By Colin Cook, Jay Francis, Lara Gruner, Jack Wolber
So you want to do a triathlon but you’re worried about the swim, you are not alone. This year will be our 7th year of putting on the Greater Nashua Sprint Triathlon and during these years we have talked with hundreds of athletes who are considering a triathlon. The conversation often starts with “I am ok with the bike and run, but not the swim”, or “I don’t know about the swim” or more often than not, “I swim, like a rock”.
Why such responses. For many the thought of a triathlon conjures up images of a sea of people on a long, long swim, it seems terrifying. Also, most of us don’t grow up swimming long distances, we grow up with lots of running - think soccer, hockey, track, basketball – but unless you were a competitive swimmer or played water polo, a long swim is somewhat new. So for these and a host of other reasons the initial response to the idea of a triathlon often turns to concern about the swim.
The swim is actually not so harrowing and the purpose of this article is to point out some facts about the swim that will help put it in perspective. The following are viewpoints that we often discuss when talking to someone concerned about the swim. Our frame of reference is a sprint length triathlon, specifically the Greater Nashua Sprint Triathlon. However, these views apply more or less to all triathlons. We are not trying to convince someone who should not undertake the swim to take the plunge, but we do want to help those of you that will have no problem with the swim once you know what it’s about it.
Swim length – Triathlons come in many lengths, from “Ironman” length to “Sprint” length, - the difference between these two is like the difference between running a marathon and a 5K. For a typical Sprint length triathlon the swim leg is reasonably short, most are between 1/4 mile and a 1/2 mile. The Nashua Tri swim leg is 1/3 mile, that means most athletes will finish in 10 to 14 minutes. This doesn’t sound so bad to most people as they can imagine swimming for 10 to 14 minutes.
The start - Forget the scene of a hundred triathletes running down a beach into the wild surf and practically swimming on top of each other. The Nashua Tri uses an in-the-water start with a maximum of 30 athletes in each wave. You jump in, line up side by side against a rope and wait for the whistle. This is a civilized start with little of the worries of a mass start. And the waves are by age and gender, with a special wave just for the elite racers.
Wet suit – A wet suit is as much about buoyancy as it is about keeping you warm. For those of you that “swim like a rock” and feel like all your energy is used just to keep afloat, it’s a game changer. A wetsuit is like going from a mountain bike to road bike. You swim much faster, and much easier since you are higher in the water. Since many first timers aren’t inclined to buy a wet suit there are companies that rent them and it is not uncommon for racers to rent a wetsuit. Xterra rents quality wetsuits for about $49 for a couple weeks rental including shipping. Use the code R-Nashua for a discount on any purchases you make with Xterra.
Lifeguards – All triathlons have lifeguards on the water, lots of them. The Nashua Tri has 18 professional lifeguards spread along the course in kayaks and paddle boards. These are paid professional lifeguards from the Nashua Y, not random volunteers. They watch the racers very carefully and know what to do if someone gets into trouble. And, by the way it is permissible in a triathlon to hold onto a float if needed - you can’t make forward progress - but you can take a rest if needed, you will not be disqualified.
Red caps – For those racers that want to be watched more closely we offer red caps. The lifeguards will keep a special eye on anyone in a red cap. Each year we hand out a couple dozen and it makes people feel much safer. Just ask for a red cap, we can even hand you one on the dock at the last minute just before you jump in the water.
Swim the course – Practicing an open water swim will help you get comfortable without the worries of the race going on. This year we will be offering two open water swims prior to the race on May 30 and June 8, they will be at Camp Sargent and will follow the race swim course. There will be lifeguards on the water just as in the race, plus you will get some instructions and tips about open water swimming. This will get you familiar with the swim venue and the swim course prior to the race (please note that swimming at Camp Sargent is prohibited at all other times). See the Nashua Tri website for more info. Additionally, our local triathlon cub NorthEast MultiSport has group open water swims multiple times each week at different locations around the area.
Water temp – The Nashua Tri is held in Lake Naticook in Merrimack, this is a small lake and warms quickly in the spring. The water temperature will be listed on the website several days before the race but it has typical been in the mid 70’s on race day. Not bath water, but much warmer than a cold ocean or a big lake.
Get in a pool – The Greater Nashua YMCA has many swim instruction programs and some specific to triathlons. Depending on your fitness, a few week in the pool may be all it takes to have a successful triathlon swim. And it is a great cross training opportunity.
Form a team – So if all of the above has not convinced you that the swim is more doable than you ever thought then form a team and let someone else do the swimming. The Nashua Tri allows two or three person teams, so find a swimmer - preferably one that hates to run and bike - and have a go. Watch the swim this year, get used to a doing a triathlon and see what happens next year.
We started this article by saying that often people considering a triathlon are worried about the swim. But as you see the swim is not as bad as it first appears once you know what it’s all about, the distance is short, the start is tame, there is lots of safety, you can wear a wet suit, the water is warm. We have found that with a little training and preparation most athletes can finish with no problems. We hope to see you at the race.
Colin Cook is a local elite level triathlete, triathlon coach and co-founder of NorthEast MultiSport, a local triathlon club. Jay Francis is an amateur triathlete, triathlon coach and co-founder of NorthEast MultiSport. Lara Gruner is an Aquatics Coordinator, Aquatics Safety Specialist and swim coach at the Nashua YMCA. Jack Wolber is an amateur triathlete and Chairman of the Nashua Triathlon.
The 6th annual Greater Nashua Sprint Triathlon will be held this year on Sunday, June 14 at the YMCA’s Camp Sargent in Merrimack. All information about the race can be found at the race website nashuatri.com. The race is co-presented by the YMCA of Greater Nashua and the Center for Physical Therapy and Exercise. All proceeds from the race support the Child Advocatory Center of Hillsborough County and the YMCA of Greater Nashua Annual Campaign fund.