Learn to swim you @$#%!

There are other topics I wanted to tackle but since this one is in the news a lot lately, and it’s something that I feel strongly about, that makes it the perfect subject to blog about. You’ll have to bear with me if it gets a little ‘rant-y’…

Two deaths in the NYC triathlon made headlines at the same time that a study came to light: the overwhelming majority of deaths in triathlon occur in the swim portion.

The knee-jerk reaction has been to question whether race organizers are doing enough to screen participants for health issues and swimming proficiency.

I have my own take on the matter, but I want to give you some background that has influenced my line of thinking.
When I talk to non-triathletes who have aspirations (or at least pipe-dreams) of doing a tri, it’s always a lack of swimming ability that is keeping them from taking part. Either that, or an irrational fear of open water. Swimming seems to be the biggest barrier to entry for potential triathletes.

Even within a race, I see a dearth of swimming ability where I really shouldn’t. Every single race, I’ll be anywhere from a quarter to halfway done the bike portion when I’ll be passed by a faster cyclist. I don’t just mean overtaken – these guys blow by me like I’m standing still. Now based on my results, it’s fair to say that I’m above average in swimming and below average (by age group) so this is somewhat likely: I’ll exit the water before weaker swimmers and get caught by the faster cyclists. Maybe some of them are starting in later waves. But by the time I’m at the 20k mark (out of 40k) around 70 minutes will have gone by, and I’m being passed by racers moving around 10km/h faster than me (most often on much better bikes): assuming that’s true, and they’re moving at 40km/h on average (to my 30km/h) they’ll have gotten to that 20km mark in 30 minutes, meaning it’s taken them 40 min to finish a 1.5km swim (to my 30 min). I’ve left out differences in wave times and transition, for simplicity. The ueber-cyclist will finish much faster than me (assuming equal or at least comparable run times) for being 40/30=33% faster than me on the bike compared to me being 33% faster in the swim.

I can’t blame these guys for being weak on the swim – why bother getting better when there is no apparent payoff for improving your swim? This dis-proportionality was notice by guys named Wainer and De Veaux who proposed the Equilateral Triathlon.

The ITU sanctions the following distances (from the ITU website):

Name
Swim
Bike
Run
Super Sprint
400m
10km
2.5km
Sprint
750m
20km
5km
Standard
1500m
40km
10km
Middle
2.5km
80km
20km
Long
4km
120km
30km
Ironman
3.8
180km
42km

and the Equilateral Triathlon distances look like (times are based on world record holders):
Name
Time per leg
Swim
Bike
Run
Sprint
10 minutes
1 km
(0.6 mi)
8.5 km
(5.3 mi)
3.9 km
(2.4 mi)
Olympic
28 minutes
2.7 km
(1.7 mi)
22.4 km
(13.9 mi)
10 km
(6.2 mi)
Ironman
127 minutes
12 km
(7.5 mi)
96.2 km
(59.8 mi)
42.2 km
(26.2 mi)

Now let’s look at some sample race distances around Ontario:
Name
Swim
Bike
Run
Milton Triathlon
750m
30km
7.5km
Orillia ‘Sprint’ Triathlon
750m
33km
7km
Goderich Triathlon
1km
42km
10km

Notice anything? Race directors are adding distance to those categories on the bike and run while keeping the swim short. Or, they keep the recommended bike and run distances while shortening the swim. And I don’t blame them either; they need participants, and by making the swim shorter, the race becomes more accessible.

The main ideas of increasing the safety margin of the swim seem to be either swim proficiency testing or health testing of participants. One of the the casualties in the NYC triathlon was formerly a high-school varsity swimmer, with previous triathlon experience and only 40 years old. Certainly she had enough swim proficiency and training to complete the swim portion, and I doubt anything short of an EEG would have revealed health issues; the woman would have been observed to be in good shape by a doctor. So what would a swim test or doctor’s note really have accomplished in this case.

So here’s my idea: increase the length of the swim in most triathlons. Participants will either drop out (better yet, switch to duathlon), start taking swimming more seriously in their training to compensate. While monitoring a longer swim course with kayaks and lifeguards is a daunting proposition to the race organizer, this needs to be weighed against whatever additional measures are being proposed instead (proof of good health, open water swimming certification); what will those cost?

Swimming is a low impact, whole body exercise, and it behooves us as a society to develop it as much as possible; being a good swimmer might save your life or that of someone else. Furthermore, it’s cheap! It’s been pointed out that triathlon is expensive, and the biggest expense has to be the bike (plus helmet, shoes, shorts, jerseys, bottles, etc.). The longer the bike portion, the more the event favours the athlete with more money, and the more those who are using a simple road bike (or even a commuter/mountain bike) might feel an event isn’t for them since they’ll be too slow and it will take too long. A race that approaches the equilateral proportions might actually be both less risky and more accessible. Go figure.


Now, I’m not saying *any* change is absolutely necessary. I’m a big fan of the saying: ”Nothing is sometimes the right thing to do, and always a clever thing to say.” Statistically speaking, triathlons and endurance sports are not dangerous, and have probably saved more lives through promotion of exercise and healthy living than they have cost. Still, if change is desired, I’d prefer the sport to look at a simple modification to the race format than introducing extra levels of bureaucracy.
***UPDATE: Autopsy results on the NYC triathlon deaths were inconclusive
***UPDATE2: Death caused by cardiac arrhythmia due to prolapsed mitrial valve

4 Replies to “Learn to swim you @$#%!”

  1. One day I hope to be at the fitness level to try a tri. Like you said, the running and bike parts of the race don't intimidate me anywhere near the idea of trying to swim with thousands of other people flailing around in the water next to me.

  2. One day I hope to be at the fitness level to try a tri. Like you said, the running and bike parts of the race don't intimidate me anywhere near the idea of trying to swim with thousands of other people flailing around in the water next to me.

  3. Mike,

    You're certainly not alone in that fear – but in my experience the worst physical contact I've had wouldn't even leave a bruise. When you get to your first tri, might I recommend requesting to be put in the last wave. That way, the most eager people are all gone, and it's just you and some little old ladies (but don't underestimate them!).

  4. Mike,

    You're certainly not alone in that fear – but in my experience the worst physical contact I've had wouldn't even leave a bruise. When you get to your first tri, might I recommend requesting to be put in the last wave. That way, the most eager people are all gone, and it's just you and some little old ladies (but don't underestimate them!).

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