For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
We recruited pro triathlete Anna Cleaver, a front-pack swimmer and longtime swim coach, to distill all the dirty details into a streamlined guide to greater swim efficiency (read: new speed). Get ready to unleash your inner swimmer. (Note: a version of this appeared in the July issue of Triathlete magazine. Also see The 4 Phases Of The Freestyle Swim Stroke and 7 Swim Tools For Triathletes for more swimming advice from Cleaver.)
1. How should I structure my swim training?
For her build into Ironman New Zealand, where she and Meredith Kessler swam 47 minutes, pro Anna Cleaver was swimming four times a week, and nothing over 4,500 meters in a workout. True, she’s a pro with a long and decorated swim background, but she prescribes a similar swim frequency for her age-group counterparts with a mix of fast and slow work to alternate focus on aerobic swim fitness and good technique. “Sometimes you see a triathlon swim squad get in the water and it’s all-out for an hour. I would rather they took one day per week to slow it down and do drills and technique work—that’s where you’ll get your gains.”
Monday: Aerobic endurance session
This is where you should be doing those sets of 400s, 600s, 800s. A big component of your session might be pull work with or without paddles. Aim for 3,000 meters at a minimum but if you can get in up to 4,000 that is optimal. You won’t be training with a high heart rate here; this could be an opportunity to swim with a friend or by yourself to avoid the temptation to go super fast in a Masters workout.
Wednesday: Test set
Do a main set of 10 – 20 x 100 holding best effort, or a combo of 200s, 100s and 50s. Your main set should consist of about 2,000 meters. Record your times in your training log to monitor improvements. You may also consider using this session to do a time trial—perhaps Olympic or half-iron distance. Aim for 3,000–3,500 meters in this session.
Friday: Fun and fast
Your Masters workout might accommodate this session nicely—shorter distance intervals, longer rest. Think 1,500–2,000 meters’ worth of 50s and 25s, at varying pace. This is a great day to also focus on key drills and technique. Do some pick-ups at the end—this might be 8×25 meters where the first 12 strokes are super fast and the rest easy, recovering after each. You are not likely to achieve big mileage on this day, but the quality should be high.
Weekend: Open water practice
If you have access to a lake or beach and have time, this is a great chance to do a 45-minute-to-an-hour open-water swim. Time in your wetsuit is super valuable if you are going to be racing in one. You can practice sighting, continuous swimming and enjoy the outdoors. Bring the family and have a picnic afterward!
2. What should my swim race strategy be?
Your racing strategy depends on many variables, including your confidence in open water, how progressed you are in your swim training and how tired or fresh you want to feel for your bike leg. A few pro tips:
– Pick someone who is slightly faster in the water and stick to his or her feet for a draft.
– If you are not comfortable with the mass start, position yourself to the side where you are likely to have cleaner water and less jostling for position.
– Self-seed appropriately in events with rolling starts.
– Keep your breathing calm. Consider counting out as you exhale if you have tendencies to panic at the start of a swim.
– Practice in your wetsuit before race day. Make sure you are wearing it correctly so that it does not restrict your shoulders or breathing.
– Practice open-water skills like dolphin-diving, sighting, buoy turns, and entries and exits.
3. Should I be doing drills?
Drills break up the monotony of pure swimming while allowing you to work on good form. However, Cleaver says you shouldn’t blindly do every drill in your—or your swim coach’s—repertoire. “Take a step back and ask why you’re doing a drill,” she says, adding that some drills can actually promote bad habits if not done properly (or by the wrong person), while other are more universally beneficial. “I like the closed-fist drill because you’re activating your entire forearm for pulling, she says. “I’ll tell people to get angry! Don’t be afraid to be aggressive with your stroke.” On the flip side, she’s weary of suggesting the catch-up drill because “it encourages you to over-glide at the front of your stroke. If you have a catch that’s already good, I’d tell you to do it with a kickboard. Then you can’t do the big, sweeping, over-gliding thing.”
