For most people who come into triathlon, the swim is the biggest fear, without question. To overcome a fear of anything, you need to become familiar and confident with it.
Get a Good Start
Learn to swim properly. Swimming is very much a technique-based sport, but you've got to do technique with fitness. So spending time doing it is key -- but doing it right is important. Get a good coach, someone to look over you. Technique first built with a lot of time and fitness in the water is the only way to improve your swimming.
Do whatever it takes to keep swimming to build confidence. Confidence in the water comes from doing more and more swimming, so do whatever it takes to keep you in the pool -- if that means swimming with fins, with paddles, with pullbuoys, with snorkels -- to try and get more and more mileage. You don't walk away from the session feeling intimidated and nervous, thinking, ‘I got nothing out of that except a horrible time at 5:30 in the morning’. Instead when you go for a session, you end up saying, ‘Wow, I swam one mile today and felt great. Maybe I’ve done that mile with fins, but I did that mile’ and then you get back doing it again and again. Before you know it you’ve done two or three months of consistent swimming. That confidence in the water starts to come with just basic time in the water.
Practice your open-water swim skills. In open water, sighting becomes important. There’s no black line when you go out into the open water, there’s a completely different feel to swimming in a lane. Suddenly you’ve got people around you. If you’re not a confident swimmer, I would encourage you to get in the open water to get a feel for it. If you don't have regular access to open water, get together with some training partners for a clinic to go through some key drills that will help you navigate an open-water swim: sighting practice, mass starts from the beach and from deep water, and drafting off other people.
Goggles that fit well will allow you to swim longer and uninterrupted. Soft silicone gaskets and adjustable nose bridge pieces and straps will help you find that individual fit that won’t let water in without excessive tension around the head and eyes. For open water swimming, larger lenses will allow you to sight better in front as well as peripherally.
If you need a wetsuit for your races and open-water swims, follow the sizing chart of your preferred wetsuit supplier to ensure that the wetsuit you order fits well and allows you to move through your swim stroke freely. If in doubt, get in touch with their customer service so that you can get the order right the first time.
Swimwear that’s chlorine-resistant is a must when swimming in chlorinated pools. Their elasticity won’t degrade with exposure to chlorine, allowing you to use them repeatedly. To prevent drag, make sure your suit is the right size for you and fitted to your body (no boardshorts!).
If you want to be a triathlete, the swim is definitely part of that swim-bike-run. As with everything we start out doing, if we enjoy our first experiences with it we keep coming back for more, and when we see improvement we get even more motivated to keep going.
Chris "Macca" McCormack is a four-time triathlon world champion with the biggest winning percentage in the history of the sport. He is a co-founder and partner in Super League Triathlon, CEO of the Bahrain Endurance 13 team, founder and executive director of MX Endurance, and CEO of MANA Sports & Entertainment Group.