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How to Prepare for the Unexpected in the Swim

By Chrstine Frietchen | Sept. 17, 2018, 3:36 p.m. (ET)

How to prepare for the unexpected during the swim.

Thousands of yards in the pool. Hundreds of miles on the bike. Countless kilometers running. You feel good. You’re ready. 

Then you get to the race venue and, surprise! No practice swim. Or the normally placid lake is windy and choppy. Or the water is 53 degrees. Or oh boy! It’s 78 degrees and not wetsuit legal! Or worse yet — a combination of these.

And just like that, your race-day game plan is out the window. Standing on dry land, your heart begins to race, your breathing gets shallow, and you feel your legs turn to jelly. 

Surprises at the swim course can catch us off guard. But don’t let these surprises ruin your race! Here’s how to quell the nerves and train your brain and body to embrace the day. 

Prepare Your Brain

Psychotherapist and IRONMAN finisher Kim Hollingdale specializes in anxiety and performance issues. She says that even for experienced triathletes, unexpected swim conditions can throw them for a loop.

“I usually advise three steps to unwind the anxiety: progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing and a positive affirmation. That hits the physical parts of anxiety and the mental, all in about 2 minutes.” 

To relax your body, work your way up, telling yourself to relax each part. Unclench your toes, unlock your knees, relax your glutes and hamstrings. Work your way all the way up through your neck, face, and eyes.

Diaphragmatic breathing plays a mental role and a physical one (stay tuned below). Breathe in deeply through your nose, allowing your whole midsection to expand. Then exhale slowly and completely through your mouth. Focusing on your breath distracts your brain and lets you focus on something other than your anxiety. 

And you probably already have a positive affirmation that you like; it could be as simple as “You’ve got this” or “Trust the training.” Find a phrase that resonates with you.

Prepare Your Body

Once you’ve got your mind under control, you can face the conditions in front of you.

When there is no practice swim

Replace a practice swim with a dry-land warm up. Before you get into your wetsuit, start with 15 forward arm circles then reverse. Bend forward at the waist and do some mock swim strokes. Twist from side to side then finish with some jumping jacks. When you feel yourself starting to sweat, put on your wetsuit, which will help keep you warm for the swim start.

Stretch cords are also great to carry in your tri bag, says Mike Ricci, USA Triathlon Level 3 Certified Triathlon Coach and founder of D3 Multisport. With these, you can loop them around a tree or post (or a person) and warm up your arms and shoulders by simulating your swim pull. 

When the water is super cold

Most swimmers dread the shock of cold water on the face, and it can be especially disconcerting if there’s no practice swim. D3’s Mike Ricci recommends “as soon as you can enter the water (whether for a practice swim or at the race start), dunk your head under a few times. Your breathing will quicken, but once you do say 5-10 bobs, getting a quick breath, your breathing will come back to normal as it gets used to the cold.”

When the water is cold, you’ll be tempted to take short, shallow breaths. UK-based Adam Gibson, head triathlon coach at GreenlightPT, recommends fully exhaling for your first few strokes in the water. “Exhaling fully ensures we don't get a buildup of CO2 in our lungs and prevents the feeling of shortness of breath. Also holding air in the lungs lifts our front end and sinks our legs,” Gibson said — not what we want for swimming.

If you’re able to do a practice swim, USAT Certified Triathlon Coach Sarah Dunlap recommends timing your practice so you won’t be waiting more than about 5 minutes for your swim wave to start. Begin your practice swim with “5-10 dunks all the way under, exhaling HARD for 5-10 seconds (long enough to see bubbles). Give yourself enough time to recover your breathing after each one.”

Then swim 40 strokes very slowly. Swim a bit faster for the next 40 until your mind and body become comfortable in the cold.

When the water has lots of chop

Windy conditions can cause choppy water in even the most placid lake, and you might feel like you’re in a washing machine. Take a few moments to notice how the swells feel and where they’re coming from, then you can time your sighting for when you’re at the “top” of a swell—if you’re in a trough you won’t see anything. 

When it's not a wetsuit-legal race

Know this: When a race isn’t wetsuit legal, that doesn’t mean you can’t wear a wetsuit!

Official USA Triathlon rules state that wetsuits are allowed for water temperatures of 78 degrees Fahrenheit and lower. When temperatures tip above 78 degrees, you can still wear a wetsuit as long as the water is below 84 degrees (and it almost always is). The only difference is that you won’t be eligible for awards.

If water temperatures are between 78 and 84, and your sanity depends on wearing a wetsuit, then wear the wetsuit.

USAT Rules are on Your Side

Many new triathletes don’t realize that USA Triathlon rules permit you to grab hold of a paddleboard or kayak during the swim if you need to. You just can’t use the paddle or kayak to make progress on the course, so no pushing off. Grabbing hold of a kayak or paddleboard does not mean you have to DNF.

Race directors help allay anxiety

Event teams know that many in their races are new or nervous swimmers, and have implemented ways to help.

Many races will allow athletes to complete the bike and run legs even if they decide not to complete (or even start) the swim (officially you’ll register a DNF).

Rolling and self-seeded swim starts allow athletes to swim with others of their speed, alleviating anxiety about being swum over. Rolling starts also cut down on congestion and space out swimmers so lifeguards have smaller groups to watch.

Eric Opdyke, REV3 Race Director and USAT Level II Certified Race Director has lots of help available at his races:

  • Practice swims with lifeguards the day before the race
  • Red swim caps for those who want more attention
  • Volunteer swim angels

Michele Redrow, President CGI Racing includes an extra-long practice swim. “We don’t like the idea of forcing someone to warm up 90 minutes before their wave, so our practice swim area stays guarded and open throughout the swim start.” CGI also hosts coached open water swims leading up to race day.

Stephen Del Monte, USA Triathlon certified race director and founder and CEO of DelMo Sports produces the Escape the Cape Triathlon, which begins with a jump off a ferry. “I work exclusively with Dr. Mitch Greene of Greenepsych Sport Psychology. He attends almost every DelMo Sports race and even does FB Live sessions with me leading up to the races. He gives our athletes a sense of perspective and calm and he is outstanding in reassuring athletes WHY they wanted to do this event.”

Don’t let the unpredictable ruin your day. Warm up your mind and body and start your race strong, even if conditions aren’t what you expected.

Christine Frietchen has more than 50 triathlons under her belt and she’s competed at every distance. She a board member of the Brooklyn Triathlon Club, where she enjoys welcoming dozens of newbies every season. Follow her on Instagram @cfrietch.

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.