Start Line Anxiety

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The start of a triathlon somehow seems designed to cause anxiety in all those who have failed to prepare correctly.

Pre-Competition Nerves are something everyone in sports has experienced: disrupted sleep, many trips to the bathroom, increased heart rate and even weird dreams about sleeping through alarm clocks. Elite athletes accept that such trifles are all part of their job, and even with the pressure of performance in any sport they seem to be well prepared at every race, game or competition. Age Groupers however, don’t get the opportunity or time to compete week in, week out and on top of that, the first few minutes of a triathlon will down right conspire against you if you don’t plan appropriately.

Right off the bat, triathlon will combine two seemingly non-human [inhumane?!?] scenarios that will work together to have you praying for a Time Out. Not only will you be thrown into a medium that you can’t breathe in, that’s very often cold and bottle green; but secondly, you’ll find yourself in there at a time when you need more oxygen than you ever have, right next to other people doing their very best to get in your way.

A lot of Age Group triathletes find themselves incredibly uncomfortable for the first few minutes of a race, and – more often than not – post-race analysis finds them confused and frustrated. The confusion stems mostly from falling of short of training performance and wondering why they haven’t been able to convert it into race day success. The answer is actually nothing to do with fitness, performance or bad luck; it all comes down to an adequate and specific warm-up.

Let’s look at the prime instigators of what Sir Alex Ferguson would call “Squeaky Bum Time”:

  • Cold water is no fun
  • Swimming right next to splashing and thrashing [unpredictable] human bodies is stressful
  • We freak out thinking about things in the water we can’t see
  • Knowing we can’t breathe in water is something we can’t forget
  • Race nerves and adrenaline give us an already-increased heart rate

When suddenly immersed in cold water, the human body will respond with ‘The Gasp Reflex’. For those living in what would be considered warmer parts of the world, you should pay attention to the definition of ‘cold’ in this regard being anything below 70 Fahrenheit or what in Australia would be a rather sociable 21 degrees celsius. My point being, your body will react even in normal water temperatures, it doesn’t have to be freezing. This reaction is otherwise known as Torso Reflex, Inhalation Response, or Cold Water Shock and I’m willing to bet that anyone reading this has experienced it. It’s that “Take your breath away” feeling when the water hits the front of your throat or chest… you can’t help but start sucking in air rather than blow it out. This happens in an attempt to rapidly increase oxygen intake into the lungs. This increases the body’s metabolic rate, building internal warmth in response to the cold. 

Now here’s the kicker… Torso Reflex can last anything from 1 to 3 minutes. Let’s back track… how long did you feel like crap in your last race? I’m not in the business of scaring the Bejesus out of you, but here’s a quote that sums up why your basic human instinct may be adding nerves when you don’t need them:

Sudden immersion into cold water triggers an involuntary reflexive torso gasp that can cause the person to aspirate water into his airway and lungs, which can lead to laryngospasm, disorientation, panic, and the loss of any physical ability to swim or remain afloat.

Okay, a little melodramatic but sadly this happens in open water and Ironman events quite regularly to those athletes who just simply aren’t prepared. Put another way the scary bit is that your body will begin gasping INVOLUNTARILY, so if your face happens to be in the water at the time you will indeed suck in water and on some level if you’ve spent time in the water your brain already knows this. Don’t worry, this is a very good thing and there is some very simple advice to get around this.

I have told people time and time again that preparing for the first few minutes of a triathlon – and in fact from the very moment you wake up on Race Day – is completely SENSORY. If you don’t take part regularly it’s going to feel strange and when you combine that with nerves and adrenaline you’re going to feel pretty uncomfortable – you won’t be DESENSITIZED to the experience. Small things like getting up in the dark, forcing down breakfast, finding somewhere to park the car and setting up transition while you bump elbows with other athletes as the sun comes up all keep adding to the negativity and discomfort.

It goes without saying that you need to practice setting up your own transition area, and the same goes for early alarms, race nutrition and getting to know the race venue…. which brings us back to the water. I’m sure you’re all clever enough to heed Water Safety advice that tells us not to go diving into any stretch of water that you don’t know well. But I tell you now, at every triathlon you and I have been to there will be individuals doing exactly that. I’ll go one further in that these people are those thinking they’re “just here to get through the race” and they don’t need to get in the water because they’re “not elites and not swimming fast”. My very favourite is “why would I warm up, that will just take away my energy?”.

Let’s not forget that we’ve all signed bits of paper either virtually or in person declaring that we don’t hold the race organisers responsible for our safety, and that we are familiar with the race course and conditions. If you don’t know that’s what the small print says, you’re welcome.

If you are racing somewhere you have never been before [even if you’ve raced there once or twice] you need to get your bearings. With the first few minutes of the race conspiring against you, the water and the start line are the first place to be desensitized, so have a swim or two on the race course in the days leading up to the race. This will get you ready for the water temperature but only mentally, you MUST get in the water before your race start ON THE DAY to remove the danger and discomfort of the gasp reflex. This doesn’t have to be your warm-up, all I’m asking in very simple terms is that you get as much of the water you’re about to race in as possible down your wetsuit and around your face and neck. You would have guessed by now that the best way to do this is to wade into the water and dunk yourself a few times.

