Open water swim tips/Fast transition

Beginners guide to open water swims


You've done the training,  and you've entered the Avalon Islandman Triathlon - now it’s time to hit the start line!

There is often a fair amount of apprehension as people approach their first open water event. Triathlon, Aquathlon (Swim-Run) or just a straight swim event, there are a number of small things that can make a huge difference to your experience.


Open Water is not your safe pool environment with a lane rope and a lifeguard near by. Make sure you swim with others in training or better yet, have a support Kayak or boat with you. If it’s too rough, consider going to the pool or altering your session, for example swimming along a sheltered bay in waist deep water. Try and avoid swimming where the current or tide is going to take you away from the beach (ie outgoing tide with a wind blowing you out to sea). If in doubt check with the local lifeguards and also check the marine forecast.


One of the big things you need to do is warm up.  The main muscles you'll use when swimming are:  your shoulders, your pecs (front of your upper body), lats (back of your upper body), plus of course your hip flexors & abs (allow you to be in the right position) and your quads & calf's (allow your kick to be efficient and make you streamlined).

Now if it’s cold it’s not always the best thing to get in and swim pre event, you might be better off to go for a run and then do some 'air swimming' (it’s like air guitar only it’s normal to see it on a Sunday morning at a beach near you). A set of swim cords is a great investment for this sort of thing, provides a small amount of resistance and allows you to work the lats and pecs and get them firing up properly.

Also for some events you might be able to warm up at a nearby swimming pool - I get a lot of the World Cup athletes I work with to do that where possible.

Make sure that you focus on being smooth and efficient, that is full strokes pulling right past the hip, not a shortened stroke. Also focus on getting your chest and head into the water, notice your feet coming up onto the surface when you do that, this is a more efficient position and is the opposite of what you do if you get tense. 

If possible, you can also do a bit of pre event recon, check out what you can see while you swim, what the swim exit is like and also the start area – make sure you pay particular attention to any dangers like rocks or slippery sea weed.


Of course if it’s cold enough then you'll be using a wetsuit. You need to take the time to get the wetsuit on properly, follow the instructions on that, but make sure that the arms and legs of the suit are aligned correctly (seams not twisted) and that they are pulled up on the legs and arms correctly - you don't want gaps at the shoulders or the crotch, both will reduce the comfort and performance of your suit.

Also make sure that you have a spare towel so that you can dry your hands and keep any lube off your goggles.


If it’s non wet suit swim then it’s likely that it is hot, but it might be that you actually cool down during the swim especially if you end up standing around prior to the start.  Remember your local pool is heated to around 80F (28C) whereas you'll be with out a wet suit in open water as cool as 72F (22C) so keep some warm clothes handy before the start. It might pay to consider warming up in a wet suit if you are susceptible to the cold - many pros do that, especially if it is overcast or windy.


Getting the start right in an event can be tricky even for experienced people. The first rule is to keep calm (think “breathe and relax”).  Focus on getting the air out.

Beach starts

If it’s a beach start then it’s actually a bit easier to get the start right in terms of seeding. If you’re a fast swimmer then you go in hard and fast, the run in usually helps to self seed people plus it also spreads the competitors out. If you are a slower swimmer then you can watch everyone take off down the beach and can jog in and get going in your own time.

Deep Water

A deep water start can be a bit daunting the first time, if it’s in a wet suit then it’s not so hard as you can float around in the suit and not use too much energy. If it’s non wet suit then you need to be careful that you don't use up too much energy pre start, treading water can be very tiring if you are no used to doing it. 


If you are doing an event then bump and bash IS going to happen - you WILL bang into other competitors, it’s just a fact of life. But you can do a few things to make it less stressful.

Firstly understand that people don't go into these events with the deliberate intention of banging into you, you just need to relax and get on with it. Swimming as straight as possible yourself helps and that only happens with practice as does swimming towards the right targets (swim turns, or the swim exit).

Try to relax and if you are getting bumped a lot consider moving away from the person or group you are bumping into (a good idea if they aren't swimming straight), it always amazes me how often people swim on top of each other for so long when there is plenty of clear space around. Just taking a second to think about that can be very helpful.


Yup you need to learn to navigate - that means learning to swim with your head up and sighting where you are going, also sighting clear water if you are stuck in a group or objects that you need to swim around (ie mid course marker boys). Practice this in the pool, do say a 8x50m with taking the time ½ way down each length to sight something, like a clock or the Life Guard . Navigating uses different muscles and places different pressure on your body, especially your head, neck and shoulders, doing some in training will make you stronger for it.


If it’s windy or if there is a rolling sea, you may have to modify your stroke timing, that is time your swim stroke by making it longer or shorter depending on the waves.  You can do this by using a catch-up type approach, i.e. delay or shorten the time the hand is reaching out front before the catch phase begins, this is something that can only be learned with practice in rougher open water, time your stroke so that you can breathe at the top of the wave. Oh and also work on good body roll, you need more when it’s rough, so that you can get air without water in your lungs.  BUT no matter what, be prepared on some occasions, get a mouthful of water and no air!


