10 Ways to Improve Your Triathlon Swim

I know, John is writing about improving a triathlon swim?

Oh, how times have changed.

To the uninitiated, my swimming has always been the Achilles heel of my triathlon racing adventure. I CAN swim, but it is the single most anxiety-provoking portion of my race no matter how many hours of pool and open water time I spend. That being said, however, I have learned over the years a few ways to reduce it, at least on the physical side of things. The mind? Well, another whole story.

So here are ten ways that I have found greatly improves your swimming in a triathlon. No particular order.

Swim Often

Starting off with a no-brainer. The ONLY way to get better in ANY triathlon discipline is to do it as much as possible. Unlike the bike and the run, which can be done inside or outside in all kinds of weather, swimming requires a place to swim, which is not always the easiest thing in the world. Even here in Florida, contrary to beliefs, everyone is not right next to a beach or lake, so a pool is required. And let’s be honest, many pools in a gym are not the best in the world. If you go to a YMCA you will have to be mindful of the beginner swim classes, the children and adults treating it like a recreational pool and not a place to train (the horror!), and some that just don’t know pool etiquette (please let them know you are getting in a lane they are swimming laps in). Swimming once a week as part of a team or Masters class is NOT going to prepare you for race day. It just isn’t. If this is a weak area, or like me, causes stress and anxiety, you should be in the pool at LEAST twice a week, and probably more. Figure it out. Get in the damn water as much as possible.

Learn Multiple Strokes

If you are like me there will be a time during the race that you might tire, or get hit, have goggles knocked off of you, and any assortment of fear-inducing, cringe-worthy, moments. You have to prepare both mentally and physically for these occurrences. As my Team in Training coach puts it, “It’s not IF someone is going to grab you, it’s WHEN”. You must learn ways to kick through a grab to your ankle, a way to keep going if someone whacks you on top of the head, or if you just get tired from going out too hard.

The two strokes outside of the freestyle that has helped me the most are the side stroke and the backstroke. I will warn you to be cautious of the backstroke in open water, especially in a rough one, because water will go in your nose and your mouth. Again, practicing in the pool goes a long way to get over that fear. The side stroke allows you to keep moving forward and moves your face away from any swells that might be happening. Learn this also. It could save your race.

Hand Entry

Go to any pool and watch how people swim (especially novices) and you will see splashing. Here’s a tip:

If you are splashing while you are swimming you are doing it wrong!

A good swimmer glides through the water with hardly a ripple. This is a matter of working on form.

Your hands should be entering the water in front of your goggles in a downward motion, then moving straight down your body, and exiting out the back with force.

Imagine that your hand is creating a hole in the water. Stab it, and then slide your body through that hole. Your hands should never cross over your body. Straight in, straight back.

If it feels wrong you’re probably doing it right. Keep at it. I promise you it will become easier the more you do it.

Head Position

No Tarzan swimming allowed!

A Tarzan swim is when you have your head out of the water all the time. Go to the aforementioned YMCA and this is how you will see most people swimming.

Don’t do it.

The head goes into the water and should be looking straight down. Your body should “roll” with each stroke, so your face should roll out fo the water also. Breathe out through your nose, roll your head out WITH your body, take a breathe as it rolls back in, then breathe out.

In the pool, this is easy because you normally have a black line you can look at, which you will not have in the open water. That’s OK. The more you train yourself to look down the easier the transition will be once you get out there.

The flatter and more streamlined your head is to your body the more your back end will “float”. Don’t believe me? Next time you’re in the pool do a Tarzan stroke and notice how your backend sinks. Now put your face straight down and notice what happens.

See my point?


The past few items all work together, but I thought it would make more sense to separate them out.

The “pull” is how you get through the water. As stated before, the hand enters the water and go straight down your body, exiting to the rear in a strong stroke. You need to imagine that there is a barrier in the middle of you that will not allow your hands to cross over. Keep your palms flat, fingers together, and imaging “grabbing” the water as your arms move down the length of your body. If it helps, especially at first, make an effort to HIT your hips as you hand moves toward the rear, and out of the water. Your palm should be very visible to anyone behind you. As my old coach used to instruct, imagine you have a smiley face on your palm and every time your hand leaves the water show the people behind you your “happy face”.

Sounds silly I know but that visualization helped me.

If you use a Garmin you may notice there is a measurement called the “SWOLF”. it stands for “Swim Golf”, and much like golf, the object is to get that number as low as possible. The SWOLF measurement is derived by adding the time it takes to do one length (i.e. 25 yards) plus the number of strokes it took you. So, for example, if you go 25 yards in 30 seconds, and it takes you 12 strokes, your SWOLF is 42.

