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Triathlon Swimming Technique: All You Need to Know to Ace Your Swim

by Taren Gesell

Blog ▸ Triathlon Swimming Technique: All You Need to Know to Ace Your Swim

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.

Swimming in a triathlon can feel daunting for many. Unlike biking and running, which take place in familiar environments, swimming means we need to move efficiently and quickly in water. The water is a foreign environment that triggers our “fight or flight” instincts, so it’s only normal that you should feel a little apprehensive! But, with adequate practice, a good gear setup, and some killer tips, you’ll be ready to put in a great swim on your first triathlon.

Improving your swimming technique for triathlon doesn’t involve nearly as many hours in the pool or as much technical practice as if swimming was your only sport. After all, swimming is only a small part of the race day, and ultimately, you’ll only be able to improve your overall race time marginally by working extensively on your swim.

However, one of the most important things triathletes can do when it comes to swimming is to get comfortable in open water and learn to use less energy by being more efficient and, therefore, faster on race day. This sets you up for great bike and run legs and conserves your energy, all while avoiding panicking. 

Here’s what you’ll learn in this article:

  • The top 3 challenges of swimming in a triathlon and the 3 solutions you need to know;
  • How much swimming you should do to prepare for triathlon;
  • The essential gear you must have as a triathlon swimmer.

The Challenges of Swimming in Triathlon

If you consider water an intimidating environment and you worry about how to breathe when swimming and/or how to swim in a straight line without getting lost on race day, relax! That is absolutely normal.

Water is such a foreign environment that we’re all essentially newborns in Speedos when we practice our triathlon swim. 

Challenge 1: Breathing while swimming

You’re acclimated to running and biking outside in an abundance of air without any restrictions to your breathing pattern. Moreover, swimming requires you to use your whole body in a completely different way than you use it while running or biking.

Running and biking breathing:

  • Upright
  • 40-50 breaths per minute
  • No pressure on your lungs

Swim breathing:

  • Horizontal
  • 20-40 breaths per minute
  • Pressure on your lungs from the hydrostatic force of the water

The force of breathing while swimming is completely unnatural for how we’ve evolved and what you’ve been doing your entire life. That’s why I think that swimming is one of the most unnatural movements humans could possibly do.

Fortunately, if you follow our guide here, you’ll learn how to breathe as easily in the water as you do on land.  Almost 20,000 people have learned to do this with the help of our book, Triathlon Swimming Foundations.

Challenge 2: Avoiding sinking legs

Moreover, moving in water is a challenge as these different forces pull on your body and potentially cause you to lose your best swimming form. The question is: how can you achieve a smooth, straight motion while swimming, and what’s preventing you from doing that now?

The answer lies in science. To move through water, you have to contend with four forces

  • Gravity from your bodyweight pulling you down;
  • Buoyancy from the air in your lungs lifting your upper body up (driving your legs down);
  • Thrust from your swim stroke moving you forward;
  • Drag from the density of the water pushing you back.

Thrust is the only force working to your advantage, while the other three are putting up a fight. And – among all of them – the buoyancy in your lungs contributes to your sinking legs. That’s because the most buoyant body part (your lungs) is at the opposite end of your body from your legs. Our bodies effectively become a seesaw, causing our legs to sink, creating even more drag. End result? You get slower and spend more energy trying to compensate for your swim legs pulling you down.

Gravity also works against you. Muscle is heavier than water, and the most muscular part of our bodies is our legs. The buoyancy in your lungs causes a seesaw effect, pushing your legs downward. This sinking feeling triggers fear and tension in many beginner triathletes, who then kick rapidly to try to get their body back to the surface. Tension and thrashing just cause your legs to sink more, creating more panic, creating more tension, creating more sinking.

Just to be clear: having muscular legs doesn’t mean you’re always going to have sinking legs! Many pro triathletes like Cameron Wurf, with a sports background, have built strong, muscular legs. In Cameron’s case, years of Olympic-level rowing and professional cycling have built strong muscles, but this didn’t stop him from exiting the water in the front swim pack at the IRONMAN World Championship 2018. Everyone can learn to float – you just need to develop the proper technique. And we’ll get to that shortly.

Challenge 3: Staying panic free in open water

Once you develop good swimming technique thanks to the drills and tips we cover in our “Triathlon Swimming Guide,” the next step is becoming familiar with swimming in open water. 

Even the most relaxed and efficient pool swimmer finds open water a challenge. Unfortunately, most triathlons involve swimming in lakes, seas or oceans, so you need to practice open water swimming a few times before your race to make sure you know what you’re doing on the day.

The open water is a wild place. And it gets even wilder when you’re surrounded by other swimmers on race day! So, here are the challenges of open-water swimming when compared to your pool workouts:

  • Need to sight. In open water, unlike the pool, you don’t get the benefit of swimming lanes. You need to develop a sense of where you’re going because positioning yourself relative to other swimmers affects body position, causing your legs to sink, and most other swimmers swim crookedly, so you don’t want to follow them.
  • Swim stroke changes. Other competitors influence this as you try to avoid colliding with them or simply keep swimming straight when people are coming at you from all sides. Additionally, waves may throw you off course. You need to swim stronger and punchier with a faster stroke rate than most people use in the pool. 
  • It’s hard to relax. The fear of open water comes from the uncontrolled nature of your environment. Add to that the movement of the waves and the unsettling commotion of everyone around you, coupled with trying to swim as hard as you can; you’ll spend so much more energy than you would swimming the same distance at the pool. 
  • Breathing is more of a challenge. Waves will crash over you as you try to take a breath, causing potentially missed breaths, which, in turn, causes panic, despite all the great techniques you’ve mastered in the pool. You need to be comfortable with breathing on both sides and move differently. 

