Give it a Tri! | Part 3 - The Swim

Camelback Coaching Most Tri's Begin with Open Water Swim Most Tri's Begin with Open Water Swim

Triathlons often begin with an open water swim. Get off to a great start with triathlon-specific swimming apparel.

Get Off to a Great Start

A swim suit or triathlon-specific racing apparel is worn for the swim. Race wear designed for triathlon is ideal because it can be worn for the swim, bike, and run—no changing of clothing necessary between disciplines.

What to Expect

A triathlon is normally organized with the swim first, the bike second, and the run third. The swim can be held in a pool, often using a serpentine format, which requires participants to duck under lane lines and snake across the width of the pool. For a beginner, a pool swim can often be less intimidating than an open water swim. 

However, most triathlons begin with an open water swim, staged in an ocean, lake, or river. Competitors in the open water begin the race in one of two ways—a mass start or a wave start. Mass starts are commonly used in the Full distance. Hundreds and even thousands of competitors enter the water at the same time to begin the swim leg in this type of race.

Wave starts accommodate participants by arranging them in smaller groups, usually determined by age and gender, and setting them off in intervals. 

Expect Some Contact

Whether in a pool or in the open water, the primary thing to expect in the swim is contact with other participants. It is almost inevitable. For anyone, but especially for beginners, anticipating this and being prepared to relax and move with the contact rather than fight it, will go a long way toward a more positive race day experience.

Wet Suits

Depending on the water temperature, if doing an open water swim, wet suits may be allowed. If so, renting or purchasing a triathlon-specific wet suit is important because they are designed for swimming, as opposed to wet suits used for surfing or scuba diving.

Caps & Goggles

If caps are required for the swim—almost always in an open water event—these will usually be provided by the race organizer. Participants bring their own goggles.

Anne Wilson

Anne Wilson is the co-owner and head swim coach of Camelback Coaching, a full-service triathlon coaching company located in Scottsdale, Arizona. Anne swam competitively, including collegiately at the US Naval Academy, before diving into the sport of triathlon. She has competed in triathlons for over twenty-five years and coached full time for ten. For more information, please visit