Triathlon Swimming

The key to being a successful triathlete lies in balancing all three aspects of the triathlon so you can perform evenly in all three legs. But as it all starts with the swim, it’s important to exit the water having put in your best effort.
Created: February 2011
Revised: August 2011
Latest Feedback: August 2011

Get a Successful Triathlon Swim

To be competitive, you're not only going to need to develop your strength in each of the three disciplines, which definately requires specific work on your swimming, cycling and running but you're also going to need to develop endurance and stamina at high output (increasing your threshold) to enable you to give it your all during each leg of the race.

Naturally, if you're a beginner triathlete, you may take some time to develop this sort of fitness base, however understand that this is your ultimate aim. In the meantime, if you need to pace yourself a little - that's probably a good idea so that you don't end up with a DNF (did not finish). But as it all starts with the swim, it’s important to exit the water having put in your best effort but with enough to jog with purpose to the transition area. Don't overdo it, but as you develop your swim fitness you'll find that your ability to run faster will happen as will your ability to recover quickly a little while into the bike leg, and your heart rate will settle so you’ll feel comfortable and confident on the bicycle.

So, how exactly can you develop your swim fitness? Well, read on...

Open Water Triathlon Swimming

A swimming pool offers a lot of safety and security, but open water swimming is definitely a different ball game, as you won’t have lifeguards everywhere, lane ropes and a calm surface.

Practice – Get out of the pool and into open water as often as you can. A pool will normally have a black line at the bottom pointing out the way. When swimming in an ocean or a lake, you will have to lift your head to see how far you have reached. Further, the water won’t be crystal clear.
Keep safe – When training, swim along the shore instead of swimming straight out, as you can maintain a comfortable depth and the water won’t seem as scary as out there in the middle. As you build your strength and confidence you can venture further.

Prepare - Always test the waters before the triathlon swim leg, as you’ll know what to expect. A good warm-up in the water will prepare your body for a good start. While training, carry a water thermometer to check the temperature. Based on the reading, you can decide whether you need to use a wet suit or not.

A strong start - A triathlon swim leg will normally start either in deeper waters or right from the beach. If you’re starting out from the beach, then you will have run into the water, until it becomes counterproductive. However, you may find that the water is too shallow to start your swim. In this case, you can do a ‘dolphin’ by leaping or diving forward and gliding under the water. When you surface, if it’s deep enough to start swimming you can push forward, but if it’s still shallow, then you’ll have to dive in again. Remember not to dive too deep especially in very shallow water as you can injure yourself. Further, if there are several swimmers, ‘dolphining’ may not be possible and you will have to walk into the water till you reach a deeper depth.

Sighting - During triathlon swimming practise, look for markers on the horizon, such as a specific tree or a building. During the race there will be brightly coloured markers in the water but unless you practice sighting these objects, you won’t be completely prepared.
Keep the faith- Don’t lift your head to sight too often, as that could disrupt your pace. Have faith in your stroke and in your training and learn to relax in the water. You can easily finish about six strokes before you lift your head again.

Watch the bubbles - Try and keep track of the bubbles that result from the kicks of other swimmers, so you won’t have to lift your head too often. However, if there’s poor visibility, then watch for the orange markers as well.

Breathing - Breathe on both sides (bilateral breathing) so you can swim straight for longer. During triathlon swimming practise, try and take a breath after every three strokes, as this will force you to lift your head towards the right as well as the left.

Use the draft - You can draft off another swimmer by swimming directly behind or in the wake. This will give you an added push or pull so you won’t have to swim as hard. However, swimming in a pack can be rough, distracting and may impede your momentum.

Interval Training

Interval based training is especially effective for the triathlon swim leg, as it builds endurance, helps maintain stroke technique and lets you improve your timing, without tiring you out! This form of training involves short, interval-based swim sets. So instead of completing 800 meters freestyle at a stretch, you will break it down into 16 swim sets of 50 meters each. After every swim set, you will be able to rest and recover. Once you have perfected your style and strategy, you can attempt a long and continuous swim as it will prepare you mentally for the actual event. There are two common methods of interval based training for triathlon swimming.

Fixed rest time

In this method the interval time is fixed irrespective of the time you take to finish each swim set. For example, if you are swimming 16 swim sets of 50 meters each, you can take a 15 seconds rest after each swim set. You will have to start the next set as soon as 15 seconds are up. However, you can decide how much of rest time you give yourself. It could be 20 seconds or 25 seconds, but 15 to 20 seconds is ideal. This triathlon swim technique helps you focus on heart rate training.

