First of all, let me be clear that I’m not an elite swimmer. Some people are naturally a “fish” from a young age. Not me. I hated swimming lessons as a kid. I never had a phobia of water, but just didn't like it. I casually began experimenting with swimming as a way to stay in shape after hurting my knee running in my early 20’s. A few months later I did my first triathlon and the rest is history. I joined a masters team, which helped me a ton. In addition to a handful of triathlons a year, I also raced ~20 aquathons (just swim/run) on Thursday evenings in Madison's often choppy Lake Mendota. I credit these experiences with helping me stay calm during the swim at Ironman last year.
All that said, here are some things that help me tackle the infamous washing machine that is the triathlon swim.
1) Get in the water as soon as possible. I tell this to everyone. Even if it’s only for a few minutes, this time is invaluable, especially if the water is cold. Do breaststroke, tread water, whatever. Just get acclimated before the gun goes off.
2) While warming up, get your mind ready as well. It’s not an ego thing, but I often say to myself “I’m a good swimmer, I’m a good swimmer.” I’ve worked hard, and so have you! Think about all the hard practice sessions you've put in and get into that Bring It On mentality.
|come on in, the water's fine|
3) Position yourself well – use common sense here... if you're the fastest fish in the water then by all means, line up front and center. CAUTION: if you're not, you will get run over. Start on the side or towards the back until you've got some experience and greater confidence in open water.
4) Stay calm – get plenty of air. A couple things help me when I’m feeling short of breath: it sounds weird, but every now and then as I’m breathing I’ll take a peak up at the sky and think to myself “look at all that air up there.” It’s easy for newer triathletes to feel a bit claustrophobic at times… that little mind trick seems to help. Keep your mindset positive no matter what. At Ironman, whitecaps were crashing in my face and I couldn’t see a thing, but I was laughing in the water saying “this is craaaaaazzyyy!!” Lastly, focus on exhaling fully in the water, which really helps regulate your breathing.
5) Play a song in your head – this advice came to me by way of Erin Feldhausen. It helps to get you in a rhythm and can be a nice little distraction.
6) Protect yourself – the fact of the matter is, you're going to experience some incidental contact with other swimmers. It's tough to avoid that 100%. Protect your space, but if someone’s just repeatedly all over you pop up for a second and pick a new line.
7) Finish strong – keep swimming til your "hand touches sand." You’re excited to get out of the water, but you’ll be faster swimming it in than wading like a sea lion to transition just because it's shallow enough to stand.