I’m not entirely sure why, but I signed up for my first triathlon without really knowing how to swim. Sure, I could play Marco Polo with the kids, but swimming 200 meters seemed about as exhausting as a full out 10K run. I think the challenge of the swim drew me to triathlons and I was determined to figure out how. Like most new triathletes, I spent hours in my local mini-Olympic going back and fourth, resting when I needed, coach by my side. Eventually, I figured it out and was able to complete regular 2000m sessions. While this became manageable, nothing can really truly prepare you for your first mass-start, open-water triathlon. While I suffered through my first few races, flat on my back at the start, fighting for air, I eventually figured out a few things that help me get started and going in my race.
Visualize the start – After watching YouTube videos of previous Ironman Arizona races, I was terrified of the 2000 person mass start. To prepare, I did my best to mentally picture would it would look like in my mind’s eye to be in that water with the other competitors. How would I get in the water? Where would I line up? How would I deal with contact? In fact, each night, for a month prior to the race, I spent 5 minutes or so visualizing the start and enjoying my own mental success. I also visualized my race starts when starting my open water training swims. I believe that this practice alone is tremendously powerful and I had my best swim start ever in Ironman Arizona.
Warm up in the water – On race day, I like to get in the water as soon as the race officials will let me. Even swimming 50 meters, head under with a full freestyle, can calm me down and prepare me for the gun when it goes off. If it is a deep water start, I will bob up and down blowing bubbles to help jumpstart my swim breathing right up until the gun. If I am unable to get in the water to warm up, I will spend 5 minutes with my eyes closed, mentally warming up on the shore.
Everyone is your friend – As a newbie swimmer, I had trouble with the regular, and sometimes intense, contact that comes along with open water racing. While I didn’t care for being hit, it was sometimes worse when I hit someone unintentionally. To help deal with this challenge, a good friend once told me a silly, but great mental thought to help me deal with the contact: Remember that the other competitors are your friends. Pretend that those kicks, bumps, and pushes are gestures of good wishes and pats to send you on your way. A little cheesy? Yes, but a great technique that will put you in a positive frame of mind during a challenging and important section of the race.
While swimming will likely never my strongest discipline, I have found that the simple tips above really help my swim on race day. I hope they help you too!