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by David Miner

July 8, 2019

Whether you’re starting on land or in the water, there’s a lot you need to consider and practice

Open water races and triathlons require participants to start and finish either in the water or on solid ground, whether that’s a beach, shoreline, dock, or something else. Practicing these types of starts and finishes is critical for success.

Here’s what you need to know.

Land Start

When starting on land, knowing where you want to line up based on your skills and abilities can make the difference between having a great start and a difficult or unpleasant one.

Faster swimmers and triathletes will line up in the front of the pack with the straightest line to the first buoy, and they’ll be more aggressive and confident, moving quickly to the deeper water where they can start swimming. Slower or inexperienced open water swimmers or triathletes should pick a spot in the lineup that’s more conservative to avoid being bumped, squeezed, and swum over. Start behind the faster swimmers or at the ends of the pack. You can even get behind the entire pack and let everyone start in front of you.

Depending on the venue, land starts can be quite different.

If the bottom drops off quickly, you’ll find yourself swimming in short time. If the bottom gradually gets deeper and the bottom is safe to step on, running or walking fast through the shallow water gets you into the deeper water quickly. However, knowing how to progress through water as it gets deeper requires practice.

Practice running into shallow water picking your feet up over the surface of the water. Start off with a slow pace, working on getting your feet up and over the shallow water. Practice running at different speeds to see what works for you.

As the water gets deeper, it will get more difficult to get your feet over the surface of the water. When this happens, you can lift your knees and feet higher in front of you or throw your feet out to the side if your knees are flexible. Both can be more difficult and tiring, so don’t try it at a race without practicing it during your training sessions.

Once the water is up to your waist, you can begin dolphin diving. Only dolphin dive if you know the bottom is safe enough for you to do so and you’ve practiced it in your training sessions. Hold your arms out in front of you like you’re doing a regular dive but keep your head up and looking forward as you execute the dive. Don’t put your head down or lead with your head, or you could dive into the bottom or an obstacle on the bottom and be severely injured. Your head should stay toward the surface of the water as your arms punch through, creating a pocket for the rest of your body to follow. Once you reach the deeper water, begin swimming.

In-Water Start

Some events have an in-water start. The water may be shallow enough for you to stand, or you may have to tread water or hold onto a rope, dock, or other object. Again, your position in the lineup is important for a good start. Don’t be in the front of the pack if you’re a slower or newer swimmer—move to the outside or back of the pack. Practice starting while treading water, which requires creating momentum from a dead stop (a skill that is also useful on the swim course if you find you’ve had to stop to feed, adjust your goggles, etc.).

If you’re starting from the water and it’s shallow enough to stand and the bottom is safe, start with a strong dolphin dive to get you going. Practice this during your training sessions.

Land Finish

Land finishes typically require you to exit the water and make your way across the finish line on your feet. This means that your legs will need to be ready to work, so if you’re not a big kicker, engage your kick leading up to the finish to warm up your legs.

Practice swimming as far into the shoreline as you can before standing up. Then, stand up, get your balance, and start running in the shallower water. Like the start, bring your knees up high and then pick your feet up and over the surface as the water gets shallower. Once you hit dry land, finish strong across the finish line.

In-Water Finish

Some open water races may have an in-water finish. In-water finishes can require touching a platform or buoy. With this type of finish, you’re going to keep your swim pace up all the way in. You will not need to stand up, run, or walk.

Practice swimming across an in-water finish line or into a chute and touching a buoy to stop the clock. With this type of finish, everyone is going for that one buoy or device, so practice this with other swimmers all going for the finish at the same time.

Before your next race, find out what type of start and finish are going to be used and practice them. Once at the event, scope out the area where you’ll be starting and finishing and have your plan in place. The confidence you build in practice will help keep your nerves under control and allow you to have a fun and successful race.


  • Triathlon
  • Open Water


  • Open Water
  • Triathletes
  • Triathlon