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!

5 Tips to Speed Up Transitions

Everyone knows how to train for a triathlon very early on; get in the water as much as possible to increase comfort, ride as much as you can, run off the bike every training session, and on and on, but one piece that can make or break a race is the shortest of them all; the transition. Some people you can see fly through a transition with minimal time spent, and other (me included) struggle to go from one discipline to another quickly. Two 5:00 transition times adds 10:00 to your race, which is HUGE, so learning to get in and out as fast as possible can make a lot of difference in a race result.

Here are a quick 5 tips to makes this process faster, all coming from my first-hand experience.

Have as Little As Possible in Transition

It is a normal right of passage in triathlon from newbie to a seasoned athlete that your transition area shrinks. When you first start out you’re so worried about forgetting something that you bring everything. I have seen brushes, combs, battery operated hair dryers, etc. Once you start learning the amount you bring in starts to dwindle down. The bottom line is that you should only have what you absolutely need and nothing more. When you leave the area to head to the water the only thing left on your mat should be bike shoes, your helmet, glasses/sunglasses (if needed), running shoes, socks, hat, your bib, and maybe on course nutrition and/or water (depending on the distance racing). Everything else is extra stuff to worry about. Leave it in the car.

NO Clothing Changes

Especially after the swim. Ever try to put a tight bike jersey on, or tri top, when you are wet? Takes forever. Don’t do it. Full gear should be on your body in the swim. If you’re using a wetsuit it should be on you underneath. In a PINCH you can probably get away with changing your top before the run portion, but even that takes time. Seconds build to minutes in the blink of an eye.

Speed Laces and Powder

Sounds like a good buddy cop movie title, but a simple change in set up can go a long way. Tieing your shoes takes time. Get a set of speed laces (there are many brands) and learn to use them on your shoes. Some people don’t like them, but I swear by them. I even use them in normal road running events. Another trick it to douse the inside of shows with baby powder when you’re setting up. Your feet will slide right in even if wet, and the powder also helps with blisters if you have issues there.

Preset Items on Bike and Use the Bib

The transition from swim to bike is often the longer of the two, so anything you can do to get on the bike fast helps. Put your bottles ON the bike and put your bib on now. I put my bib over my saddle, so when I come into T1 I grab my helmet, glasses, then put on the bib and flip number to the back, then my shoes, grab my bike and go. When you come into T2, rack bike, shoes off and on, helmet off, hat on, start moving to the course and flip the race number to the front.

And finally … Practice the Plan

You cannot get good at something without practice. It’s the same with transitions. when doing brick training try to set it up as you would a race. Move as quickly from one thing (the bike) to the next (the run) in the same way you will at the event. Too often when brick training we take our time racking bike, locking it, getting some water, changing shoes, etc. It works for that moment, but as with everything else, you will race as your practice.

So You Want to Race a Triathlon

I am asked a lot about how I got started in triathlon, and more importantly, how would I recommend others getting started in the sport. I have written numerous times about what led me to triathlon, and my issues with each discipline as the last 7+ seasons have unfolded, but it occurred to me that I have never put it all together in one post. I’ll attempt to do so with this one.

In the original post, I made sure to state that I was not a coach or credentialed. That has since changed. I earned my Ironman Certification in May of 2016. That doesn’t mean I know anything more, but I have a pretty certificate now and I am a bit lighter in the wallet. I have a Masters in Public Administration and an MBA, along with a BA in Psychology and a certification in Six Sigma (green belt) and Lean Design. Everything I write about is taken from my personal first-hand knowledge and experience, with some additions from a few clients I have worked with the past few years. If your experience or knowledge differs from mine, more power to you. As you all know I come from a perspective of someone who had cancer, was over 300 pounds at one point, and deals with psoriatic arthritis every day. I am not in this to “win races” and I more than likely will never see a podium, and I am OK with that, but that doesn’t mean you have to be the same way. I don’t even consider triathlons “races” anymore. A friend stated recently that he only calls them his “events” because the only person he is competing against is himself. I am trying to adopt that mindset.

