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Triathlon Start Strategies

An even pace wins the race

Erica Smith | May 4, 2014

For some triathletes, the most daunting part of the race is the first 30 seconds. After floating in place among as many as 2,000 other swimmers (in the case of an in-water Ironman start), the silence is abruptly broken by the starter’s call and so begins the flailing of elbows and feet. Swimmers spar and jockey for position while churning along at their top speed. It’s an emotionally and physically exhausting experience, and most swimmers will hit a wall of fatigue after a mere 100 meters of this melee. All good intentions and training for perfect technique have already gone by the wayside!

But this situation raises a question: You’d never start a long cycling or running race at your top speed, so why start a swimming race that way?

The short and obvious answer is that “everybody else is doing it,” and you must fight to keep your position and stay in the flow of traffic. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Experienced triathletes have a specific plan for lining up in the pack before the race start. The brave ones find a space in the front and center. The timid ones hang in the back. One thing’s for sure: you must have a plan for finding a starting spot that suits your strategy. In the interest of energy conservation, your strategy should be based on the pace you’d like to hold for the duration of the swim, as opposed to attempting to do battle to hold a position. Worried about getting pushed too far to the inside or outside and losing the pack? Consider the unlikelihood of anyone being able to hold an intense anaerobic pace for more than 50 meters.

Suppose that the average pace of an open water swim is 1:30 per 100 meters. In the frenzy of the race start, some swimmers blast ahead with a 1:15. Because of the overexertion of energy, they’ll fall off to around 1:45 in the next two or three 100s. In that case, swimmers who began the race at 1:30 pace will be even again with the start pack after 200 meters, and better able to pull ahead since they are already holding a steadier aerobic pace than the start pack.

The benefits of an even-paced swim leg in a triathlon are obvious. Avoiding a heart rate spike right from the get-go will keep you fresher for the bike and run. Beginning the swim at your own pace will also enable you to focus on proper technique: balanced body position, symmetry and rotation, and a comfortable breathing rhythm. Your swim split may not drop much at all and it might even increase slightly, but the key in triathlon, for a dedicated cyclist or runner, is to not have an empty tank when it’s time for the leg of the race that is your specialty.

How to execute: Always study the swim course in advance. Most sanctioned races make the course map available online (or at least, the map should be posted the morning of the race). Note the positions of turn buoys and the swim exit. Another sound option is to always line up on the outside rather than the inside of the back, because this surge of athletes will be swimming directly towards the next buoy, causing a traffic backup. 

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Erica Smith

Erica Smith is an open water swimmer and former NCAA All-American swimmer. She's currently an assistant coach for the men's and women's swim teams at Eastern Michigan University, where she's working toward a masters degree in exercise physiology. Erica owns and operates BuoyantSwim, a triathlon swim clinic series in southeast Michigan.

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