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Four Skill-Specific Beginner Swim Workouts

If you’re new to triathlon, these four swim workouts for beginners are crucial in helping you build the special skills you need.

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For those just beginning their triathlon journey, the focus should be on developing your skills in the water. The water is a foreign environment to many first-time triathletes, and the rules for moving gracefully through the water are much different than the rules for moving gracefully on land. In fact, the rules are different from moving through a pool than from moving in the open water—where you’ll likely be racing. As such, you need to learn to move through the water with ease and efficiency. Rather than focusing on a lot of skills, it’s better to focus on the fundamental skills that are foundational for fast swimming. Within a given training session, you’re best served working on one critical skill at a time.

Just as importantly, the beginner triathlete needs begin to establish a foundation of fitness in the water. For many, it’ll be the first time using your upper body to move you forward through space. For all new triathletes, it’ll be the first time you finish a swim, get out of the water, and then continue on! Doing this well will require a level of strength and muscular endurance that takes a lot of time to develop. You’ll also potentially be moving your joints through ranges of motions they probably haven’t experienced, and you’ll be doing so under load at high volume. As the muscles and joints will need time to adapt to that new challenge, you also need to patiently build your fitness to prepare for harder work in the future.

Developing a base of technique and a base of fitness are the foundations for performance. The beginner triathlete needs to stay focused on improving the critical skills for fast swimming, while slowly building volume and intensity. These two processes work in concert, and they require patience. At first, building volume will serve to improve fitness, while also allowing for more practice on your skills. However, it’s important to be cautious with initial volumes to ensure you stay injury free. After you’ve spent some time building your volume, more intensity can be introduced.

As a beginner, most swim workouts shouldn’t be too difficult because they serve as an introduction to water. Each of the following sessions will be similar in terms of the stress level, but the difference will be in terms of the skills that each workout addresses. Because of the technical nature of these sessions, you’ll want to make sure that you’re able to train with focus. These aren’t workouts that you can just shut off your brain, as you need to be engaged for the workouts to be productive.

If you find that challenge of learning new skills in the water to be exciting, you’ll likely be able to place these workouts on the back end of tough bike or run workouts. However, if you find it difficult to focus when fatigued from prior training, you’ll want to come into these workouts on the fresher side. When it comes to recovering from these training sessions, some individuals find time in the water to be invigorating, and a welcome break from gravity. If that’s you, you won’t need much recovery time after these workouts. However, if the newness of swimming leaves you mentally and physically drained, you’ll want to ensure more recovery afterward.

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

A man does a swim workout for beginner triathletes
(Photo: Getty Images)

Beginner Swim Workout: Breathe Better Set

Total: 1,500

This workout is designed to help beginners improve their comfort in the water and to improve their breathing skills. The ball float exercises serve to help you learn how you can use your lungs to float in the water and find stability. It’s a key skill for every swimmer. The stroke and roll exercise shows you how to roll to the breath, rather than lifting your head, which will universally slow you down. Click on the links for a visual of the drills, as well as detailed descriptions.

When swimming freestyle, aim to integrate these skills into what you’re doing. Feel free to push the pace a bit on the 75s, working to breathe low and straight. There are no strict intervals because the appropriate interval depends on how fast you’re swimming. Instead take the suggested rest between repetitions, and then begin the next repetition.

Warm-up:

4×50 Freestyle easy effort; perform a 10 second Ball Float between each 50

10 seconds rest between each 50

8×25 Stroke and Roll; perform a 10 second Ball Float between each 25
ODD Breathe every 4 to the left
EVEN Breathe every 4 to the right

10 seconds rest between each 25

Main Set:

10x[25 Stroke and Roll; breathe every 3
[75 Freestyle solid effort as 25 breathe to the left/25 breathe to the right/25 breathe every 3

20 seconds rest after each 100

Cooldown:

4×25 Freestyle easy effort; perform a 10 second Ball Float between each 25

10 seconds rest between each 25

RELATED: How to Breathe When Swimming

Beginner Swim Workout: Stroke Efficiency Set

Total: 1,700

The purpose of this workout is to help you learn how to move water backward so that you can move forward. When instructed to count your strokes, don’t worry about increasing or decreasing the number just yet. For now, the goal is establishing awareness and creating the habit. Each time your hand enters the water counts as “1”.