Everything I write about is taken from my personal first-hand knowledge and experience

The first thing I would tell you is to read … everything. Magazines, Nutrition Books, first-hand accounts like those of Macca and Wellington. Anything. Ingest everything about the sport. Then promptly forget everything you read. These are meant for elite levels and professionals. They will have little to no bearing on how you will train, how you will eat, or how you will race. Keep in mind that many of these athletes, especially the pro’s, are paid by companies to promote their products and gear. Have you ever actually seen a pro triathlete drink chocolate milk after a race? Didn’t think so. While the advice they write about is inspiring, they have the time and the paychecks to do the type of training they talk about. It has nothing to do with you. The biggest mistake I made/make and that I see others make is trying to gear their workouts to meet those they read in magazines, and this includes routines in magazines like Flex and Muscle & Fitness. They are at best personal workouts the pro’s use, and at worst cookie cutter routines. Don’t do them. Move on.

Have you ever actually seen a pro triathlete drink chocolate milk after a race? Didn’t think so

The Swim

Swimming, by FAR, is the discipline that causes the most anxiety, with veterans and especially newbies. Most triathletes do not come from the swimming discipline (though there are some) and you will find that the best swimmers are not those winning the events. Swimming also comprises only 2% of the total event (in most distances), so it often takes the back seat to cycling and running. Do not underestimate it because of this reason.

This is a mistake.

While being a good swimmer will rarely put you on the podium, what it will do is set the tone for the race. Learning to swim efficiently is key to a good race, and learning to deal with the inevitable panic attack is even more important. A good swim, not necessarily a fast swim, will let you enter T1 with a clear head and not have to spend 3:00 of your precious time trying to get your head clear.

My training advice on swimming is to forget about the drills. One armed drill, closed fist, etc. will help you become a better and more efficient swimmer but you, as a beginner, need to swim … just swim. Use a race snorkel of you need to get your breathing down (they are legal in some races, but not Ironman anymore, so check before you use one. I used one my first full season), but concentrate your efforts on being comfortable swimming, especially open water (though never go into the open water alone). Practice panic attacks. Learn how to get yourself through them. Have your partner grab you and pull you. It will serve you better than all the 100m kick drills combined. I will also say to become very comfortable in the pool before going to open water. Be able to swim 800m, 1600m, without stopping before going to the lake or beach.

All that being said, the race is always different from practice. Pre-race jitters will take their toll on you at some point, especially in the beginning, so breathe deep and try to stay calm and relaxed. When the race starts, count 30 seconds and then go into the water (if able to depending on the start methods), stay to the outside away from the fray. There will be bumping. People will grab you. Just move away and race YOUR race.

In the Facebook group, found by clicking on the link, member Amy Loewenthal did a fantastic write up on how she got through her anxiety on the swim, and she has given me permission to reprint it here. I think it was very helpful and insightful:

The first thing was finding a local swim coach (Joel Feldman. If you like her services and in the New Hampshire area she can be contacted at the Keene Family YMCA) who was tremendously supportive. I trusted her enough to tell her my irrational fears. (It turns out that most fearful swimmers are afraid of the same things) She took me seriously and we dealt with those things in practical ways. For example, I was afraid of getting a cramp in my leg and not being able to push my foot against something to release the cramp. She taught me how to make a turtle position that would enable me to reach down and use my hand as the surface to push my foot against. Another example: A fear that if I stopped making forward motion, I would sink. She had me practice many versions: rolling on to my back, treading, etc – midway through swim sets. These became second nature.

I got two pieces of buoyancy gear – a wetsuit zipper vest, and drawstring buoyancy shorts. They give me confidence that I won’t sink! They keep me warm and comfortable.

The coach taught me how to acclimate to the water BEFORE starting the swim – get head under the water, bob up and down three times. There is a reflexive shortness of breath in reaction to the cold water. I learned to get that done before the swim start so that I wouldn’t be starting the swim feeling short of breath – which is a surefire way to get a panic going. Easily avoidable!!

