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The Top Five Worst Mistakes Triathletes Make in the Swim

By Gary Hall Sr. | Oct. 04, 2017, 7:40 a.m. (ET)

swim school

Go back to school! Erase the smelly, crowded hallways of your high school from your mind and imagine yourself under the Islamorada sun in a clear pool ready to absorb knowledge that will enable you to swim faster. Swim School from Gary Hall Sr. of The Race Club is about lifelong enjoyment of the sport. It’s always more fun to swim to your potential.

Big mistakes in the swim are not only common, but they also tend to drain an athlete emotionally and physically. Making costly mistakes in the swim will not set you up well for the remainder of the triathlon. Here is my list of the top five mistakes made during the swim, from the most to least serious, and how to avoid them.

swim dock1. Swimming off course. Perhaps the single-most important strategy in your swim should be staying on course. It is easy to get disoriented on the swim. It is easy to follow the wrong person on the swim. It is easy to get swept off course by currents. Therefore, you must sight efficiently and often — usually every 10 to 12 strokes, focusing on maintaining a straight line to the next buoy. You must know the race course and conditions to the best of your ability on the day of the race to avoid swimming in the wrong direction. You must be careful not to rely on the person in front of you knowing where he or she is heading. Take responsibility for your own course direction and actions. 

2. Not breathing enough. Oxygen is our most important nutrient. We spend lots of time building an impressive aerobic system, which will provide most of the energy during our triathlon, regardless of the length. That system depends on oxygen and we must supply our muscles consistently with lots of it. We must also get rid of our carbon dioxide. Most of the triathletes I have coached swim with relatively slow cycle rates compared to the elite swimmers, typically around 30 per minute. If we are breathing every cycle, a respiratory rate of 30/min is not enough oxygen to keep us going without causing excess lactate production. You can get more oxygen by increasing the stroke rate or by getting extra breaths, breathing consecutively to both sides. Choose one or the other. Just breathe more.

3. Panicking in the first 200 meters. The beginnings of most triathlons are a bit of a frenzy. There is a pretty good chance that you will get kicked, pulled, elbowed, scratched, swum over or a number of other inconveniences that can throw you off your game. Perhaps the worst is having your goggles fill up with water during the melee, but how you respond to any of these events will deeply impact the rest of your race. Keep your cool. When it happens, move to a safer spot, breathe, make sure your goggles are secure and calmly get back on course. 

4. Not drafting. Many triathletes don’t recognize how important drafting is in swimming. The vortex behind the swimmer, depending on the swimmer’s size and speed, will extend for several feet behind the kick. The closer one swims to the swimmer’s feet in front, the better the draft. Think of Jason Lezak riding Alain Bernard’s slipstream for 90 meters on the anchor leg of that famous 4 x 100 freestyle relay in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics. Jason got a ride even though he was in the next lane over. Smart swimmers always draft off of others and leave the swim feeling stronger, having expended much less energy. 

5. Not looking down. Most swimmers act like barges, plowing through the water with the head tilted forward. Of course, it is nice to know what is in front of you, but if you want to swim fast, keep the head down. Make sure it dips underwater slightly as the hand enters the water after the breath. That is your surge point and if your head is not down, you won’t surge. With your head down, your drag coefficient will be lower and, and so long as you sight every 10 to 12 strokes, you can swim the other 9 to 11 faster than you would have while looking forward. 

I hope you will join other triathletes, swimmers and us for our February 16-19, 2018, Race Club camp in Islamorada, Florida, over Presidents Day weekend, where we will be working on all five of these important issues and many other important strategies and techniques for your swim.

gary hall sr

Yours in swimming,

Gary Hall Sr.

Gary Hall Sr., M.D. is a three-time Olympic swimmer (‘68, ‘72, ‘76) who earned a medal in each of the three Olympic Games. At one time he held 10 world records in all strokes except breaststroke and was the World Swimmer of the year in 1969 and 1970. 

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.