When I first came across the sport of swimrun, I remember thinking how amazing the format sounded. So, with little knowledge either of swimrun race strategy or the equipment required I entered Uto 2014 with a friend. I absolutely loved the experience and have enjoyed building on my knowledge ever since, so what follows are some key points of what I have learnt.
Remember every swimrun course is different, and weather conditions will vary.
1. Learn the course
Knowing the length of each leg will help determine your wetsuit strategy on race day. If you are staring down the barrel of an 8km run with ascent, you may want to unzip and peel down your wetsuit; whereas if it’s a 1km sprint until the next swim, you might not. Similarly, knowing the length of the swim you are about to undertake will help you mentally prepare for what lies ahead.
A great method for tracking your progress around the course is to write the run and swim distances in permanent marker on either your arm, or, if you are using them, your hand paddles. Top tip: if you do write them on your arm, I suggest using the smooth inside of your forearm, as any writing on the hairy part of your arm is liable to sweat or rub off over the course of a race. For Uto 2018 I wore a long-sleeve wetsuit so I wrote the distances on my calves... worked well. I never wear calf-guards or compression socks, personal preference.
2. Practice your transitions - together!
Smooth, well-drilled transitions are essential for a good performance on race day. I define transitions as the last 100m leading into the change and the first 30m thereafter; each transition is an opportunity to gain position. A big part of this practice involves working together.
Practice getting in and out of cold water and on different surfaces as much as you can. This will help you become smooth in transition and will help maintain your breathing rhythm. Be comfortable and well-practiced with hand paddles and pull-buoy management (if you use them) as this is another opportunity to gain time on teams if you’re slick.
3. Start strong
A strong race-start can be a strategy for moving you clear of the pack. Your position in the starting line-up could be significant: start in the back third and you risk being caught-up in bottlenecks during tight sections of forest or trail. Complement your starting position with a strong first swim and you should be well-placed to crack on with the rest of the race.
As we now know, every swimrun is different, the over-riding advice is to decide with your partner where you want to start based on how you both feel come race morning. If the race starts with a long swim/technical run and that's not your strength it might be less stressful to start near the back. In the long run your start position shouldn't have a massive bearing on your race outcome.
4. Choose the right equipment
How do you carry all the required equipment whilst wearing a wetsuit? This is a question that often confuses novice teams and leads to missteps.
In the early years of the sport, teams would don full rucksacks to carry food and the mandatory race equipment. However, the sport has moved on and now its common for teams to stuff kit inside their wetsuits, undershorts or, if you have one, inside the carrying pouches of swimrun specific wetsuits. I've found there's no need to carry your own food as the food provided at energy stations is sufficient.
I would also recommend using a tow system. Tow lines work really well in any team-based endurance format: the rope (bungee) keeps you and your partner together during swim sections and helps you regulate, and thus optimise, your speed. I find it to be an extremely effective tool.
Practice using the tow on downhill technical terrain and in transitions. We found a length of 3m kept us at the right distance on the runs and swims; however, experiment with your teammate to find out what works best for you. Make sure it is easy to unclip your tow as you may want to unclip on some run sections. Some teams prefer to only use the tow on the swims, do what works for you both.
5. Work on your running
The teams that place well are typically very strong runners. I find it useful to think of the swims as offering rest and therapy for tired legs. In particular, being an expert hill-runner can give you an edge in some races. Practice running in your wetsuit with full gear, whatever that gear might be.
Don’t neglect your swimming though, several races are increasing the swim distances, so there can be opportunity for significant gains on these longer swims.
Finally, don’t be intimidated by other teams: many are new to it just like you.