Crush Your Next Competition: Triathlon Swimming Tips For All Skill Levels
What’s your sport? Are you a runner? A cyclist? If you answered swimmer than you probably belong to a small minority of triathletes that’s as comfortable swimming in open water as you are on land. For the rest of us who come from running or cycling background, open water swimming can be a source of much anxiety and trepidation.
But, it doesn’t have to be. If you’re serious about reaching your personal best, then we have the tips and tricks you’ll need to conquer the triathlon swimming portion of the event. Read on for helpful information on how to get started, what to focus on, training tips and more!
Open Water Swim Training
For beginners and even some seasoned swimmers, the prospect of swimming in open water can be frightening, and a source of great anxiety. On the bright side, open water swimming is something you can approach little by little. After a few months of training, you’ll be ready to conquer triathlon swimming before you know it.
Swimming in open water can be a harrowing experience. Open water can be chaotic, intimidating, and much more difficult than swimming in a pool. However, like all things, the more you practice, the more you’ll get used to the conditions.
In some ways, learning to swim in open water is a lot like learning to ride a bike. Before you’re ready to ride on your own, you start with training wheels. In this case, training wheels are a pool.
Swimming in a pool provides a safe starting point and allows you to get your bearings before graduating to open water. While it’s impossible to replicate the conditions you may experience while swimming in open water, there’s plenty of exercises you can do in a pool that will help prepare you.
Building Up To Open Water
There are many different exercises you can do in a pool to prepare yourself for the transition to open water. While these exercises can’t entirely replicate the unpredictable conditions which are a staple of open water swimming, they do a great job at getting you acclimated to the more difficult conditions you can expect in open water.
Flip At The T
One of the primary differences between open water and pool training is that pools have walls. Every 25 or 50 meters, there’s another opportunity to rest. On the contrary, you won’t have that chance in open water. To practice for longer swims without rest, flip at the T (the end of your lane marker) instead of flipping just before the wall. Not only will this help condition you for longer swims, but it doesn’t let you “cheat” by pushing off the wall to get a burst of momentum.
The Importance of Balance
Balance is a critical component when it comes to maintaining a steady pace and speed during the race. To practice your balance, use a kickboard to help you find your center of gravity. Place a kickboard under your hips and float horizontally. Move the kickboard forward or backward until you find your center of gravity. Then, work to maintain this position without the kickboard.
Your legs also play an important role in keeping your balance. A poor kick will throw your balance off and have you zig-zagging throughout the water. Not only will this affect your time and drain you of your energy, but it will also impede the other triathletes in the race.
Maintaining a steady and predictable pace is one way to ensure that the swimming leg of a triathlon is successful. To practice your pace, you’ll first create a set. 5 x 100m works well. After each 100m, record your time and heart rate. The goal here is to stay relaxed and aim for the same time and heart rate for each 100m in the set. (Source)
During an event, there will be several markers you’ll need to be aware of to make sure you’re maintaining course. Poor sighting can add minutes to your time and make the difference between a successful triathlon and a poor showing.
Pick an object or objects to focus on with each lap you complete. Imagine that the object you’re focused on is a buoy on the course, and keep an eye on it with each stroke. Do your best to maintain a low profile as you sight for objects. Keeping a low profile will allow you to maintain your form and your stroke while you sight, so it’s easier to stay on track and maintain pace.(Source)
Open Water Simulation
The exercises we’ve covered so far will help to prepare you for the physical conditions of swimming in open water, but they won’t necessarily prepare you for the chaos you’ll experience for the first few hundred yards of an event.
There are several ways you can simulate this. First, joining a swim club or team is a great way to simulate the chaos you’ll experience at the start of the swim leg of the race. If this isn’t possible, try showing up to your pool at the busiest time of day, where you’ll have to deal with lots of other swimmers, and do laps.
Even if you don’t have a crowded pool at your disposal, you can enlist the help of a few friends to swim in front of you in the same lane or have them splash around you with kickboards to simulate the choppy conditions. (Source)
During an event, situations like cold watcher shock, dunking at the buoy and chop and splash are all to be expected. A great way to mitigate these obstacles is by practicing hypoxic breathing.
By gradually increasing the number of strokes you take in between breaths, you’re able to prepare yourself for some of the obstacles you may encounter in an event. It’s important to keep in mind that this type of training should be performed under the supervision of a coach or swim partner to ensure that you aren’t overdoing it - many swimmers have passed out in the pool while practicing breathing exercises. (Source)
Techniques/Tips For Improving Triathlon Swimming
The exercises above will provide you with the framework you need to excel at open water swimming. But, there’s also going to be plenty of techniques and tips you can take advantage of to polish your skills and put you in a position to dominate the race.
