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?

How to Avoid Lane Rage

A lot of people dislike lane swimming, and I can’t say I blame them, it’s a necessary evil to share the same piece of water with others pounding up and down the lane, which can be frustrating for all involved as fast swimmers get held up and slower swimmers feel mobbed. If you’ve been swimming for a while, chances are you’ve either experienced, or been subject to the phenomenon of lane rage, where a swimmer becomes so agitated at having others interrupt their workout that they lash out at others. This is completely avoidable, so let’s dive into these murky waters to find the best way for such unpleasantries and to help everyone have a great swim.

Warning, may contain opinions

Be considerate
This should be the underlying message to take away from the article, you want your swim to be as enjoyable as possible, and you want everybody else to enjoy your workout as much as possible. In the same way a good driver spends more time focusing on the behaviour of other drivers than on themselves, the same is true for swimming in close confines. Everybody’s trying to get the most out of their session, treat people as you’d expect to be treated yourself.

Communicate with swimmers
If you find yourself at the end of the lane at the same time as your lane mate(s), make an effort to engage in some kind of conversation, even if it’s just asking if they want to go first. Adding a bit of humanity to the situation can help diffuse any potential tension.

Swim in an appropriate lane
This is the subject closest to my heart, people swimming in in the wrong lane. If you want to swim heads up breaststroke to keep your hair dry, that’s fine, it’s a free world, but please stay in the slow lane. Even if the fast lane is empty and you decide to hop in there instead to reduce the chance of getting splashed, if Adam Peaty turns up for a quick training session, he’s going to get in the fast lane and be held up by your leisurely swim. You’ll also get soaked by his powerful breaststroke kick. Please swim in the lane that best reflects your ability, and if you absolutely must swim in the fast lane as the slow lane is chock full, move back down as soon as a fast swimmer arrives. The same goes for michael phelps wannabes who decide that the fact the slow lane only contains one pensioner makes it perfect for a 400 IM.

Make other swimmers aware of your presence before entering|
This can be as simple as dangling your legs in the water for a minute or two before you enter the lane while you sort out your goggles and hat, but will make others aware that there will soon be another swimmer joining them. Especially important if the swimmers have split the lane rather than swimming in a circular fashion.

Check before pushing off
All competitive swimmers have been there, in the middle of a fast 400M time trial, on track for a rapid time, when a swimmer who lowered themselves into the fast lane and spent 10 minutes doing his pre flight checks decides to gently push off and begin his warmup just as you approach for a tumble turn. Read the lane check for other swimmers approaching before you push off, in the same way you look both ways before crossing the road.

Give way at the end of lengths
If a swimmer is directly behind you, he may inadvertently or otherwise give your feet a gentle tap. A light toe tap is generally considered to be a polite request to let them past at the end of the length, all it takes it to hold onto the wall for a second while they complete their turn, allowing you both to get on with your swim. Even if you don’t get a toe tap but sense a faster swimmer has been behind you for the majority of the length, giving way is polite and allows everyone to get on and enjoy their swim.

Don’t rest in the middle of the lane
If you are taking a break at the end of the lane, stand to the side of the to allow others to tumble turn easily. If you stand in the middle of the lane it becomes very difficult for others to continue swimming.

Consider moving down a lane for drillls/kick sets
This depends very much on how busy the lane is and the calibre of swimmers you’re sharing the water with, but if they’re doing sprints and you have 25M of sculling coming up, consider moving down a lane for a few minutes to avoid making enemies.

Swim in the correct direction
Most pools will have a clockwise lane next to an anti-clockwise lane, next to a clockwise, alternating across the pool. This is to prevent swimmers from clashing arms and legs, especially prevalent when swimming breaststroke or fly. Pay attention to the direction of travel which is normally advertised at the end of each lane to avoid agitating/confusing others.

Stick to your side
We know what it’s like, you’re 2K into a swim set and your mind starts to wander, you’re not paying attention in the same way as you were at the start of the set, and as you start thinking about what you’ll have for dinner you begin to migrate away from the rope. Before you know it you’re squeezing another swimmer against the opposite lane rope as you swim down the middle of the lane. While it happens to the best of us sometimes, it’s worth continually checking your proximity to the black line to ensure you’re swimming to the side of it rather than on top of it.

