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The Tri-ingAthletes Guide to Questions You should really ask. Part 1 - The Swim

We are intending to start a series of blogs about things that seem so obvious to the well acquainted and yet may be the thing we didn't know we didn't know. So some well pointed questions will undoubtedly free you from some potential embarrassment or world rocking epic fails. Through our own experiences Jane – Magnetic Island Crossing, Green Island and Lake Argyle 20K swim and I (Priscilla) 70.3 and Ironman, with a little guidance from the friendly coaches of NQTA, will attack these topics for you.

There are many things in life that we approach and take on with our eyes wide open; knowing exactly what we are in for, what the end result is likely to be and how to get from start to finish. Triathlons are not in this category. We think we have a pretty good idea to start with. We choose an event, usually based on the length of the race, the location, proximity to home and cost. We know there will be months of training and that, on the day, we will give it all we have and, if all goes to plan, cross the finish line on a natural high.

There is no one size fits all answer

What we don’t know about are the hundreds of little things that we will encounter along the way that we don’t expect: the mental training days, the questions, the hurdles, the aches and pains, the chafe! Oh, the chafe in the most random places! But it’s not just the tri newbies who encounter new difficulties along the way. Even after years of training and competing, there are things that we will encounter that will be new to us. Things that we don’t know how to solve, fix or overcome. So, where do we get the answers to these questions? How do we tackle the issues we are dealing with?

Oh, the chafe in the most random places!

In our quest for the best and most awkward questions for newbies and those transitioning to long-course events we have discovered is there is no such thing as common knowledge. This is no common sport! However, it’s a safe bet that if one person has asked the question, there’s probably someone else out there wondering the same thing! And let’s be honest, some questions are embarrassing to ask! Especially if your coach or training buddies are the opposite sex. We will be tackling some women specific ones in the weeks to come and guys there is some stuff for you too.

On the count down to Cairns Ironman we are going to tackle each discipline individually. Ask those cringe worthy questions and see what comes out. We’ve sought professional advice from our team of amazing coaches as well as drawing on our own experiences and the advice from a few long course legends Our hope is that the information provided here will help to ease some minds and make your event day easier, less stressful and a lot of fun!


If I can just make it through the swim, I’ll be alright

The dirty word of triathlon. The one leg of the entire race that is dreaded by most athletes. “If I can just make it through the swim, I’ll be alright”! How many times have we heard that phrase?! Many of us will stand looking at the swim start and wondering what the heck we have gotten ourselves into. The swim is the beginning of our epic day that we have worked so hard to get to, so why do we hate it so much? It should be a time when you can clear your mind and start to focus on the day ahead of you. Kick, stroke, breathe….? After months of swim training without any problems, why do we get to that moment and panic? We head out too fast, our heart rate gets out of control, we cannot breathe and then genuinely wonder if we are going to make it out of the water. Don’t panic, the fear, anxiety, excitement or nerves are pretty normal, whether it’s your first or 31st race.

Wetsuits Not all wetsuits are made equal

Q. Do I need a wetsuit?

A. Whilst it’s not mandatory, it is highly recommended for several reasons. In cooler water temperatures, it helps to insulate you and keep you warm. It improves your buoyancy in the water and helps reduce drag, which improves your energy conservation, giving you more for the bike and run legs. It can improve your speed by 3-7% as well, which means you get out of the water and onto the bike faster. So, if your event allows it, why wouldn’t you?!

Q. What kind do I need?

A. There are so many different styles, types, makes and models out there now it can be completely overwhelming! Choosing the right wetsuit is very individual. Take into account water temperature, your ability and comfort in the water and how long your swim event will be. In the tropics, wetsuits are often optional even if the water temp is trending towards the warmer end simply because events like Cairns are held so close to the end of the stinger season. The consensus is that it’s safer to wear a wetsuit than chance a sting from a rogue stinger that’s hanging around at the end of the season. The most important thing before you buy one is that you make sure your wetsuit fits and is comfortable. You don’t want one that will be too restrictive, fatigue your arms before you’ve reached the halfway point or squeezes you so tight you feel like passing out! The prices of wetsuits varies a lot. Unless you are an exceptional swimmer or very competitive, there are many entry level suits on the market that will suit you and work well for buoyancy, safety and speed on race day. As you progress through your triathlon career you can upgrade to a sleeker, more hydrodynamic fit, however, in the beginning you probably won’t notice the difference between a $200 and $1200 suit.

