When athletes are choosing races I often find they first look locally, which is great as it keeps the travel costs down and makes race day easier in terms of environmental conditions.
Beyond your local race let’s talk about components that affect the swim.
- WetSuit vs Non-Wetsuit
- Ocean vs Lake
- Start Style
Your first consideration when choosing a race (after you've selected a distance) is whether or not it is a wetsuit vs. non-wetsuit swim. If you are a strong swimmer than a non-wetsuit swim is going to be a benefit for you because a wetsuit is a great equalizer in the water. However, if you have some concerns about the swim then look for a wetsuit swim. You can look back on historical pictures, in the race guide to determine whether its going to be a wetsuit swim or not. I will often call a local triathlon store to see what that race is like historically. The local triathletes will know whether it’s a cold swim as well. I would avoid those races where the water temperature is anything below 68-70°F as it is going to be chilly for most beginners. If you are looking for the most buoyancy and warmth in a wetsuit stick to the base models, as those will have fewer cut outs and will be thicker throughout.
Ocean vs. lake is always an interesting question. A lake swim is generally going to be a calmer more predictable swim whereas the ocean is saltwater so more buoyancy. I would recommend if you are a beginner to look for a race with a lake swim. Preferably one with a public access point so you can go beforehand and swim it a few times on race week. Some races are in busy boating or private lakes where practice is limited to the day before the competition. Being able to train pre-competition in the exact body of water a few times will really settle any pre-race nerves so I would advise to get in at least once. Ocean swims are great except for currents, waves and drinking saltwater. Personally, I love swimming in the ocean, but those things can cause nausea and really hamper you later in the race. So, unless you are confident ocean swimmer stick to the lake races. On the plus side, being a confident ocean swimmer in an ocean swim will really give you a leg up on the competition, so use that to your advantage and look for those races.
One note is not all water is the same, ask your coaches and friends (or call the local triathlon store) to find out more about the water clarity. Dark, murky water can cause panic attacks in even the most comfortable swimmers.
The next question you should ask about the race is the start style. This is becoming much less of an issue with most Ironman and triathlon races moving towards rolling starts and away from the mass start. If you happen to come across a mass start race and you are not comfortable with a bunch of people swimming around you, go ahead and avoid it. Find yourself a self seeded race where you can comfortably guess your seed speed and swim with people your own level. Don’t be overzealous on predicting your race speed, having people swim over top of you constantly is not fun; make a conservative prediction and be the one passing other people. Mentally that is going to be much better than the hope of ‘finding those magically toes to draft off.
The last thing is just time zone change. If you decide to travel to find the perfect swim for you be cautious not to travel too close to the race date. Your body needs time to adjust to the new time zone. A rule of thumb is arrive one day before the race for each hour difference in time zones. Talk to your coach and see what's right for you.