I drifted off line, filled my empty bottle with lake water and poured it down my wetsuit and over my head. Gasp reflex avoided.


This does bring me to an issue you may never have to overcome, but in some World Champs races with narrow or urban swim starts, entering the water before the gun is not allowed. I realised in Edmonton a few years ago that the pre-start marshaling area was right next to the lake we were about to race in, and once each age group wave was corralled, we were lead past the lake to the start line. I drifted off line, filled my empty bottle with lake water and poured it down my wetsuit and over my head. Gasp reflex avoided. In other words, if you know you can’t access the swim course on race morning, ensure you have some cold water to hand… ideally from where you’re about to be!

Other than cold water, the idea of swimming right next to other athletes does freak out a lot of people. Again – apart from getting to know the race course a day or two before the Big Day – there’s some pretty simple advice. For those not used to being next to, on top of and underneath other swimmers [those who didn’t play water polo as a kid!} the best place to be is either far right or far left of the start line. If you know the first turn in the swim course is a left-hander, line up on the right and vice versa. That means you won’t get caught up in the turning can shenanigans and you might even save some time. The main strategy here is to find your own water to play in. If the start line is really busy and you can’t get right to the edge of the group remember, you don’t have to leave the line as soon as the gun goes… wait a couple of seconds, let those furthest athletes leave then swim off behind them with the aim of getting ‘outside them’.

Okay… that lot might seem pretty obvious to all those who don’t miss the warm-up altogether. But there’s a fundamental piece of advice relating to the warm-up that so many people don’t appreciate: YOU MUST BE PUFFED OUT BEFORE YOU START THE RACE. This advice is met with such disdain when I ask athletes to comply that it makes me laugh. It’s simply not good enough to stand in the water up to your waist, pee in your wetsuit and watch a few wave starts before your own. That’s not a warm-up.

The reason I discuss Gasp Reflex is that it’s number one on my list of ‘Weekesy’s Top Three Ways to Screw Up a Triathlon Start“. The second of which is not being warmed-up when the gun goes. And the simplest way to tell if you are warmed-up is to be puffed out and a little pink in the cheeks. Physiologists talk about Oxygen Debt and Oxygen Deficit. Oxygen Debt typically comes after a short sharp bout of intense [anaerobic] physical activity whereby your body is sucking in air to compensate for what was just spent. We are more concerned with Oxygen Deficit.

If you were to stand still on the beach for the hour leading up to a race, get in the water and sprint off the line as fast as possible, a couple of things are going to happen: your respiration rate will go through the roof, and gasp reflex will take over [unless you happen to be swimming in 22 degree water]. So guess what, these things take a lot longer to calm down because the two needs of the body are fighting with each other. You want to be breathing hard while you swim as fast as you can muster, but the cold water is only telling the lungs to suck in. After about 30 seconds, your body has only one solution: slow down. Or stop.

If however, you have warmed-up suitably on the beach by doing a handful of interval runs on the sand, perhaps some push-ups and a selection of short sharp sprints in the water you have already increased the amount of oxygen your body is pushing around. Why? Because you’ve told your system you’re about to start using your muscles intensely and that can’t be done to full effect if you are in Oxygen Deficit. There are two states here: the oxygen you have, and the oxygen you need. If you are about to need a lot, there’s little point going from a state where you have very little i.e. standing still for ages. But by ‘closing the gap’ as I call it, you can get a little closer to having the right pre-race readiness. Think of driving a getaway car away from a bank robbery on a freezing cold day. Would you turn the key just as your masked colleagues sprint out of the front door while the alarm is blaring? Of course not, you’d have the engine running, nice and hot.

Just on the limited off chance it’s not obvious, don’t start your warm-up 3 hours before the gun! I’d recommend:

  • 40 minutes before the gun: Get in the water, dunk yourself a few times, 5-7 Ten-second sprints
  • 30 minutes before the gun: Back on the shore/beach carry out 4-6 Ten-second strides jogging back to the start
  • 15 minutes before the gun: Take your race gel and a few sips of water
  • Once corralled, keep doing some push-ups and jogging around – don’t let your getaway car get cold

On a side note: I’m very often confused by athletes taking their race gel 40 minutes before the race starts. You may as well pour it into the toilet. Sports gels are full of simple sugars to make them act quickly in the gut. Sugar in the body is turned into insulin about 10-15 minutes after you take it, and that process goes on gradually for about an hour. Accepting that blood sugar rises in the hope that muscles are about to fire, standing still will not only waste that sugar but you’ll actually feel kind of lethargic and that’s not a good way to start a race either.

Finally, the third big killer of a good race start is to simply harp back to DESENSITIZATION. The more you can get to know the conditions, directions, temperature, road surface, drink stations and race times as well as your own equipment and transition area nice and early the better. It’s heart-wrenching watching someone’s stress levels go through the roof because they didn’t pack their bike helmet and have to get a taxi back to the hotel, or take a wrong turn out of the swim exit. Race Nerves love the little unknown things we worry about so the more you plan for, the less nerves you’ll have. You can’t stop adrenalin and it’s there to help. Embrace it.