A Beginners Guide On How To Swim In A triathlon

Did you know that out of the three sports in a triathlon, swimming burns the most calories among the three. The importance of swimming in triathlons obviously cannot be overstated.

Swimming is often the most difficult part of a triathlon, even for experienced triathletes. Coaching and training sessions are incomplete without proper knowledge of nuances involved in swimming in a triathlon.

This blog post will serve as a useful guide for beginner triathletes who want to learn all about how to swim in a triathlon.

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How Long Is The Swim In A Triathlon: Triathlon Swim Distances 

The swim distances in a triathlon vary with the race categories. How much do you swim in a triathlon will depend upon the race category whether it’s the super sprint, sprint, Olympic, half-ironman, and full ironman. 

Race CategorySuper sprintSprint Olympic Half ironman Ironman 
Swim Distance500 meters
0.31 miles 
750 meters
0.47 mile
1.5km
0.93 miles
1.9km
1.2 miles
3.8km
1.9miles

Most triathlon swims will take place in open water. But for some reason, your triathlon can be pool-based either due to weather constraints or the non-availability of an open water body in that area.

For pool-based swims, knowing how many laps is your triathlon swim becomes important in the planning and preparation part.

For example, if your pool is a 50-meter standard Olympic size pool and you are up for a sprint triathlon, then you will have to do 15 laps of the pool.

Depending on the distance of the swim, the training period varies. For super sprint and sprint, power and speed become the key factors during training while for longer races, swim training sessions have to incorporate endurance and devote more focus towards improving technique.

What To Wear For A Triathlon Swim: Triathlon Swimming Gear

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A good quality triathlon wetsuit can be just as helpful in improving your swimming performance as a multi-week-long swim training regime.

Selecting the correct swimming gear will not ensure that you have one less thing to worry about.

Ill-fitting swim goggles, torn wetsuits, and zippers getting stuck can not only be a big problem while swimming, but these things can also ruin your timings. Therefore, proper swimming gear is a must-have for every triathlete. 

Let us have a look at the basic swimming gear of a triathlete.

  • Swim Cap
    • Generally provided by the race organizers. 
    • The Colour of the swim cap depicts the wave in which the participant is competing such as beginner, advanced, professional.
  • Swim Goggles.
    • Swim goggles allow for a clear view under the water while swimming and protect the eyes.
    • Should fit properly without any gaps.
    • Swim goggles should be worn under the swim cap so that they don’t slip out during swimming.
    • One should note the color of the lens for clear vision and sun protection.
  • Triathlon Wetsuit.

Related: What To Wear Under A Triathlon Wetsuit

 Is There A Triathlon-Specific Swimming Stroke?

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As per ITU, triathletes are allowed to use any swimming stroke to complete the swim portion. Triathletes are also allowed to change their strokes during the duration of the swim.

 The Right Triathlon Stroke Selection

Out of the four popular strokes, backstroke is the least recommended for triathlon.

Most triathlon swims will be open water-based with swimmers swimming shoulder to shoulder. In such a case, doing backstroke can result in improper stroke position which can disturb your rhythm. It is fairly difficult to maintain the correct bearing with your face pointing away from the turning point or the shore.

The next stroke is the butterfly which in itself is a difficult stroke to master plus it consumes an appreciable amount of energy. Therefore, the butterfly is also the least recommended stroke after backstroke.

Breaststroke is a stroke that utilizes the least energy among all the strokes and it’s also the easiest to learn. A swimmer keeps his head out of the water and is also able to retain his breath for longer in a breaststroke.

 Therefore, Breaststroke for triathlon swimming gives the swimmer an option to relax when tired and also to realign or reorient himself if he/she gets disoriented due to the crowd of swimmers.

However, it is one of the slowest strokes.

Next comes the freestyle. Freestyle is a relatively easy stroke to learn, if not the easiest. Freestyle is also the fastest swimming stroke, with the highest propulsion efficiency and the least amount of wasted motion. Therefore, freestyle is the most recommended stroke for triathlon.

Again, to sum up, what stroke you swim in a triathlon is the same stroke that you have practiced the most during training. Remember, don’t try anything new on race day.

How To Improve Your Triathlon Swim 

There are a few very important things that need to be kept in mind if you are looking forward to improving your stroke for the race.

Body Alignment and head position: Correct body alignment will ensure that your body will stay parallel to the surface of the water. Maintaining a correct body alignment means keeping the head, heels, and hips at the surface of the water, and the head facing towards the bottom.

Hand entry and timing: Your hands should maintain proper contact with water while entering. They should neither be too wide nor too narrow. the entry point should be near your goggle line. One should avoid trying for much air time and rather time his hand movement with the rotation of the torso.

Minimizing your kick: This will help you to save energy and also balance yourself in the water.

Catching the water: in order to catch the water, you must hinge at the elbow and keep your fingers pointed forwards and less spaced apart to make sure the maximum volume of water is displaced.

Breathing: Try and avoid breathing after every stroke and extend it to 2-3 strokes so that you utilize the maximum out of each breath, also keeping in mind not to break your rhythm. A bad breathing technique can cause early fatigue.

Heart rate and stroke count: keep a check on your heart after your training sessions and focus on reducing your stroke count as time passes. A lower heart rate and a reduced stroke count are indicators that your swim is improving.

Triathlon Swimming For Beginners: Key Insights

A majority of triathlon swims will take place in open water. Swimming in open water can be slightly different from a pool-based regular swim.

Consequently, a beginner triathlete, or anyone for that matter, while training for a triathlon must be aware that he will have to make tiny changes to his technique in order to adapt to a pool-based swim with a large group of swimmers.

