No matter the distance, every triathlon starts in the water. For people new to the sport, the swim leg can be daunting. Even athletes who have years of experience running or cycling can be apprehensive.
"First timers have heard from friends that the swim is rough," Sara McLarty, a professional athlete and swim coach, says. "There are people everywhere, the water's choppy and it's long. I haven't had anyone come to me thinking the swim would be easy."
McLarty assures nonswimmers that these fears are normal, even advantageous. "It's okay to be a little worried about the swim when you come into triathlon without a swim background. That's the best attitude to have so that you will take the proper preparations to be ready for it," she says. Bruce Grant, spokesperson for swimplan.com, an online training service, notes, "Most beginner triathletes believe the swimming component is the most challenging and difficult part of the sport, requiring both stamina and skill. While technique is important for all disciplines, it is especially important for swimming. A swimmer with an efficient stroke will often come out of the water ahead of a fitter competitor who swims with a less efficient technique."
Swimming can be the hardest of the three sports to fit training in. Matching work and family responsibilities with an indoor pool's open lap schedule isn't as easy as heading out the door for a run or bike, which can be done at a moment's notice.
But neglecting time in the pool isn't a good idea. "If you get to the triathlon and you are ill prepared for the swim, you will not have an enjoyable race. The idea is to swim with 100 percent confidence," McLarty says."
Swim training usually means countless hours of endless laps in an indoor pool. According to McLarty, however, nothing much is gained from that approach. "Swimming non-stop is the worst and most ill-advised swim practice that I can imagine," she says, "Even if you go to the pool for only 30 minutes, do a properly designed swim workout with a warm-up, a drill, kick set, main set and a cool-down. You might swim fewer yards than swimming non-stop for 30 minutes, but you will actually get more benefit out of it."
Performing at your best in the water requires paying close attention to your technique. "A popular misconception is that learning to swim with an efficient technique is difficult to achieve. This can lead to a lack of confidence in the water and will sometimes prevent beginners from pursuing the sport," Grant says.
Signing up for an online training program, like swimplan.com, or talking to a coach can make a huge difference. McLarty suggests shelling out for a one-hour session with a coach. "They will watch your stroke and give you tips about kick, stroke, hip rotation and hand placement," She explains. "If you work on those things for the next month, you will obviously see improvement. People tell me, 'Wow! I see and I get it. It's a world of difference.' In the end, the total mileage is less but you've gotten more out of the practice."
Grant agrees. "Getting some advice from a qualified swim coach is invaluable. A coach can quickly appraise your stroke and give you advice on what you need to concentrate on to improve your technique. Beginners can quickly make significant gains."
McLarty adds, "Swimming is so technical. Even if you train your cardiovascular system to the maximum, if you have horrible technique you won't go any faster. You can output all the power you want in the water and still go nowhere. In swimming, you can make the biggest advancements in speed with the least amount of money. By improving your technique you can drop time for free."
In addition to dedicated training, triathletes can improve their performance in the water by wearing a wet suit. Logos from brands like 2XU, Zoot Sports, TYR and Quintana Roo can be found on the chests of thousands of professional and amateur triathletes.
Richard Verney, owner of Sports Multiplied, the US distributor of 2XU wet suits, says, "People look to wet suits initially just for a sense of warmth. There's a misunderstanding of what the true function of a wet suit is when it comes to aiding the swimmer, especially a swimmer who is a novice or beginner."
Verney continues, "A well-fitted wet suit has huge advantages for the swimmer in terms of buoyancy. They will definitely see a vast improvement in the way they swim. Flotation is a key thing. The buoyancy will help them ride a little higher in the water."
Brian Enge, chief executive officer of Zoot Sports, agrees many new triathletes don't understand the purpose a wet suit serves. If you watch the average rookie swimmer who is not wearing a wet suit, you see their feet dragging pretty low in the water, which slows them down a lot, Enge says. Wet suits are all about allowing you to float more on top of the water than you normally would.
Cary Brown, a spokesperson for Quintana Roo, says the benefits of wearing a wet suit can't be underestimated. "A wet suit can make a good swimmer great and a not so good swimmer pretty good," she says. "By increasing buoyancy, they are going to swim in a more streamlined position in a horizontal plane in the water."
Rarely offered in any other color than black, wet suits come in different configurations. The most apparent visual difference is full sleeve or none at all. Verney highly recommends a full body wet suit.
"A full arm, full leg suit is fastest in the water," he asserts. "What swimmers need to be mindful of is that they aren't buoyant in the wrong places. Too much buoyancy in the lower limbs will cant your body in the water and tip your head into the water."
Enge adds, "When your arms and legs get the full benefit of the flotation, your hand is able to grab more water because your arm is in a better position. Your legs move through the water a little easier."
Brown says it is not true full sleeve suits sacrifice flexibility. "With the technology that is in neoprene now, flexibility in the shoulder and upper arm isn't an issue," she says.
Like running shoes and triathlon bicycles, getting the right fit is important. "You can spend all the money in the world on a wet suit, but if it's not fit correctly it won't help your performance," Verney states.
If a wet suit is too tight, Enge said, the anxiety level in the water rises pretty quickly, especially for new triathletes. "Nothing ruins a triathlon faster than anxiety in the water," he says.
Most brands offer gender specific wet suits. Women's suits are not just smaller versions of men's models but designed specifically for the female form.
"One key question to ask," Verney suggests, "is 'what is the layer of fabric closest to the body?' We see a lot of manufacturers using good quality neoprene, but they aren't using a fabric on the inside that complements the neoprene to give it the maximum flexibility."
Doing your homework by researching brands and finding a knowledgeable retailer can ensure the best selection. At larger triathlons, brands and retailers may offer demo wet suits to try on and test in the water.
"There is no single wet suit that will fit everybody," Enge insists. "Different wet suits are cut differently and fit different body parts. The most important thing is they go to a specialty retailer and try it on. The real focus is going in and telling the store staff what they are trying to accomplish."