Q. Sleeves or no Sleeves?

A.What a question. It is personal preference based on your budget and stroke style. Sleeves will initially feel quite restrictive until you become accustom to them. Some brands tend to have a thinner wall material (smaller mm) around the shoulder area that improves the fit and function of the suit. Another thing to consider is the feel of the water on your forearm. A sleeved suit will limit this, and your stroke will feel different in the water. If you’re uncertain which one you prefer, get some suited practice in before you decide which one to buy.

Q.Is neckline important?

A. Seems strange right – high collar, low collar. Really what we are talking here is neck length. While we cannot all look like a front rower for the Cowboys, a high-necked suit on a short-necked person is going to create a whole new world of chafe and hair pulling, so when you are trying out a new suit be sure to have all your hair neatly tucked out of the way. Put on your swim cap and make sure the neck doesn’t brush or rub against your swim cap.

Q. What do you mean by lubrication?

A.The first step….lube up! And we are serious! Any body part that exits the wetsuit – wrist, arms, legs, ankles, neck and hairline gets a generous coating. There are a variety of products you can use. Body Glide is a favourite amongst our team with plain old Vaseline a close second. Lanolin will also work and does not break down the neoprene in your new suit. TriSlide is gaining popularity and is an easy spray that can be used to combat chafe as well as a snug wet suit. Ladies, make sure you go right up your neck on your hairline and into your hair a little but not so much that your swim cap rides up during your swim. If you have a sleeveless suit, make sure you do the entire circumference of your arm and shoulder, including part way down your arm and arm pit. Anywhere that might regularly rub during your swim should get a coating. This is in addition to your regular lubrication under your tri suit (ie: chamois cream). You will have your wetsuit on over the top and when you come out of the water, your tri suit will also be wet and it will be too late to apply additional lubrication to avoid chafe in those not so easy to reach areas.

Q. How do I get it on?

A. Now that your all lubed :) you are going to want 2 plastic bags and careful hands. Ladies, watch your nails, they will put little nicks in the neoprene which will eventually tear. Depending on the brand, how you get it off and on will vary. Some are thicker and will be harder to get in and out of, whilst others are very stretchy and are much easier to wiggle into.

First, remove your time chip and watch/Garmin. These will catch and make it much more challenging for you.

Put a bag on one foot and pull the bag as high up your leg as it will go. Slide that foot into the leg of your wetsuit until the bottom of your wetsuit is at the right spot on your ankle that is comfortable for you. Pull the bag out the bottom of your wetsuit and repeat with the other leg.

Work your wetsuit up to your waist before you try and put your arms in – again use the plastic bag.

Once you have squeezed into your wetsuit, zip it up and adjust it so you’re comfortable. Everyone has their own way of doing this, some wiggle around, some do high steps and a jig…whatever your method is, don’t skip this step. Have a friend set your pull string so that you can easily reach it.

Put your timing chip and Garmin back on. If your suit is long enough sit them snug against the cuff of your wetsuit. Not over it or you won’t get your suit off, not under it or you won’t be able to start your watch.

Get in the water and let a little bit of water in through the neck. This can be quite shocking in cold water, but very necessary. The water will warm to your body temperature and provide an internal lubricant layer so your wetsuit can move and glide around your body as you swim and breathe.

