Skip to main content

TriWeek: Swimming Tips

It's National Triathlon Week!

National Triathlon Week is an initiative created by USA Triathlon to celebrate multisport and all its constituency groups. "National Triathlon Week is a celebration of not only triathletes, but all members of the multisport community, including officials, coaches, race directors, families and friends of triathletes and more."

On behalf of Triweek, I'll be sharing some information on each sport (swim, bike, run) to help you make the most of your triathlon training journey. If you are new to the sport (or thinking about training for a triathlon), I hope you find this information helpful.


Without a doubt, a pool offers a very controlled, safe and consistent swimming environment.

Add in 1000+ athletes in the open water and you have a very different situation compared to pool swimming.

As a triathlete, you must remember that your swim training should be preparing you for open water swimming. You are not a competitive swimmer - you are a triathlete. Your race day swim will last between 10 minutes to 2 hours (depending on the distance) and when you are finished swimming, you need to have the energy to bike and run (knowing that as the race continues, you'll be experiencing more fatigue). Because of the unpredictable and uncomfortable nature of open water swimming, it's important to equip yourself with the proper technique and fitness that will help you swim efficiently and confidently on race day.  

  1. Improve your body posture in the water. If you did not grow up as a swimmer, you likely struggle to "hold" yourself in the water. In other words, it takes a great amount of extra energy just to position your body in the water so that you don't sink. Unlike land sports, where gravity helps you hold your posture, in the water, you are not familiar with your body weight. Once you are in the water, you weigh about 10% of what you do on land. It’s no surprise that when you are in the water, you expend a lot of extra energy in your legs (kicking) to help you stay afloat. Because of poor body posture, there's a good chance that you are dragging yourself through the water, making swimming extremely exhausting. As an example, think about how easy it feels to swim when you have on your buoyancy shorts, a wetsuit or a pull buoy. The buoy or buoyancy garment is helping you achieve good posture in the water. But remove the added buoyancy and you lose that good posture in the water and swimming suddenly feels more difficult This has less to do with your swimming fitness and more to do with your swimming posture. 
  2. Tautness - When you look at a "fast" swimmer, they are usually stiff and firm. Most triathlon swimmers are soft and floppy in the water. Tautness in your core and torso is what helps you swim more efficiently in the water, helping you conserve energy. Once you learn how to swim with a “stiff” or taut body, it will be easier to achieve good posture in the water, helping you swim faster (less drag) with less energy expended.
  3. Improve your body alignment - When you swim, proper alignment helps you swim through the water with the least amount of resistance possible. Without good alignment, errors occur in your stroke. If your body is anything but aligned (ex. noodly, scissor kicking, crossing your arms over the midline of the body), you create an excessive amount of drag and you must expend more energy than needed to move through the water. It's important to avoid excessive movements that are preventing you from staying in a straight line. 

As it relates to your swimming fitness and technique, the greatest benefit you'll receive is through the use of pool tools. Many newbie triathletes try to master perfect swim technique, similar to a competitive pool swimmer. However, gliding, rolling and a slow arm cadence will not help you in the open water. 