These tips can make a huge difference in your ability, and for many triathletes, taking advantage of them can transform this leg of the race into a source of strength, instead of a weakness.
Hand Position and Entry
A common mistake for many swimmers is to bring the arm entirely out of the water after each stroke, before driving it back into the water to propel themselves forward. While this may seem like a good idea on the surface, there’s a much more efficient way.
Put your arm into the water around where your goggle line is and drive it forward before beginning each stroke. This will increase your efficiency and allow you to shave valuable seconds off your time.(Source)
As for the position of your hand, you can maximize your speed with proper hand position. Many people wrongfully believe that cupping your hand allows you to move the maximum amount of water to propel yourself forward, but that isn’t the case. The video below does a perfect job of explaining exactly how to position your hand to maximize your swimming efficiency.
Head position can represent a major tactical advantage when it comes to open water swimming. Many swimmers believe that the best way to maintain proper technique and body position is by staring directly at the floor as you swim. A great way to practice this is with a quality swimming snorkel!
However, when it comes to open water swimming, being able to look forward as you swim can help you navigate and put you at a major advantage during this leg of the race.
Proper head position is going to differ for each swimmer, so it can be helpful to experiment with different positions to find the one that’s the most comfortable and beneficial for your style of swimming. If you’re able to position your head in a way where you can look forward as you swim, this puts you at a major advantage when it comes to drafting and navigating. (Source)
For many triathletes, we spend 8 hours or more per day sitting in front of a desk. While this is a fine way to make a living, it can also wreak havoc on your posture, which can affect your efficiency on race day.
If you’re suffering from poor posture, do what you can to remedy the problem. Poor posture can cause you to expend more energy while swimming and it can negatively affect your overall technique. (Source)
Kick Less, Balance More
Kicking your feet violently is one way to improve your sense of balance in the water. But, it can have a negative impact on your efficiency, and cause you to drain more energy as you swim.
When you train, kick as little as possible. This will allow you to improve your sense of balance in the water without relying on kicking. Then, when it’s time concentrate on the form you’ll be using in the race, you’ll be more well balanced and efficient. (Source)
Improve Your Efficiency With Front Quadrant Swimming
Many swimmers tend to extend one arm forward with the other arm back against the body until the other arm has completed its stroke. This is very inefficient and will result in you expending more energy to achieve poorer results.
Front quadrant swimming can solve this problem and make it easy for you to maximize the efficiency of each stroke you take. It may seem awkward at first, but once you master this technique, you’ll realize how useful it can be.
To practice front quadrant swimming, you need to always have one arm extended in front of your body as if you’re trying to reach out to the end of the pool. When you’re completing a stroke with your right hand, have your left hand extended in front of your body until your right hand is about to enter the water. Repeat this process with the opposite arm for each stroke. (Source)
Slow Yourself Down
One major pitfall of rookie swimmers is that they try and do too much, and they do it way to fast. Quite literally, this is a marathon, not a race. If you’re swimming too fast, your technique is going to suffer and you’re going to burn yourself out. Burning out can leave you vulnerable to cramps, exhaustion, anxiety and panic. So, maintain a slow, steady pace in the water, especially as a beginner.
Don’t Cross Over
For many swimmers, crossing over in between strokes is their worst habit. Usually, this occurs because of the way we breathe. If you’re breathing on your left side, your right arm will cross over. If you’re breathing on your right side, your left arm will cross over.
You can avoid this from happening by trying to keep your head from moving with the rest of your body and be mindful of pulling yourself in a straight line. It can be tedious at first, but practicing this technique will help you swim more efficiently while using less energy. (Source)
The Importance of Stroke Rate
Your stroke rate is the number of strokes you take each minute. Knowing your stroke rate can be a helpful tool that will help you diagnose issues with your stroke. Plus, once you’re able to find your “sweet spot” you’ll be able to minimize the effort it takes for you to swim. That energy will certainly come in handy during the running and biking portions of the triathlon.
To figure out your stroke rate, you’ll need a tempo trainer and the help of a friend or coach. Swim Smooth provides more information on how you can perform a test to identify your stroke rate here.
Rotating your torso provides many benefits that will help you improve your abilities as a swimmer. First, it will help you to maintain proper body position as you breathe. Perhaps more importantly, it will improve your hydrodynamics and reduce the amount of energy you expend between strokes. (Source)
What NOT To Do During Triathlon Swimming
So far, we’ve covered some helpful tips on how you can get prepared to swim in open water and improve your swimming technique. Taking advantage of these tips and techniques will undoubtedly improve your swimming ability and your overall triathlon performance.
