When designing our races we have tried to please as many people as possible by using an athlete’s perspective in the race design. We are also always looking to be fair and provide a relaxed atmosphere. Having said that maybe the best way to start this article is with this quote, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

Over the years we have had many athletes who are faster swimmers approach us about the possibility of moving up to an earlier wave so they can avoid having to swim around slower swimmers. The simple reason for not allowing this in the past is, moving up to an earlier wave is unfair to others in your age group because you are no longer racing under the same conditions as the others in your wave. Beyond the desire to have a fair race for everyone, the first consideration in deciding on start of a race and the waves is the underlying need to produce the safest race possible. This article is intended to give you the logic behind that process.

Not Just Your Swim Time

While all safety aspects are important, when it comes to deciding on how swim waves are assigned, we must look at the impact of both the swim and bike, and not just the swim. The reason for this is because all of our bike courses are open to vehicular traffic, which means we must do our best to ensure that by the time athletes are going out on the bike they are spaced apart as much as possible. This spacing is crucial to decrease the likelihood of drafting and/or blocking (riders beside each other). This must be coupled with the dynamics of each venue, namely, the size of the swim footprint, the type of body of water, the distance from the swim to T1 and the distance from T1 to the road. Using all of those factors we then decide on what we feel would be a safe number of athletes in each wave. We also take into consideration our desire to minimize the anxiety that can be created by waves that have too many athletes.

Which Age Group When?

Now that we have determined the maximum size of each wave based on the venue, it’s time to add the athlete age groups depending on the distance of the race. Historical data tells us certain age groups are typically faster than others. Shorter distance races, Sprints) tend to have a larger number of younger age groups being faster, where as mid distance (Olympic and longer) tend to have faster athletes segments in the 35 to 55 age groups. We total the number of athletes in each age group, factor in historical data and fill each wave, ensuring we do not go above the wave size limits we have already set.

Pick Your Wave Option – Why A Fee?

As you can see designing each swim start is not simple and is time consuming. We did however want to see if there was a way to satisfy those athlete/customers who wanted to move to a different wave. In 2017 we used the Toronto Island race to pilot a “Pick Your Own Wave” option mainly because the waves are between 10 and 15 minutes apart and moving people should not have a dramatic impact on bike safety, as long as we did not go over our maximum wave sizes. We allowed athletes to request a wave of their choosing based on start times however, doing so meant we would have to manually calculate potential changes to all of the different waves, based on the selections people made. The fee we charged for this service was simply to cover the cost of someone making all of those manual calculations and to adjust the waves accordingly.

2018 Barrelman Pick Your Wave Option

In 2018 we have spaced out the wave start times a little more to accommodate an anticipated increase in registration and keeping safety top of mind. This spacing also allows us the opportunity to introduce the “Pick Your Own Wave” to Barrelman. We have told you why there is a fee for this and would like to help you understand how you should go about deciding if this option is for you. If you consider all of the above we must stress that choosing an early wave start should NOT BE BASED on your swim time alone. The fast swimmer who is not in the top 10% of all cycling times would come out of the water near the front and then be passed by stronger cyclists, thus creating unsafe conditions on the road where there is vehicular traffic. To better help you choose we have a few scenarios for you to consider:

  1. Fast Swimmer and Fast Cyclist – Swim time 32 minutes or under and bike time averaging 34+kph – Pick an earlier wave #1 or 2
  2. Fast Swimmer and Mid Pack Cyclist – Swim time 32 minutes or under and bike time averaging 29 to 33kph – Pick waves 3 or more based on your comfort level on the bike
  3. Mid Pack Swimmer and Fast Cyclist – Swim time 36 to 40 minute and bike time averaging 34+kph – Pick waves 1 or 2
  4. Mid Pack Swimmer and Mid Pack Cyclist – Swim time 36 to 40 minute and bike time averaging 29 to 33kph – Pick waves 3 or more based on your comfort level on the bike

What If I Don’t Pick My Wave, Where Will I Start?

In previous years we have had 7 or 8 waves starting three minutes apart and up to 16o athletes in some waves. Last year with over 1,000 athletes in the water some athletes used our post-race survey and emails to express their opinion and concerns, asking that we consider smaller waves that were spread further apart.  This year we are planning on limiting the size of each wave to a maximum of 120 athletes and increasing the time spacing in the earlier waves. The spacing between each wave will be: Waves One to Four – 6 minutes, Waves Five to Seven – 5 minutes, Waves Eight+ – 4 minutes.

The athletes will be allocated to each wave as follows:

  1. We assign each athlete who has chosen a wave to their respective wave
  2. We assign athletes who have NOT chosen a wave into an age group wave using all of the criteria described above

To give you a sense of where age groups might be positioned in 2018 here is how they were assigned last year.

If you are considering the Pick Your Own Wave option and still have some questions please email info@multisportcanada, provide us with your expected swim and bike times, and we can help you make a decision. If you have already registered, have not picked a swim wave but wish to do so now. Just log back in to the registration page and you will be able to do so.


I hope hope this article helps you understand the amount of analysis that goes into ensuring a safe and athlete friendly race start. In the future we will be posting more articles on the various aspects of race logistics and what goes on behind the scenes. If you are interested in learning more please email us and let us know.

John Salt