Finally, once you get over any open-water swimming panic, you’ll also need to hone your skills, so you’re as efficient as possible on race day. We’ll look at this in a minute.

3 Key Ways to Overcome Triathlon Swimming Challenges

We’ve covered all the reasons why triathlon swimming is a challenge, but you’re not here to commiserate! Instead, our triathlon swim training guide is here to help you improve any swimming weaknesses and get over fears of swimming in open water.

Solution 1: Learn to breathe like a dolphin

I like to think about smooth, effortless swimming as being underpinned by breathing rhythmically, panic free and controlled, like a dolphin. This means:

  • You exhale out strongly the entire time your face is in the water;
  • You turn your head just slightly to take in air;
  • Every time you breathe, you take in a small amount – a little sip – of air;
  • You breathe every two strokes to give yourself as much air as possible.

It’s easier said than done, so improve your swimming breathing skills by following our dedicated guide with drills that show you how to work on every aspect detailed above. 

Once you move into open water, check out the specific breathing tips included here, so you swim panic free and conserve your energy for the bike. 

Solution 2: Float like a log

The other key element of swimming well during a triathlon is to avoid over-exerting yourself by kicking inefficiently, moving your arms wide around your body, and generally swimming in a haphazard way. This not only consumes energy, but it also can get you off course and prevent you from swimming the shortest possible distance to return to shore.

To nail this, I visualize floating like a log. Think of that straight, narrow channel in which a log floats across the water, without any side movement, completely hydrodynamic. Here’s what we’re aiming for:

  • Your face points straight down at the bottom of the pool, with your eyes gazing slightly forward, and the water line is at the very top of your head;
  • The back of your head, your butt and your heels are at the surface of the water;
  • Your heels kick in and out of the surface of the water, keeping your legs from sinking.

You can follow a few useful pool drills to develop this good swimming technique, and we’ve dedicated an entire post to them here.

Solution 3: How to swim panic free and efficiently in open water

Once you’ve worked on your technique, so you breathe like a dolphin and float like a log through the pool, you need to bring all of it together in an open-water environment. How do you do that? By practice, practice, practice.

Seriously: the open water takes some getting used to. Moreover, you want to make sure you get at least 5-6 open-water swims under your belt before the race, so you know your wetsuit and gear are all in great shape. No one likes discovering a rip or that their old goggles are steaming up constantly on the morning of the race!

You also want to get either your new wetsuit wet for the first time, or your current wetsuit in to the water again after your off-season. This just loosens it a bit after it’s stiffened up in storage. If you don’t have access to open water to do this, you can also put the wetsuit in the bathtub with just water (no soap, no detergent) for a little while.

Though practice makes perfect to get you swimming panic free in open water, you can also use pool drills to familiarize yourself with the feeling of mass starts, other swimmers close up against you and learn to sight and breathe well in an environment different from the pool.

Here’s our list of dedicated guides on each of these:

How Much Do You Need to Swim for Triathlon?

All the drills and sessions we’ve covered above may seem like a lot of time commitment, especially if you’re preparing for shorter triathlons. In general, if you’re a competent swimmer, you probably don’t need to be in the water more than twice a week for shorter distances and three times a week for longer triathlons.

However, the first step to knowing how much swimming you require is assessing your current level and needs. Then, acknowledge that swimming is a technique sport, not a fitness sport where you can build a ton of fitness and simply muscle your way through it. 

At the outset you need the proper technique, and to develop that technique, you need repetition; so four to five short 15-20 minute sessions per week is ideal during the very first few weeks. 

Once you can complete a 400-meter swim without needing a long break afterwards, begin focusing on building the required fitness in the pool. In this phase of your swim development, frequency is still far more important than distance so you can swim two to three times a week for 30-40 minutes.

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 to two to three times a week for 45-90 minutes. 

Check out our step-by-step guide on each phase and our advice on how to design your swim workouts in this detailed article covering triathlon swimming sessions. 

Triathlon Swimming Gear: All You Need to Know

Gearing up for your triathlon swim sessions is affordable but can be confusing. While relatively inexpensive, there’s no shortage of swim gear and gadgets you could possess. 

So, to avoid spending too much too soon, you only need to start with the basics:

This starter kit enables you to practice all of our drills in the pool and get competition-ready.

There’s a lot of extra gear you can add to your arsenal as you get more comfortable and more experienced in the sport. In this guide, I cover the essentials, how to use them, as well as the “nice-to-haves” in detail. 

All You Need to Know for Your Triathlon Swimming Training

The key to triathlon swimming is…

  • to accept where you are in your swimming abilities; 
  • understand that improving your swimming will not get you massive time gains; 
  • but helps you start on the bike without having overspent your energy; 
  • and focus on being comfortable and safe in open water.

Combining all the tips in this article with the detailed drills and information in our swimming sub-chapters here will put you in an excellent starting position for your first triathlon, no matter what distance you choose to tackle. And, remember, practice makes perfect, so always be sure to spend time in the open water before your race!

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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.