Triathlon Swimming Advice For Every Level
Take our advice—starting from square one—on how to get swim-ready for your first race.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Triathlon’s first discipline is often the scariest and the biggest barrier to entry. Take our advice—starting from square one—on how to get swim-ready for your first race.
You are… New to the water
Hi. Welcome to the pool. Let’s get you started.
Seek professional help
You’ll get a lot more bang for your buck—and speed up the learning curve—if you hire a coach or sign up for a local swim program. If you plan to teach yourself, stick to one method’s progression. Don’t try to use multiple, likely conflicting, sources of information (including your helpful friends) to try to build your own program.
Follow this sequence from Dave Sheanin, a Boulder, Colo.-based coach for D3 Multisport, to learn how to inhale and exhale at the right time.
Start with bobs. Face the wall (hold on if necessary) and take a normal breath in through your mouth. Submerge your whole head as you exhale through your nose and mouth. Come back to the surface and inhale through your mouth. Link five to 10 bobs together. “There should be no pausing between breaths and you shouldn’t feel lightheaded,” Sheanin says. “This is normal breathing—inhale when your face is above the surface and exhale when it’s underwater.”
Transition to kicking. Hold a kickboard in front of you (Superman position) with your hands on the bottom sides of the board. Kick and breathe. Exhale when your face is in the water, inhale when you pick your face up.
Move on to swimming. Do this six-beat switch drill to learn timing: Start by kicking on your side then take three arm strokes and balance on your other side (still kicking). This keeps your hips moving from side to side so you can keep your body in line, and your mouth will roll to the surface on your third stroke. You should begin turning your head as your hand passes your chin. Once this is mastered, practice breathing in a 3-2-3-2 arm stroke pattern and begin reducing the time you spend kicking on your side.
RELATED – Beginner Triathlete Case Study: Struggling With The Swim
You are… Lacking perfect technique
You can swim 400 yards without stopping but could use some technique pointers.
Biggest beginner technique flaws:
Crossover at entry. Not only doesn’t this propel you forward (it moves you sideways), but it is a very common cause for shoulder problems. A correct entry sets you up for a strong and powerful stroke by using the bigger muscles in your back to do the work.
Fix it: Keep your hands wide at entry. “I like to see a swimmer’s thumbs enter along a line that extends from the outside edge of the shoulder,” Sheanin says. “If you stand at the wall and place your hands on the deck like you’re going to pop out of the water, that’s usually the correct width.”
Non-propulsive kicking. Many triathletes have weak kicks, often stemming from inflexible ankles. Focus on dialing in your kick first—it not only propels you forward, but it also creates lift and helps rotation.
Fix it: Incorporate vertical kicking into your swim workouts. Swim 4×50 with 30 seconds of vertical kicking at the end of every 50. Keep your hands by your sides and eventually work up to your hands above the water for 60 seconds at a time.
Under-rotation. Your hips will stay flat in the water, which often makes breathing as well as arm recovery difficult.
Fix it: Do the six-beat switch drill (explained on previous page).
Bad head position. You look forward down the lane instead of looking at the bottom.
Fix it: Keep chin tucked and eyes down. “Think about the way a soldier stands at attention—head is neutral on the shoulders with eyes straight ahead. Use this same position in the water,” Sheanin says. Want a challenge? Hold a tennis ball under your chin.
RELATED: Swim Technique Focus Workout
You are… Transitioning to open water
“Open water is a completely different environment—no walls, no black line, an uneven water surface, cooler temperatures, and lots of friends swimming right next to (and sometimes over) you,” Sheanin says. “There’s no substitute for experience, but you can mimic some of these conditions in a pool.”
Try these drills:
Swim with your eyes closed. “Pay attention to whether you drift or turn to one side or the other, and work on balancing your stroke so you can swim in a straight line with your eyes closed,” he says.
Practice sighting 2–3 times per lap. “Don’t simply pick your head up—actually focus on an object at the end of the lane,” Sheanin says. “Make sure you maintain a good catch (with a high elbow) and keep your kick steady. Breathing still happens to the side, separate from sighting.”
Try your wetsuit in the pool. Once in a while, swim the first 1,000 yards in your wetsuit so you feel more comfortable on race day.
Start a swim workout at race pace. Work on adjusting your pace so you can sustain it for an uninterrupted 400–600 swim or longer.
RELATED: Open-Water Swimming Tips From The Pros
Avoid these newbie mistakes:
Impatience. The number of yards you swim or how fast you go is irrelevant as a beginner. Spend your time working on great technique and in time, you’ll get faster. “The water only rewards hard work when technique is good,” Sheanin says. “Otherwise, the harder you work, the more tired you become—but you don’t go faster.”
Frequency. If you have three hours to swim each week, don’t do it in two or three sessions. “I know it’s often a hassle to get to the pool, but swimming six 20–30-minute sessions is a much better choice to focus on getting your technique right without having to battle fatigue,” Sheanin says. “Always leave the pool feeling like you could have done more.”
RELATED: Tips For Relieving Open-Water Swim Anxiety
Total Newbie Workout
Warm-up: 150 swim + 50 kick
Drill: 6–8 x 100 drill (pick a drill that addresses your biggest weakness) on laps 1 and 3/swim on laps 2 and 4
Main set: 6×75 swim with perfect form. Take rest as needed.
Cool-down: 200 swim
Warm-up: 300 swim
6×50 drill your limiter/swim by 25, 15–20 sec rest
6×50 kick no board right side/left side, 15–20 sec rest. Work on balance and relax your ankles.
6×75 build to 90% with 20 sec rest
2–4 x 200 swim with perfect form at a strong pace. Take rest as needed to hold form through the set.
8×25 hard on 20–30 sec rest. (Swim only as fast you can maintain form.)
Cool-down: 200 swim
More swim workouts from Triathlete.com.
Looking for a triathlon to sign up for this year? Check out our partner, the TriRock Series. Their seven events feature a fun atmosphere for triathletes of all levels.
Follow Triathlete on Twitter @Triathletemag for inspiration, new workout ideas, gear reviews from our editors and more.