What are the health and training benefits of taking part in a triathlon as a swimmer?
Most triathletes tend to come from a background of running and cycling, and if there’s anything that gives them the heebie-jeebies, it’s getting into the water to compete – let alone into open water. So, if you’re a good swimmer and enjoy the water, then you’ve already got one weapon in your armoury.
Taking part in triathlon is about more than just event day, too. You’ll be adding cycling and running to your weekly training, which has many benefits for swimmers. It’s good cross-training, adding mix-paced cardio work, plus you’ll activate and strengthen different muscles. Having other sports available to you also gives you new ways to get outdoors, to keep fit and to explore – especially useful if swimming isn’t available to you for any reason (such as poor open-water conditions, or picking up a swim injury).
But hang on, we hear you cry, isn’t it all a bit, well, complicated? No, not necessarily. There are ways to adapt to make a triathlon right for you – just be savvy with the one you pick. If you’re not an open-water swimmer, for example, then look for a triathlon where the swim is held in a pool. You swim lengths to your set distance, then head out to your bike to complete the bike and run.
What kit do you need to participate in a triathlon?
A note on kit next. Yes, you can invest a lot in triathlon kit, and yes, there’s a lot of bling out there. But as a newbie, you can pretty much start with what you’ve got and upgrade later if you get more serious. So long as you have a bike that is well-serviced (yes, we’ve seen baskets and bells at races, so don’t worry!) and some kit which you can pull on over your swimsuit/trunks for the bike and run, you’ll be good to go. You can wear your trainers for both the cycle and the run, and the only other things you really need are a bike helmet (they’re mandatory) and, if competing in open water, you’ll likely need a wetsuit too.
Tri-suits will make things a bit comfier if you decide to get serious – a tri-suit confuses many beginners, but it’s basically a one-piece item of Lycra apparel, usually knee-length with a zip down the front and a chammy (like in cycling shorts) added to make the bike more comfortable. You wear it under your wetsuit to start the race, then throughout the bike and run without changing.
What swim start skills do I need for a triathlon?
Most common are beach starts (where you run into the water when the klaxon sounds and then start to swim once you reach depth) or in-water starts. For an in-water start, you will be asked to swim out and tread water behind a ‘start line’ (usually a couple of buoys or kayakers) until the klaxon sounds. Key here is to get in a good position in the pack based on your ability, and to start as far into a horizontal position as you can, sculling and waiting to get your head down and go. Treading water upright will lose you precious seconds!
The other swim starts you may encounter are trickle/staggered starts, where you enter the water one by one a few seconds apart (more popular since tri came back after the pandemic) and dive starts – though dive starts tend to be very rare in non-elite racing and it’s unlikely you’ll encounter one.
Why sighting is so important in triathlon swimming
If ever there’s a time that sighting is important, it’s during an event – after all, you don’t want to be increasing your distance by snaking through the water. Always do a swim course recce first if you can before the event. The swim is usually marked by inflatable buoys, but these can be difficult to spot once you’re in the water, so try to make note of any immovable larger landmarks (such as buildings or trees) behind the buoys that you can use to sight off instead and stay on track.
What we mean when we talk about ‘sighting’ is the action of taking a peek forwards to get a glimpse of the aforementioned buoys to make sure you’re staying on target. The most efficient way to do this is to simply lift your eyes out of the water (think ‘crocodile eyes’) before or after you turn to breathe, if swimming freestyle.
The fewer times you lift your head out, the less your legs will drop and slow you down. Remember to use your peripheral vision when you breathe to keep an eye on your surroundings/position, too.
How often you need to sight will vary depending on your ability (do you swim straight to start with?), the water conditions (is it choppy? are there currents?) and how much you are having to change course to move around other swimmers in the water. Practise different frequencies in training to see what feels right to you.
What role can drafting play in triathlon swimming?
Here’s where things get tactical. Come the swim, drafting is fair game. By drafting a faster swimmer, you can increase your pace and save energy for the bike and run, as you essentially swim in the current created by their movement, slipstreaming and gaining free speed.
The best places to draft are on the feet or hip of another swimmer, and if you’ve never done it then you’ll be surprised by how much it can help – try it with friends next time you’re in the water. Either swim as a chain (one behind each other) or in an ‘arrowhead’ format (one lead swimmer with one on each hip). You’ll need to be quite close, so this isn’t one for nervous swimmers. On race day, make sure you’re not drafting off someone who is swimming wide of the course, and be mindful that not everyone is happy to be drafted off…
How to navigate marker buoys during a triathlon swim
Once you get to a marker buoy you’ll need to swim around it and change direction. You can by all means stop and breaststroke around it, swimming wide to avoid the pinch point where lots of athletes come together, but if you can stay in front crawl you’ll be quicker and more efficient.
There are a couple of techniques you can practise and you might choose a different one depending on the angle of the turn. The easiest way to do it is simply to maintain your front crawl rhythm, but to angle your body and arms so that you are changing direction. If
there is a sharp turn, though, such as a right angle, you may need a bit more oomph, in which case a ‘surf’ or ‘superman’ turn can be more helpful. Here the leading arm next to the buoy stays straight in front, while the other arm ‘sweeps’ long and out to push you around.
Finally, there’s the fancy one – the ‘corkscrew’ turn. These are tricky in a pack of swimmers and may not make you popular as there’s a good chance you’ll bump another swimmer, but they are nifty and fun to play with in training.
Put simply, as you come alongside the buoy and your closest arm extends past it, you will then go into either one or two strokes of backstroke towards the buoy (depending on the angle) before returning to front crawl.
These backstrokes will flip you over in the other direction, thus turning you round the buoy. Definitely one to practise before event day, though – and don’t try it with a tow float on!
How to exit the water during a triathlon
Swim completed and you’ve got one last thing to do, and that’s exit the water. One tip some triathletes find helpful is to kick their legs a little harder in the last 15–20 metres to get a bit more blood flowing, or you can be a little wobbly when you exit otherwise.
If your triathlon has a beach swim, another skill to throw in is the ‘dolphin dive’ (these can be used to enter the water, too). As the water becomes shallower, instead of standing and wading, use your hands to grab the sand and propel yourself forwards. Do this a few times and you can gain precious seconds.
Other multisport formats you could consider
So, there you have it – our whistle-stop guide to triathlon and the swim skills you need. If you’re thinking swim-bike-run still isn’t for you, then it’s worth considering other multisport formats. If running isn’t your thing, then Aquabike (swim then bike) might appeal. Likewise, if you don’t want to cycle, then look for Aquathlon (swim then run) or Swimrun (multiple swims and runs, usually over islands or between lakes) might suit you better.
For the gnarly off-roaders there are also a few triathlons out there which incorporate mountain biking and trail running (look at the Xterra series) and there’s Duathlon too (but that’s run-bike-run, so you don’t get to swim at all!). Finally, if a more leisurely pace appeals then have a look at swimwalk… This writer had a great time last year on the Scilly Swim Challenge, which was two days of swims with walks in-between. Whatever you choose, remember there’s a level for everyone – and enjoy the variety!
Read more articles about swimming events and techniques in issue 7 of Swim magazine.