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Swimming for Triathlon: 6 Pro Tips to Put You at The Front of the Pack

triathlon race start

Do you say things like “I’d love to do a triathlon, but I’m a really bad swimmer”?

Or “I just can’t wait to get the swim over with so I can get on my bike”?

If so, you’re like countless other athletes who simply haven’t been coached to swim correctly.

Sure, triathlon swimming can be a daunting and a technical challenge.

But learning how to swim for a triathlon – and learning how to do it well – is often the quickest route to improving your personal best time.

After coaching countless triathletes, we’ve learned a thing or two about what you need to do to transform your swim into your strongest part of the race.

In this article we’ll cover:

  • The #1 mistake that most triathletes make when it comes to swimming
  • Why you need to adapt a straighter arm recovery
  • The reason why a nice smooth stroke could be holding you back
  • Why you need to learn how to breathe to both sides
  • How kicking too much might be slowing you down
  • Why sighting is a must-have skill
  • How drafting can help you swim faster with less effort

Ready to set a PB? Let’s jump in.

Triathlon Swimming: The #1 Mistake Most Athletes Make

Triathletes are a hardy bunch. They’re dedicated. They’re motivated. They’re willing to go places most people won’t.

But here’s the thing; in swimming, you can train as hard as you want, but if your technique isn’t on-point, you’re always going to struggle to improve.

Time and time again, we see triathletes who are very aerobically fit, and yet ,no matter how many hours they log in the pool, they have only marginal improvements to show for it.

Why is this?

This is because, if you’re like most triathletes, your fitness is not your limiting factor. It’s your technique that’s holding you back.

While this might worry you, it’s actually good news. See, optimising your technique leads to substantial improvements in performance in relatively little time – especially when compared to other avenues for improvement like increasing your Vo2 Max.

Instead of undertaking months of gruelling sessions to train your body to be a little better, a few sessions with the right coach can drop huge amounts of time off your swim.

So, for most athletes – and we’re not just saying this because we’re coaches – if you want to improve your overall triathlon performance, the most efficient way is to address your swimming technique.

You don’t need to up your speed on the bike, or add an extra 20km running per week (although those can help too). The fastest path to improvement lies in mastering a few fundamentals of freestyle technique that’ll transform your swim and put you to the front of the pack.

Want to get expert swim coaching? Talk to us about our adult swimming lessons today.

Triathlon Swimming Technique: 6 Expert Tips for Your Fastest Swim Time

For most of us, swimming in a triathlon means a complete change in swimming environment.

The majority of triathlons require you to swim in an open water setting (lake, river or sea). With that change in environment comes an alteration in your indoor pool swimming technique.

In this section, we’ll cover how to master a triathlon-specific swim stroke to help you navigate the course as best as you can.

Adapt a Straighter Arm Recovery

One of the biggest differences between pool swimming and triathlon swimming is that you can be swimming in very cramped conditions with other athletes.

The triathlon’s mass start can quickly turn into a frenzy. Having a long, low-arm recovery stroke will likely get you a few clatters of other people’s arms. It also increases the chance that you’ll catch your recovering arm on a wave or chop, which can throw off your technique and cadence.

Essentially, triathlon swimming (particularly swimming near the start of the race) isn’t the prettiest freestyle. You want to motor through the water until you’re out of the shoulder-to-shoulder battle that can take place from the starting line.

Now, developing a straight-arm recovery isn’t exactly something we’d recommend you go away and try to learn on your own. You’ve probably spent month’s honing a nice high-elbow, low-arm carriage recovery.

Minor adjustments to your stroke for specific environments are best learned with the help of a coach who knows how to stop you from developing bad habits that may put a ceiling on only your performance.

This video is shot in a pool, but demonstrates the type of straight arm recovery we’re talking about:

Video: Swimming – Go Swim Straight Arm Freestyle with Scott Tucker

🔑 Key Takeaway: Swim with straighter arms (almost like a windmill). It’s advantageous in the closely-packed, open water swimming environment. Keep your smooth, pretty swimming for the pool.

Increase Your Stroke Rate

One of the fundamental aspects of good front crawl is a nice long stroke.

In fact, we spend much time coaching swimmers to lengthen their stroke and reduce their stroke rate.

So, what gives? Why are we saying that you should increase your stroke rate in a triathlon race?

Well, it’s simple. Swimming in close proximity to others means you’re swimming in turbulent and frothy water. With that, comes a reduction in the relative density of the water.

So, if you’re relying on long smooth strokes, one pull through a section of turbulent water can kill your propulsion and take a couple of milliseconds to recover from.

Add those milliseconds add up over the course of hundreds of strokes and as a result you’re in for a slower swim time.

Secondly, a higher stroke cadence is better if you get bumped by another swimmer. Instead of being thrown off balance, you’ll be quickly able to get your next arm over to stabilise yourself and stay on track.

Now, we’re not saying to throw your pool technique out the window here.

Think of your long traditional pool stroke as a formula one car. It’s very fast in a controlled environment. Your triathlon stroke is more like a rally car – it has to be able to adapt to rougher conditions and unexpected events.

Like driving, the fundamental skills underlying both a pool stroke and a triathlon stroke are the same. It’s imperative to master your pool stroke first. But being able to adapt it to different environments will give you a distinct edge.

🔑 Key Takeaway: Increase the cadence of your arm turnover. It’ll provide you with more stability and adaptability if something interrupts your arm cycle. Especially important at the start of the race or when swimming in close quarters with other swimmers.

Master Breathing to Both Sides

It’s pretty common for triathletes to breathe to just one side.

However, this breathing to both sides (known as bi-lateral breathing) gives you an edge on the competition.

Think about it – in a race, you may want to keep an eye on the competition. Bi-lateral breathing allows you to scan the field without breaking your stroke.