Let’s have a look at those factors.

Arm Rate: In a pool swim where swimmers swim in lanes, swimmers can afford to have a slow extended stroke. However, in a pool next to dozens of other swimmers, a slow arm rate can be the cause of a “dead stroke”. A dead stroke occurs when you get bumped and the resultant propulsion is zero. So, for a triathlon swim, triathletes need to have a faster arm rate, eliminating the risk of a deadly stroke, while maintaining a good technique.

Breathing: Triathlon swimmers, unlike regular swimmers who prefer bilateral breathing, have to breathe towards one side only. This can be attributed to three main reasons 

  • Another swimmer swimming next to you.
  • The glare of the sun from one direction.
  • Waves of water coming from one direction.

Arm Recovery: Triathlon involves swimmers in close proximity. Such a situation doesn’t give you the luxury to have a low arm recovery over the top of the water. It is much more suitable to have a straight arm recovery which eliminates the danger of coinciding with fellow swimmers or catching waves.

Kicking Rate: Triathletes use the legs more for stability rather than propulsion because they have the cycling and running leg also in mind while swimming and generally look for conserving energy. Therefore, as against an 8 beat leg kick for pool swims, triathletes generally prefer a 2 beat flutter kick.

Sighting: Unlike a pool where a swimmer has a black line to orient himself, a triathlete does not have the same luxury in open water. Sighting your turning point marker as well as being able to sight opponents swimming next to you can prevent yourself from bumping into them.

Drafting: Drafting is when a swimmer swims directly behind another swimmer to benefit from the reduced drag caused by the water. Drafting while swimming in triathlons is actually legal and triathletes can benefit from it.

How To Train For A Triathlon Swim

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While training for a triathlon, you will be training for all three sports in a limited amount of time. While it is important to focus on all sports, swimming is not generally the strong suit as far as many triathletes are concerned. 

While you would initially like to give an equal number of days to swim, bike, and run, I would suggest that you should swim three days a week for triathlon and compensate for the lost day by doing a run-bike brick workout.

Swim training sessions are different for beginner and advanced athletes. However, any swim training will have the same basic structure i.e. anaerobic session, a technique session, a strength session, and a speed session.

Swim Training Sessions

Let’s have a look at them one by one to understand how the training session is structured.

  • Aerobic Session: As the name suggests, aerobic means in the presence of oxygen. This session is aimed at increasing the endurance, by slowly and gradually increasing the rep length. 

An aerobic session is done at a comfortable pace which allows increasing the duration and distance. This is done keeping in mind that endurance is the key in triathlon events.

  • Technique session: As the name suggests, this session is aimed at improving the technique. This session includes drills which help in improving your stroke.

In the technique session, perfection and quality is the key and it can be tiring at times because a lot of hard work goes into analyzing your stroke. You can refer a coach or film yourself to monitor your progress.

  • Strength session: This session is aimed at introducing a strength element to  training. The goal is increasing the strength of specific muscle groups involved in swimming, as the weaker areas in our swimming.

This is achieved with the help of equipment such as paddles, kick pulls, and pull buoys. This equipment enables a runner to focus on using only one set of muscles where strengthening is required while restricting the movement of other parts. 

It is also helpful to practice different strokes during the strength session as they will build the strength of different muscle groups also.

  • Speed session: The speed session is aimed at increasing the speed of swimming and it is advisable not to include speed training until you are pretty comfortable with aerobic sessions.

During speed sessions, you should focus on increasing the arm rate. Speed workouts are really short reps with long recovery to ensure that the focus is on achieving speed gains.

  Beginner Swim Training Plan

Below is a beginner swim training plan including all the sessions for a week.

DAYAerobic sessionTechnique sessionStrength sessionSpeed session
Monday5x 200m aerobic (30 seconds recovery between each)
4x 300m aerobic (30 seconds recovery between each)
3x 400 m aerobic (30-40 seconds recovery between each)
2x 500m aerobic (30-40 seconds recovery between each)
8x 50m drill as 25m drill and 25m easy swim (15 seconds recovery)
1x 100m easy pull (30 seconds recovery)
4x 75m as 25m easy/25m drill/25m easy (20 seconds recovery)
1x 100m easy pull (30 seconds recovery)
2x 100m as 25m drill/75m easy (30 seconds recovery)
Wednesday5x 100m as
1st 100m swim
2nd 100m pull
3rd 100m pull with paddles
4th 100m kick
5th 100m swim
Take 20 seconds recovery between each rep, take extra 60s, and repeat
4x 25m as 15m max10m easy swimming (Take 40 seconds recovery between each 25)
1x 100m easy swimming with 60 seconds recovery
(Repeat the entire set 2-3 times )
Friday5x 200m aerobic (30 seconds recovery between each)
4x 300m aerobic (30 seconds recovery between each)
3x 400 m aerobic (30-40 seconds recovery between each)
2x 500m aerobic (30-40 seconds recovery between each)
8x 50m drill as 25m drill and 25m easy swim (15 seconds recovery)
1x 100m easy pull (30 seconds recovery)
4x 75m as 25m easy/25m drill/25m easy (20 seconds recovery)
1x 100m easy pull (30 seconds recovery)
2x 100m as 25m drill/75m easy (30 seconds recovery)

Conclusion

You now have got all the information it takes to start your swim training for your upcoming triathlon.

The endeavor should be to enjoy the experience of triathlon and, side by side, become better at it.

Good Luck!!

Feel free to comment if you have any suggestions.

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