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Triathlon Training Q & A Series with Elite Triathlete and Coach, Morgan Chaffin: Question #4: Pacing at the start of a triathlon

Here we kick off blog number 4 with a swim question about pacing at the start of a triathlon:


Q: Is it best to go all out 100% effort at the swim start, even if it involves inadvertently swimming into/over folks, or should we be a bit more cautious and start at a slower pace, maybe over at the side of the big group, where you feel like you can avoid most contact with other swimmers?


A: Great question! I feel it really depends on the swimmer’s ability and comfort level. If you’re a new swimmer I don’t recommend that you give your best effort from the start. One, this could throw you into panic, and two, it will spike your heart rate and you could experience a bit of fatigue by the first buoy, which may hinder the rest of your swim. If you’re at a race and know swimmers of your ability I recommend positioning yourself with them and working with their pace. Starting at a “comfortably” hard pace will set you up with a pace you can build off of as you swim and won’t leave you exhausted for the subsequent bike and run.


On the other hand, if you’re a well conditioned swimmer and have trained to give it your best at the swim start, go for it! The first 100 meters will be FAST! This will leave you swimming with those similar to your ability. Additionally, you will be swimming amongst the triathletes that you can draft off of and rotate pacing with. If you start too far back you will not be able to catch those swimming at a fast pace!

On a side note, before the start establish land markers in line with the course buoys. This will help reduce pre race anxiety. When pacing with others, remember to sight often and always sight for yourself so you’re not directed off course.


Below are some concepts and ideas to incorporate in training to help with the swim start and open water swimming. Assuming you have no shoulder injuries and good stroke mechanics, swim often! If time allows, I suggest four times per week.


Incorporate some of these examples into your swim routines:


Warm up on dry land and then begin your main swim set. Often participants are not allowed to enter the water to begin warming up before the swim start. For some this creates a lot of anxiety and subsequently an elevated heart rate. Try doing a warm up run (1-2 miles, incorporating some running drills/strides) and then immediately hit the pool with your main set. Start with some fast 50’s at your race pace, start speed. This will get your heart elevated and help you adjust to the chaotic swim start!


Open Water Drills


Sighting: Focus on an object at each end of the pool. Practice sighting at the object 2-3 times per length. Work on your body position and keep your eyes slightly above the water (just cracking the surface). Think alligator eyes.


Tarzan swimming: Head up swimming. I don’t suggest doing this for a lengthy period of time. It could put a lot of stress on your cervical spine. With my swim group the most we will do is 25 meters at one time with rest and easy freestyle mixed in. An example would be: 8x25m Alternate 25m of tarzan swimming with sighting, and 25m of front crawl (:20 seconds rest in between each 25).


Drafting: Practice drafting in the pool or in open water. Position yourself slightly behind and to the right or left of the swimmers feet in front of you. If you breathe to the right position yourself near their left foot and if you breathe to the left position yourself near their right foot. Here you should feel their “wake” and the bubbles produced by their kick. Practice and be aware of drafting as it can save you as much as 70 seconds in an Olympic distance race and 3 minutes in an ironman distance swim.


Flipping at the T: No wall swimming/No touching the bottom. This simulates open water swimming and the energy cost of turning at buoys or slowing down and speeding up. Flip turning at the T is best because you’re almost at a dead stop before you continue arm and leg movement. Practice coming out of the flip with powerful arm strokes, efficient pulling, and fast, short, powerful kicks.


Distance Per Stroke (DPS) with fast arm turn over: Practice lengthening your stroke with fast arm turn over. Catch and pull the water quickly. Water can be moving quite fast in the open water. The more efficient you can be at lengthening your stroke and moving through the water the quicker you will be! To focus on this concept perform FAST 25’s and 50’s while using a tempo trainer. 


I hope you find these tips useful for starting the swim leg of a triathlon and are able to incorporate them into your training for 2018! Best wishes and happy swimming!