Your Triathlon Swim Questions Answered


With triathlons growing in popularity, more and more people are considering jumping into their first race. Generally, the bike and run portions seem like the easier parts. Most people learned to ride a bike as a kid, and in the running portion you can always walk. It’s the swimming that tends to be the most daunting, and for good reason! As a coach and swim instructor, I hear a lot of the same questions when it comes to how to even start training for the swim. Let’s “dive in” to the top five questions and answers on the swim portion of a triathlon.

Will I need a wetsuit?

No! Just as you can race on whatever bike you have, you can swim without buying all the crazy expensive gear. Triathlon wetsuits are much different from jet-ski wetsuits, so don’t be tempted to use one of those thinking it will help. They take on water and will make swimming considerably harder!

Borrowing a friends triathlon wetsuit can also be tempting, but unless they are the exact same size and shape as you, it could hinder more than it helps. Wetsuits should fit like second skin, so when (and if) you do decided to try one, a full fit process should be done to ensure it’s giving you every advantage.

How often should I swim for training? Training levels will vary greatly between athletes, mostly because we all have different amounts of time to spend working out. In general, I recommend people are swimming at least two times a week. In the summer when open water swimming becomes possible, one swim can be open water and one can be in the pool.

Training sessions in the pool are generally more enjoyable if you don’t just try to swim as far as you can every time you jump in. Instead, a workout might look something like this:

  • 2 laps (100 yds) warm up (easy swimming)

  • 4 laps (200 yds) focusing on form or a specific technique (ex: drill one length, swim back)

  • 2 laps (100 yds) gradually getting faster each length, resting at the end of each length

  • 2 laps (100 yds) cool down (any stroke, nice and easy)

More can be added as fitness increases, but using sets like these tends to make it more fun and more manageable.

I grew up swimming in lakes but have never learned proper stroke. Where do I start? This is probably the most common background people start from. Many have learned to swim as a kid, but have not taken any formal lessons as an adult. If you are comfortable in the water, (even if you don’t know proper form) you’re already doing great!

Finding someone to give you a few stroke pointers can be really beneficial. There are plenty of options for lessons available through the YMCA, MVP and most community and school pools.

Even asking a friend who swims to give you a few pointers can make swimming easier.

If you are planning to work on your own, there are a few stroke tips to keep in mind:

- Kick from your hips, not your knees. Legs should be fairly straight and core muscles should be engaged to drive your kicking power.

- Reach towards the end of the pool with each stroke, giving yourself a nice glide. Turning arms over quickly is tiring and inefficient, so lengthening the stroke and really extending can help you swim faster with less effort.

- Find a side that’s most comfortable to breathe on, and then focus on only rotating the head to breathe and not lifting it. If you breathe to the right side, the left cheek should stay wet while you are breathing and the head never lifts to look forward. Simply rotate to the side and then straight back down.

There are great form videos on YouTube. I really like the Speedo International and SwimSmooth videos on freestyle.

I can run or bike forever, but swimming makes me so tired! Why am I always out of breath? Swimming can be a highly frustrating sport, especially when people make it look so easy! I hear all the time from people who are very fit bikers or runners that as soon as they get in the pool they are out of breath and exhausted. There are a few ways to fight this:

- Focus on swimming your workout in sets and taking appropriate rest. Just swimming straight for 20 minutes might seem like a good idea since that’s how we usually run, but in swimming it just doesn’t work the same way. Sets are your friend and resting isn’t a weakness! You will see your endurance build and your rests get shorter if you stick with it.

- Check your form. Bad form is inefficient and uses way too much energy. A lot of runners and cyclists have a hard time keeping their hips up, so they are dragging their legs. This is tiring! Learning how to get those hips up (spoiler alert - use your core!) and kick those legs efficiently (kick from the hip!) will use far less energy and leave you less breathless at the end of each lap.

- Learn to control your breathing. In all other sports, we can breathe as much as we need to. In swimming, we are much more limited. Learning to control your exhale will help slow your heart rate and gradually help you feel more controlled in the water. Sometimes it actually helps to breathe less often (crazy, I know!). When swimmers breathe every stroke it leads to shallow gaspy breaths. Try taking four strokes between breaths, or doing a combo of four and two. For example:

Right arm Left arm (breathe right) Right arm Left arm Right arm Left arm (breathe right) Right arm Left arm (breathe right)

I am comfortable in the pool but when I get in open water, I panic! What can I do?

Open water is a whole different game, and even experienced swimmers can panic. It’s important to practice open water before race day, and the more practice sessions the better! If you still find yourself out of breath, remember these three tips:

1. Take deep breathes and try to calm your heart rate. Don’t let your mind think about the water being dark or deep or the people around you. Focus on relaxing breathing and calming thoughts. A common trick to calming breathing while swimming is to control your exhale. You cannot breathe in if you’re exhaling. Slow exhales help stop quick, gasping breaths.

2. Find a “safety stroke”. Practice alternative strokes to freestyle, such as breaststroke, side stroke or even back floating. Always know you can switch to one of these at any time to regain your breathing and lower heart rate.

3. Always always swim open water with a buddy, either on the water in a boat or in the water swimming. Check in regularly and alert them if you need help. In races, grab a kayak or paddle board to hang on to for a rest. You can hang out without getting disqualified as many times as you need, as long as they are not moving your forward.

Swimming doesn’t have to be the portion of the triathlon you just “survive”. It is a great life-long sport as it’s low impact and it offers an outstanding total body workout. With a little practice and stroke guidance you can easily find yourself feeling at home and confident in the water!

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© 2020 by Stuart Coaching: Partners in Training. Grand Rapids, Michigan IRONMAN Certified Running, Biking, Triathlon Coaching, Personal Training 

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