Sort out which thoughts are helpful and non-helpful. Practicing banishing non-helpful thoughts. Crowd them out with helpful thoughts. Also, crowd them out with rhythmic cycles and accompanying sayings. For example, I might say with the different parts of every stroke “long, strong, roll” (meaning: put your arm out long; strong catch and pull; rotate your body). I count 4 or 5 arm cycles and then sight the buoy. So I’m counting arm cycles too.

Visualize having difficulty. Let it play out in gory detail. Now start over and visualize how you solve your problem. Realize that you can deal with it. And you will deal.
This may be my own quirk – but if I was comparing myself to other swimmers and decided I was embarrassingly so much slower than everybody else…I was tempted to create a little drama. That way I would have a story about what I had to overcome. For example, I might start to imagine a scenario where I would aspirate some water, cough, and cough, still manage heroically to finish the swim, albeit slowly. But it made me so anxious to imagine all these bad things happening. I decided it was better to have a boring and uneventful slow swim. I don’t need an excuse for swimming the speed that I am currently (no pun) able to swim. I’m just out there doing what I can do. It will take some time to cover the course. I will be workmanlike and get it done.
I realized that my main job is to BREATHE OUT and BREATHE IN. The important point is to keep these two things very distinct. That is another helpful saying to myself if I get nervous.

I try to regard myself as if I was a well-meaning and smart child. I try to foster an attitude of both being gently amused about my own foibles but also respecting my seriousness and effort.
Practice physically and practice mentally. Mix some “what if” simulations into your routine laps in the pool or open water.
Patience. It took me three seasons to get calm. I decided after my mental success last year, that I didn’t need to freak out in the water ever again. At this point, I have a lot of strategies in place. The only way I’m going to go back to freaking out is if I DECIDE to ignore everything I know to do.

The Bike

The bike is the largest portion of the triathlon. You will be on your bike for HOURS in long course races, so anything you do regarding training should be geared toward that. Forget about speed. Speed will come. Your focus should be on getting your ass used to being on that seat for the long hour(s). Period.

The other focus is to train like your race. If you are racing Chattanooga, for example, find hills and climb, climb, climb. If you’re racing Florida in Panama City, find long flats, get into aero position and stay there. If it is possible, try to ride the actual course (easy if you only race close to home). Those of us in Florida have trouble finding hills, but contrary to popular belief, Florida is not flat all over. I would challenge anyone to ride Clermont, for instance, and still try to claim Florida is flat.

Nutrition is also important during this phase, as you will be, like I said, on the bike a long time. I personally cannot handle solid food while training long and hard. My stomach cannot handle it. When you are in full training mode the blood in your body is being routed to your muscles, leaving very little, if any, available for such little things like digestion. Ever hear triathletes, and especially runners, complain about GI issues while training? Now you know why. But everyone is different. I cannot handle sugar so I don’t eat it. I would argue your body really doesn’t need sugar (especially those downing multiple packets of Gel during a sprint race or a 5K), but I recognize some think they need it so I will leave it at that. I have resorted to Coke during a grueling session where I bonked, and it does work, but once you start throwing sugar in your body you have to keep feeding it.

It’s like a fire.

If you want a fire to burned fast and hot you throw pine needles on it, and you keep throwing pine needles on it to keep it going. If you want the fire to burn not as hot, but last a long time, you throw on a log. If you just MUST have carbs, try a product like UCAN in your water bottle. It’s a super starch (a lot like corn starch) that gives you the bump you need but doesn’t spike your insulin, so doesn’t affect you like the sugar does. Not the best-tasting stuff in the world (flavor it with sports drink) but I have found it works and works well. Plus Meb likes it so it HAS to be good right??

