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How Much Swimming Should Triathletes Do?

by Taren Gesell

Blog ▸ How Much Swimming Should Triathletes Do?

Taren Gesell

"Triathlon Taren" Gesell is founder of MōTTIV and one of the world's top experts on helping adults become endurance athletes later in life. Best known for his YouTube channel and podcast Taren is the author of the Triathlon Foundations series of books and has been published featured in endurance publications around the world.

For many triathletes, swimming is the necessary evil before the bike and run legs of a triathlon. To determine precisely how much you need to swim, first, give yourself an honest assessment of where you’re currently at as a swimmer. From there, as you’ll learn in this article, you can begin to structure your weekly training to improve not only your stroke but, ultimately, your fitness in the water.

The 3 Phases of How Often You Have to Swim

How much you should be swimming throughout a week or an entire triathlon training plan depends on your current ability at fitness levels. If you’re just starting in triathlon and swimming, meaning you’re unable to swim 400 meters without feeling totally out of breath, you most likely need to focus on a lot of mechanics and technique.

Swimming is a technique sport but not a fitness sport where you can build a ton of fitness and simply muscle your way through it. You need the proper technique, and to develop that technique, you need repetition.

Once you can complete a 400-meter swim without needing a long break afterwards, you can begin focusing on building the required fitness in the pool. In this phase of your swim development, frequency is far more important than distance.

The third and final phase is where you’re completely comfortable in the water and can, in fact, reduce the amount of time you spend swimming during the week. Let’s dive in and explain each phase further.

Phase 1: Working on getting comfortable in the water 

To start, you need to make sure that you’re comfortable and safe in the water. A good gauge of that, as I mentioned above, is whether or not you can swim a continuous 400 meters and not feel totally out of breath at the end of it.

If you’re unable to do that, you should begin by following my recommendations around specific drills to help increase your comfort. 

By performing these drills four or more times a week, you’ll get more comfortable and capable in the water. The more times you can get in the water, the better, because you need frequency to rewire your breathing and motor patterns.

TRIATHLON SWIMMING FOUNDATIONS is our top-rated book that lays out the exact method we recommend new triathletes take to develop comfort and capability in the swim.

Phase 2: Getting used to your stroke in the water

After raising your comfort level, the next phase of your progression is to get used to your stroke in the water. In this phase, frequency is more important than distance. You can swim less than when you were perfecting the drills, swimming three to four times per week during this phase is a great frequency to make big gains.

At this point, you’re no longer focusing predominantly on drills. You’re piecing it all together with actual swimming. The frequency of swim sessions, for example, Monday/Wednesday/Friday/Saturday, allows you to dial in your feel for the water. If those sessions are anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 meters, you’re doing plenty of distance. 

Phase 3: Building max fitness in the water

The great part about developing the technique and fitness to get into Phase 3 of your progression is that you can actually swim less. You can scale back your sessions from four times per week to three or even two times per week. And while that may not seem like a huge deal, the time you save from having to drive back and forth to the pool and the time spent in the locker room allows you to use that for added recovery or improving another aspect of your triathlon skills.

Additionally, that drop-off from four weekly sessions to two or three tends not toreduce your swim gains at all. In fact, you’ll increase your fitness with more distance. With one less session per week, I recommend that you increase the distance of your swim workouts.

If you’re logging 2,000 to 2,500 meters per session during Phase 2, bump that up to 3,000 to 4,500 meters during Phase 3. As I’ve explained in my Beginner Guides to the various triathlon distances (Ironman, half Ironman, Olympic, Sprint), swimming and biking further in your workouts means that the distance will be manageable both mentally and physically on race day.

How to design your swim workouts

Structuring your workouts is critical so that you can get the most bang for your buck. Here’s what your swim sessions should look like:

  • Warm-up: 400-800 meters moving really lightly;
  • Technique set: 400-800 meters focused on drills;
  • Main set: 1,200-2,500 meters focused on high-intensity, fitness building sets.

Now you can see what a hyper-focused swim session looks like and how it fits into an overall training plan by reading my beginner guides to triathlon training (Ironman, half Ironman, Olympic, Sprint). 

What is a Good 100-meter Swim Time for Triathlon Swimming?

Determining a good 100-meter swim time is relative. A beginner swimmer is slower than a more advanced age-group swimmer, who trails behind a professional triathlete. Of course, we’ll all feel like we’re swimming in quicksand going up against Olympic swimmers in the 100-meter event. I can, however, share some context around what’s a “good” 100-meter time for triathlon swimming.

Let’s look at it from a half Ironman, 70.3, event that features a 1,900-meter swim.

Professional triathletes are getting out of the water anywhere between 23 and 28 minutes, roughly a 1:15 per 100-meter split. Elite age-groupers swim between 31 and 33 minutes, which is good for a 1:38 per 100-meter split. 

What’s attainable for you? I believe real purposeful training through the three phases I outlined above will result in nearly all age-group triathletes finishing a half Ironman swim in under 40 minutes. That’s a 2:06 per 100-meter split.

average swim times in triathlonDistanceAge-groupersElite Finish Times (Male/Female)
Sprint750m (0.47 miles)20 minutes8 minutes/10 minutes
Olympic1.5 km (0.93 mi)40 minutes18 minutes/19 minutes
half ironman (70.3)1.9 km (1.2 mi)45 minutes24 minutes/26 minutes
ironman3.9 km (2.4 mi)1 hour 16 minutes47 minutes/54 minutes

If you’d like to see all the average times for the bike and run in the various triathlon distances, check out How Long is a Triathlon?

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Taren Gesell

"Triathlon Taren" Gesell is founder of MōTTIV and one of the world's top experts on helping adults become endurance athletes later in life. Best known for his YouTube channel and podcast Taren is the author of the Triathlon Foundations series of books and has been published featured in endurance publications around the world.