The Triathlon Swim: 3 Key Insights Part 1 - Start Position

“In triathlon, you can’t win in the swim by itself … but you can certainly lose in it.”

Its been said before and whoever coined the phrase was on point. The triathlon swim may be proportionally the shortest leg of the race (especially in long course triathlon), but that in no way discounts its importance. Your open water start to the challenge ahead can either be a catalyst to a fantastic day, or a saboteur robbing you of everything you’ve worked for before it hardly even begins.

For this reason, no triathlete should take the swim lightly. Swim training is important and so are the undeniable factors present in open water triathlon swims. Today we begin a series dedicated to the three key insights every athlete should consider regarding the triathlon swim.

Start Position

Remember those scenes on the Discovery Channel in which thousands upon thousands of salmon are migrating through a river upstream? An eternal, relentless thrashing of aquatic scale-on-scale mayhem accompanied by the occasional grizzly bear clawing at an unsuspecting jumper for an afternoon snack? Yeah … the start of a triathlon can feel a lot like that.

Depending on the scope of the event, the start of a triathlon swim can be either calm sailing or a not-so-metaphorical kick to the face. Where you position yourself prior to the sound of the gun may literally make or break your race.

Proper acquisition of your best position largely depends on what type of swimmer you are. This requires being aware of how strong you are in the open water.

If you’re fast and comfortable in the water, it wouldn’t make much sense to place yourself in the middle of the pack. Get up front and carpe diem! Likewise, if you’re a newbie, perhaps reconsider wading at the front of your wave unless you enjoy being trampled in a vicious arena where everyone struggles to see one another.

Do you primarily breathe to the right or the left? If to the right, place yourself closer to the left side so you’ll have a better view of your competitors. Vice versa for left-side breathers.

Do you have trouble with an elevated heart rate or the onset of panic as soon as the trigger is pulled? If so, then again, either the left or right edge of your wave – away from the pulling and kicking of the crowd – may be a more suitable place until you get your bearings.

For the jittery ones, try experimenting with not sprinting at the go. Adrenaline is typically high enough as it is, so if you’re failing to decrease that high-strung tension then chances are your not-sprinting-speed will still be much faster than your desired race pace. In fact, slowing yourself down will probably allow you to bypass the chances of locking up later and may even give you the closing speed to pass the overly excited ones who went too hard at the start.

Then again, if getting out in front is what you thrive on then by all means go for the lead pack right from the gun!

Essentially the lesson here is that your best start position in the triathlon swim will hinge on your ability to assess your strengths and weaknesses. Make a judgment call based on common sense. Or better yet, strike up a casual conversation beforehand and try to find someone in your wave who is comparable to your swim ability. If that person places himself or herself in a position that meets your other criteria, it might be a good idea to stick close. In fact, this may make sighting and drafting easier as well.

Speaking of which…

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss the second of the three key insights for the triathlon swim: sighting.


The triathlon swim is not to be taken lightly. The start can be hectic, sighting buoys is something you don’t learn in the pool, and following in the wake of others is an opportunity not to be missed. Take each insight into the triathlon swim as a skill to be honed and perfected, resulting in confidence for the start of each and every race.  


Do you struggle with the start of a triathlon swim? If so, does the advice mentioned above help? What other questions do you have regarding the start of the swim that we may assist you with?

JARED MILAM is a professional triathlete, TriDot coach, and member of the Tri4Him Pro Team. He has 16 years of competitive running experience and 11 years of competitive triathlon experience with a half Iron PR of 3:59 and a full Iron PR of 8:30. Coaching under the TriDot system since 2011, Jared loves working with aspiring triathletes of all ages and performance levels.

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