Updated: Aug 12
Read time: 3min
By Coach Yan Busset
It's a trend that started about 10 years ago, rolling swim start is replacing the iconic mass start. What is a rolling start? It's a method where swimmers begin the race in small groups of 1-10 persons, one after the other, based on their expected swim times (usually self-seeded). It became mainstream with the "Ironman Corp's SwimSmart Initiative". The official statement was to "improve athlete satisfaction and reduce anxiety during the swim portion of the race." A legitimate goal indeed, this initiative actually had many great elements: increasing rescue boats, kayaks, paddle boards, safety personnel, and anchored rescue rafts along the course. Reducing one of the main limitations to get more people to register for a full distance: the swim skills level. By decreasing the difficulty of the swim part, it was not just a pro-safety move, it's also to get more people signing up for it, so more money in the piggy bank. The rolling start for the swim is like placing an elevator to help people climbing Mount Everest. Sure, it will be easier, but should it be easy? Hear me out; here are 5 reasons why the rolling swim start is a terrible idea:
#1 It gives a false sense of safety.
Sure, safety is paramount, but by lowering the access threshold of an open water 3.8km swim, you increase the number of people with poor swim skills attempting it. The mass start was a captivating image but also highly intimidating; it acted as a filter. If you were not sure of your swim level to dare to go for it, you trained more until you felt ready. Also, people were already self-seeding themselves according to their swim level. If you were a slower swimmer, you started in the back or on the side to have calmer and peaceful water to swim in. You race an Ironman not because it's easy, you race it because it's an extreme challenge. Accidents unfortunately happen, and that is a real shame and races need to be safer. But statistically, with a growing number of participants, it's almost impossible to have zero risks. I'm afraid that giving to more people a false feeling of safety is not the right answer, and it didn't stop accidents from happening. The mass start is not to blame, but rather the preparation and fitness level of some participants.
#2 It makes it hard to pace your swim.
One side effect of the rolling start and self-seeding is that you end up not swimming around people with same level as you. When starting all together, it was a more straightforward reading of the race. You slow down; people overtake you, you speed up; you pass swimmers. But people don't place themselves according to their real swim level. So you end up being overtaken by someone that makes you feel you are slow but, in fact, was a very fast swimmer who started later. Or the other way around, overtaking lots of swimmers that started in the wrong group. It's becoming harder to pace yourself. You need to ignore others and do your own race.
#3 Can't start anymore with the pros.
One great unique thing about triathlon is that you race together with the pros. You can just dream to play with Federer or juggle with Mbappe, but, in Triathlon, you could be starting right next to Frodeno. Now they are making pros start ahead some minutes before, it takes a bit of the root's DNA of our sport away.
#4 Your place at the finish is not the real one.
90% of the participants won't care about this one, but for those who are racing for a qualification slot, it became tricky to know your place when your direct competitors were starting behind you. I had recently one athlete ending up 1 second behind a competitor that he never saw. They would have raced together, the finish line sprint would have been more exciting. This adds confusion to the race.
#5 It took away the most iconic image of the sport.
Watching the mass start from Hawaii or Nice triathlon, or witnessing an athlete crawling on the finishing line on TV had a massive impact on the teenage me. I was like, "Wow! This is crazy! I want to try it. I started triathlon not because it was easy, but because it looked damn hard, and I was looking to challenge myself. And this iconic mass start image, I am sure, has been a source of inspiration and of respect for the sport for many. And I confess, I am nostalgic for it.
I don't want to sound only negative about the rolling start, there are some pros, such as limiting drafting on the bike by spreading participants. Probably other positive sides to it, but I haven't found them yet ;)
Swimming is, for sure, the most intimidating of the three sports for many. I gathered some tips for you on: "How to Survive the Swim Start With a Smile!"
That’s it for today, thank you for reading, stay sharp, train hard to race easy and make it fun!
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