A quick note on Nutrition. Your body burns about 1g to 1.5g of carb per minute when in physical activity. That is 60-90 grams per hour. Your body is able to store about 2,000 calories of carbohydrate (400 grams in skeletal muscle, 90-110 grams in the liver, and roughly 25 grams circulating through the bloodstream for a total of 550-600 grams). Burning 60-90 grams per hour means about 10-12.5 hours. Replenishing carbs at a higher rate than your body can burn means it will SIT in your GUT and cause Gastral Distress. Get out of the “I need carbs” mindset.

And one last thing … learn how to change a flat

… the back tire too.


The Run

By reading my blog, I am going to assume that most of you are heavy, or at least used to be heavy, so you will all know this one simple truth: the run hurts more than any other discipline. Light people look at me like I have three heads when I say this to them. They LOVE the run. The run to them is the best part of the triathlon. But for the heavy triathlete, the run can be deflating, and painful. My most recent race was a good example. I killed the swim, did well on the bike, but because I hammered my hardest on the bike the run was done. My HR was pegged in Zone 5 and would not come down until mile 1.5. In a sprint, where the run is only 3.1 miles, the race that looked promising was one of my slowest.

The thing is this, the run is an evil that must be done, and must be practiced, but nothing ravages the body like running … even if you’re a little rubber person. It jams the feet, ankles, and knees, all of which is multiplied 10 fold if you’re overweight, and the kicker is this; nothing will make you lose weight faster than running. The trick is finding the method that works for you and sticking with it. I have found from trial and many errors that pushing through a run when feeling pain is not the right way to go. I have also been accused of not pushing hard enough on my runs, and there is some truth to that. I have a fear of injury, because I know an injury in running will affect everything else, so I plan ahead a run/walk pace and I stick to it, even if I feel I can push harder (until the very end, of course. Once I see the finish line I move as fast as I can).

My training advice goes along with George Sheehan’s advice, that training should be done on time and not miles. Sheehan never ran more than 15 miles to train for a marathon, and the Hanson method we use with Rob Bozovich is capped at 16 miles. There have been a few recent articles written stating that a 20 mile training run actually does more harm than good for the majority of runners, the basis is that the laws of diminishing returns hit at around 2.5 to 3 hours (meaning the risk of injury after that outweighs the increase in strength, which is minimal). This was, of course, met with a great discussion on boards and social media because, well, how DARE someone challenges conventional wisdom.

So that’s my view on getting started. Let me leave you, though, with a few of my extra thoughts:

Focusing on your weakness in training is fine, but where people (myself included) go wrong is that they don’t adjust the rest of their training to meet the new need. If you do 2 hours of swimming, 5 hours of running, and 7 hours of biking a week for a total of 14 hours and decide that your swimming needs work so you add another 2 hours, now your total training is 16. Your body can only handle so much stress and will become overworked. Focusing on one discipline is fine, but adjust accordingly.
Race … as much as you can afford to. Training is fine but nothing prepares you better than actually racing.

Find easier races to start. If you’re in Florida a great sprint triathlon to try is in Crystal River (400m/15miles/3miles). The course is flat and fast. For more of a challenge in the Sprint Category try Clermont Summer Series (400m/12miles/3.1miles). The hills will get ya!! As far as a 70.3 I would recommend Ironman Augusta (even though it’s a branded race) if you can get to it, just because the swim is aided by a strong current or the HITS series in Ocala or Naples.

I hope this post was helpful. As I stated in the beginning, it is only my point of view. I am certain there will be disagreements (especially about the sugar thing … people seem to really get upset about that for some reason) but I have found, as a Fat Slow Triathlete, these things seem to hold true. Please share your thoughts (as long as they are constructive), and join us for discussions on this and other Endurance Sports on the podcast Endurance for Everyone.

The Mission

It is the mission of Endurance For Everyone to promote the healthy participation in endurance events regardless of current fitness level. The leadership and members of teamE4E believe with proper and appropriate training, nutrition, and motivation, along with the support and guidance of a team, that everyone can complete, and even compete, in long course events.