Monday, August 6, 2012

How to Survive Triathlon Swim Starts: Beach, Deep-water, Pontoon

Most triathlon noobs are nervous (if not straight out terrified) of swimming in open water, and the thought of being mauled, punched, kicked and/or swum over at the mass swim starts, adds a thousandfold to the trepidation. How does one get off to a good swim start? This post covers the types of starts, and what you can do to survive the swim start. Now, I'm most definitely not any expert on triathloning and haven't done any Ironmans or anything like that, but I can claim to having survived a bunch of swim starts :p

Types of Starts

A common start is from the beach, where tri- (or try-) athletes run into the water and keep running until it becomes more efficient to swim, then they start swimming. A few dolphin dives are usually thrown in for good measure, between the run and swim bits. A variation of this is a start in the water, just off the beach. Here, racers are about waist deep and can proceed directly to the business of swimming upon gun start.

Starting in waist deep water at Moraine State Park, Butler YMCA Triathlon 2012.

Deep water starts have the swimmer taking off from a treading water position. You'll see this is Ironman races. And pontoon starts such as seen in the Olympic triathlon events or ITU races, have swimmers dive from a platform. The Port Dickson International Triathlon Sprint had a pontoon start the year I took part.

Triathletes launch off at the pontoon start at the London 2012 Olympics. Photo from

Start Survival Strategy
If you're a total newbie taking part in your virgin triathlon, the best way to have an uneventful (read non-violent) swim start is to hang back and let the crowd go first. If there is a buoy line marking the course and you wish to swim right next to it, you can do that after first letting everyone go first. If you're next to the line and at the front of the start group, you risk getting boxed in and swum over if you don't swim fast enough.

Letting others go first helps avoid water-maulings at triathlon swim starts. Photo by Reza Ali.

For fast swimmers on a beach start, you'll do well to run side-to-side style with your knees high and pulling your foot out of the water. Dive when it is deep enough, then dolphin a few times by pushing off the bottom and launching yourself forward. That will get you ahead of slowpokes (like me) who wade in leisure-like. It's a good idea to do a practice run on the beach where you'll be racing, just so you know how many strides you'll take before dolphining.

The Port Dickson International Triathlon Olympic Distance beach start. Note Hong Kong pro Lee (front) with high knees, feet pulled clear of the water, and side-to-side run stride. Photo by Tey Eng Tiong.

There are a few ways you can execute your pontoon start. Again if you're not fast or if you're nervous in any way, start at the back of the pack. Make sure there's enough clearance in the water so that when you dive (or cannonball) in, you won't land on someone else. For deep water starts, the key is to get from a treading water position into a more horizontal position about 30 secs before the gun start, then use a breast stroke kick to start the swim.

That wraps up today's post. I'll cover sighting and breathing in my next one. (Which is going to be funny, because I have a problem swimming straight myself!).

How did your first swim start go? Any tips for newbies? I LOVE hearing from you. Please leave your comments at the end of the post!

xo Gracie

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