Q. Is it ok to swim with it in a pool?

A. Yes. Just make sure you rinse it out really well afterwards to get all of the chlorine off. Chlorine will break down the neoprene and severely impact the lifespan of your wetsuit. Ideally, if you can, get some open water swims in as well. There is a big difference between ocean wet suit swims and pool wet suit swims. If you are doing some swim training in the pool with your wetsuit, you incorporate some of your swim adjuncts as well. Fins? Yes. Paddles? Yes. Pull Buoy? No…it’s a bit counterproductive and it doesn’t work very well at all.

Q. Do they really make a difference?

A. Although you may only feel a slight difference in the pool, in the ocean, you will naturally be more buoyant, and the wet suit will increase this feeling. The wetsuit will help keep you at the top of the water in a near horizontal position, improving your forward movement. Because our bodies don’t naturally lay horizontal at the top of the water, but at more of a downward angle, this will be a new position for you to be in for longer periods of time. You may feel more fatigue points in your arms, shoulders, lower back, hips and glutes that you haven’t experienced before. With practice, this will subside.

Q. What do I wear under my wetsuit?

A. Simple answer, whatever you plan on wearing on your bike, and most likely your run as well. If you have a two-piece tri suit, make sure that the shirt end doesn’t get rolled up in your wetsuit or you’ll end up with a nice little band of chafe around your middle. When you get up in the morning, lube up before you put your tri-suit on. Add a little extra because you have the swim first and you may lose a bit to the water. Put it everywhere that you normally would! More to follow on those places in our bike leg blog….

So now that you have gotten your wetsuit on and are in the water, there are a few little things to know….

Race starts can be messy. Be ready and warmed up. If you can get in for a short swim first it’s a good idea, otherwise jogging up and down on the spot or a short run on the beach will elevate your heart rate and get your body ready for the effort to come. The voyage to the first buoy will be hectic. Get your arms going and find your rhythm. Start out strong and you will likely continue that way. You may experience a feeling of panic as your body adjusts to the increased oxygen load. Breathe through it; sight and swim.

There are different types of starts at different races – Beach starts – Deep water starts and rolling starts – Be sure to look at the race guide which will tell you which type of start you will be doing so you can train for that.

Beach starts are the easiest. There’s lot of room on a beach for you to find your own space. Just try to position yourself in a direct line with the first buoy so you don’t have to alter your course a lot. If, however, you aren’t such a strong swimmer or a little nervous just stand off to the side or at the back of the pack.

If it’s a deep water start, when they tell you to get ready, let your legs float up behind you. Getting your body into a horizontal position instead of the vertical treading water position, will make your start easier, more fluid and quicker so you can settle into your pace quicker. If it’s a group start, position yourself where you will feel comfortable being when the pack takes off. If you’re new or unsure, hang on the outer edges for the start. Be careful positioning yourself too far back or you’ll get stuck behind much slower swimmers which can cause you a lot of frustration you don’t need on the day. There will be a lot going on in the water once the whistle blows. Arms and legs will be flailing, you may get kicked, punched or clung to. You will swallow water, may get swum on and over, drift and be blocked by slower swimmers and shoved off course. This is all normal and it will settle. Try to find your own space in the water where you can set your pace, sight your buoys and focus on your own race.

Rolling start – these are generally at the bigger events and are a much more relaxed start, you will self-seed in your time predicted swim zone, and you will shuffle down the beach and will be released in to the water in small bunches – usually 5-8 people. These are great because everyone has their own space and your less likely to get an elbowed on the way out.

Its polite etiquette to tap a slower swimmer

You are allowed to draft in the water. There are 2 effective methods of drafting in an ocean swim. You can sit on the feet of a hard pulling, non-kicking male who is just slightly faster than you and be towed along, or get on the hip of a fish with a big kick and ride the bow wave. Just keep in mind that the person you are drafting on may not sight as well as you, so you need to still do that for yourself or you both may go sailing out into the never-never and lose course all together. In ocean swimming, its polite etiquette to tap a slower swimmer on the toes to let them know you are going to pass them or wish to pass. While this polite communication may not extend to the thousands of swimmers in the water at the bigger events, bear in mind that continual toe tapping of the person in front of you is going to slow you down, distract them and annoy them just enough that they will suddenly develop a big kick, or move aside to let you pass, meaning you will now have to drag them along. If you have a big group start and your toes are tapped, it may just be because there are so many swimmers in such a small area, not because your being passed.

