The Top 10 Things Triathletes Do Wrong at Masters Swim (and How to Do Better)

Don't be that triathlete.

Photo: Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

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There are a lot of reasons triathletes join a Masters swim group. Some do it because they’re looking for structured swim workouts, while others are seeking feedback from a swim coach on stroke mechanics. The majority, however, do it because swimming with a group is far more exciting than logging laps with the black stripe at the bottom of the pool as your only companion.

So how do you make the most of your Masters workout? We asked Masters coaches from across the country about the common mistakes they see triathletes make, and what to do instead.

1. Letting intimidation get the best of you

The biggest mistake triathletes make in Masters swim is not going at all. Remember, “Masters” does not mean expert. It means you’re an adult, not a youth swimmer. The vast majority of Masters clubs accept and encourage swimmers at all levels and speeds.

Rick Walker, Head Coach and Founder of the Sarasota (Florida) Sharks Masters, has been coaching elite swimmers for years, but he is very reassuring about this: do not panic about going to a Masters workout, even if you’re a beginner swimmer. Swimmers will be ranked by lanes; start in the slow lane and see how you do. Your coach will help you find the right spot – promise.

RELATED: Choosing the Right Masters Swim Lane

2. Swimming every interval at the same pace

If you’re making the effort to be at Masters, don’t just swim at your own pace! The Masters pool workout should not be the same as your open-water distance swim – follow the whiteboard instructions and do the workout as posted.

“Swimmers do intervals and drills for a reason: to learn to swim faster for short distances, slowly putting those improved strokes together for longer and longer distances,” Lauren Jensen McGinnis PT, Owner and Coach with TriFaster, explains. “It’s not just getting the 3000 yards in; it’s how you swim those 3000 yards.”

3. Ignoring stroke corrections

Every coach we spoke to agrees on this one. Yes, successful race swimming requires you to be seriously swim fit, but it’s a good swim technique that will help you get fit and fast. If you’re used to being an elite athlete in another discipline, put your accomplishments (and pride) aside. Accept corrections. Your Masters coach is there for a reason, and chances are they have been observing swim technique for a long time.

4. Forgetting the swim tools

Swim training tools are your friend! Occasional practice with a snorkel, for example, can be a huge asset, permitting you to focus on body position. Or let the pool buoy help you keep up cardio conditioning while recovering from a lower-body injury. Take advantage of those tools. Just don’t fall into the beginner crutch of doing every workout with fins. As Dr. Scott BayASCA Level 5 Swim Coach and USA Triathlon Level 1 Coach puts it, swim tools are “training aids, not training wheels.”

RELATED: Ask a Gear Guru: What Are the Best Swim Training Tools?

5. Insisting you need to “save your legs” in a triathlon swim

Going light with that kick during practice is not helping you. Some triathletes incorrectly believe they need to over-rely on their arms in the swim, “saving” their legs for the bike and run on race day. The truth: A proper kick is essential for body position and for streamlining your swim, keeping you on top of the water and avoiding sinking legs. When done properly, that kick comes from your hips and the bottom of your rib cage, anyway, not really your legs. So learn to use that kick – properly. If you don’t know what this means, ask your Masters coach – they’ll be happy to explain.

6. Wearing a watch

It’s the joke that’s not really a joke: How do you spot a triathlete in the pool? Look for the one wearing a watch. Most swimmers use the pace clock, because wearing a watch can interfere with stroke mechanics. Learn to read the pace clock on the wall or pool deck. When your fellow swimmers are all leaving the wall at the bottom or the top, they’re reading the :30 or the :60 on the clock, and calculating their splits accordingly when they hit the wall. Pace clocks are invariably large and easy to read. Use them.

7. Using Masters for wetsuit testing

Seriously, don’t wear your wetsuit to Masters practice. Yes, we know you’ll use that neoprene in your upcoming open water race, but wetsuits in the pool are hot, especially if you’re doing a hard interval set. No one wants to wait for you to get out of the pool and take off your wetsuit because you’re overheating. Test your wetsuit in open water; if you must do it in the pool, conduct your trial swim outside of the scheduled Masters swim.

8. Swimming freestyle only

Yes, freestyle will be your main stroke, but the best Masters coaches will help you develop some secondary strokes too, and those are also essential for race-day success. “If you can breaststroke well, the ability to do that for even a minute during the confusion of a long race gives you the chance to sight clearly and get yourself calmly back on course,” Coach Bay explains. “Knowing a solid backstroke gives you 30 seconds to adjust your goggles while still making forward progress.” Your Masters coach and teammates can help you develop those B and C strokes in a way that works for you – you might just need them.

9. Going in without a goal

What do you want to get out of your time at Masters? Identify a specific goal, and communicate that goal to the coach. The coolest part about Masters groups is that every person in the pool has a different goal, and the coach gets to bring all of those people and goals together in a unified workout. Don’t assume all the swimmers in your group are triathletes, or that the workouts are designed with your triathlon needs in mind. Talk with your coach, and share what the rest of your workouts are like and what you really want out of these swims. Good two-way communication will help you get the most out of your Masters program.

10. Forgetting to have fun

The final and most important piece of advice for triathletes in Masters groups: Don’t be too competitive! Yes, multisport athletes are primed for competition, but save the fire for race day. One of the joys of Masters clubs is the camaraderie with other members. Some of them will be competitive meet swimmers, and a few will be focusing on triathlon, but many are there for the lifelong joy and benefits of regular swim workouts. Get to know your lane mates, crack a few jokes, and remember that even when going after big, serious goals, you can still have fun.

RELATED: A Beginner’s Guide for Learning How to Swim for Triathlon

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