Tri Skills: Swim Pool Races & Etiquette
Updated: Aug 7, 2018
The start of a new year, the start of a new season or the beginning of a new sport hobby - all of which means it's also time to start learning some new skills.
In the UK the majority of triathlons involve a pool swim and most of these are sprint distance or shorter, so the swim distance is usually between 400m and 750m but sometime Standard distance 1500m. Apart from the obvious, the overriding difference between pool and open water triathlons is the fact that in a pool triathlon it is more than likely you won’t know where you finished until the results are published. In effect, you are racing yourself like a time trial, rather than anyone else who might happen to be in the pool with you. There are number of variables to consider when competing in a pool-based triathlon. By preparing for these whilst training for the event there will be no surprises on race day and you can concentrate on performing well. To maintain your composure, there are some key areas that should be considered during your training and race build up.
Predicted swim time
One of the most important things to get right happens well before the race starts. The majority of poolbased triathlons will require you to give an estimated swim time and this is so you can be set-off with athletes of roughly the same ability. The aim of this is to reduce the need to overtake, making the swim a more straightforward affair.
It is very important to put down an accurate time on your entry form, as padding your time makes others have to swim around, or over you! From past experience there is nothing worse than having to overtake or be overtaken in a crowed lane as it interrupts your rhythm and generally makes the swim much harder as a consequence. Not only will being in the wrong lane make it harder but it will slow you down a lot if you end up in a heat with other competitors who swim either a lot faster or slower than you.
Even if your time is fairly accurate, you have to be prepared for having others in your heat who have not judged their swimming time as well as you! The best way to get an accurate idea of your time is to do some time trials in the pool.
It is important to get your body warmed up before your race starts as this will make it a lot easier to get comfortably into your correct race speed. It is unlikely that you will be able to get in the water before your actual start so it is important to plan and practice a land-based warm-up routing specific to the swim. This may involve some dynamic upper-body stretching exercises, although make sure you do not do too much or overstretch as this will not help your performance. Practice a routine before your swim training sessions to see what works best for you.
Once in the water
Depending on the venue and way the event is organised there will probably be between 3 and 5 swimmers to a lane. If the race is using wave starts these are usually staggered so there will be a few seconds gap between you. Before setting off, make sure you note which way round the lane you will be swimming; clockwise or anticlockwise. It is your responsibility to be disciplined about your swim, if all the people in your lane put down the correct swim time there should not be any need to overtake. However, this is rarely the case!
If the rules for overtaking are obeyed; (read the rules as racing indoors differ), the procedure should be simple and painless for both parties involved. Make sure it is safe before trying to overtake and that no-one is heading towards you. Check that you are going fast enough to overtake safely. If you want to overtake then you should tap the swimmer's feet in front of you and they will move out of the way when it is safe to do so, usually at the end of the length. If you are the one who as been tapped it is your responsibility to let the swimmer behind through. Do not keep tapping - it may simply be that the person hasn't yet managed to get a space to let you pass. It's also a god way to end up getting kicked...
Remember that you are getting a tow from the person in front so you must be sure that you can not only pass but pull away from them or you'll just end up with them tapping your toes instead.
Turns are a vital part of a pool triathlon swim and turning quickly and efficiently can save you a lot of time. For example, there are 15 turns when doing a 400m swim in a 25m pool. If you can save a second on each turn, this could equate to you leaving the pool up to 25m ahead! Whether you intend to tumble turn or touch turn, give yourself enough of a gap between swimmers so that you can go into and out of a turn without hitting another swimmer. Come out of the turn on the 'new' side of the lane, not down the centre where you will hit others. Perfecting your tumble turn in training will cut off many vital seconds of your overall swim time and make your swim more energy efficient.
Pool swimming in a triathlon is as much mental as it is physical; there are many things to think about. Knowing how many lengths you have left is key to pacing your swim right. For this you need to be aware of both how long the pool is; usually 25m, 33m or 50m, and try to keep count how many lengths you have done. Knowing how many lengths there are to go will allow you to adjust your pace accordingly, and you will be in less danger of swimming the first few lengths too fast. Usually you will be given a ‘2 lengths to go’ warning by the officials (this is usually achieved by way of a board being put into the water for you to see) and at this point you should be starting to think about the next stage of your race – the transition to the bike.
Transitions are often called the fourth discipline of triathlon and a good transition can make a huge difference to your overall time. In a pool-based triathlon the transition area is usually in the pool's car park, so you will need to be prepared to run bare-foot on tarmac and shake any gravel off your feet before putting your footwear on. It is also important to consider the weather conditions, many pool based triathlons are held when the weather is not warm enough to hold an open water swim. Therefore, you should be prepared to put some warm clothing on before you set off on the bike. It is also very important to attend the race briefing which will give you further details on the course and any last minute news. Swimming pools are usually next to quite busy roads, so you will need to listen to the marshals so that you can get on to the bike course safely.
Your equipment for a triathlon is extremely important and you want to make sure it is all in good working order for the big day. If you get new gear for the event make sure you have practised with it before the race. There is nothing more infuriating than realising that your new shoes give you blisters 2km into the run...
The conditions are a large determining factor when choosing the correct equipment for a pool-based triathlon. In particular, consider what the conditions will be like both inside and outside the swimming pool in preparing for the race. If it's going to be cold outside think and plan what clothes are easy to put on when you’re wet and will keep you warm enough on the bike and not overheat on the run. It is even more essential to get it right in a pool-based triathlon as there is likely to be a far larger difference in the temperature between the pool environment and outside which will cause a far greater shock on your body. Taking the time to put on an additional warmth layer will be a huge help and is likely to improve your performance. A gilet is quick and easy to get on and will keep your core body warm during the cycle. Half-finger gloves are also recommended.