At the start, and for a couple hundred metres, you may need to focus a bit more on your breathing and getting it regulated. Often, we get caught up in the excitement, nerves and the pace of the herd we’re swimming in and all of a sudden feel like we can’t breathe right or it’s a lot harder than it usually is. If this happens, slow down….settle into your regular pattern, or even breast stroke for a while, let others go around you and just focus on your race and your day. If your chest feels restricted, try adding a bit more water into your suit. As you get into your usual rhythm, your breathing should settle and begin to feel normal.

Q. Can I pee in my wetsuit?

A. At some point in your swim, you may be suddenly struck with the reality that I need to Pee! This can strike fear into the toughest athlete if they’ve never experience this before. That reality is usually followed closely by the all-time #1 question!! Can I pee in my wetsuit? The short answer - Yes, you can. Is it weird? A little. Probably don’t wait till race day to find out. Peeing while swimming is a skill that actually requires some mastering. You’ll need to back right off or stop kicking all together to allow the correct muscles to relax. If you have to go, better to do it in the water than to have to run around transition looking for an empty porta-loo. So, practice this skill before race day and remember you aren’t the only one out there doing it.

So now you have rounded the last buoy and are headed for the beach. You will be breathing heavy and your arms will be tired. Be aware that they are full of blood and in just a few short minutes you will need to hit your feet and skip across the sand like a spring daisy. Everyone is different, however if you have never run off a 2km swim you may find that your gazelle like style may more resemble a 2 legged jellyfish having its first overland. So, on approach to the exit, kick hard and fast to transfer the blood to your legs, steady the pressure on your triceps and swim until you can touch the floor twice with your hands. Push yourself off the sand to stand up and you will be away and into Transition 1. On your run up the beach you need to think about a few things.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Goggles off and hat off – put the goggles in the hat, otherwise you look like a dweeb running up the beach!

Pull on your strap to unzip your wetsuit. On your way to transition you can peel it down to your waist without too much trouble.

Pull your arms out of the wetsuit and leave your cap and goggles in the sleeve as you pull out your arms, tuck the arms in your waist.

Once you get to your bike pull down the bottom half of the wetsuit in one movement and step out. Use a stepping motion to help wiggle it off your legs. Check that you haven’t ripped off your timing chip as that would be an epic fail at the end. Now, get your bike gear on and sorted, and you’re off on the next leg!

Q. Are wetsuits for everyone?

A. Some people do swim slower in wetsuits; generally, a buoyant swimmer who dons a wetsuit will be too buoyant, so if you have the opportunity to try before you buy it could save a lot of money. The rules for most triathlons in the southern hemisphere are nothing thicker than 3mm, but be sure to read the race rules.

Don't Forget to Read The Race Rules

The best advice that I’ve ever had regarding the swim was from my coach last year. “Treat it just like all of your other training swims.” I said those words over and over in my head in the 24hrs leading up to the Ironman and, standing on the beach that morning, I had no nerves, no sick feeling in my stomach, no jitters and no butterflies. I was excited and just wanted to get in the water and do my thing. It was a new feeling for me and one I was very grateful for considering what I was tackling that day. When you’re standing on that beach, or jetty or treading water at the start line, think back to all of those early mornings going to swim squad, open water sessions, evening endurance sets and weekend group sessions and remind yourself that this swim is no different. You are going out to do what you have been practicing to do for months….and this is just the first leg. No matter what – just keep swimming – it is the simplest and easiest way back to the beach – you can do this!!

Awkward Question on the tip of your tongue? We will go in search of an answer!

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