Preparing for your first triathlon swim
Preparing for your first triathlon swim

Preparing for your first triathlon swim

There is a saying in triathlon that “whilst you can’t win the race in the swim, you can definitely lose it”! And there is a lot of truth in this.

Psychologically speaking it’s the most stressful part of the race. You have been building up to the race in your head for weeks, and, now, starting at the start line with several hundred other people the adrenaline is coursing through your veins and making you nervous then you are expected to jump in to a cold and unfamiliar and possibly dark environment and stick your head under the cold water! Then the starting gun goes and at the previously calm water turns into a tempestuous mass of flailing arms and legs and you are off!

So proper preparation is essential. Knowing what to expect on race day and preparing for the different phases of the triathlon swim will improve your mental state, helping you remain calm and focussed before the event.


Before the start of your first triathlon, you will feel nervous and anxious, but if you take your time to relax, plan what needs to be done, and give you ample time to prepare, you can take away a lot of the uncertainty, and get your race off to the best start. It’s worth practising putting your triathlon wetsuit on a few times too!

Prior to the triathlon, you need to focus on two things:

Dressing for the race

Putting on the wetsuit on is obviously the biggest part of the pre-swim ritual, but don’t forget you need to have something underneath, ready for the bike and run legs, so make sure you are in your trisuit or swimming costume and it’s comfortable and in working order, before you think about your wetsuit.

This also means getting your race number sorted out, either on a race belt or pinned to your trisuit if you’ve gone that route. When you register you will get your race numbers, and this might include stickers for your bike and helmet as well as your official race number. If there are no instructions concerning how and where these should be placed, ask a marshal.

It’s not mandatory to use a racebelt, or to wear it under your wetsuit ( you can put it on before the bike) but it does make life easier and is one less thing you need to think about when you get out of the water.

Leave your goggles and race hat where you can reach them before you put your wetsuit on, as they are not designed to be dry and can be tight and little inflexible.

A word on timing. This a personal thing and will vary depending on how long you need to wait, how warm it is, whether you need a friend to help with the zip etc, so there are no hard and fast rules on when to put your wetsuit on or finish doing it up. Don’t forget that you won’t be able to go to the loo easily once it’s on though.

Before you put your triathlon wetsuit on, it’s important to put bodyglide or your preferred lubricant on where it’s needed. If you are in a long race and use Chamois cream for your cycle, you need to put this on as well. The lube helps in three ways

  1. It helps you get the suit on in the first place, so you need to know which parts stick and lubricate accordingly. The shins, ankles and lower arms are the main culprits, and getting the wetsuit over these ensures that you have enough material to pull the wetsuit up into y crotch, which maximises the material available for the torso, and to avoid tension in the shoulders. This last one is critical, you don’t want the wet suit to feel like it’s pulling your arms down, it’ll add significant resistance to your arm extension and tire you out fast in the swim.
  2. It avoids chafing during the swim. Lubrication will help with your swim stroke but mostly the layer of water between the suit and skin does this, but the main issue, especially with a sea swim is chafing at the neck, which can be exceptionally painful. A thick lubricant where the neck and wetsuit meet is the most important thing here, So either lanolin based, or, dare I say it, Vaseline, will mean the difference between a comfortable swim and a painful neck.
  3. Getting out. At the end of the swim you will pull the wetsuit off inside out, so it can sometimes catch either on your hands or feet, so to avoid this, put a little on the outside of the wetsuit at the end of the arms and legs.

Once you are ready, with Bodyglide where you need it, your trisuit and race belt in place, you are ready to put your triathlon wetsuit on. The key to this is to pull up from the bottom and grip the inside not the outside, so the first step is to pull it all of the way down so that you can grab the inside of the suit. This is not easy to explain, but most wetsuit manufacturers will have videos, like the following from Orca ( a popular provider of triathlon wetsuits) and Swim smooth.

Warm up and prerace

Before the race, there will be a briefing, and you will then walk over to the swim start. As the swim exit will be at transition, the swim Start will usually be some distance away, so be prepared for a walk! Remember to take your race hat and goggles with you, it’s likely that transition will now be closed and you cannot get back in if you forget anything. It’s also important that you don’t take anything with you that you will need later in the race and can’t take on the swim.

Some people take flip flops or disposable shoes with them for the walk and will collect them later, just make sure you don’t take anything you cannot afford to lose.

At this point, you’ll be waiting around, so if you can do a warm up or stretches then do so, or just take a few deep breaths and relax! This is supposed to be fun!

If the start is in waves, make sure you know which one you are in and listen out for the marshals to call your wave. Then it’s off to the start and your first race! Good luck!