Last week, I participated in the Musselman Half Ironman triathlon in Geneva, NY which is a part of the country where the weather at that time was being affected by an off shore hurricane, as well as a series of thunderstorms passing through the upper half of the country. On the morning of the triathlon, there was a “wind advisory” in the area with a steady 20-25mph wind and with wind gusts up to 40 mph. The lake was churning with high swells and white caps. From the shore, it looked like a very angry ocean.
I began the swim in the second wave and in watching the first wave take off, myself and everyone on shore saw that for the first 5mins the majority of the swimmers were walking. Yes, walking in what seemed like waist deep water. None of us could figure out why they were walking because it didn’t look swallow enough to impede swimming and we just couldn’t understand what could possibly make any of the racers do something like this. However, before I knew it was our wave’s turn to start and before we hit the first buoy I COMPLETELY understood why those swimmers had been walking: The waves were huge and fast moving, making swimming damn near impossible. People became disoriented, and as I began trying to figure out where to go next, I saw everyone else around me panicking as well. I found myself wading water and doing breaststroke in an effort to calm myself down. I did this for a good ten minutes because there was simply nothing else you could do. Eventually I started to swim again but it was very difficult, until the course lead us to a canal where the waves could not reach us.
Despite successfully completing the swim I will never forget what the first few minutes of that race looked like as swimmers all around me, panicked and some started signaling for help. In total close to 40 people pulled themselves out of the race before, during or directly after finishing the swim. This whole experience prompted me to write a post about windy triathlon conditions because it’s never wise to assume that all the triathlon events you plan to participate in are going to have AWESOME weather. In reality, it’s just a matter of time before you experience a bad-weather at a triathlon, and windy conditions are probably the most adverse weather situation a triathlete has to contend with. Though treacherous, high wind and rain typically will not cancel a swim unless lighting is present. Occasionally, the swim course can be altered to better adjust to weather conditions, but not always and in the end you are stuck with whatever you have to deal with. Though it is rare if a triathlon swim is canceled, this portion of the race is typically replaced with a run making it a duathlon. Truth be told I have done well over 25 triathlons at this point in my life and only once was a swim canceled and that was due to contaminated water. Thus, the more experience you have weathering bad weather, the better equipped you are at handling whatever mother natural decides to throw your day on race day. Here are some things to keep in mind:
Know what you are capable of:
Don’t expect the ultimate decision to be made for you in terms of whether you should or shouldn’t swim in difficult waters. Simply put: you must decide for yourself if you are capable of swimming in an open water swim if the weather is treacherous. If it doesn’t feel right, and you have little experience in the open water, don’t do it. No race is worth your life. However if it’s your first triathlon but you just so happen to be a Navy Seal, I’m pretty sure you’ll be fine. J On the flip side, an inexperienced swimmer should be cautious and really weight out their options before taking the risk.
How to prepare for “crappy” weather on race day:
This is fairly easy. Basically to prepare yourself for crappy conditions, you need to swim in them! For instance, we all know that cycling when it is windy can be absolutely miserable. However, you cannot rule our windy weather on race day and your best bet to make sure you are prepared to practice cycling in the wind so that come race day you know exactly what to do. The same goes for swimming. Keep your eye on the weather and look for a windy day in the forecast. When a windy day rolls around, head to the lake or find a local open water session. Please note: NEVER do this alone!!!! Aim to swim with a group of swimmers, most of which are experienced or ask/pay someone follow you in a kayak or canoe.
Learn how to swim effectively in and through waves:
When swimming in windy weather, it may seem like the right thing to do is to pull your head straight up and out of the water in order to avoid swallowing water, or to come up for air and ride over the waves. However the opposite is true. This is because once you raise your head and shoulders up out of the freestyle position, your legs go down and at this point you start to exert nearly twice the amount of energy moving forward. As it is chances are, you will still get hit by incoming waves because you may not be able to get high enough over the wave as it breaks. When you raise your head and shoulders up straight out of the water, the waves will actually push you back and you will be making no forward progress. As a result, you’ll start expending too much energy all while not moving forward. In addition, you will get fatigued and you may even panic.
Instead stop fighting the waves and aim to ride the tops of the waves. Keep taking your side breaths as you typically would in a pool swimming freestyle. You may have to roll a little bit further on your side to breath because of the waves but not by very much.
I would never try and give the impression that riding waves doesn’t feel weird because it really does and it may make you feel like you are not moving forward, but trust me: you are.
And finally….Check out the course!
Simply put: check out the course before you start and decide on your strategy. Determine the direction of the waves so you can figure out the difficult portions of the course because this will help you predict where you will need to work hardest and also help you to anticipate what to expect and when to expect it. Having a plan and knowing what to expect going in is a sure fire way of having a good swim no matter what conditions you face.