ll switch up my breathing or increase my stroke rate temporarily, to see if I can find better fluidity. If you're a novice like me, you might not be able to hold it very long. But if you can get the feeling even for 10 strokes, it gives something to work for. And hey, by the time you get through that checklist, you’ll probably see the buoys on the beach and it’ll be time to get on the bike!

4.   Eye on the sky
I’ve done quite a bit of “emergency backstroke” in my time – but I discovered the other day that you can gain some of the same benefits without breaking out of your freestyle stroke. When you turn your head to the side to breathe, rotate a little extra so your mouth clears the choppy water surface (again, unless you’re sighting, make sure this motion is to the side and not forward). At the same time, turn just your eyes a little further in the same direction. Guess what? If you’ve done this right, you’ll get a glimpse of the calm, beautiful sky – where there is no race going on, and certainly nobody about to kick you in the head with an M-dot-emblazoned leg.

5.   Under the sea
Maybe it’s not all the action at the surface, but rather what’s beneath that has you stressed. Plenty of folks are skeeved out by a dark, deep, or weedy expanse of water. If this is your worry point, I highly recommend watching the swim portion in this video:

In it, you’ll see probably the craziest swim start of any race on earth – the world championship Ironman in Kona. What you will also see is some blissfully quiet, serene shots of what is going on just a few feet below all the insanity on the surface. Remember that the water is not out to get you. Relax into it. Think of the calm below you rather than the thrashing at the surface.

6.   Don’t avoid crowded pools
Know when you show up for a lunch time swim and you’re sharing the lane with 6 other people? Bummer, right? Wrong. This is a perfect opportunity to practice following feet, handling some splashing in your face, and experiencing a little chaos. It is also a good chance to practice holding your ground, a good skill during a crowded open water swim. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t follow lane rules – on the contrary, it’s important to choose an appropriate lane and follow etiquette. What I’m talking about is not letting people intimidate you. For example, at the end of a long swim that started with about 5 of us in the lane, only I and one other fellow remained. This fellow came straight down the middle of the black line – and I made sure to brush his leg on my way by to let him know I wasn’t going to be shoved to the side, or into another lane. Which leads me to…

7.   Get used to incidental body contact
One of my favourite pre-race moments occurred on Mooney’s Bay beach, where I stood as one of many nervous new triathletes listening to Geordie McConnell’s athlete briefing. “Everyone, raise your hand in the air. Now lower it to shoulder level. Yep, you’re touching someone. And now you’re over it – you’re good to go!” If physical contact with others is a stressor for you on the swim, practice with a couple of friends. Brush against each other, if you’re feeling cheeky and are pretty confident your friend won’t kick your teeth in, grab an ankle now and then.

Finally, as with most things you're uncomfortable with, the surest way to get comfortable is to get out and do more of it! Again, these are not the words of an elite swimmer – but rather things that have helped me progress as a novice. Much of it learned through the Ottawa Triathlon Club swim program. I hope it will help you too. Happy swimming!


  1. Nice post...The one thing I would add, which is what I did the year of my first Ironman was as I called it, to "embrace the chaos." For the first couple years of my career before then, I'd start in the back, or as far to the edge as I could and avoid the main pack at all costs. I didn't care about giving up 30 seconds or so if it meant avoiding the pounding of the mass. So I knew I'd have to deal with it at arizona, so that season I told myself I'd embrace the chaos. And every race I did, i put myself front and center(i'm a decent swimmer so I wasn't killing people behind me), and made myself deal with the craziness of a mass start. It was a huge difference maker for me. After 7 or 8 races like that, by the time Ironman came around the start was the least of my concerns. I actually came to enjoy the insanity of the swim starts. I learned that if I got hit from the left, well, ok, i'll move right...get hit on the right, ok, I'll move left. This philosophy has led me to not only embrace the swim starts, but better overall swims in general. You wind up with faster swimmers, and you get faster swimmers to draft. You can hang with faster swimmers than yourself if you learn how to draft effectively, and it becomes significantly easier.

  2. Thanks Josh, for taking the time to post your comment! I totally agree, re. 'embrace the chaos', and also on learning to draft. Appreciate the input, hope you'll come back and read future additions to the blog. :)