The Unpredictability of the Triathlon Swim

The swim portion of a triathlon always has the potential to be the most unpredictable part of the race. There are a handful of variables which can create all types of scenarios. Unfortunately, this can be very difficult in predicting how long it will take you to complete the swim, but don’t worry – we’ll work through how to get a better idea of your swim time in the follow up for this post. Right now we’re going to examine the factors that’ll affect your race.

The first factor you need to look at is the location of your swim: is it a lake, river or ocean? Is it a place that’ll have the possibility of a current to aid you? Remember, currents are controlled by dams, so if it hasn’t been raining a lot lately…there won’t be much of a current. Larger lakes can have conditions similar to oceans. Ocean swims can be in the open water or in the Intracoastal waterways like Ironman North Carolina (which has a wicked current).

The next big factor to look at is the weather. Large lakes (such as Pontchartrain and the Great Lakes) and the oceans can be severely impacted by the winds. I’ve had races in Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Erie that were extremely choppy with whitecaps. You take one look at those conditions and it’ll make you question if you can do this. In reality it feels like you’re swimming in a washing machine; you don’t know if you’re going forward, but you’re definitely going side to side. If you are concerned in any way about beating the cutoff time, shit weather conditions will not do you any favors – so come race day be as prepared as possible!

The third factor you’ll need to look at is your starting position. If you’re a faster swimmer but need to start further back because it’s a wave start, you’ll be swimming through the crowds the entire race. That’s going to slow you down somewhat because you’re in a Chinese fire drill.

The fourth factor is if the race is wetsuit legal. Wetsuits provide you with two things: warmth & a little extra buoyancy. That little extra buoyancy it provides you with will help you swim faster because you sit slightly higher in the water than without one. If it’s wetsuit optional you probably don’t want to wear it, because you can over heat. If there are no wetsuit strippers at this race, the debate between wearing a wetsuit and not wearing a wetsuit can almost be a push. Wetsuits make you faster, but if there’s no one to strip you out of it you can lose the time you just gained if you’re slow & clumsy when it comes to getting out of one on your own.

A fifth factor is drafting. Drafting in the swim is a little bit tricky because you need to find someone in the race that can hold the same pace as you and then you ride off their feet (or slightly to the side). I would not bank on this factor being present in the race, but if you find the opportunity you should absolutely take advantage of it. If you’re in a crowd they can act like a fullback and be your lead blocker. In poor weather conditions or choppy water, don’t expect to be able to draft because you’re getting tossed around like a rag doll. On that note – don’t rely on following someone else in lieu of sighting the markers.

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