Get out there and swim.
The swim is the discipline that kicks this sport of triathlon off, and all of us feel quite foreign in the water. You put your head under water and that lack of being able to breathe anytime makes you feel claustrophobic and panicked.
I think for most people who come into triathlon, the swim is the biggest fear, without question. To overcome a fear of anything, you just need to get confident.
A lot of people thinking of doing a triathlon try to learn to swim by turning up to masters swim sessions. They think, “Where do I start? I don’t really know how to swim. I don’t understand what we’re doing. I feel uncomfortable in the water.” The coaches I’ve spoken to who do learn-to-swim programs for triathlon encourage athletes not to start with a master’s program. It’s too advanced.
Instead, you need to get comfortable in the water. That could mean just going to your local pool and doing a couple of laps and getting familiar with breathing. Then learn the basics from a coach. Get a good coach, someone to look over you and help you fundamentally understand what you’re doing in the water. Swimming is very much a technique-based sport, and learning proper technique allows you to move better through the water and boosts your confidence.
Then keep building confidence by doing more and more swimming. Technique first built with a lot of fitness and time in the water is the only way to improve your swimming.
Do whatever it takes to keep you in the pool and build your fitness. If that means swimming with fins, with pull buoys, with paddles, with snorkels, just do it to try and get more and more mileage. You walk away from the session not feeling intimidated and nervous, thinking ‘I got nothing out of that except a horrible time at 5:30 in the morning’. Instead you go, ‘Wow, I swam one mile today and I felt great. I might have 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.
Then you need to practice your open-water skills. There’s no black line when you go out into the open water. You’ve got different buoyancy and suddenly you’ve got people around you. You can get dunked and held underwater.
So it’s important that you do do some swim sessions in some open water before you dive into your first triathlon. If not and you can only swim in the pool, learn to swim with your head up -- what we call a polo stroke. Your swim coach should help you with that, maybe do some sets of 25 meters with your head up as if you’re a water polo player. That’s always good for teaching you confidence in the water and understanding how to sight.
Learning that polo stroke also teaches you how to hold your body horizontal in the water. Whenever you’re horizontal with your legs near the surface it’s very, very difficult for you to be sunk; you’re in the safest position. However, most people when approaching a buoy or treading water have their feet pointing downwards. That is what I call a non-safe position in the water and it’s easy to be swum over, or have someone push you underwater by the shoulders. So remind yourself every 15 or 20 strokes to kick and bring your feet to the surface and that way you know you’re in a safe position and no one can hurt you or get in your way.
Then it’s all about positioning at the start of your race. Try and stay out of the scrum; start to the sides. A lot of newbies who are apprehensive about the water tend to start at the back. I tell you, you can get up close to the front, but start at the side so you don’t get caught up in that hustle and bustle of swinging arms and legs.
Try to relax. Don’t start too fast; breathe every second stroke. A lot of people like to breathe bilaterally, but I find it better at the start of the race to breathe every stroke because a lack of oxygen is what creates anxiety. So make sure you can breathe and have that oxygen.
Understand that if you have any trouble there’s a lot of water safety and there’s a lot of people looking after you. But you’ve done the work and you can be confident you’re gonna get through the swim. And when you get back on land, that’s when you can do serious damage.
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, and founder and executive director of MX Endurance.