Triathlon Training: Swimming
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Triathlon Training: Swimming


Swimming is the first leg of a triathlon, and often the most daunting of the three events. It’s been said that you can’t win a triathlon in the swim, but you sure can lose it. Despite all this, swimming can often be the most fun of the three events. It can also be the most enjoyable event for which to train — especially in the summer. Whether you are a veteran triathlete or training for your first event, here are some swimming tips that will surely improve your performance come race-day.

Head to Open Waters

As comfortable and convenient as it is to swim in a pool, training in natural bodies of water will offer a better simulation of race-day conditions. It’s important for swimmers to get accustomed to open-water swimming, because it’s a lot different than swimming in a pool.

Among the variables that distinguish open-water swimming from pool-swimming:

  • Handling waves
  • Learning to buoy track
  • Calculating the distance covered
  • Dealing with the current
  • Adjusting to the water temperature

And consider the biggest difference of all: Pools offer a wall to hold onto when a break is needed. This may seem obvious, but it's nonetheless important to recognize.

Swimming in a pool is great because many of these variables can be controlled and even eliminated. However, to properly prepare for the event, it’s important to simulate race-like scenarios while training. Try completing at least one swim per week in a natural body of water. The rest can be completed in the pool.

Find Your Path

When training in open waters, practice locating landmarks that are ahead of your path. During a race, buoys are often used to mark the swim path. At first, it can be difficult following a direct path, but with training you can overcome this hurdle. To practice, try raising your head straight up out of the water just past your eyes. Quickly try to locate the landmark and immediately turn your head to your typical side of breathing. Although it takes some time to really learn, an efficient landmark-locating/breathing technique can shed seconds (even minutes) off your swim time.

Wear Your Wetsuit

Don’t wait until race-day to practice the first transition (swim to bike). Practice swimming in your wetsuit, getting out of the water, changing into your cycling gear, and then taking off on your bike. Wetsuits can be difficult to take off quickly, so practice as you would any other portion of a triathlon. Remember, transitions are timed, too!

Wetsuits are thick and tight-fitting, so swimming in one may feel awkward at first. By practicing with a wetsuit on, you immediately start training your body to treat the sensation of wearing a wetsuit as "normal".

There are two main types of wetsuits that triathletes use:

  1. Sleeveless: The benefit of a sleeveless wetsuit is the increased range of motion your arms have during a stroke. The disadvantage of a sleeveless wetsuit is the lack of arm coverage, which can make things awfully chilly in cold waters.
  2. Full Sleeve: Full-sleeve wetsuits have the opposite effects; less range of motion, more protection against water temperature.

When picking out a wetsuit that works best for you, take into account the range of motion of your swim stroke, as well as the temperature of the water in which you will be swimming. Regardless of the type, a major plus of wearing a wetsuit is that they drastically aid your ability to float (which is why many triathletes wear them, even in moderately warm waters).

Mix Distance with Speed

Swimming long distances at a steady pace is great for building aerobic capacity. However, there are countless benefits of implementing anaerobic training into your swimming schedule. Unlike aerobic training, anaerobic training does not compromise muscle mass or hinder strength and power. And, increasing your anaerobic capacity also increases your aerobic capacity.

For example, triathletes swimming two or three times per week would do best to split up their training among a variety of distances and intensities. A well-rounded training routine would include one distance swim, preferably in open-water, and two anaerobic (sprint interval) swims; these are ok to complete in the pool. Incorporating transitions (and even immediate cycling workouts) into the end of some of these swim workouts would be great practice for race-day.

Avoid Sub-standard Goggles

Although earplugs are not required, it’s best to try using them while swimming — at least a few times. Earplugs are nice because they prevent water from entering the ear canal, which results in moderate discomfort and the possibility of an ear infection. Also, all participants are required to wear an age-specific swim cap during the swim leg of the event. These caps can trap water in the ear, though wearing earplugs is a simple way to ensure your inner ears stay dry.

As with most equipment, you get what you pay for with triathlon gear. Goggles are no exception, and cheaper goggles are more likely to fog up or break. With everything that can go wrong during a race, this is one simple measure that you can take to help ensure a solid performance in the water.

Luckily, goggles are relatively inexpensive compared to most triathlon equipment. A satisfactory pair can be purchased for less than 20 dollars. Size, tint preference, and several other attributes will differ from person to person. The most important features are a water-tight seal, and the level of fog-resistance.

Practice Makes Perfect

Along with stroke technique and conditioning, it’s important to practice swimming to reinforce a familiarity with the nature and environment of the event. By applying a few simple strategies to your training, the intimidating nature of a triathlon swim can become an enjoyable experience, and a great way to set the tone for your race.

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