But, there are still plenty of things you should NOT be doing when swimming. Avoiding these missteps will help you further maximize your swimming ability and get you closer to your goal of making the swimming portion of a triathlon a strength instead of a weakness.
Not Practicing in Open Water
For swimming newbies, open water swimming can be a source of trepidation and anxiety. Some athletes choose to ignore training in open water in favor of a more comfortable training routine.
One of the worst things you can do for yourself is relying on swimming in a pool for all of your training. Worse yet, some ignore the swimming portion of the triathlon altogether and wing it on race day.
Before the big race, make sure you’re getting some practice time in open water. If possible, opt for a body of water that will replicate the conditions you’ll experience on race day.
Not Warming Up
This one seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised by the number of athletes that don’t warm up properly, or at all. Of course, you’re about to engage in an all-day event that will require every bit of energy you can muster. That said, not warming up to conserve energy will only hurt you in the long run.
Warming up will help to prepare your body for the more vigorous activities to come. Plus, it will send oxygen-rich blood to your muscles, so they’re ready to perform at an optimal level when the time comes.
Sighting Too Much
When it comes to sighting, you need to strike a delicate balance. You want to sight just enough so you can stay on course and aware of any obstacles or markers. But, each time you sight, it will affect your technique, causing your hips and front arm to drop.
Instead, trust in your ability to stay on course and make sure that your hands are entering the water at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions. A helpful way to ensure you’re sighting properly is to count your strokes for 25 to 50 yards and stay between that number when sighting.(Source)
Cutting Through The Waves
Many rookie triathletes make the mistake of trying to cut through the waves when swimming in open water. This is akin to trying to run up an escalator that’s going down. It will cause you to expend tons of extra energy, and it won’t get you anywhere.
Instead, you can minimize the effect of waves by swimming under them. The lower you swim, the less likely the wave is to affect you or throw you off course. (Source)
Trying New Things
Any experienced triathlete will tell you, race day is not the time to try new gear. If you’ve never trained using this new gear, resist the urge to break it out on race day and save it for next time. Practice in the same gear you intend to wear on race day, so you can minimize the number of surprises you’ll have to contend with during the race.
Giving In To Anxiety
Even experienced swimmers are likely to feel a degree of anxiety at some point during the swim leg of the race. It’s critical that you have techniques in place that can help you manage and recover from anxiety.
Not only will anxiety impact how well you race, but there are serious health implications that can arise, as well. Researchers recently examined triathlon deaths between 1985 and 2016 and found that of the 135 deaths that occurred, 90 of those occurred during the swimming portion of the race. (Source)
Why is it that the majority of these deaths occurred during the leg that accounts for about 4% of the total race?
While there are a variety of factors that have contributed to these deaths, anxiety and panic often plays a large role. Open water presents new and difficult challenges every time you step into the water, and those challenges are further exacerbated by the other racers in your proximity.
Olympic silver medalist David Davies described how he felt violated by the number of people swimming over him during his first triathlon (source) and if an experienced swimmer like Davies felt violated an anxious during the swim leg of the race, there’s a very small chance you’ll be immune to feeling the same way.
To work through feelings of anxiety and panic, most triathlon coaches advise their athletes to find their “sweet spot.” The sweet spot is a posture you can assume in the water that allows you to relax to the best of your ability. Some swimmers will flip over and float on their backs briefly, while others prefer to tread water and center themselves.
Once you’ve entered the sweet spot, breathe deeply and focus on clearing your mind. This will help you to lower your heart and breathing rates to an acceptable number so you can get back to finishing your swim. (Source)
Stand Up Too Soon
As you reach the end of the swim leg of the race, resist the urge to touch down and run through the water until you reach the shore.
First, it’s counterproductive. Doing this will take longer and cause you to expend more energy than swimming through the shallow water until it’s really time to stand up. Next, it leaves you susceptible to injury. By standing too soon, you risk twisting an ankle, tripping or hurting yourself on a rock or other obstacle. (Source)
Tri suit or Wetsuit?
Most rookie triathletes will look into a wetsuit or a tri suit to wear for the race. There are many options available, in a seemingly endless array of fits and configurations. While the best option for you will largely be a matter of preference, you also need to make sure your suit is on the right side of the rules.
The first thing you’ll need to consider is whether or not wearing a suit is going to be legal. Take a look at the USAT rules (source) on wetsuits below:
If the water temperature is below 78 degrees, every competitor can wear a wetsuit.