Only swim backstroke if you’re confident
As triathletes few of us will swim backstroke with any regularity, but it’s a good choice for swimming down as it loosens out the shoulders from the repetitive action of freestyle swimming. However if sharing a lane with others think carefully before you start breaking out backstroke, as it takes considerable practice to stay swimming in a straight line. I’ll put my hand up and admit my backstroke leaves a lot to be desired, so to avoid swimming into another lane companion, I practice it during quieter periods when I only have the lane ropes to contend with.

Put your ego in a box
One of the frustrations of swimming is how those who are young and very fit can flounder in the pool, and find themselves passed by people three times their age who they would leave for dead in other sports. Suck it up, and allow faster swimmers to overtake you. If a faster swimmer appears alongside you, back off a little bit to allow them to make the pass, rather than surging forwards in an effort to prevent them getting past you. The swimmer overtaking you is probably sprinting to get the pass made before a swimmer coming the opposite way hits them, back off momentarily and let them get on with their swim, you’d expect someone else to do the same for you.

Give the swimmer in front space
If you’re getting ready for a fast set and a swimmer you’re sharing the lane with is 5 seconds per 100 slower than you, give them a lot of space ahead of you in the pool before you start your set so you don’t immediately end up on their feet. It’s not rocket science but you’d be surprised how many people do just this.

Consider splitting the lane
If there are only two of you in the lane, consider communicating and splitting it down the middle, sticking to one side each. This can create issues with swimming adjacent to swimmers travelling in the same direction in other lanes, but it the two of you are the fastest in the pool yet still swimming at very different speeds, splitting the lane may be the most sensible way to ensure you both enjoy your swim. Keep an eye out for new swimmers arriving, as you’ll have to return to circular swimming to accommodate a third swimmer.

Butterfly is acceptable
Contentious I know, but those who want to swim fly have to train somewhere, and there aren’t butterfly specific pools or lanes. Many see it as an anti-social stroke due to the splash created from an effective fly kick, but as long as you’re not tearing up the middle of the lane, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. It’s great fun and very rewarding to learn, while the dolphin kick saving you valuable seconds in shallow water during races.

Don’t be a dick
You won’t be able to get the swim you want to every week due to other swimmers who are slowing you down or otherwise interfering with your set, this is a fact of life and unless you rent a lane or swim in a private pool, you’re going to have to put up with other swimmers. If someone is swimming very fast and is in the fast lane, they’s well within their rights. If someone is swimming slowly in the slow lane, they’re well within their rights. If somebody’s swimming is really irritating you and interfering with your set, just try talking to them between lengths, they may be unaware of the impact their actions are having and you should be able to find a compromise.

Just like driving or cycling on the roads, nobody wants to have to slow down for others, but a bit of consideration and patience goes a long way to a positive swimming environment. If you swim at the same time each week you’ll slowly get to know the swimmers you share a lane with, make an effort to learn their swimming patterns and do what you can to ensure a harmonious environment for everyone to swim in. If it all gets a bit much, consider joining a swimming/triathlon club where things are better regulated and rules enforced, you’ll also have the bonus of coached feedback and other swimmers to compare yourself against.

Swim Training Options

There are a multitude of swimming venues, ranging from council run pools to the open sea, which environment is right for triathletes to train in? Let’s look at the options.

Local Authority Pool

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Tottenham Green Pool 

 

These are found all around the western world, normally run by the local council, they provide accessible swimming for all. Their primary function is for teaching children to swim and for recreational activities. Many will ban fins and/or hand paddles as they can be deemed a risk to other pool users, and may not use ropes during fitness swim sessions.

For most of the day large areas of the pool will be roped off for swimming lessons which are the main source of income for the pool, and whenever you share water with children you run a higher risk of the pool being closed due to unwanted bodily fluids. Sadly all of this is not conclusive to a reliable and predictable training environment in a sport where constituency is key.

Pros: affordable swim only memberships available, easy to find, often the only option available
Cons: mostly non/weak swimmers with no appreciation or awareness of fitness swimmers, large areas often closed for lessons, training aids often banned

Health club pool

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Merton Abbey Pool, image credit Nuffield Health

Found in more expensive gyms, these are normally well maintained and quiet pools with very light use, in the day you can normally have the fast lane to yourself if you time it right. However they are often shorter than 25M which causes issues when calculating pace and for swim sets which are often designed for 25M pools.

