Five Questions Every Beginning Triathlete Asks About Swimming

Leave adequate time to train for an event, maximizing enjoyment.

Adopting the identity of “triathlete” can be an exciting process, requiring a whole new skill set and challenges for the body. For some athletes without a strong swimming background, the swim training can be overwhelming. For other athletes, they mistakenly underestimate the time it will take to develop an effective swim training regimen. However, with diligence and a coachable attitude, learning to become a steady, confident swimmer, is a rewarding outcome.

I am new to triathlon, but I’m not a very strong swimmer. What would be the best way to improve my swimming?

Swimming is a highly technical sport, and the “work harder” mentality is not as effective for improvement as it is in biking and running. Finding a swim program, masters or triathlon-centric, is the most beneficial way to improve your swim. While you can read volumes of articles about swim technique, or immerse yourself in a movie marathon of technique videos, until you have an experienced coach offering you feedback, it is difficult to have an accurate perspective on your stroke efficiency. In a coached setting, not only are you receiving feedback from a coach on deck, but you are also being pushed by the companionship of other swimmers. The perceived exertion of swimming is often less in a group setting due to the creativity of a coach’s workouts and the camaraderie of fellow athletes. The team environment turns the “chore” of swimming into a “playground” of learning.

Kicking is so difficult for me. People have told me I don’t need to kick when I swim because I’m a triathlete and should save my legs for the bike and the run. Is that true?

Swimming for triathlon or open water versus pool competition does have unique qualities. A fast, six-beat kick is not practical for the swim in a triathlon, yet the legs are still an integral part of any swimmers’ stroke. If you are training in a pool or in open water without a wetsuit, the kick helps establish and maintain proper body alignment, creating a more hydrodynamic stroke. By neglecting the kick, many swimmers end up practicing an improper body position with a noticeable sinking lower body or wiggle as they propel themselves through the water. An optimal kick will bring your hips to the surface, and with the eyes looking down, put you in a neutral spine position for fluid movement. Focus on a steady, narrow kick from your hips, with relaxed knees, “spaghetti ankles,” and pointed toes gently breaking the surface of the water. Executing kicking drills without a board, on your back or side, is an excellent way to develop leg action that will benefit your swim for speed and endurance. Don’t worry, this kick-improvement plan still allows you to use your pool time as a “recovery” day for your legs, but also doesn’t compromise your body alignment. 

How many times a week and for how long should I swim to compete in triathlons?

There is no set rule about how many days a week you should practice the swim for a triathlon. Beginning triathletes emerging from a swimming background may be able to “get wet” just a couple of times a week and still feel fast when racing.  However, a general rule of thumb (and strong suggestion for a beginning swimmer) is taking the plunge three times a week, leading to a better “feel” for the water and more rapid improvement. The consistency of being in the water, trumps the distance that you swim (unless, of course, you are training for an Ironman). So aim to squeeze in a swim when you can, even if you don’t have a lot of time. A swim habit of 3x a week of your race distance or slightly more, will establish confidence and stamina when you dive in on race day. 

Do I have to train in open water to swim in an open water race?

Swimming in open water is a very different experience than swimming in the pool.  Like mountain biking is to road biking, there are entirely different skills needed to compete in the open water.  Yet, the convenience of a pool, ability to use a clock for intervals, and benefit of having a coach on deck, makes the pool the most accessible place for most athletes to do the majority of their swim training. 

However, having training swims in the open water several times before your race is a necessary part of a comprehensive triathlon program. Always practice your open water swim with another person or a group for safety. The potential anxiety and fear that can emerge when experiencing a mass start, with thrashing, over-zealous swimmers, can be minimized by adequate practice in an open body of water. Sighting is the most important skill to learn for navigation around a swim course. Learning a fluid way to time your sighting so as not to interrupt the rhythm of your stoke, is an open water specific skill to master.

Here is the proper technique: Time your quick look up (just your eyes out of the water) immediately prior to the press of your lead arm. Then rotate your head to breathe, followed by swiveling your head down to the neutral and efficient eyes-down position. This technique will create a much more fluid sighting practice than a full head lift and breath. Swimmers may need to sight several times in a row to see the course-marking buoy. For a sighting rhythm to stay on course, most swimmers find the need for a sighting stroke every 7-9 strokes, to keep an accurate view of their surroundings. Swimming straight in a race makes a big difference in your swim time.

Finally, if you are going to be using a wetsuit in your races, it is important to do a few training swim training sessions to get used to the constraints and buoyancy of your suit. Learn how to correctly put on and quickly get out of your wetsuit. Most importantly, make sure to train at least the distance that you will be swimming in the race to identify possible areas of chaffing or discomfort. The neck and under the arms are prime chafe zones needing skin lubrication.

I am in excellent shape but when I get in the pool, I am completely out of breath at the end of a length. Why does this happen?

Runners or cyclists often feel discouraged when commencing their swim training for triathlon. Confident that their overall fitness will benefit them in the pool, they are demoralized to find they are winded like they’ve been doing hill repeats, shortly into their first swim lap. Generally, this problem is as simple as learning the proper way to breathe in the water. While training in land sports, little thought is given to the rhythm of the breath. As the athlete pushes harder, their breathing increases reflexively.  In the water, however, breathing is a learned technique. Most beginning swimmers intuitively hold their breath and then exhale and quickly inhale when turning to breathe. This quickly creates a build-up of CO2 in the lungs and blood stream. Desperately gasping for air at the end of the pool, the swimmer wonders how they will ever get in shape. 

This is the correct breathing technique: Instead of holding your breath, immediately after taking your breath, slowly exhale through your nose and mouth while your face is in the water. Then, when you turn to breathe, you will have gradually emptied your lungs (like you do on land), and have a less frantic, and more natural breathing pattern. Strive to create a rhythm to your breathing—many people find breathing every three strokes adds balance and consistency to their breaths. Mastering this breathing while in the pool, will lead to much less anxiety when swimming in open water. Higher anxiety leads to a greater perception of fatigue, so take your time to learn to breathe and just relax.

Be Patient

Learning to become a better swimmer does take time. Make sure to leave yourself adequate time to train for an event, maximizing your enjoyment as well as safety in swimming.  After a few months of consistent training, you will increase in stamina and endurance, and will likely enjoy your pool time as much as any of your other training.

About the Author

Kristen Turner has been a swim and triathlon coach for more than 25 years. She enjoys teaching runners and cyclists to love swimming. Coaching master’s swimmers at the Western Hills Athletic Club, she gets to see the excitement beginning swimmers experience when developing a strong swim leg of their triathlon. 

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