When prepping for their first race, should new triathletes focus more on technique or open-water skills?
What are the most important skills to learn before your first triathlon with an open-water swim? To answer that question, we enlisted the expertise of coach Michael Mann, owner of Denver-based swim school SwimLabs, to debate the topic with Sara McLarty.
Michael: For newer swimmers, I start on balancing the body in the water and maximizing their distance per stroke. Many new swimmers hold their breath until they have their face fully out of the water. (You should release at least 30 percent of your air through your mouth and nose under water.) If you hold your breath until you turn your head, the extra time will result in over-rotation and a very inefficient stroke. Balance and distance per stroke are key to saving energy for the rest of the race.
That being said, if the athlete will be in saltwater with a wetsuit, the whole race prep changes. The leg movement becomes almost insignificant, because in a good wetsuit, the heaviest muscle mass (legs) is buoyed up.
Sara: I agree that there is a bit of difference when approaching a wetsuit swim. Novice swimmers have a hard time keeping their legs afloat, so if I know they are going to be racing in a wetsuit, we might gloss over the kick to spend more time working on sighting and endurance. If they continue in triathlon, we will focus more on technique and efficiency.
Post-race stories from newbies will certainly cover chaos they experienced: getting kicked; losing sight of the buoy in the waves; or just feeling tired halfway though.
Before anyone’s first race, I will have the athlete complete a “no walls” swim. No walls means you have to turn around at the T on the bottom of the pool; this is the best way to simulate open-water distances and make any athlete feel more comfortable going into the race. Honestly, it is not my first priority to have them understand the catch, high-elbow recovery or balance as long as they are confident going into the event.
Michael: I agree to a point—nothing scares the new swimmer like a murky lake swim, which is the very reason to have a strong, comfortable stroke. With the confidence of technique, the swimmer can focus on relaxing and stretching out with strong powerful pulls to get in a position to easily sight or draft. I advise newer swimmers to start on the outside of the pack, wait 15 seconds to let the school of crazies beat each other up, then put their head down and swim their own race.
Sara: Having good “pool technique” can work in an empty lane, but not when surrounded by 50-plus other people. Even high-elbow recovery is sometimes forfeited for a high-hand recovery over waves/chop and other athletes’ heads and arms.
I agree that starting to the side and behind the chaos is a fantastic idea, but this will usually only work for a few minutes before the fast swimmers from the next wave start coming by (and over)!
Michael: I still think technique will eventually rule. The few times you have to wrestle and shorten your stroke for the sake of others are relatively small compared to the speed you gain by working with a smooth, strong stroke for the rest of the race.
Triathlete Final Thoughts: It seems both coaches agree on one thing: Work on what will give you the most confidence on race day. Start the swim in a safe place according to your ability level.