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Rookie In Training: Starting To Swim

Beginner triathlete Jason Devaney shares advice he learned when first learning to swim.

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Every Wednesday in “Rookie in Training,” beginner triathlete Jason Devaney will share training advice he learns as he trains for his first half Ironman.

If you’re like most amateur triathletes, swimming did not come naturally to you. In fact, it was probably something you picked up when you decided to become a triathlete.

This is how I got started in swimming a few years back. I had zero experience, other than body surfing at the beach and playing water basketball at a friend’s pool.

I laughed when I tried on a pair of jammers for the first time (“Do I really have to wear these?”). It took some effort to first put on a swim cap back then.

I made it through those rough days in one piece. But I’m still learning, and I’m far from proficient.

This week, I wanted to talk about some basics if you’re new to swimming altogether, or just new to open-water swimming. The best way to train and get faster is in the pool, but it’s also important to get out and swim in a lake, the ocean, a reservoir, or anywhere that is safe.

Just like we talked about practicing transitions last week, going for open-water swims before your race is important. But more on that below. Let’s start with some basics for beginner swimmers.

The No. 1 skill to master is proper breathing. Once you have that down, your instructor can tweak your stroke to where it needs to be.

“Usually if [new swimmers] can’t breathe correctly, they’ll stop at one length or they’ll stop at two lengths,” said Laura Heyer, a WSI Instructor. “Once we get that fixed, then we look at the stroke.”

From that point, it’s important to do drills during swim workouts to nail the basics of technique and purposely overemphasize elements of proper form. As one swimmer at my pool once told me, “Once you get the drills, you’ll get the stroke.”

RELATED: Maximize Efficiency While Breathing

It’s true. Heyer recommends these simple drills to work on your technique:

Fingertip drag drill. Swim a few laps and literally drag the tips of your fingers on top of the water as you bring them forward. The only way to do this is to keep your elbows high and your fingers close to the surface, which reinforces the correct arm position during recovery.

One-arm drill. Keep one arm extended in front of you while using the other arm to stroke. When you turn at the wall, switch arms. This builds balance in your stroke and ensures that you don’t drop your non-pulling arm too soon.

RELATED – Swim Speed Secrets: Drills

Once you can comfortably swim continuously in the pool for 30 minutes, transition to open water. Just like in the pool, start with short distances and slow speeds and move up from there.

And always practice in your wetsuit before your race. They are tight and partially restrict movement, so getting used to that sensation ahead of time will help prevent any anxiety on race day.

Another crucial element of open-water swimming is wearing the proper goggles. Clear goggles might be good for the pool or in foggy conditions, but if you’re racing in a sunny environment, a pair of tinted lenses will protect your eyes and make sighting much easier.

One final tip: Heyer recommends that triathletes practice swimming without using walls in the pool. Instead, once you reach the “T” at the bottom of your lane stop, turn around and go the other way. This will make swimming in a pool more comparable to open water.

RELATED: Tips For Relieving Open-Water Swim Anxiety

Jason Devaney is a freelance contributor to, and A resident of Virginia, he spends way too much of his free time training. When he’s working, he’s typically dressed in either sweatpants or a cycling kit. Follow him on Twitter @jason_devaney1.

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