Give it a TRI

Give it a TRI

Want to try a tri this summer?

Newbie triathletes need some skills beyond the basic fitness involved in swimming, biking and running. For many potential triathletes, the swim -- particularly if it’s in open water -- is the most intimidating part of the race.

There are a few main skills that are important for novices to master for swimming in open water. The first is sighting, or being able to look up and find your position in order to swim in a straight line. A common mistake novice swimmers make is zig-zagging through a course, adding distance to the swim.

“Swimming in a straight line is one of the hardest things to do in open water,” said Howie Schein, a master’s swimmer and swim coach who is teaching a triathlon swim clinic at the Urbana Indoor Aquatic Center on Saturday.

Blog PhotoNick Modrzejewski, a triathlete and triathlon coach, said swimmers can look up every three to five strokes to locate a buoy that marks the end of a leg of the swim course and make sure they are on course. They can combine looking up with taking a breath.

“You just need to have your eyes above water enough to see and try to couple it with a breath. You don’t have to stop your stroke,” he said.

Modrzejewski helps swimmers learn how to sight by having them practice in a pool. He puts a water bottle at the end of a lane, and the swimmers can practice focusing on it when they look up every few strokes.

A common source of anxiety for novice triathletes is swimming in a pack in open water.

“A lot of times, newcomers are taken aback by the amount of contact,” Modrzejewski said.

He and Schein suggested novices start in the back or swim off to the side of the pack to avoid contact. Both said that sharing a lane in a pool with several people will help swimmers get more comfortable with swimming in close proximity to others.

Novices are often apprehensive about swimming in open water that is murky where they can’t see the bottom or very far in front of them. Modrzejewski said spending time practicing in open water and getting used to it is the best way to ease such anxiety. Clinton Lake has a public access beach and area triathlon groups sometimes practice at Evergreen Lake at Comlara County Park and at Lake Decatur.

At a race, “I really encourage athletes to do a pre-race swim or warmup so they are familiar with the conditions and the temperature of the water, so it’s not a surprise when they get in,” Modrzejewski said.

Schein said learning to relax during the swim and not fight the water is one of the most important skills for swimmers. He offered several tactics for swimmers who begin to panic in the water. If necessary, a swimmer can stop and tread water.

“That is the least optimal, because you lose all your momentum,” Schein said.

Other options include changing to the breaststroke, making it easier to see where you are going; using a water polo swim stroke in which you keep your head out of the water, looking straight ahead; or rolling onto your back and sculling with your hands until you catch your breath and calm down.

Triathletes need to set a swim pace that won’t leave them exhausted for the other portions of the triathlon.

“I try to help people think about having a bucket of energy for the day,” Modrzejewski said. “If they expend all that energy in the swim, it’s going to show up on the run. You’ve got to get through the swim with enough energy to get through the bike and run.”

On the bike portion of triathlon, Modrzejewski said triathletes need to be familiar with several rules, especially those involving drafting. Drafting, or riding close to another biker to cut down on wind resistance and use less energy, is not allowed. Riders must maintain a distance of four bike lengths from the bike in front of them, or they must pass the bike within 20 seconds of entering the “draft zone.”

Cyclists need to be able to grab a water bottle that they are carrying or from an aid station and drink while staying in control of the bike.

Novice triathletes may be surprised at how their legs feel rubbery when they begin running after biking.

“That’s the part that newbies are always shocked by -- how much legs can feel like Jell-o,” Modrzejewski said.

Triathletes also need to set realistic expectations for their pace, he said, and remember that the run portion after swimming and biking will be slower than their usual race pace for the same distance.

Schein suggested using a first triathlon as a learning experience.

“On your first triathlon, have a goal of finishing,” Schein said. “Have your first tri be a baseline for getting better.”


Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at, or follow her at Her blog is at


Photo by Darrell Hoemann/The News-Gazette


Area triathlons:

-- Tri-Shark

June 3; sprint triathlon, duathlon; Evergreen Lake, Comlara County Park, Hudson;

-- Cornathlon

July 1; sprint; Hoopeston;

-- Decatur Lakeside Triathlon

July 8-9; short course triathlon, triathlon relay, aquabike, duathlon, kids’ triathlon and duathlon; Decatur;

-- Champaign Park District Mini-Tri

Aug. 5; mini-triathlon, kid’s triathlon; Champaign;

-- Sage City Triathlon

Aug. 12; sprint triathlon, mini triathlon; Monticello;

-- Tri the Illini

Sept. 17; sprint; University of Illinois campus;


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