As both an athlete and coach I have witnessed and been part of swim legs in triathlon that are like a World heavy weight boxing match. On occasions I have been quite frightened when I’ve been pushed under the water, struggling for air and people swimming over me. I didn’t fear for my life, but I was certainly quite anxious and struggling for air.
I’ve also swum in conditions that are quite rough and choppy. On one occasion while I wasn’t competing but watching from the shore at Ironman Melbourne in 2013 I saw hundreds of competitors turn back after only 100m of swimming due to the conditions being rough. Clearly for these people they were unprepared for such conditions and no doubt their anxiety levels would have been quite high.
Recently in the Ironman 70.3 North America championships race in St. George a competitor sadly lost their life during the swim portion of the race. I don’t know the circumstances behind what happened in this instance, however deaths in the swim part of triathlon while rare, still occur.
In a study done by Minneapolis Heart Institute cardiologist Kevin Harris last year published a study in JAMA: The Journal of American Medical Association analyzing the results of 2,971 USA Triathlon-sanctioned events held between January 2006 and September 2008, during which 14 participants died—13 of them while swimming and one while biking. Swimmers who died were between 28 and 65 years old; 11 were men
In other endurance events such as marathons deaths usually occur towards the end or after the race has finished. However, it is in the swim that the majority of triathlon fatalities occur even though it is at the start of the race when athletes are not as fatigued or suffering from things like heat stress.
This article is not about the reasons why deaths occur in swimming part of triathlon but more about understanding the complexities of triathlon swimming, why they occur and preparing for the challenges involved. I believe it is the swim in triathlon that presents the greatest challenge for most athletes, especially as many people come to triathlon without a swimming background.
Knowing what can happen in a swim leg of a triathlon it is important that you’re as prepared as possible for all eventualities.
If like me you’ve been pushed under water, had people swim over you and feel like you can’t get air the first thing to realise is straight away your brain will be in fight or flight mode. Cortisol will be pumping through your veins and the natural reaction is to almost panic. However, by panicking it will only make the situation worse.
This will cause your heart rate to increase further, make it even harder to get oxygen in when you feel like there is none and potentially lead to an anxiety attack. When this happens, many people will stop and not finish the race while others will be rendered on the back floating until their heart rate comes down and they feel as though they can swim again. Either way your race is ruined and if it is something you have trained hard for a long time for that can be quite devastating.
What is the answer and how do we prepare?
- Familiarity breeds confidence. We need to place ourselves in situations that make us uncomfortable and become comfortable in those situations. Entering races as often as you can to practice swimming in a competitive environment. Not just triathlons but open water swimming races also. In my squad sessions that I coach with athletes of all abilities we will practice short fast laps with everyone in one lane so it mimicks race like conditions. If you don’t have access to a squad that does this, try and get a few training partners and do this on your own.
- Practice having someone push you under the water and hold you down for a few seconds. Rather than fight back straight away say the words relax to yourself and think about the steps you need to take to get back to the surface. Perhaps it is swimming in a different direction, looking around under the water and assessing the situation first before taking action. Our natural reaction is to fight and get to the surface. However, by relaxing, not panicking and assessing the situation you put yourself into a calmer more relaxed state that will keep your heart rate lower and allow you to make better decisions.
- Swim in open water when the conditions are rough. It can sometimes feel like you are in washing machine if the conditions are choppy and windy. Again, our natural reaction can be to become more anxious. On these occasions keep your breathing relaxed which engages the parasympathetic nervous system and puts your brain into relaxed mode, not fight or flight.
Most triathlon races now have wave starts or rolling starts to help spread the field out. This makes it less congested, however problems can still occur. As long as you’re aware of what can happen, and you have practiced for such situations then you give yourself the best chance of having a good race.