Additionally, there may be glare from the sun, choppy waves or a prevailing wind coming in from one side – if you’re only comfortable breathing towards that side, you’re in a rough race.

You might also be swimming alongside another athlete and don’t want to risk catching spray or an arm in the face (not fun). Mastering the ability to breathe away from them if you need to can be the difference between winning and losing a race.

Video: How to do Bilateral Breathing while Swimming: Swim Training by SwimSmooth – Ep. 4

🔑 Key Takeaway: Having the ability to breathe to both sides gives you more adaptability in an environment where things are constantly changing.

Ease Off Your Kick

If you’ve ever watched top-level triathletes, you’ll notice that they don’t seem to kick.

This is the same in long-distance pool swimming. From the 400m and up, the best swimmers appear to do the bare minimum with their legs.

Contrast this to 50m or 100m sprinters, where you’ll see huge explosions of water behind them as they powerfully kick up and down the pool.

What’s going on here?

Well long distance swimming primarily draws on your aerobic system. This is the energy system that predominantly powers most sub-maximal efforts.

Your legs carry a lot of musculature and therefore need a lot of oxygen to keep them going in a race.

Now given that your kick contributes only about 5-10% of your propulsion, it makes sense to tone it down for longer swims. Because the added propulsion gained from a strong kick also puts an unequal demand on your heart and lungs to pump blood and oxygen to the working muscles.

So, it’s worth kicking big in short events where any small propulsive advantage can win a race and where you won’t build up too much energy debt.

But in longer events like 750m or 1500m swims, it’s much better ‘metabolic value’ to tone your kick down to the point where it’s keeping your legs from sinking, and save your energy for the higher-return propulsion of your arms.

Lastly, let’s not forget that you still have a bike and a run after your swim. So, kicking less also helps to keep your legs fresh to power you through the rest of your race.

Video Link: THE 2 BEAT KICK – The Drill (PART 2)

🔑 Key Takeaway: Kick less. Work to develop a 4 or 2-beat kick. Just enough to keep you balanced and streamlined in the water.

Learn How to Sight Like a Pro

Source: Ironman.com

In open water, there’s no black line to guide you in a straight line. With few close points of reference, becoming a good sighter is critical to ensure you stay on track.

Poor sighting can lead to swimming in the wrong direction. And there’s no faster way to turn a 1500m swim into a 1600m swim than by swimming off-course.

The first thing with sighting is to think about your alignment in the water. You always want to stove for a neutral buoyancy meaning that your head is in line with your feet on top of the water.

In front crawl your body is like a sea-saw so the more your head lifts, the further your legs will sink and that means more drag.

So, you want to aim to move your head as little as possible. The best time to start your sight is just as your front hand initiates the catch phase of the stroke. This is when you’re best placed to counteract the see-saw action and minimise leg sinkage.

Imagine you’re a crocodile who’s just surfacing your eyes out of the water to help keep everything in line. This takes quite a bit of practice to master, but it’s worth the investment.

You should also time your sight so that you perform it at your usual breathing interval. This helps accomplish the two at once and keeps you in a good rhythm.

As your recovery arm comes over, that’s the trigger to knock your head back into the water, adjust your course and get busy swimming towards the next buoy.

How much you sight is up to you – it depends heavily on the conditions. We’d typically recommend sighting no more than every 10-15 stroke cycles.

Remember that excessive sighting do slow you down. However, so does swimming in the wrong direction. So, sight as much as you need to stay tightly on course. And of course, never blindly follow feet that might be going in the wrong direction.

🔑 Key Takeaway: Working on becoming a proficient sighter is essential if you want to get to the front of the pack and set new personal best times.

Video Link: How To Sight Whilst Open Water Swimming | Swim Sighting Technique & Tips

🔥 Pro Tip: The right pair of goggles makes sighting much easier. Check out our complete goggle guide to help you select the best goggles for you.

Learn the Dark Art of Drafting

Source: 220Triathlon.com

One of the best things about being a good sighter is that you can also spot drafting opportunities.

Drafting is when you get on another swimmer’s feet or right beside them . You let them do the hard work of plowing through unbroken water, while you slip along with less effort behind them.

Not only do you let the other swimmer battle the extra surface tension, but you can also ‘surf’ the wake that comes off hips for even greater returns. Plus, if you latch onto a faster swimmer, you’ll be more motivated to maintain a higher pace – something which is much harder to do on your own.

How much time can drafting save you? Quite a lot actually. Some coaches claim it can save you over a full minute on a 1500m swim! While we’re not convinced everyone can save that, it definitely does help you shave time off while also conserving energy.

This video has some pretty useful pointers to improve your drafting and getting to your bike faster:

Video: Open Water Swim Drafting Tips – Triathlon

🔑 Key Takeaway: Fight the urge to swim alone. Drafting takes practice and experience to master. But get good at it and you’ll save energy and slip through the water faster with no extra effort.

Swimming for Triathlon – Wrapping up

Becoming a better triathlon swimmer requires a unique skill set that’s distinct from that of pool swimmers.

While the underlying fundamentals are the same, it’s the ability to adapt to the open water, tight-knit swimming environment that often separates the best from the rest.

We’ve seen lots of fast pool swimmers get out-gunned in triathlons by slower swimmers who were better able to meet the unique demands of the event.

The tips in this article will help you take your pool swimming ability and translate it into the open water. And we’ve no doubt you can make huge improvements on your own.

However, if you’re really serious about honing your triathlon swimming, we’d strongly advise you to work with a coach who’s been there and done that.

From all of us here at Swim Now, good luck!

Alistair Mills
by Alistair Mills

In 2016 I saw an opportunity for a new swimming company that did things a little bit differently and here we are almost 4 years later, having built a family of teachers and clients that we are all really proud of.

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