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How Much Swimming Should Triathletes Do?

Coach Alison Freeman recommends a relatively light emphasis on swimming.

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How much swimming should triathletes do, as compared to biking and running? For most short-course athletes, I recommend a ratio of around 1:2:1.5 for swim/ bike/run; for long-course athletes, I recommend a ratio in the range of 1:2.5-3:1.75-2. For short-course and many 70.3 athletes, this can be accomplished with two weekly swims. For newer and/or weaker swimmers, as well as iron-distance athletes, a third swim is beneficial.

Why such a relatively light emphasis on swimming? Once you’re past the initial learning curve for swim technique and the corresponding big gains in speed, it takes a lot of time in the pool to shave just seconds off your per 100m race pace. Given that most age-group athletes have limited hours to devote to training, and the fact that extra trips to the pool will buy you only a few minutes on race day, the pool is not the best place to invest additional hours. Instead, focus on high-quality swim workouts— masters swim groups or more intense interval sets rather than long, endurance-pace swims. Spend your extra hours on the bike, where there is more to gain in both your bike split and running strong off the bike.

There are exceptions to how much swimming triathletes should do. Newer and/or weaker swimmers, those dealing with or trying to prevent injuries, and athletes specifically looking for a big improvement in swim pace can benefit from swimming four or five times a week. Increasing swim time to match or exceed your run time can improve your feel for the water, your swim-specific endurance, your swim technique (as long as you’re not reinforcing bad habits), and your overall cardiovascular fitness.

Alison Freeman is a coach with Boulder-based D3 Multisport. She is a Level 1 USAT- and Training Peaks Level II-certified coach who focuses on long- course coaching for middle-of-the-pack and beginner triathletes. She is also a four-time Olympic-distance age-group national qualifier and multiple Ironman and 70.3-distance finisher.