Don't Fear the Mass Swim Start

By Cat Hine

The swim portion of a triathlon can be somewhat daunting, especially for those who have picked up swimming later in life. Throughout the social media domain I frequently see reference to ‘surviving’ open water, or ‘not drowning’.

However the recent return to open water mass starts has enhanced the race experience, and it really feels like we have to some extent returned to ‘normal’ when it comes to racing in the UK. Danny Robdrup wrote a fantastic article about ‘returning to swimming’ in June.  But this isn’t just swimming, this is open water racing!

I appreciate that the traditional ‘mass start’ isn’t used by some of the big brands, such as Ironman. However the opportunity to get up-close-and-personal while in the water is still very much a part of the race experience. I hadn’t realised how much I missed racing until I got gently punched in the head and kicked while turning round a marker buoy.

I do not condone violence in the water.  This year alone there has been a number of very high profile posts from pro athletes with regards to ‘bad behaviour’ in the swim portion of events.  A certain Brownlee also got a penalty earlier in the year (the less said here the better, I fear).  Intentional bad behaviour is not sporting. But the accidental knocks and scrapes as you draft off a set of toes and take the shortest line possible to a buoy is all a part of the day.

When the gun goes off, strong swimmers will move to the front of the pack, and the weaker swimmers will naturally drop away.  It can be a little chaotic for a moment.  Most people will have practiced being in this scenario at some point.

The best thing about a mass start or big wave start is that you don’t have to go far before you’ve found somebody to draft off (unless you’re Lucy Charles Barclay, of course).  For a large amount of the swim you can essentially benefit from the hard work of others.  If you find a set of unpredictable toes, or somebody that can’t hold a line, then it’s easy enough to put in a couple of strong strokes to overtake them, or drop back a second or two and keep out of their way.

Finding ‘your pace’ to race at is also essential.  The surge of adrenaline as you start the race can result in taking a couple of minutes to settle into this.  Depending on the race length, you don’t want to ‘burn out’ too quickly in the swim portion.  You need to save your energy for the bike and run leg.

Getting into a sustainable rhythm is therefore the number one goal on race day. There will generally be some challenges to overcome.  A bit of chop on the water from the wind, rolling waves in the ocean, or just the presence of other people may impact your ability to swim to the best of your ability.  However, the aim is not to be perfect.  It’s to enjoy the race and achieve the quickest possible time under the circumstances presented on that day.

For those that haven’t raced a mass start in a while, here are some handy tips to help you out:

  • Make sure you know the course and which buoys are turn buoys.  Know which direction you’re turning in and don’t just rely on following the pack or the first set of toes you found to follow.
  • Warm up and acclimatise before you start.  You don’t want cold water shock at the start of a race as this may impact your performance.
  • Wearing a wetsuit will help with buoyancy, and help you swim faster.  But remember to practice getting it off quickly.
  • Sight regularly.  Sometimes there will be obstacles that obscure your view so keep checking in to make sure you’re taking the shortest line.
  • Use drafting to your advantage.  Don’t blindly follow somebody, but utilise a consistent set of hips or toes so you don’t have to use as much energy as you move through the pack.
  • If you’re worried or nervous then start at the back or side of the field. That way you’re less likely to get swept up in the chaos as the faster swimmers make the front of the pack.
  • Stay relaxed.  Whatever happens.  If you do get kicked, or land up with a mouthful of water don’t panic.  Keep your heart rate low and catch your breath.
  • If you need to rest, do so.  Roll onto your back and take a moment to prepare yourself before you start swimming again.
  • Enjoy it.  Smile as you get out of the water… Remember, we do this for fun!
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