Analysis of a Swim Start

For many new to triathlon the start of the race is the most intimidating part. Not only are you about to engage in the swim which is probably the most intimidating leg of the event anyway, but this is done surrounded by dozens of people and hundreds of limbs flailing around. So while at The London Triathlon I thought I’d take a video of one of the starts to show everybody the process and hand out some tips.

As I started filming the first athletes in the water were making their way to the right of the starting area (left of shot) where they all form a small group. Why do you think this might be? Well the race starts with a right hand turn, so by placing themselves to the right they are shortening the distance between themselves and the first buoy, avoiding having to add distance onto their swim by cutting across the width of the swim course for the first turn. Things are much sparser to the left which makes it a good place for newbies or less confident swimmers to start.

The other thing to notice is that the first athletes in the water are treading water for a significant amount of time while the back markers make their way into the water. This is something worth considering if you’re less confident in the water, that you’re probably best being one of the last in the water to reduce your time spent waiting for the start and ensuring you’ll start well clear of the washing machine effect.

However this is easier said that done, back in 2014 when I did the Olympic distance I arrived nice and early for the briefing, standing at what I thought was the back of the pen. However lots of latecomers formed the true back of the group, and when we got in the water I found myself slap bang in the middle of affairs, the last place I wanted to be at the time! To avoid this, arrive at the swim start in good time, but hang right at the back and wait for everyone to arrive before you find out where the back really is.

Back to the swim start in question, as the starting area starts to fill out a bit you can see the spaces between swimmers are much larger as they will not be getting as competitive as the swimmers at the front of the pack, resulting in less chance of a kick or a knock. Nobody will ever deliberately try to kick or punch you, imagine trying to kick/punch someone while swimming, it would detract so much energy from your stroke it would simply not be worth it. A few knocks and bumps are inevitable but to reduce the risk of being caught up in it then star further back from the main pack where the gaps between swimmers are larger.

Four minutes after the lead group take their positions at the front the last swimmers make it in, the air horn finally blasts and the swim is underway. Cue a flurry of arms and legs to the left of picture as the main protagonists try either to get some space between them and their rivals, or to desperately try to hang onto the feet of the swimmer in front of them. The first 150-200M will be very fast as the swim groups establish themselves before the pace knocks back a bit and swimmers settle into their race pace.

By the time the leaders are 100M in, some of the back markers are only just crossing the start line as they start what will be a long and leisurely swim. Take some time to watch the swim strokes of those at the back, a mixture of breaststroke, heads up front crawl and otherwise unidentified methods of aquatic propulsion. It doesn’t matter though as they’re getting the job done and for these mass participation events there is no swim cut off. However what you don’t want to do is start too far back as you’ll find yourself boxed in by breaststrokers and unable to make much headway, it’s very difficult to pick the right place in the swim pack for you, the best advice I can offer is to read the body language of your fellow competitors. If they’re looking impatient and sat in relative silence the chances are they’re planning to go off like a rocket. If they’re floating around and talking about how they’re just hoping to get round or they’re sat in silence with the thousand yard stare it may be better to move forward. If in any doubt start further back as being slow is frustrating, but beats being swum over and a potential panic attack.

As soon as our final white hat has crossed the start line, there is already a wave of pink hats bearing down on them and ready to go. Due to the fact they sound the horn before the last swimmer had even made their way to the start area I’m guessing they were running behind schedule at this point, but it gives you an insight into just how quickly things move at these large events. As I pan left to follow the leaders of the pink wave we can already see a white hat being pulled out of the water and onto a safety craft. It’s never nice to see someone pull out of a race so early in proceedings, but a reminder not only of the great job that the safety teams do, but also the importance of making sure you get plenty of practice in open water before race day.

I hope this has been helpful in your preparations for you race, if you are nervous about the swim leg of your race, why not get in touch with us to organise a coached session?

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