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What Are The Best Swim Drills for Triathletes?

by Taren Gesell

Blog ▸ What Are The Best Swim Drills for Triathletes?

Time in the water is not the only factor that matters in swim performance! That was one of the critical lessons I learned when I got serious about swim training. For years, my swim routine was the classic “swim three times per week”. However, that schedule wasn’t enough to boost my performance – I stagnated for three years!

A swimming routine is helpful, but it is not enough for those of us who want to increase our performance. Instead, you need to use specific swim drills to hone your technique.

Unfortunately, there’s a problem with traditional swim drill advice. Some coaches repeat the drills they were taught to everyone, regardless of whether or not they would benefit from those drills. The problem with that method is that the drills are not customized to your fitness, swimming skill level or goals.

Instead, we need to ask ourselves, “what parts of swimming do triathletes tend to struggle with?” Once we understand that point, we can select swim drills designed to enhance our race performance.

1) Develop your swim breathing skills: The Sink Down Drill

Unlike running and cycling, your natural breathing habits don’t translate well to swimming. Instead, you need to learn new breathing techniques for swimming. To get your breathing habits on the right track, start with a simple drill.

Whenever your face hits the water, you should be breathing! This practice will stop you from holding your breath and creating a build-up of carbon dioxide. If you skip this practice, your body will feel out of breathe while you swim and interrupt your process.

The Drill: Hold the edge of the pool with your hands, face in the water, and breathe out. This will gradually build the association in your mind: as soon as my face hits the water, I breathe out and remain calm.

The Advanced Version: Form a T shape with your body (arms spread out and legs together) and drop down in the water. While you drop, breathe out into the water. As you do this process, focus on steady breathing and remaining calm.

2) Fix sinky legs: Swim Kick Drills

When you get into the water, you weigh about 90% less in the water. That change can feel quite disorienting. Here is a simple way to think about the difference.

Standing on the ground

You are standing on both feet, and somebody tries to push you over. You can probably hold your ground by tensing your muscles.

In The Water

Go into the water a float face down while down a light kick to stay at the surface. Now, somebody gives you a light push you are probably going to move quite a lot. That’s because you “weigh” a fraction of your dry weight. You don’t have the same center of gravity or body awareness that you had on land.

In practical terms, you might feel that you are “wriggling” around in the water. That uneven movement means you are not going to go as straight and as fast as you can.

There is a simple drill to resolve this issue.

Use swim kicking drills! As a starter drill, swim with a board and snorkel and kick with the back of your head, butt, and heels at the surface of the water, don’t rock your upper body whatsoever, and keep your feet in a narrow 1.5 foot wide channel.As you become more comfortable with this drill, drop the board, then eventually the fins, finishing with the goal of kicking across a 25 metre or yard pool with just a snorkel in under 40 seconds.. 

3) Build open water swimming skills for triathlon

Many of the most popular swim drills are designed for use in the pool for elite athletes. Those drills have limitations when it comes to the needs of triathletes.

For example, I recommend a “deck up” drill. When you get to the end of your pool swim session, get out of the water as quickly as possible, and go for a 10 second jog. This drill will help you build the skill to transition from water to land promptly without shooting your heart rate through the roof. Practicing this drill regularly will help you to get over the natural shock of getting out of the water.

4) Practice a mass start in swimming

In a pool session, you might not have anybody else nearby as you swim. However, in a triathlon, you will start in the water with a large crowd close to you. Develop the skill of not getting overwhelmed swimming in a group. This drill will require a few other swimmers to join you to simulate a mass start.

With this practice, you will also get used to occasionally touching other swimmers, seeing bubbles, and generally coping with other swimmers. Practicing swimming with other people will increase your comfort and lower the chances of you feeling panic or uncertainty.

A Final Note On Swim Drills

These swim drills assume you have a general level of comfort with swimming and that you can swim a few hundred meters without stopping. If you are new to swimming, focus on becoming comfortable in the water, and not sinking. Once you have those fundamental skills, optimize your swim skills for the triathlon.

If you aren’t yet at all comfortable in the water check out the book, Triathlon Swimming Foundations, I wrote specifically for helping athletes get comfortable in the water from scratch!

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.