The last part of a swim can be tricky, often it seems closer than it is and also often the depth is deeper than you think - the rule of thumb is don't try and stand up until you can touch the bottom with a normal arm stroke. As suggested earlier, check it out before the start, watch out for uneven, loose and/or slippery surfaces. Get the goggles up so you can see and move to the exit/swim finish.

So there you go, get out there and make the most of your fitness and get into some events.





Brendon Downey –

If you have a look through race results you can often see that the difference in the final placings is speed through transitions. Even at the elite level there can be as much as 10 seconds between a good transition and a poor one.

Let's take a closer look at the two transitions in triathlon.


Wherever possible do two things at once - that's running and taking off your goggles, wetsuit top and swim cap, or putting on your helmet while kicking off your wetsuit.


1. Swim exit to the bike rack

The first transition starts when you can touch the bottom of the beach or reach the exit ramp.
Before the race, check the distance to the bike rack from this point - if it's short (150m or less) you need to get cracking and get to the bike with as much done as possible. That's the following:
- Goggles up
- Wetsuit unzipped
- Wetsuit top pulled off
- Swim cap and goggles off and in hand 
- Wetsuit pulled down to hip level

If it's a long run (300m or more) it may pay to get your goggles up and get running. If you pull your wetsuit down early, you may find that it drains of water and sticks as you try to get the legs off over your heels. Also, at many races you cannot drop your cap and goggles before reaching your rack.

Remember to check out the course from the swim to the bike prior to the race - at some of the big races it's easy to go down the wrong bike row and you can lose a lot of time trying to find your bike. Also, look for obstacles such as tree roots, slippery surfaces (especially just near the swim exit and at turns) and make a mental note to be careful.

Always expect the unexpected with transitions - it's common to find your neatly placed run shoes kicked away in the chaos and your bike may be knocked off the rack by another competitor.

2. Bike rack to the bike mounting zone

Once at your bike you need to get your helmet on (this must be done before unracking your bike) and your wetsuit off. If you practice this enough you can actually do these two things at the same time. You can consider cutting a few inches off your wetsuit legs and using a non-petroleum based oil on the back of the calf region of the suit to speed things up.

Some athletes like to put on their sunglasses at this time - this can also be done once on the bike and up to speed (for example place your glasses looped around a gear cable). For beginners and longer races (Ironman) it often pays to also put shoes on at this time - it’s much safer. Also if the bike goes right into a steep hill out of the transition, it can also pay to put your shoes on first - it's quite hard to put feet into your shoes if your bike is not moving!

The final part of this section is grabbing your bike and running to the mount line. It's a good idea to check this out prior to the race too. Make sure you know exactly where you can mount your bike. If there are lots of other competitors it can often pay to run holding your bike by the handlebars. For the elite, and skilled it's faster to run with your bike holding the seat.

3. Mounting zone up to full speed with feet in shoes

You still need to get up to full speed and get your feet into your shoes. If you have already put your shoes on it's a simple case of clicking in and getting going. If you are yet to put your shoes on, get up to speed first and then put one foot in, get back up to speed and put the other shoe in. For draft legal racing, it can pay to sprint up to the athletes in front, get in the draft and then put your feet into your shoes.


1. Race pace riding to dismount line

As you near T2 you need to get ready to dismount - beginners should just roll up, stop the bike, unclick the pedals and run into the transition. For everyone else you need to undo your cycling shoe velcro and place your feet on the tops of shoes prior to the dismount zone - look to do this as late as possible and ride around the pack as they start to do this - that way you can enter the transition near the front.

For the really skilled, you can roll up to the dismount line with one foot on a shoe “side saddle” style. Be careful stepping off the bike and watch for other competitors, their wheels and their pedals.

2. Dismount line to bike rack

Make sure you know your bike rack position - check this out prior to the race. As with T1 exit, it's faster to run holding your seat. If it's crowded it will pay to run holding your handlebars.

3. Bike rack to race running pace

Once you reach your rack, place the bike on the rack - again, check this prior to the race. It's always different. Make sure you keep your helmet clipped up until you have racked your bike. Unclip your helmet and put your shoes on, run out towards the exit and up to race speed.


Practice, practice, practice - start by running through the sequence slowly (it's best if you can do a short swim of 100m to get yourself wet like you will be in the race). Once it's all working slowly, start to move towards race speed. Be careful, transitions are a common place to get injured and you need to keep your eyes open for cars, spectators and other people. During the event it's amazing how some people react to competition by doing very silly things - make sure you keep a cool head, think fast but controlled.

From a physical ability perspective it's also important to have your body comfortable with changing from swimming to the transition run to the bike, and from the bike to the run (the hardest part of the race for many).

I like to see athletes have many bike-to-run workouts as they approach their main event. It's also good to include mini triathlon sessions (swim-bike-run) and shorter races. You can also modify your equipment, such as cutting the tongue out of cycling shoes, attaching a dome or safety pin to the velcro strap of your cycling shoes so the strap doesn't undo. Elastic in running shoes means no stopping to tie or pull laces tight and you can talc shoes so you slip in easily. The latest trend on the world cup circuit is to rubber band bike shoes (so cranks are horizontal) so that they don't spin around and unclick in the run out of T1.

So there you have it, your complete guide to slick transitions.

Good Luck