Swimming, I'll deal with this first because it's the first event in a triathlon so it seems logical. Without question this is the number one barrier to completing a triathlon. It's hard to do, it can be scary if you have a fear of the water, and bathing suits are a teensy bit revealing.
The first two issues are the easiest to deal with believe it or not. If you've got even a basic swimming background your stroke will likely come back to you relatively quickly. The cardio aspect, not so much. This part will test your patience and your commitment. You need to want to be able to swim. There's a lot of time and financial investment that goes in to a beginner's half hour swim workout. You need to get a swimsuit (preferably tight fitting, I know I know), some decent goggles, drive to the pool, pay admission, wreck your hair, and all for an activity that's really hard.
I would recommend that almost everyone, unless you're an incredible swimmer, gets at least a few coached sessions. These professionals can provide a few tricks and techniques that will take what you already have and make the most of it. The cardio part, that's basically on you. The greatest coach in the world cannot get you into shape without you actually making the strokes and completing the lengths. It's an ominous reality but it's also what makes your achievement so awesome, YOU did it, no one else.
Once you're confident in your stroke and cardio there are a number of options open to you. There are masters' swim groups (adults that swim in a competitive fashion), drop in tri groups, adult lessons; but if none of these appeal to you there's a plethora of plans and videos available on the internet and for the most part they're great. I've found that with swimming it simply comes down to just doing it. Get in the pool and swim. It will come with time and when it does it's SO sweet. That being said, form is SO SO critical to swimming and my coach has told me that 1000m of good swimming is better than 2000m of thrashing so keep that in mind.
There are some unwritten (some places they're even written) rules about lane swim that you should be aware of. The first is to observe the speed of the lane. Most pools will have signs at the end of each lane indicating the speed you should swim in that lane (slow, medium, fast). Be honest with yourself and swim in the appropriate lane. This may be different each time depending on the clientele at the pool at a given time. The rule of thumb is that if you keep getting passed, move to a slower lane, keep passing people, move to a faster lane. If you're in the fast lane and keep passing people, join the national team.
You will also be expected to swim on one side of the lane or the other depending on the pool. Be thoughtful of your fellow lane users. If someone taps your feet, don't become panicked or perturbed, they are just letting you know that they want to pass. If you see that the person behind you will likely pass you soon after the wall, hold on and let them pass at the wall. It's safer and just makes everyone a little happier.
Fear of the water is natural and even healthy. We're not really supposed to be in the water. If we were supposed to be in the water we'd have gills and webbed feet. We only swim because if we don't we'll die! In the pool, you will get over your fear in fairly short order once you've gotten your stroke down. As for open water swimming, this is completely understandable. You are too deep to touch the bottom, often the water is too murky to see the bottom and your brain makes the sensible decision that you're in danger. There are a few things you can do to mitigate your open water danger:
1) Get a swimming specific wetsuit, they provide flotation and warmth (unless water temps are too high).
2) Swim with a buddy.
3) Wear a bright swim cap so you can be seen from shore.
4) Know that water you're getting in to, especially ocean water. Currents can take you out to sea if you don't know what you're doing (trust me).
5) Let someone on shore know where you're going and how long you plan to be gone.
6) Use an emergency product like the Safe Swimmer it provides visibility and is an emergency floatation device. It just drags behind you with almost no resistance.
This leads me to a funny story (well I think it's funny). My buddy Kris and I were training for Ironman Canada 2012 and we happened to be in Los Angeles watching high school and college football so we decided to bring our wetsuits along and try some ocean swimming. Fortunately I know that the triathlon community is really cool so I contacted the LA Tri club and Niecia Staggs, who does their swim training, got back to me. She said they'd love to have us join them for a morning 1 mile ocean swim. So we head off to the beach and get ready to go swimming. We didn't realize that we would be walking a mile down the beach to the starting spot and then swimming back so we put on our wetsuits and started walking, and walking, and walking. A mile is really far when you're walking in sand and wearing a rubber suit. By the time we get to the start buoy for our swim the salt from our sweat has now coated our chests and we are white. This gets some laughs from the regulars who are just now pulling on their wetsuits.
Once everyone gets dressed we start to make our way out into the ocean and towards the first buoy. At this point you really start to get a twinge of nerves. You are in the ocean. Know what else is in the ocean? Sharks! Octopi! Jellyfish! Scary beasts of the deep! I've seen Pirates of the Caribbean so I'm fully versed in the many possible ways I could meet my demise. But I'm a manly man and I wasn't about to back down. At the first buoy we get a sighting lesson and it was fun to play around. The combined buoyancy of the wetsuit and salt water was hilarious. Our feet kept shooting to the surface and we had to fight to stay vertical and listen to the instructions. We were told to pick a house on the far shore and swim towards it to stay in line. So off we went, take some strokes, sight, keep swimming. I had a little scare that actually settled me down because of how ridiculous I acted. Shortly after we started my arm and body got wrapped up in a floating piece of seaweed, and I FREAKED OUT. Once I realized I was going to battle with kelp I settled down into a nice rhythm.