By keeping your stroke count consistent, or working on lowering it, you’re getting great feedback about your ability to move more water with each stroke. This is the focus of the workout, rather than trying to swim faster—that comes later. There are no strict intervals because the appropriate interval depends on how fast you’re swimming. Instead take the suggested rest between repetitions, and then begin the next repetition.

Both of the drills are focused on getting the arm in a great position and pulling straight back. We’ll use a buoy so that you don’t have to worry about your body position, and you can breathe whenever you want. Click on the links for a visual of the drills, as well as detailed descriptions. If you’d like a quick visual of a simple way to set up the stroke, click here.

Warm-up:

8×25 with a buoy:
ODD Power Pull
EVEN Freestyle; count your strokes

15 seconds rest between repetitions

4×75 with a buoy as 25 Power Pull + 25 Human Paddle + 25 Freestyle

Aim to take fewer total strokes each 75
20 seconds rest between repetitions

Main Set:

8x[25Power Pull with a buoy; take as few strokes as possible
[100 Freestyle; keep the same stroke count each 25

20 seconds rest between repetitions

Cooldown:

4×25 Freestyle as easy as possible; take 1 less stroke per 25

20 seconds rest between repetitions

RELATED: The Relationship Between Stroke Count and Stroke Rate

Beginner Swim Workout: Alignment Set

Total: 1,300

The workout is set up to help you work on your alignment as you move through the water. The better your alignment, the less drag you’ll create. This means more speed for less effort. We’re going to use two drills (the Ball Float and Active Jellyfish) to help you learn how to feel and leverage your lungs to improve your positions. The Elevator Freestyle helps you feel how changing the position of your head and chest changes your alignment. When completing the Elevator Freestyle, once you reach the lowest position, simply lift your head back up and start over. Click on the links for a visual of the drills, as well as detailed descriptions.

In terms of effort, on the “solid” effort freestyle, you’ll want to push the pace a bit while still feeling in control. On the “strong effort,” you’ll want to increase the effort even more, challenging yourself without going all out. There are no strict intervals because the appropriate interval depends on how fast you’re swimming. Instead take the suggested rest between repetitions, and then begin the next repetition.

Warm-up:

100 Freestyle easy effort; perform 10 second Ball Float between each 25
6×50 as 25 Elevator Freestyle + 25 freestyle
Perform 10 second Active Jellyfish before each 50

15 seconds rest between repetitions

Main Set:

4x[125 as 25 Elevator Freestyle + 100 freestyle; solid effort
[75 as 25 Elevator Freestyle + 50 freestyle; strong effort
[Perform 10 second Active Jellyfish before each repetition

20 seconds rest between repetitions

Cooldown:

100 Freestyle easy effort; perform 10 second Ball Float between each 25

RELATED: My Body Wiggles When I Swim. What Should I Do?

Beginner Swim Workout: Rotation Set

Total: 1,500

One of the fundamental skills in freestyle swimming is optimally timing the arms with the rotation of the body. It’s a challenging concept and it’s hard to put into words how to execute great timing. Fortunately, when you recover one or both of the arms underwater, the timing tends to happen almost automatically, with much more of a back-and-forth action.

When first learning these exercises, it can be useful to place a buoy between your legs, so you don’t have to worry about maintaining your body position. As you get the hang of it, drop the buoy. Click on the links for a visual of the drills, as well as detailed descriptions. When performing Over-Under Freestyle, alternate which arm is under the surface with each 25.

If there is no specific instruction, perform each repetition at your speed of choice. When instructed to swim faster, focus on picking up the effort to create speed. There are no strict intervals because the appropriate interval depends on how fast you’re swimming. Instead take the suggested rest between repetitions, and then begin the next repetition.

Warm-up:

4×50 as 25 Underwater Recovery + 25 Freestyle

15 seconds rest between repetitions

4×75* as 25 Underwater Recovery + 25 Over-Under Freestyle + 25 Freestyle

20 seconds rest between repetitions

*Increase the speed on each 75

Main Set:

3x[2×75 as 25 Underwater Recovery+ 50 Over-Under Freestyle; #1 steady  effort; #2 solid effort
[3×50 Freestyle; make each 50 faster

30 seconds rest between repetitions

Cooldown:

100 as 25 Underwater Recovery, 25 Freestyle

RELATED: Tri 101: How to Get Started in Triathlon