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Out of the three disciplines in triathlon, swimming seems to create the most worry for new triathletes. It is likely that new triathletes (and even more seasoned ones) will say, “I hope to survive the swim” in a half joking manner, although the joke betrays some of their worries and fears. Starting a sporting event with fear is not a good way to start strong. Completing the swim with a positive attitude and confidence sets you up to thrive on the bike and run. To help you have confidence and a positive attitude, here are three tips for swim practice and four tips for racing during your first few seasons as a triathlete.


Swim Training Tips:

•   Hire a coach to become more comfortable in the swim. Some triathletes think that coaches are only for the professional or seasoned triathletes, but working with a coach from the beginning is one of the best ways to flatten the learning curve to the sport, specifically with swimming. Set up time with a coach to work on your swim skills so that the swim leg becomes an enjoyable, fearless start to a great race!

•   Form is Fast! Swimming is a counterintuitive sport. If you work harder, you won’t necessarily get better. Instead of working harder, work smarter. Learn what good swim form looks like and then practice it a lot. As a newer triathlete, the majority of your swim practice should include a lot of drill and tool work. Use drills (single arm drills, rotation drills, catch-up drills, fingertip drag drills, kick drills, etc.) and tools (swim snorkels, pull buoys, swim fins, and paddles) to help you learn proper swimming form. Drills and tools help you to focus on specific components of proper swim form one at a time. Remember to work smarter, not harder!

•   Be consistent. Swim practice takes a bit more planning than running and biking. Unless you have a pool at home, you need to schedule enough time to drive to the pool, swim, drive home, shower, and then get on with your day. An hour of swim practice can mean up to a two hour time commitment. So put it on your schedule and stick to it. To maintain your current swim form and fitness, schedule 2-3 swims per week. And to make improvements, schedule at least 3-4 swims per week.


Swim Racing Tips:

•   Form is Fast! You remember that excellent swim form you’ve been working on developing through working with a coach, doing drills, using tools, and being consistent? Don’t let it go when you hit the water on race day! Before the race starts remind yourself that race day nerves are just one of your body’s ways of getting your body ready to race. It’s adrenaline pumping through your body. When you hit the water, remind yourself again that you have practiced well and have the skill set to do this!

•   Self-select your starting position. Whether your triathlon involves an Open Water Swim or a Pool Swim, be selective about where you start. If you are nervous about swimming in open water, don’t line up front and center if the swim is a mass start. Line up at the outside and at the front so you have clean water in front of you, or even wait for a few seconds for all the other athletes to hit the water first. If you are doing a pool swim or an Open Water Swim with a time-trial start, then line up towards the back of the start line and pause at the end of each pool length if you need to.

•   Sighting. Many triathletes see other triathletes as obstacles in the water, instead of resources for smarter racing. Instead of always sighting off buoys, you can use other swimmers to make sure you are staying on course. If you do this, just remember to sight off a buoy every once in a while, just in case the swimmer you are following has gone off course. When you sight, lift your eyes slightly above water level instead of lifting your head too high.

•   Keep swimming! USA Triathlon rules do not require you to use a specific stroke. If you need to swim a bit of backstroke, breaststroke, or even doggie paddle to calm nerves or catch your breath, go ahead and do it. It is far easier to keep pushing forward if you don’t stop swimming. (Of course, stop swimming and wave for assistance if you are in danger or experiencing a health problem.)


When I first started as a triathlete, the swim leg was the hardest and least enjoyable portion of a triathlon even though I had spent years on swim teams as an adolescent. However, after I spent a while focusing on improving my swim form and racing with a positive attitude (fake it until you make it, right?), the swim portion has become my favorite portion of a race. Stronger athletes can push harder on the bike and run, while the smarter athletes thrive on the swim!

Good luck this tri season! I hope to see you at the races!


Get started improving your swim with a FREE swim evaluation:


Coach Jim Rowe is a Playtri Level 3 Coach, and also holds a USA Triathlon Level I Coaching Certification, and UESCA Triathlon Coaching Certification. He can be reached at jim.rowe@playtri

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