Triathlon readiness – preparing to Mass Start

You’ve been training hard in the pool, got your new season Zone3 wetsuit, and maybe done a few open water swims. On the start line you are ready for the starter horn; and it’s a go! Arms, feet, bodies, cold water; bashed, bumped, squashed and swum over. The Washing Machine that is the triathlon mass start open water swim.

If you haven’t experienced it before it can be a bit of a shock, no matter how strong you feel. The inexperience can lead to over breathing, loss of swim stroke, panic thrashing which burns oodles of energy and an overwhelming start to a thrilling sport! It’s easy to overlook preparing for it.

This was my first experience and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. You need to build confidence not only in your own ability but also in your preparedness and personal strategies that work for you, preferably without hampering others.

Nothing can beat practising mass starts with others and if you are lucky enough to be part of a good triathlon club, or have one you can join, this is either something you can request as part of a club training session; if it’s not already done or organised as an out of session group activity.

However, there are also some simple things that you can do to try to prepare yourself even if you do not have access to mass start practice:

  • Get used to swimming close to people even if it’s just one or two people in the pool, practice swimming close enough to touch and trying to keep your swim rhythm or match theirs
  • Acclimatise to cold water, starting Open Water swimming as soon as possible will get your body used to cold water. Always swim with others in Open Water.
  • As difficult and awkward as it might feel practice breathing bilaterally, even if you cannot sustain it for the whole swim it may get you out of trouble if you get stuck with someone on your preferred breathing side.
  • Think about where you want to place yourself at the start; if you are not a fast starter or powerful swimmer you may not want to pop yourself right at the very front and risk the powerhouses swimming over you. Place yourself a little further back to still benefit from the momentum and draft from others or to the side/very back if you want as much space as possible.
  • Even in a lake swim you are unlikely to find flat water; so do practice swimming in water that has some chop and think about reducing the amount you glide in order to keep momentum going. One way of doing this is to increase arm cadence.

If even the things above seem too much, or you need strategies to manage nerves, again there are things you can try. It may take a few trial and error attempts before you find what works for you, as not one strategy fits all but why not give some of these things a try:


If the cold affects you; keep your core body temperature up by layering up before the race and putting half your suit on well in advance, once it’s time to pull on the rest of your suit keep moving to stay warm. Get into the water as late as possible, keep moving but get your face in and open your mouth under water (don’t drink!). Acclimatising your head to the water will reduce cold shock as you start and give you a chance to stabilise any reaction to the cold in your breathing pattern.


Over breathing due to nerves is easy to do and can have a detrimental effect on the whole race. Rapid breathing also goes hand in hand with fear, anxiety, nerves and panic.

The following simple breathing techniques can slow down breathing and reduce symptoms of panic or nerves.

  • Time the number of breaths you are taking in 30 seconds then:
  • Breathe in through your nose to the count of three (3 seconds) and say to yourself: “IN, TWO, THREE”.
  • Breathe out through your nose, again counting to three, and say to yourself: “RELAX, TWO, THREE”.
  • Keep repeating this for two to three minutes, and then time your breathing for 30 seconds again.
  • This breathing technique can be used to slow down breathing and put you in control and feeling calmer (it can be done anywhere without anyone else noticing!!)

Staying busy and positive

Keeping your mind occupied prior to the start can also help manage your nerves and could form part of a pre-swim routine. Once you are in your suit carry out a series of stretches that will keep you warm and get your joints and muscles ready for action. Again do what works for you but gentle arm swings and stretches along with core rotation are a good start.

And remember your positive thoughts!

If you get through it once you can do it again!

Develop a mantra that reminds you of that or what you want to achieve and repeat it in your mind to focus your thoughts on positive outcomes.


Don’t forget if you have a disability you can ask event organisers to provide additional support in the water, i.e. canoe support and additional space or end of rack positioning in transition so that you have room for any additional equipment or a seat if required. Additionally, depending on your disability you can have a helper or handler in transition. See www.britishtriathlon.org/great-britain-teams/elite-teams/paratriathlon for more information

Most of all enjoy the small achievements and build on them.

Article by Sarah Pearson

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