So, how is swimrun different from triathlon, you ask? I often find myself trying to explain swimrun to people who’ve never heard of the sport in a trailing description of details that are often quite perplexing to the listener: “You swim, run, swim, run…and you run in your wetsuit and swim in your running shoes…oh, and did I mention, you’re tethered to a partner?”
At this point, if the listener is not looking at me with pure consternation, they often respond, “Oh! So like a triathlon without a bike?!?”
“So like a duathlon?”
Conceptualizing swimrun as a triathlon without a bike (though a wildly inaccurate representation of the sport) serves one very important purpose: to get all our triathlon friends over to the start line to see what the fuss is about. Before they know it they are hooked on swimrun (wink wink)! Once hooked, we then own up to the important truth: It behooves the savvy swimrunner, especially if you have a tri background, to become wise in all the ways that swimrum is NOT triathlon. The list extends well beyond the obvious lack of bicycle.
Heads Up Racing
Every pre-race meeting at every swimrun we have ever raced has included the phrase “PAY ATTENTION OUT THERE!” Swimrun courses are well marked with flags, signs, buoys, and banners; but, if you put your head down and hammer away, you are guaranteed to get off course. On more than one occasion we have had to shout out to racers ahead of us when it became clear they blew past a critical trail entrance and were moving forward speedily, but in the wrong direction. Volunteers are on course to keep racers safe, provide up to date tidal/current information, and point you in the right direction at transitions. They do not stand at every intersection or trail turn-off guiding you through the course. This sport requires we open our eyes and tune our awareness to as many of the details around us as possible. Noticing course markings is obviously the priority, but the incredible scenery most swimrun courses traverse is a real nice perk to getting out of head-down-and-suffer-mode and embracing “heads up racing!”
Transition: A moving target
Transition is home base to the triathlete. In swimrun, transition is a moving target. Each race has multiple transitions from run to swim and vice versa, numbering as high as 46 transitions in the ÖTILLÖ World Championships traversing 24 islands in the Swedish Archipelago. This completely changes the relationship with transition, as the location is always different and forward progress the only objective. There is no home base in swimrun; however, you will become so self sufficient on the move you may soon feel the desire for a home base leave you. Moving quickly through transitions is an important skill for swimrunners to practice as it requires some shifting of gear, changing layers depending on the temps, and sometimes switching who in your team leads. Most swimrunners learn to master doing all of this while still moving forward, ie. running while pulling off a teammate’s wetsuit top if you’ve just exited a swim on a hot day.
Wait a minute- I’m going to be pulling off my teammate’s wetsuit?! Yes. The swimrunner soon learns that racing with a partner has perks. Say goodbye to the days of beseeching a race volunteer to help free you from your wetsuit- your teammate can do it! Love to run but a slow swimmer? Find a teammate with the opposite strengths and utilize a tow rope (commonly used by elites and mandatory gear in some races) to allow you both to contribute gas when you’ve got it. Surprised by a slippery rock on that swim exit? Who’s hand is nearby to save you from careening back into the water… you guessed it. Your teammate. This sport teaches us again and again that we are stronger together.
Admittedly, athletes transitioning from individual sports such as triathlon may initially struggle with the mental shift required to compete with a partner. Our advice: Once you’ve gone down the long list of why having a partner is going to be a complete liability to your swimrun experience, acknowledge your doubts and then set them aside for a moment. Call to mind the joy of a long training session or a fun adventure shared with a group or partner. Reflect on a hard time in your life or training where another person has given you hope, assistance, or helped lift you out of a suffering state or mindset. If you often find yourself reaching out a helping hand to others, consider how taking the time to do this fills your cup. It may take a few trials to find your match in a partner, and it may not be who you expect. The cameraderie swimrunners experience is one of the most rewarding things about this sport. Once over the hump of “buts” (But I’m shy! But I’d slow them down! But they’d slow ME down! But I don’t want to tie myself to another person! But the last time I went on a blind date it was a disaster!) most come to celebrate the shared journey of swimrun. Are we stronger together? Always.
In triathlon there is a strong power dynamic in favor of known factors- much of the race can be rehearsed meticulously in training, and doing so creates a clear advantage in performance. The culture of how we train for and race triathlon would like us to believe that we are always in control- we have opportunities to calculate the increase in power output that could result from shaving a couple ounces from our bike build, the grams of fluid per hour required to sustain our calculated race pace… I’ll stop there but could keep going. We THINK we know all the details that will allow us to control our experience in a race, perform at the pace we trained for, execute the race plan we laid… but does that ever happen? Most triathletes, heck most HUMANS will tell you rarely does that happen. So might it be better to accept that in any endeavor we undertake we are guaranteed to meet the unknown… and train to master our response to the unknown instead of training to avoid it?
Swimrun shifts the focus in training and racing from control to creativity, from rigidity to resilience. This is a sport that welcomes humans to enter with our heads up, our eyes open, and work together to creatively navigate the journey at hand. There may be currents; better to adjust a swim route slightly different than originally mapped if it means harnessing the energy of the water and not swimming against the tide. There may be rough terrain underfoot and a tricky trail system; better to decrease overall run pace in favor of sure-footedness and keeping course markings in sight so as not to take a wrong turn.
Is swimrun better than triathlon? Most certainly not, and the fact is the two sports are apples to oranges. Are the things that make swimrun different than triathlon many of the reasons we love swimrun- absolutely! So if you are a triathlete contemplating your first swimrun, we invite you to say yes to the opportunity to expand the reach of your athleticism, cultivate resilience, and step into the unknown. But before you leap, you must understand: Swimrun is definitely not triathlon without a bike.
Still not convinced? Read what our friends at Triathlete Magazine have to say about how swimrun is different from triathlon, or rather, how these two unique sports actually play real well together on your race calendar!