Swimming tools are not crutches (or cheating). Every tool has a purpose and each tool is designed to help you improve your body position, tautness and alignment in the water for more efficient open water, triathlon specific swimming. I've been swimming competitively for over 20 years and I use the same pool tools as Karel, who has only been swimming since 2012.
Whereas you may not feel the benefit of using the pool tool immediately, the goal of using the tool is to help you swim better without the tool. In open water, you have no walls to rest on, no black line to follow and you have to navigate yourself through waves, chop and current, as well as hundreds of other swimming bodies. Your pool tools will help you become a better triathlon swimmer. 
  • Ankle strap - The ankle strap/band/lock is an effective method to force you to be “taut” in the water. By eliminating the use of your legs, requiring you to keep a more taught/stiff body with your core, you are forced to use your upper body to move you through the water without the use of your lower body. If you have poor body position in the water and struggle to keep a taut body position, you will likely find it impossible (and exhausting) to swim with the strap as you feel like your feet are dragging on the pool bottom. With time, by using the ankle strap (and a small buoy or buoyancy shorts for a helpful lift), your body position and tautness will improve.  The ankle strap will also minimize excessive hip rotation. A higher cadence and stronger catch will also increase your propulsion through the water – which is the most efficient way to swim as a triathlete (propulsion should not come from kicking!). 
  • Pull buoy - To help with your body position, a pull buoy is a tool, not a crutch. Therefore, anytime you swim with the buoy, you want to feel how the buoy is lifting your body in the water. As you swim with the buoy, you’ll find it easier to keep your head, hips and feet in a straight line and your legs and hips will not swing from side to side with every stroke. The buoy is also a tool to "rest" your legs while requiring you to use more of your upper body (which is what you need for more efficient open water swimming).  Let the buoy be an aid to developing better form in the pool and don’t hesitate to use the buoy when you feel tired in the water, when form suffers. Keep the buoy between your thighs. Another way to give your body a lift without restricting your legs is through buoyancy shorts. 
  • Snorkel – A snorkel is a training tool that helps you focus on technique without the disruption of moving your head. The snorkel also allows you to focus on all of the components of your stroke without needing to turn your head to breath. Many stroke flaws, like scissor kicking, crossing your hands in front of the body and swinging hips occur when you turn your head to breath. The snorkel allows you to correct specific flaws while also building fitness in the water.  I suggest to use a nose clip if you feel like you are suffocating with just the snorkel. If you normally do flip turns, you can do an open turn with the snorkel, if needed. 
  • Paddles – Paddles offer a strength component to swimming. They should not be viewed as a way to swim faster. You want to think of the paddle as an extension of your forearm position. We have our athletes use three different types of paddles for each provides a different tool for the job to help with your arm mechanics and catch.  For example, the FINIS agility paddles do not have a strap, which forces you to have a palm positive hand position to correct incorrect technique when your hand enters the water and pulls through the stroke. Paddles should be small (the size of your hand) and should be used wisely as poor form with a paddle can cause shoulder issues. 
  • Fins – Sure, you may feel super fast with fins but when used properly, they are designed to help you with fluency. Fins help you move through the water with a rhythm, providing less work for your lower body as you focus on your upper body mechanics.  Do not overkick when using fins. And to avoid cramping, you need to kick from your hips and not from your knees, feet or calves. Think of the fins as an extension of your legs, with the kick coming from your hips. Fins will also help you work on ankle flexibility. Fins can help you learn how to drive your kick from your hips and not from the knee. Fins are also helpful when performing drills (ex. single arm drills).  Kicking is important but it doesn’t propel you forward as an open water swimmer/triathlete. Save your legs for the land! If you cramp with fins, this may be a sign that you tense your calf or feet muscles when you kick. Also if you run before you swim, you are more likely to cramp. Make sure to warm-up your ankles and feet before you swim and be sure to relax your feet, calves and legs when you kick lightly in the water.  

Triathlon swimming take-away tips: 
  • Swim frequently (3-5 times per week) and consistently throughout the entire year. Stay accountable to your swim training. 
  • Be patient. Swimming is a technique driven sport. It's takes a lot of practice. 
  • When you are tired from running and biking, you'll feel it the most in the pool. Don't get frustrated when you form feels off. 
  • Incorporate swim "bricks" where you swim and run or swim and then bike to get yourself use to transferring from the horizontal swim position to being more upright. 
  • Make every swim workout purposeful - with a specific warm-up, pre-set and main set to get the most out of your time in the pool. Avoid non-stop, continuous swimming "workouts" as you'll only teach yourself how to swim with poor form due to fatigue. 
  • Stay present, focused and dedicated to each swim session. You need a clear pathway so you know where you are going with your swim training.
  • Your swim training should first focus on your body position. Next comes the strength/propulsion component. Then comes specificity to prepare you mentally and physically for the open water. Focus less on gaining speed or trying to achieve a certain distance for each swim but instead, focus on swimming efficiently and effectively so that you can become swimfit for the open water.