The Triathlon Swim Start - What to Expect

The swim is arguably the toughest thing to cope with for most triathletes. The thought of being in a body of water with a bunch of strangers all trying to get to the finish as fast as possible can definitely cause some anxiety.


The first triathlons always employed what is called a “mass start”. This means that absolutely everyone in the race lines up at the start line at the exact same time. A gun is fired. And then everyone starts the swim together. Elbows fly, feet flutter, and faces are kicked… In just a few seconds the water goes from mirror-like calmness to washing machine status. Everyone eventually spreads a bit thinner and gets to the swim finish. Pictured here.

If this kind of a swim start gets you more nervous than a ceiling fan store owner with a comb-over, you are not the only one! Over time, race directors have found ways to make the swim start A LOT less intimidating and accommodating.


There are a couple different ways to start a race other than a mass start. The most common is called a “wave start”. This is where all the racers are divided into groups (usually based on age/gender). Everyone lines up in these smaller groups and is sent off in “waves”. This is kind of like a mass start but with a smaller “mass” going off 3-5minutes in between each other. The mini-masses thin out a lot faster and there is less elbows and feet flailing around to worry about. The fact the waves go off at different times has no effect on your individual race time.


Another way to start a triathlon and usually the least intimidating is called a “time trial” start. Sometimes this is also to referred to as a “rolling” start. Everyone is still lined up in groups or waves, but 2-3 athletes are started every 5-10 seconds. Again, the fact that the starting time of athletes differs does not affect the race results. Everyone is timed individually. For a video of this type of start from The Patriot Half click HERE.

No matter what kind of starting fashion your race uses, make sure you are prepared for it. You’ll be able to find the starting procedure in the race packet or on the race website. Unless you are a lifelong swimmer, you will probably experience a huge bout of nervousness in the water of any race. Your heart rate goes from resting to “full-speed-ahead-captain!” in a matter of seconds and no matter how many races you have done, it is not a pleasant feeling. Especially noting that this drastic change in heart rate occurs in a pond, lake, or ocean. You likely have a lot of people around you going through the same feeling! AND to top it all off, you can only breathe when your head is above the water you are trying to make your way through! It would be crazy NOT to expect your body and mind to freak out just a little bit.

Just like everything else though, you can cope with this by being prepared for the feeling. A few ways to prep for the swim pedal-to-the-metal feeling is by practicing with people. Some races will have swim preps, where you can join up with people to swim on the race course the day or week before the event. You could also organize or join a local group to swim with challenge yourself to stick with the group to get accustomed to the feeling.

If no one is around to swim with, you could also practice the feeling by getting your heart rate really high, then jumping in the water and practice “calming down” while swimming. I have done this before by doing a couple of sprints on the beach, then a few push-ups, then diving right into the water and going out for a few minutes until I am comfortable. It works to simulate the feeling of the start of the race surprisingly well!

You are not alone if you are selecting a race by considering the way that it starts. Everyone will have their own thoughts and preferences, so it is important to think about what best suits your race style (especially if it is your first triathlon or you are going for a PR). Also, check to see if the race offers a “Beginner” wave or a “Nervous Swimmer” cap. A “Beginner” wave will group you with other beginners for the swim and whether or not there is a Beginner wave, if the race offers a Nervous Swimmer cap you’ll be give a uniquely colored swim cap so that lifeguards can keep an especially watchful eye on you when you’re in the water.

Sun Multisport Events all have a hybrid format that seems to be “the best of both worlds”. Everyone that has signed up as “elite” are first and go off in a mass start fashion. After they are away in the water, it switches to time trial rolling start. Check out some of their races HERE!

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