Other coaches, like Brett Sutton, downplay drill work for weaker swimmers, instead emphasizing workouts that more closely simulate race-day effort/distance. “Ninety percent of non-swimmers would be far better served by using aids and instead of drilling, performing swim sessions that specifically address the needs of the physical exertion of swimming nonstop for an hour,” he says.
Bottom line: Approach drills with attention to your unique swimming experience and focus.
4. What about diminishing returns?
Some triathletes don’t prioritize swim training, thinking that greater time gains can be made on the bike and run.
Cleaver’s take: “The swim sets you up for a good bike. It determines how far ahead or behind you are relative to your competitors going into T1. Working on your swimming also helps determine whether you get on the bike reasonably fresh or exhausted. You wouldn’t want to compromise your great bike and run training by being super tired at the start of the bike and way behind your competitors. So I think it is a balance; I agree relatively more time can be made up on the bike and run, but you want to give yourself the best opportunity to do that, so working on your swim training is important.”
5. Should I learn to flip-turn?
Pro Matty Reed’s take: “While flip-turns are not really that important for triathletes because we don’t do them in a race, it does help when you join Masters workouts because it can keep things more consistent in the sessions. You look like a rookie if you’re not doing a flip-turn. It’s really easy to do, so it’s worthwhile learning.”
6. Is it worth focusing on my kick?
A strong kick will propel you faster through the water, but a powerful and efficient kick also plays an important role in promoting good body position and stroke rhythm. Cleaver says, “If your kick is swaying side to side, everything happening at the front of your stroke will be negatively affected. I don’t think you have to kick super fast, but having a functional kick that is in line is important.” The kick is also important in a race at the start when you’re sprinting into position, and for turning around buoys.
To achieve a more powerful kick, work on ankle flexibility. “When I kick, my feet are literally pointed,” says Cleaver, who notes that when a lot of triathletes kick, they have “a wall of resistance” because the ankle is not flexible. Next time you sit down to watch TV, try kneeling down while sitting on your feet, which will give your feet and ankles a good stretch, she says. In the pool, focus on kicking from your hip, not your knee, in a whip motion. Cleaver prescribes short, fast kick sets using a kickboard or zoomer fins a couple times per week.
7. Can learning to draft really help me?
You can save up to 30 percent of your energy by swimming in the draft zone of another swimmer. That’s totally legal, free speed. Start on the periphery of the pack if you’re leery of group swimming, but if you’re a bit more experienced and confident, Cleaver recommends picking someone who’s a bit faster than you and hanging on to his or her draft for “a huge benefit.” Cleaver’s former coach, Siri Lindley, had her work on sprint starts every Friday to simulate race day, when you want to swim fast early (Cleaver often tries to sprint as far as the first buoy) to try to hang with faster swimmers to maximize the drafting opportunity. “I have had training buddies who will push off the wall two seconds behind me and hold onto my pace, which is great for them on occasion—it resembles racing conditions and teaches them to be reactive to the pace being set, not dissimilar to moto-pacing on the bike—but we wouldn’t do all of our bike training drafting a motorbike or on someone’s wheel.”
8. Do I need to learn how to breathe on both sides?
Bilateral breathing—taking a breath every third stroke—is the “preferred” breathing method of most swim coaches, but that doesn’t mean it is guaranteed to be the optimal method for you. While it’s very useful to be able to breathe to both sides in a race setting—you’ll be better able to adapt to variables like sun direction or wave swells, and it can make for easier sighting—forcing bilateral breathing can sometimes come at the expense of good, efficient form. “New swimmers should try to learn how to breathe from both sides, but some of them have good technique if they just breathe on the left, and as soon as you throw in the right it falls apart,” says Cleaver. “It’s good to put some bilateral work into your routine, but I don’t think you need to retrain yourself to be able to breathe every third stroke. A lot of distance swimmers will breathe on one side—it’s whatever gives you the best stroke/technique.” On a drill work day, do some 25s where you practice relaxed, balanced bilateral breathing, not focusing at all on pace.