Article image

by Stuart McDougal

May 27, 2019

Dealing with the chaos of surf, rip currents, and crowds

Triathlons start with the swim leg, followed by the bike and run legs, which might be a good thing. When you’re dealing with the risks of swimming, you’re fresh and not as physically or mentally fatigued as you will be later in the event.

And the risks are real. In a study published by the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2017, there were 135 sudden deaths, resuscitated cardiac arrests, and trauma-related deaths found to have happened during a triathlon between 1985-2016. Ninety sudden deaths and cardiac arrests occurred during the swim leg.

But good preparation and the right information can make triathlon one of the safest and most rewarding sports for adult athletes of all levels to participate in.

Here’s what you need to know to be safe in triathlon’s most chaotic moment: the start of the swim.

Know Your Stuff

Before you get in the water, prepare by heeding the advice of lifeguards, event directors, safety personnel, and coaches, and developing a plan when you’re swimming or racing in the open water.

Study the conditions and practice in them frequently. Get comfortable swimming in crowded conditions by simulating them at your local pool as well as with your open water swimming group. Practice dealing with rip currents, getting under big waves, swimming with whitewater, and body surfing. These skills will help you maintain calm in adverse conditions and when something unexpected comes up.

Handle the Hazards

Big Surf

When surf is bigger than expected for a practice swim or on race day, depending on your skill and comfort levels, it can be an opportunity for improvement rather than a cause for panic.

Waves come in sets of usually three to five but sometimes seven. Normally, the largest waves are in the middle of a set, with the earlier and later ones being the smallest. Depending on the topography of the ocean bottom, between each set there’s usually some time with calm conditions when you can quickly swim out and miss the large waves. If you’re not one for body surfing, you can do the same thing swimming back to shore. Hold back offshore near the break and let the set pass before heading in.

Once you commit to going out and coming in, don’t hesitate. Keep moving and get through the surf. If you do get caught up in a big set of waves, remember to stay low and get under the wave—let it pass over you before surfacing.

Rip Currents

Rip currents occur when water rushes back out to sea after breaking on shore. The water has to get back out through obstacles such as reefs or sandbars, and it moves very quickly through the channels created by those topographical features. If you’re in a rip zone, you will move quickly out to sea with that water.

However, by relaxing and swimming parallel to shore—not against the current—you can get out of the rip zone and return to shore safely. Do not try to swim against a rip—you will tire long before the water does. Even the most experienced swimmers can panic in a rip zone.

The rip is a current, like a narrow river, where the water drains back first and very fast. Go out in this zone. Each time you go to the beach, take some time to study the conditions and have a plan.

Warm Up and Get Familiar with the Course

Before your race, get in the water to warm up and figure out your entry point and path from the start to the first buoy. If you can do a few training swims at the location of the race beforehand, that’s even better.

Rehearse your path in the 15 to 20 minutes before your race starts. Locate any rip currents and walk into the water gently to find any drop-offs, also known as a bottom check. You don’t want to wipe out in the middle of a hectic start. Then swim past the break and locate the buoys and land-based targets that you’ll use for sighting during the race.

If there’s a rip current on the swim course within 25 or 30 yards of the start that will carry you toward the first buoy, you may be able to ride it out and preserve some of your valuable energy and avoid collisions with other swimmers. Be sure you stay on the designated swim course.

Race Start to Swim Finish

When the horn sounds to start your wave, this doesn’t mean you have to run out and conquer. In a big group, there could be more than 100 swimmers running in at once. If you’re new to or nervous about pack swimming, you have a few options.

You can hold back, let the pack and its chaos go for a couple of minutes and then head out when it’s clean. You might add two or three minutes to your time, but you could save a ton of energy and probably miss getting smacked or kicked by another swimmer. Your other option is to position yourself at the outer edge of the start line and stay wide of the pack. You might swim more, but you can swim calm and stay away from other swimmers.

Coming in contact with other swimmers should be expected and practiced—it’s part of the triathlon/open water race experience.

If you decide to go for it with the pack, and you do get caught in a pack of slower swimmers, slow your stroke rate and pace, and keep swimming. Avoid swimming with your head out of the water to see better, which will eat up a lot of energy. The water is big, but it takes 100 to 200 yards for swimmers to spread out. Once you find an opening, go for it.

Getting kicked in the face, chest, or gut may take the wind out of you, cause you to panic, and in some cases, cause real injury. Try to get out of the way of traffic and get on your back. Get your breathing under control and recover physically and emotionally before continuing. If you feel you cannot go on, get the attention of safety personnel who can help you back to shore.

If you get bottlenecked in a pack and a swimmer behind you keeps hitting your feet (or maybe grabs your legs), relax and turn off your kick. Don’t get angry or take it personally. This swimmer is probably in survival mode. Let them move on.

Over the years, I’ve heard the advice (and still hear it given out freely today) of kicking the swimmer behind you to stop them from touching or grabbing your feet and legs. Following this advice might stop the grabbing, but it might end their race and possibly their life. Don’t do it. Just find a way to let them pass you.

One Final Thought

There’s a lot of chaos at the start of a triathlon or open water swim, but if you practice in the conditions, you’ll face on race day, you’ll be better able to manage any feelings of panic that may arise. This will help you conserve energy and perform better.

Discuss this article with the USMS Community


  • Triathlon


  • Triathletes
  • Triathlon