If the water temperature is 78.1-83.9 degrees, every competitor can wear a wetsuit. However, competitors who choose to wear a wetsuit will not be eligible for awards.
If the water temperature is 84 degrees or warmer, wetsuits aren’t permitted at all.
Any athlete wearing a wetsuit that measures 5mm or thicker anywhere on the suit will be disqualified.
The implications that wearing a wetsuit may have on awards and recognition is likely to be a deterrent for experienced triathletes who are competing to win in their age group. But, for many athletes, this isn’t a major concern.
What Are Tri Suits
A tri suit is race attire that’s suitable for all three legs of a triathlon. They’re made of a thin, lightweight material. Tri suits are typically made from an advanced synthetic material which dries quickly and helps to wick sweat away from the body. There are many benefits associated with tri suits including:
Increased aerodynamics for the running and biking legs of the race
Increased hydrodynamics during the swim portion of the race
They’re comfortable and help to alleviate the chaffing typically associated with two-piece race attire
They provide some warmth and increased buoyancy in the water
The only downside of a tri suit is that since most are one piece, going to the bathroom isn’t as quick or easy as it would be if you were wearing a shirt and shorts, for example.
In warmer weather, a tri suit may be your best option when it comes to race attire. Some athletes are more comfortable in two-piece model than they are in a traditional tri suit. But, wearing two pieces may be less practical for the swim leg.
Unlike a tri suit, a wet suit’s purpose begins and ends at the swimming portion of the race. While they aren’t going to aid you during the other legs of the race, their importance during the swim leg can’t be understated.
Wetsuits serve two primary purposes: they keep you warm, and they help to make you a bit more buoyant. The added buoyancy it provides offers many athletes with a slight edge in the swimming leg of the race.
There are wetsuits designed for specific activities, and not all wetsuits are suitable for a triathlon. Suits designed for diving or water sports are designed to provide more protection from the elements and are less buoyant than a triathlon wetsuit. Triathlon wetsuits also provide more freedom of mobility than suits designed for other activities.
Some athletes are more naturally buoyant than others, and for these people, the added buoyancy that a wetsuit provides can negatively alter their natural body position in the water, which can make propelling forward more difficult. These athletes may benefit from a sport or diving wetsuit. (Source)
Many athletes who choose to wear a tri suit also wear a wetsuit over it during the swim. The temperature of the water you’re swimming in will dictate whether or not a wetsuit is required, optional, or not required at all.
What to Wear When They’re Both Legal
If you have the option to wear a wetsuit in your race, whether or not you choose to do so is usually a matter of personal preference. You’ll want to consider a few key points before deciding which to wear.
Are there award eligibility implications for wearing a wetsuit?
Is the water cold enough where a wetsuit is a practical requirement?
Keep in mind that many athletes choose to wear a tri suit, and just wear a wetsuit over this layer for the swim leg of the race. The additional buoyancy and warmth that a wetsuit offers may make swimming more comfortable, which is a significant benefit for most triathletes.
Resources and Further Reading
Triathlon swimming is arguably the most treacherous and difficult leg of the race. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced triathlete, these resources are an indispensable tool when you’re preparing for the open water swimming of a triathlon.
- Triathlon.com’s guide to open water training in a pool
- The Guardian’s video Triathlon: Training For The Swim
- U.S. Swim Master’s guide to transitioning from the pool to open water
- Ironman’s guide to sighting while open water swimming
- TrainingPeak.com’s tips for simulating open water in a pool
- Aquatic Pro’s hypoxic breathing guide
- Skills NT’s video on breathing techniques and hypoxic breathing
- Official USA Triathlon rules and regulations
- Active.com’s 10 steps for improving swimming in a triathlon
- Triathlon Tarel’s video on proper hand position in freestyle swimming
- 220Triathlon.com’s ways to improve your open water swimming technique
- Active.com’s five keys to improving your open water swimming
- Learn how to perform a ramp test to calculate strokes per minute with Smooth Stroke
- Ironman’s five things you’re doing wrong on the swim leg of a triathlon
- Stack Fitness’ five open water swimming disasters to avoid
- Reuter’s study on the cause of triathlon related deaths from 1985 to 2016
- Triathlete.com’s guide to avoiding swimming anxiety on your next race
- Triathlon Tarel’s breathing techniques for triathlons
- Daily Burn’s tips for avoiding six open water swimming mistakes
- Active.com’s Wetsuit Basics For New Triathlon Swimmers