After about 10 minutes Kris and I stopped and looked at each other and we were all alone. We figured the experienced people were just really strong swimmers so we hurried up to try and catch them. 10 minutes later STILL nothing. Our next break was when we heard a boat motor pull up near by. It was the LA County Lifeguards. The lifeguard yelled down, "You guys are the Canadians hey?" We said, "yeah, how did you know?" He explained that the first swimmer came ashore and told him we had gotten off course and that he should probably come and see how we were doing. It turns out that there was a current going out from shore so that even though we kept swimming towards our sighting point it was further and further out into the ocean. We asked how far we were and he said we were about a 1/2 mile from shore but that our swimming was looking strong so he let us swim in and just escorted us. This was actually kinda cool. They looked exactly like the lifeguards on Baywatch from when I was a teen. Only these were the guy lifeguards. Oh well, can't win 'em all.
Once we got back to shore the other swimmers apologized for letting us get away but said they are used to a fairly relaxed pace swim and we just took off like shots. They said they were shouting at us but in our excitement to be in the ocean we couldn't hear them. Valuable lesson learned. LISTEN to the people who know what they're talking about and don't venture too far from the group.
Me and Kris, back row far right. I'm on the left. LA Tri Club Swim
The final barrier to swimming is, no doubt, the toughest to deal with. Body image. Walking out of the locker room and into the pool is a terrifying 30 seconds for a great number of us. We're completely exposed to the world. No shirt, tight shorts, there you are for the whole world to see and there's no other option. The first thing you need to know is that anyone who will judge you based on your appearance is not worth your time (I know, thanks Dr. Phil), but additionally, most people are so concerned with their own workouts or their own bodies that they don't give you a second look. My favorite move, even after 5 years of training, is to walk out with my towel over my shoulder and cover as much of myself as possible. Then I throw my towel over the lane marker and jump in immediately. I know it doesn't make a big difference but it helps me get in the water. If you have a better suggestion please leave me a comment so I can try and employ it. You can always learn new tricks.
As you keep training and get into better shape this aspect remains extremely hard for many of us to deal with. We are usually the last to see the change, but it will happen, just stick with it.
Each week I will give you an example of what can happen on a triathlon shopping trip.
Swim supplies. Some things are necessary for swim training. You're going to need a pair of tight swim trunks, or a swimming suit for the ladies, and a pair of GOOD goggles. That's really about it. You may also want a $3 swim cap if you have long hair or just want to look cool.
Goggles can make or break your training session. A leaky pair of goggles ruins your focus, forces you stop every length to adjust them, if not earlier, and just makes swimming unpleasant. But wait, you say. Costco has a three pack of brand name goggles for $9.99. Yes they do! I bought them! At no point did they function as goggles. The seal was hard so it didn't form to my face, the straps were flimsy and I would have done better to throw my money into the toilet. NO NO! Costco hot dogs! That's where my money SHOULD have gone! Mmmmmm, hotdogs.
To get your goggles I implore you to go to a local shop where you can try them on ahead of time. They should stick to your face without the strap in place. If there's enough of a seal without the strap they won't leak water and you won't have to pull them so tight that you'll have permanent creases in the side of your head. (This will likely run you $20 or more but are so worth it. My Aquasphere Kayennes run me $35)
Even the best goggles need replacing regularly. The chlorine in pool water will eventually break down the soft rubber around your eyes and they'll start to leak. Rinse off your goggles every swim and keep an eye on them so they don't fail you when you need them.
Another area that you'll (hopefully) have to spend some money on is swim trunks. With training you'll likely start to shrink out of your trunks and when you do they'll start to pull down every time you push off the wall. This becomes a new part of your stroke very quickly: push off wall, yank up shorts, look around to see who saw your bum, keep swimming. Get new shorts, it's more efficient. ($30+)
I would also include Body Glide as a must have. It comes in a tube much like stick deodorant and creates a film on your skin that prevents friction burns. You can use it anywhere you have friction problems but specifically for swimming you should grease your neck when you're wearing a wetsuit. Every time you rotate to take a breath your neck slides just a little in your suit and that paired with the velcro that closes over your zipper can cause a nasty scratch that will bother you for the entire race. Especially when you get sunscreen in it. YIKES!
After good goggles and trunks there is a metric ton of things that a shop will LOVE to sell you. Flutter boards, fins, paddles, pull buoys, snorkels, things that make it easier to swim, things that make it harder to swim and to top it all off... a fancy mesh bag to put it all in! Cool your jets for a moment. Make sure you're enjoying the sport before you invest two months pay in swim gear.
Note: I do not receive any compensation for endorsing any products (yet, fingers crossed). My opinions are based solely on my experience using the products in training and racing.
NEXT: TRI TRAINING FOR BIG-INNERS (BIKE)