Easy right?

So to get that number UNDER 42 you can do one of two things: take less time using the same number of strokes (improving power), or using fewer strokes in the same time (improving efficiency). My opinion is to improve efficiency, so the aim would be to get across the pool in 30 seconds but only needing 10 strokes. Your time might stay the same, but you will be considerably less fatigue by the end.

A SWOLF of 42 (30 seconds in 12 strokes for 25 yards) equates to @ 70 lengths for a mile. This also means you are taking 840 strokes in 35:00 (assuming you stay constant and don’t tire at all).

Decreasing the SWOLF to a 40 (30 seconds in 10 strokes for 25 yards) equates to 700 strokes in 35:00.

140 fewer strokes in the same amount of time = a much less tired triathlete entering T1.


Stop kicking.


A swimmer kicks. A triathlete does not.

The kick is there to keep you straight and to aid in the roll of your body. Period. If you are kicking like mad during training and during a race, I promise you that your legs will be dead by mile 5 of the bike.

Triathlon is not a Swim, then a Bike, then a Run.

It is a Swim Bike Run.

All of these components drive the next one. Your optimal goal is to learn each discipline as it relates to the next one.

Your swim needs to be done efficiently so that you enter the bike portion with minimal fatigue (and likewise your bike needs to be done in a way to minimize the fatigue on your run).

The last thing you need to be doing in a swim is tiring out your legs.

Flutter your feet and legs to aid you, but not to propel you.

If you want good examples of this, check out Total Immersion Swimming. Loads of videos on their site and on YouTube.


Heart rate is talked about often in the cycling and running portions, but not much in the swimming world.

And that’s a mistake.

Most of that reason is that there are not many ways to get your heart rate in the water. Technology has improved in this area, however, and Garmin has a special strap now that gather information and upload it’s after you are out of the water.

Nifty right?

Much of the anxiety is caused by elevated heart rates before the swim, entering the water and pushing too hard, etc. Like with everything (in my opinion) you cannot learn how to deal with something if you are not even aware it is there.

Swimming heart rates are normally lower than the other disciplines due to a number of factors; people just don’t “sweat” in the pool.

Again, this is a big mistake.

As with running and cycling, there needs to be a workout where you are pushing yourself to higher stress levels. There’s a tendency with swimming to zone out. The rhythm of the strokes, the breathing, even the feel of the water, tends to relax us and force us into a less strenuous training. But without hard data, we are mostly unaware that this is even happening.

You do not want to learn what it feels like to hit Z4 in a swim for the first time during a race. You should be learning to hit that zone in the pool.

Force yourself to be uncomfortable. If it gets too bad the end of the pool is never further than 25 yards (meters) away.

Breathing Hypoxy

In line with the last area, breathing is always the biggest fear of swimming.

Because we don’t breathe water.

Amazing right?

But as with everything else, we need to learn both HOW to breathe while swimming, and how to ADJUST that breathing when it is needed.

If you are training in a pool and always breathing to the right, for example, you are going to have a very bad race if the swells or waves are coming from the right and you have to switch to the left.

Training to breathe in both directions is essential.

The way I do this, to keep myself honest, is to always look at the lane dividers. So on the first length, I am breathing to the right, and on the return length, I am breathing to the left.

I also would recommend that you do some forced hypoxia training, that is learning to go longer than you might be comfortable with.

Do a few laps where you breathe on the 3-5-7-9 stroke.

Not fun I know, but this will come in handy when in a race and you come up for a breathe and see that wave in your face and you have to duck back in.

As with all things, learning to deal with these issues in training goes a LONG way on race day.

Open Water Swimming

The easiest one for last …

Open water swimming …

Do it …

Often …

If you live close to the race course, do it there. If not, do it in the type of water the race will be in.

There is a difference between ocean and lake/river.

If the race is wetsuit legal, swim in the wetsuit before the race. Swimming in a wetsuit may seem easy, but it can be claustrophobic if you are not used to the tightness of the suit. Do NOT enter a race in a wetsuit if you’ve never worn it. Trust me on that one.

If you can stand the cold, don’t use one. It is much easier, even with the buoyancy issue.

So that’s my input for swimming a triathlon. We can do a deep-dive into any of the areas I wrote about for sure, but I think it gives a good overview of most issues.

I hope it helped.

I will finish with a good swim workout for you!

Warm Up: 300 EZ

Main Set: 4 x 100 (swim/kick/swim/kick); 100 EZ; 4 x 200 (:30); 100 EZ; 2 x 400 (sprint last 25)

Cool Down: 300 EZ

Total: 2800

Make sure to listen in on the show (Endurance for Everyone) and leave comments!

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