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A Method To The Madness: Three Swim Workouts For Perfect Race Starts

  • By Triathlete.com
  • Published Mar 17, 2010
  • Updated Feb 11, 2011 at 12:43 PM UTC

After months of swimming in the luxurious width of a pool lane, the arrival of race season brings with it the necessity of facing the controlled frenzy of a mass-start open-water swim. Abby Rudy explains how to get ready for the first few seconds of your next triathlon.

Written by: Abby Rudy

Swimming in close quarters can be intimidating to many triathletes, who often struggle to get through the first few minutes so they can settle down and just swim. With a little preparation, however, you can make those first few minutes work to your advantage.

The first few seconds of your race can determine the momentum throughout the entire race. Photo: Nils Nilsen

Achieving a PR in the swim leg of your next triathlon, which is a great step toward a PR for the whole event, can hinge on your performance in the very beginning of the swim. Your goal is to position yourself with faster swimmers as the groups start to separate. Doing so requires that you swim powerfully right from the gun and then settle into a rhythm once you’ve found your optimal position in the pack.

You dial in every other part of your race-day preparation, from the arrangement of your transition towel to the timing of your calorie consumption, so why not practice your power swimming as well? Incorporate the following workouts into the final three weeks of your training leading up to the race season to develop the physical and mental skills for the first critical moments of your big event. And don’t just go through the motions; instead, use visualization to put yourself in a real race situation as you perform each effort. By doing so, you’ll find the start of your next triathlon less intimidating, and you’ll have the power to get out faster and push yourself toward your fastest swim leg ever.

Hot-start drill: Do the warm-up you would do on race day: no fins, no buoys, just a few pick-ups and an easy 500- to 800-meter swim to warm up those muscles on a cold race morning. Then, rest outside of the pool for 2-3 minutes (imagine a race director shouting incomprehensibly into a bull horn) before hopping back in and completing:

  • 200 meters all out. Imagine those feet and arms of other swimmers pummeling you as you fight for a good position in the pack
  • 15-second rest (just enough to catch your breath, as if you found the perfect feet to draft)
  • 12 x 100 meters (or 6 x 200 meters) at race pace on 5-10 seconds rest
  • Finish with a 100-meter kick hard to start blood flowing to the legs and get them ready for the bike and simulate the sprint up the beach

Earn-your-keep workout: Start with your race-day warm-up of 500-800 meters with some pick-ups and/or accelerations. Then, go right into:

  • 20 x 50 meters on a send-off time that allows for 15-20 seconds rest. For example, if you are swimming 40-second 50s with 20 seconds rest, the send-off is on 1 minute even; however, if your 50s drop to 43 seconds then you only get 17 seconds rest. The goal here is to maintain consistent times (you have to work to earn your rest).

Buoy-bully workout: Grab two or three of your best friends (well, at least your buddies who swim) and hit the pool for this race-simulation session.

Getting prepared for the bodies that will surround you in a triathlon swim can help keep your mind at ease on the start line. Photo: Delly Carr

Warm-up: Swim on your buddies’ feet. Practice drafting in a pace line, switching the leader every 50 meters. Continue in this manner for 800-1000 meters.

Turn-buoy set: After the warm-up, set a turn buoy or marker six to eight feet from the wall. Start together at the opposite wall and race to be the first one to and around the buoy and back to the wall. Each effort will be about 50 meters, and 6 x 50 should provide ample time to elbow each other, work on your acceleration in the water and practice buoy turns while you’re at it. While it is a race simulation, try not to give your buddies black eyes, as they will be less likely to practice with you in the future.

Finish up with 2 x 600 fartlek, alternating 50 meters at endurance pace and 50 meters fast.

Start the season off right with a swim PR by incorporating these swim sets into your preparation for an optimal performance on race day. Not only will you be physically prepared but you will also be mentally focused, practiced and sharp come that first cold dip into open water.

Take-home message

Swimming in close quarters can be intimidating to many triathletes, who often struggle to get through the first few minutes so they can settle down and just swim.

The road to a PR in the swim leg of your next triathlon, which is a great step toward a PR for the whole event, can hinge on your performance in the very beginning of the swim.

Your goal is to be with faster swimmers as the groups start to separate, but that means you have to swim powerfully right from the gun and then settle into a rhythm once you’ve found your optimal position in the pack.

FILED UNDER: Swim / Training TAGS: / / / / / / / /

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