Fixed swim set time

In this method, every swim set will have a fixed time limit in which you will have to finish that set. For example, if you are swimming 16 swim sets of 50 meters each, you can set a time of 1 minute for each set. Now if you complete a set in 45 seconds, you can rest for the remaining 15 seconds and then start the next set. However, if you take 50 seconds to finish a set, then you’ll only have 10 seconds to rest. This triathlon swim method helps you monitor your pace by using a pace clock.

Perfecting Your Technique

Once you’re comfortable swimming in open water, it’s time to perfect your technique so your speed improves and your style becomes more efficient. Your goal should be to go a longer distance using less energy. Use the water’s resistance to your advantage and don’t let it slow you down. One key aspect to remember is to control your breathing, so it falls into a relaxed rhythm. Many triathlon swimming beginners make the mistake of lifting their head high and sighting forward, so they can breathe as well as pinpoint their position. However, this will disrupt your stroke rhythm and the position of your body in the water. Instead, follow the sight-turn-breathe technique.

Keep your head low when sighting and then breathe to the side, so you can retain your regular body rotation during a stroke. This way, you won’t reduce your speed or your body position. Lift your head only slightly so you eyes will surface enough to see your course.

The list below are a couple of techniques to get you going in the right direction. The more you practise these techniques you will master the art of the triathlon swimming.

Torpedo Position

While swimming keep your body thin and long just like a torpedo. When your arm goes forward, press your shoulder against your ear while keeping your head down. Try and shrug your shoulder when you stretch your arm out, so your body becomes more streamlined as you glide.

Horizontal body position

Even while kicking, try and remain in a horizontal position. Your feet or knees should not extend outside the frontal profile. Don’t kick too hard as you will tire more quickly. Active kicking won’t give you much propulsion or speed, so your heels should only break the waters’ surface. When you practise for a triathlon swim, remember not to point your toes towards the bottom but keep it straight back.

Torso rotation

Roll onto your side with every stroke as this makes your stroke more efficient and it reduces drag. Further, you won’t have to use up a lot of energy to recover from each stroke. Rotating your torso will help keep you horizontal and streamlined and remember that it starts at your hip.

Grab and pull

When you extend your arm to grab the water, pull your body forward so your hand remains in almost the same position when it exits the water again. It’s not about moving your hand from the front to your hip. Your body needs to push forward past your hand. This technique will greatly reduce the tension in your arm.

Elbow positioning

If you pull your elbow out of the water too soon, then you will end up sacrificing forward momentum, thereby covering a shorter distance per stroke. The more strokes you take, the more tired you will be. Therefore, it’s important to continue the pull-through underwater, so the arm stretches behind you and pushes you forward a little further.

Closed fist

It’s true that the surface area of the hand gives you the most pulling power during the triathlon swim leg. However, we seldom use the underside of the arm to enhance our performance. This is largely because we haven’t trained to use this portion to aid in an underwater pull through. While training, try swimming with a closed fist. This will help you get a feel of how the underside of your hands can be used, to give you added power.

Arm Distance

A common mistake triathlon swimmers make is to take a shorter arm stroke just in front of the head. This will reduce the amount of water you grab and will force you to increase the number of strokes, to cover a given distance. Take advantage of the full length of your arm and stretch it as far as it will go. Position your arm well out in front of your head, so it results in a more efficient stroke.


You can easily conquer the triathlon swim leg with dedicated practise, physical training, effective techniques and the right mindset. Using these tips, you can exit the swim at the front of the pack!

Swim Exit to T1 Transition

Keep in mind that your swim time doesn't stop when you exit the water - in fact the time it takes to get from the water to the transition will be timed as part of your overall swim time. This is fine because its the same for everyone, however there is a distinct advantage to those that can exit the water running instead of stumbling exhausted or even walking to the transition. The transition area could be as little as 50 metres from the shore or quite a few hundred metres away so as part of your pre-race strategy, ensure you have looked at this distance for each race you participate in, and consider how you will attack this phase.

Once you cross the timing mat and enter transition, you are now into another phase of the race. Usually, the time in T1 will count towards your bike time and consequently, your overall race time, which is the only time that matters in the wash up so its a delicate balance to get all phases of the race into perfect harmony. T1 is not a time to rest and recover after a sprint from the swim exit - so if you're going to run out of the water, you need to do it with sustainable effort.

Part of your open water swim training should therefore include a run exit from the water of 50 - 300m, and ideally this should include removing goggles, cap and unzipping your wetsuit on the run and removing the arms down to your waist.

In a race situation, many people get into a bit of a flap - but if you have trained your mind and body to cope with this segment of the race your body can rely somewhat on habit and reflex without unnecessary stress so you can get on with the job of performing a smooth transition. There's nothing worse than finding someone placed ahead of you based only on better transition times!

For more triathlon swimming tips and techniques, we have listed a selection of other articles in the Related Pages section below. We have also selected relevant triathlon swimming books and dvds available now from our online shop.

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