Swim pointers and observations for new triathletes

I’m not an experienced triathlete, but I am comfortable swimmer.  My mom, (a.k.a. Mama Chris) will be swimming on teammate Abra’s HyVee Triathlon team next month so we’ve been talking quite a bit about what she can expect.  She asked me to put together some thoughts/observations/”things that surprised me” for her so I thought I’d share…

#1: Don’t research Ironman Swim Starts right off the bat.  Definitely don’t do a google image search for them!  If you have never done an open water race, it is most likely NOT going to be anything like the crazy mass swim start that is part of an Ironman or half Ironman.  I also have learned that even the mass starts in smaller triathlons look scarier from videos and pictures than then feel in the water.  The bodies don’t quite seem as close together in the water as they look in pictures and videos.

#2: Do find out what kind of start it will be so you can go in without surprises.  Will it be in waves? A mass start? From the beach or from a tread?  Is there a video of the start on you tube from the previous year?

#3: Check the swim times from the prior year of the race you’re doing and compare them to your estimated time to determine where you should start.

#4: If you are a strong swimmer, DO NOT listen to people telling you to start at the outside or back of the pack.  If you are a slower and less confident swimmer, that is where you want to be for safety.  If you are faster and you start with the less confident/slower swimmers you will have to struggle to navigate around people off the start to get where you belong in the pack.  This could result in more face-kicking. If you start in the front/middle you’ll be in a more comfortable position. See #3.

#5: If you’re a stronger swimmer, towards the middle of the swim (or end depending on the distance) you’ll start to approach the slower swimmers from the waves ahead of you.  Be prepared to navigate around people who may be stopping to rest or doing backstroke/breaststroke/treading.  If you are a less confident swimmer, once you get out of your wave’s start and are finally feeling comfortable,  you’ll feel the next wave coming behind you.  Mentally preparing for this can alleviate anxiety when it happens.

#6: There is usually a greater concentration of swimmers near the turn around buoys

#7: It is good to know what side the buoys will be compared to what side you breathe on.  If they aren’t to the side you breathe on, don’t panic.  I’ve found sighting to be much easier in an actual race than trying to sight when I swim alone or in a small group.  I can only breathe left and I’ve done swims with buoys on the right without issue.

#8: It is easy to get your heart rate too high off the start from sheer adrenaline or that natural panic survival instinct.  It is easy to feel like you need to race out of the pack right away as though being chased by a shark.  If you feel like your arms and legs are lead, slow down your stroke (and your mind!) and focus on breathing and slowing your heart rate.  Remember…there will still be a bike and run waiting for you and going balls-to-the-wall on the swim will do you no favors later in the race!

#9: In your training swims, stop periodically, tread water, take your goggles off and put them back on, then continue swimming.  This way, if you have a goggle issue during the race, you’ll be prepared!

#10: Train in what you’ll be wearing for the swim at least once to avoid any unpleasant wardrobe malfunctions on race day.

#11: Wear mirrored goggles if you’ll be racing outdoors.  It makes a huge difference with glare.
What observations did you have from your first tri or open water swim that could be helpful to others?  Please share them in the comments to help alleviate Mama Chris’ fears.



  1. So mirrored goggles rather than dark tinted? I better get ordering them. I also see the benefit to use mirrored as a signal for the support boat. Another question, are there buoys to mark course other than the obvious big orange ones? Maybe out of bound markers, it is hard to understand how to swim a triangle or rectangle. Dop the swimmers eventually start to form a line of a few next to each other or does it stay bunched up through out?

    1. Hi Mom, I use the nest mirrored, but can’t find them on swim outlet anymore. Boo! I did get a smaller TYR goggle and survived with them for 1500 meters in open water last night, but they weren’t as comfortable. The tint/mirror was awesome though! There are smaller buoys in a different color along the way so you know you’re on the right track. Mostly, you can figure it out fast if you’re too off track! There really isn’t an “out of bounds” unless you climb up on shore or skip a turnaround buoy, but you won’t miss them, they’re huge. I’d say about the size of a big round inflatable pool toy we used to play “king of the raft” on, plus it is pyramid shaped. It isn’t hard at all to figure out the rectangle or triangle. Just head for the big buoys and make sure you’re outside of them! You’ve got this!

  2. Terrific tips! I have a couple other questions, since I’ve never done a triathlon:

    1) What’s the best way to practice open water swimming? I’ve splashed around a little at the beach, but should I be swimming back and forth along the shore (like I’m in a pool), or back along the buoys, or against the waves?

    2) When do I start swimming once I hit the water? Do I run until I can’t touch bottom (which is a scary thought!), or just until the water is knee high? And then do I do a belly flop in?

    I just found a team to do the cycling leg of the HyVee Tri, so hopefully I’ll learn from watching others.

    1. Hi, so glad to hear you’re doing a tri…I started with the swim leg of the HyVee relay last year and really benefited from watching everyone else do the bike and run leg (and transitions!) before I did my first full tri. I do mostly pool training so I can consistently measure my distance, but I throw in about 1 open water a week or every other. I mostly swim hugging the roped off area. I prefer to swim outside the rope, but if it is a slow day at the lake, you could go in or out. I like to do Raccoon River Park’s lake. If you swim just outside the rope and hug it, I estimate each length (kind of a “u” shape) at around 230+ meters based on my stroke counts and gmap pedometer. I also occasionally do Grey’s Lake just outside the rope. It is shorter per length.

      Mama Chris also asked me about when to start swimming and I forgot to answer that for her! I tried “running” into the lake like a dork last night to see how deep I got and I think the water is usually mid thigh to a bit higher when I just kind of flop down being sure not to actually “dive”. I figure the sooner you can start actually swimming, the better since walk/running in the water is slow! I also stop swimming at the end when my hand hits sand (again, I want to swim as long as possible!)

      If you ever want swim partners for your first lake swim, let me know and I’ll tell you when our training group is going out next! I also have another blog post on open water swim safety that covers some more how-to’s! Mom just started open water training for the first time, so hopefully she’ll offer some ideas too. 🙂 Good luck with your relay team, it’ll be so fun (oh…and the race swag for the HyVee is AWESOME!)

      1. Thanks for answering my questions! That really does help. I would like to do Swim the Bridge next month, but not sure if I’m ready for a race yet. I look forward your post on open water safety. This is all so new to me. But I’m very excited about the Hy-Vee tri!

  3. Tree, glad to see I am not the only one with questions. I live in quad cities so I do not have access to 50 meter pool. I have spent last winter swimming in the Y getting long distance tips from Cassie. As soon as our outside pool stared lap swims I went there every chance I could to get the feel of swimming in all weather and sun conditions. A few weeks ago I did my first “green” water swim at our West Lake. Now I go as soon as it opens and swim against their line and estimate meters. It helps for me to get used to sighting which I have never done before. I try to swim about 1500 meters in the lake.

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