Open Water and Triathlon Swim Starts and Finishes: Mastering the Beginning and End

Open Water and Triathlon Swim Starts and Finishes: Mastering the Beginning and End

The beginning of a race can be the most intimidating part for some people. It's a chaotic scene with bodies, arms, and legs flailing about as everyone rushes off at the sound of the buzzer. It creates a lot of splashing, noise, and what's known as the famous washing machine effect. On the other hand, some athletes find this part of the race exhilarating and thrilling. They don't worry about the start and just dive into it. However, for those who feel nervous looking at the mass of water ahead, with eager and competitive athletes surrounding them, a little bit of forward thinking can make this daunting prospect easier to handle.

The Start, Up to the First Buoy

So, here you are, facing the mass start. You can either love it or hate it, but how can you make it better?

Firstly, you need to ask yourself about your racing goals. Are you aiming to win or simply complete the race? The difference between these two groups can be significant, so you must ensure that you don't accidentally position yourself with the wrong crowd.

Choose your start position carefully and be honest with yourself about your swimming speed and ability. If you're not the fastest swimmer out there, you may want to evaluate your start position to avoid being overtaken by faster swimmers. The start line often reveals the intentions of your fellow competitors.

For those who want to excel in the swim and be among the first to reach the exit, position yourself near the front and choose the racing line to the buoy. The racing line refers to the shortest path to the first buoy. For example, if the first buoy requires a right turn, position yourself on the right side of the pack. This will allow you to swim straight towards the buoy without covering extra distance (assuming you have good sighting skills). This position is one of the most challenging in the race since all the competitors around you will be eyeing that first turn, potentially leading to a funneling effect where swimmers from your left converge. This is why it's important to choose your position based on your honest ability. Making a poor choice could be uncomfortable even if you're a fast swimmer. Inexperienced swimmers should be especially cautious, as this situation can catch them off guard. Beware and choose wisely.

Now, let's talk about those who participate in events to complete the challenging middle or long-distance triathlons. Considering the information above, do you really want to be at the front of the pack? The start can be rough regardless of where you begin, but being at the front (when your realistic starting position is towards the back) won't be pleasant. Being swum over by faster swimmers is no fun. This happens when they catch up with you and, fueled by competition or simply not noticing you, they may swim right over you, resulting in mouthfuls of water. In the worst-case scenario, this can prematurely end a race you've been training for over the past 12 months. If you're a slower swimmer, start towards the middle or end of the start group, away from the racing line. Being off the racing line means positioning yourself to the left of the first right-hand buoy turn. This allows you to avoid most of the funnel effect created by the first turn. Plan your start position in advance based on the course and aim to stay out of trouble. You might even benefit from a position further down the field, as you can take advantage of drafting.

You can apply these positioning strategies for the first few buoys as well, as the field may still be tightly packed. The closer you swim to the buoy, the more crowded it will be, increasing the chances of getting bumped and knocked around due to the funneling effect. Sticking a little

to the outside line usually ensures a smoother experience.

Throughout all of this, it's important to remember to breathe. Exhale smoothly underwater and avoid holding your breath, as it can induce panic by making you feel like you're running out of air. Breathe as naturally as possible and consider using mantras like "bubble-bubble-breath" or counting strokes to help focus your mind.

Another important aspect to be aware of is your position in relation to other swimmers in the water. Be mindful of your surroundings and where you are in relation to others. Ideally, you would have practiced this during training by swimming with others, such as training partners or fellow swimmers in the same location. Being self-aware allows you to adjust your position and avoid potential clashes with other swimmers. Additionally, be prepared for changes in the water conditions. What may have been a clear lake during training could turn into a turbulent mass of kicked-up sediment, bubbles, and splashes. Expect lower visibility in the water, as it can be disorienting, especially if you haven't experienced it during your training.

The Finish

Finally, you've reached the moment you've been waiting for since the start. How hard can it be? There's a ramp in front of you, so just aim for it and get out, right? Well, yes, but many athletes make it harder for themselves when approaching the finish and climbing out of the water.

Firstly, don't stop when you can see the bottom! Just because you can see the bottom doesn't mean the water is shallow enough to walk. It may still be waist-deep, and wading through the water to reach the finish ramp can be exhausting for you and frustrating for others who are still swimming. As you come into sight of the finish, your goal should be to swim as far in as possible, avoiding any wading. Sight more frequently to focus on the finish and be aware of your surroundings so that you don't end up behind a large group of swimmers all aiming for the same spot. Find your own space if possible. Swim as close to the exit ramp as you can, ideally having your last stroke right on the exit ramp itself, and use the help of marshals to pull yourself up. Trust me, it's much easier than wading through deep water!
As you get closer to the finish, start moving your legs a bit more to get blood flowing into them and throughout your body. This can help prevent that dizzy feeling when you get out of the water and head towards the transition area (for triathlon swims, at least). However, be cautious not to cramp. Pay attention to your body, and if you feel a cramp coming on, ease off the kick. Getting blood flowing to your legs is beneficial, but if you can't stand up due to a cramp, it won't be helpful.

So, that's it — some advice on starts and finishes. By following these tips, hopefully, you can exit the water with confidence after a great swim and full of energy, having had a well-paced race without any incidents in the water. Other key factors for a successful swim include good sighting technique, efficient swim technique, and pacing skills. We will cover sighting and pacing in a future blog post, but remember not to start too fast. Many coaches now advocate for a controlled and fairly even race pace throughout, avoiding a sprint start. There are no prizes for being the first at buoy 1; you're in this for the long haul.

Have a fantastic race and, above all, enjoy the entire experience.
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