Pros: quiet, clean, often include facilities like saunas and steam rooms, can use training aids
Cons: expensive, can be short and shallow

Competition pool

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London Aquatics Centre, image credit e-architect

50M in length and normally with eight lanes, these provide a very spacious and fitness focused environment to train in. They are at least 1.8M deep which can be intimidating for weaker swimmers who may feel uncomfortable swimming out of their depth for the entirety of the length. There is a considerable benefit to swimming in a 50M pool for triathletes as there is less time spent pushing and gliding from the wall, better replicating the demands of open water swimming. The calibre of swimmer you encounter in these pools is much greater than most, so lane etiquette is better observed and you’re less likely to find a breaststroker in the fast lane.

Pros: less time spent turning, mostly accommodating swimmers in lanes, full length lanes always available
Cons: less suitable for nervous swimmers, can be hard to find, you’re likely to get overtaken by a 12 year old

Lido

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The mighty 100 yard Tooting Bec Lido, image credit Nick Cooper

Once the pride and joy of the British seaside, lidos started falling into disrepair when cheap holidays to the continent started appearing and numbers fell dramatically. They are in the middle of something or a rebirth in recent years as sites are refurbished and new pools being opened. As they are outside they act as a gentle transition between indoor pool swimming and the open water, learning to share the water with wildfowl and leaves will better prepare you for your first visit to a lake.

They are normally 50M or more, with heated and unheated versions available. Unheated can actually be preferable as they allow you to swim in your wetsuit to get acclimatised to swimming in cold water. Some use lanes where as some are more of a free for all, it’s worth asking local club members what their experiences of the lido is before signing up for a membership.

Pros: gentle transition to open water swimming, quiet for most of the year, chance to swim in your wetsuit
Cons: extremely busy in summer, can be seasonal

Organised open water venue

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London Royal Docks Open Water Swim

From lakes to docklands and everything in between, these venues comprise of a marked course with water safety cover provided by organisers. Expect to pay £5-£10 a swim to cover venue and staffing costs.

These are the ideal training venue in many respects, as they replicate the environment you’ll be swimming in, even if your race is a sea swim a lake will prepare you much better than the pool, the more time you spend in open water the more comfortable you’ll become. However it is much harder to work on your stroke and receive feedback from a coach in open water,

Pros: safe environment to train in, marked courses, replicates race conditions, more enjoyable than pool swimming, builds open water confidence, coaching options available
Cons: can be pricey, difficult to work on stroke technique

Wild swimming

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The Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye. It’d be rude not to really… Image credit Visit Scotland

Whether exploring a secluded quarry or splashing around in waterfall pools, wild swimming has become increasingly popular recently as people aim to escape the boundaries of conventional swimming and just enjoy being in the water. There are however very few venues in the UK where you can legally go wild swimming, with most bodies of water being on private property, and owners keen to keep trespassers off their land, as it is a huge liability should an accident occur on their land, the exception to this is bodies of water in national parks. There will be no safety cover provided and with the sharp drop in water temperatures experienced in many bodies of water, we cannot recommend swimming in unknown bodies of water.

Pros: free, life affirming
Cons: little scope for meaningful training, no water safety cover, extremely cold

Sea swimming 

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Sea Swimming at the Brighton Aquathlon, with adequate water safety cover in place. Image credit Brightonsports

Sea swimming comes in two flavours, lifeguarded beach swimming (read splashing around) and swimming for fitness/adventure. The first will often involve swimming in a roped area where you can barely get out of your depth, but even if you swim outside of the marked area. If you choose to venture outside of this marked area you do so at your own risk.

Sea swimming is the ultimate swimming adventure, but should be handled with immense respect. Always ensure a friend or family member is watching from the shore with a pair of binoculars, and enough mobile signal to alert the RNLI if you get into trouble. Before swimming in the sea, chat to local swimmers about the conditions and the best time to swim, some stretches of water are simply too treacherous to swim in.

Pros: The best way to prepare for a sea swim, life affirming, free
Cons: Limited lifeguard cover, no marked courses, potentially dangerous

Conclusion
In an ideal world I would recommend an athlete alternates between a competition pool, a managed open water venue and responsible sea swimming. If there are no competition pools nearby then a health club pool is the next best bet for uninterrupted swimming.