How to Swim Like a Triathlete and Not Just a Swimmer

How to swim like a triathlete and not just a swimmer

A triathlon is a race that has three stages with different sports: Swimming, cycling and running all in one race. Once a stage ends, the athletes immediately start the next phase without breaks.

While many people typically know how to swim, cycle and run, they don’t have the best techniques to do them as fast as possible in a competitive atmosphere. Triathlon races are intense and demanding, and require a lot of specific training.

If you want to swim like a triathlete, you have to know how to pace yourself and mentally endure long stretches of each stage.

What Are the Different Types of Triathlons? 

The distances for triathlons vary on who sets the course and what kind of triathlon it is. The common types of triathlons are Sprint, Olympic, Half Ironman and Full Ironman.

Sprint triathlons tend to have shorter distances and still incorporate all three stages — swimming, cycling and running. These types of triathlons are recommended for beginner triathletes because they’re more likely to have a positive experience and be inspired to work up to a longer triathlon.

What’s the Difference Between Triathletes and Swimmers?

Triathletes and swimmers have different techniques when it comes to swimming.

Triathletes are completing one part of their three-part race, so they want to conserve energy over shorter distances. Swimmers usually swim longer distances and are always trying to improve their time.

  • TriSwimCoach states that triathletes swim about 2500-4000m, while swimmers cover 5000-6000m in one practice.
  • Swimming doesn’t have as severe an impact on your body. That’s why swimmers recover quickly and can get back to racing. Triathlons take a lot out of triathletes, so they cannot race as often.
  • Swimming Stroke. While triathletes focus on the freestyle to get them through choppy open waters, long-distance swimmers practice a variety of strokes:
    • Breaststroke: The swimmer propels forward by making half-circular movements with their arms and using a flutter kick. Beginners and casual swimmers use this stroke.
    • Butterfly Stroke: This stroke is more advanced and has a strict technique. It also requires a lot of stamina. The swimmer’s arms are symmetrical and make circular motions out of the water, while they use a dolphin kick with their legs
    • Backstroke: The swimmer alternates which arm goes back in circular motions and a flutter kick to move them through the water on their back.
  • Triathletes don’t consider themselves swimmers. They usually identify as one of the other sports in the triathlon, cyclist or runner. As a cyclist or runner, they often see swimming as something they have to improve. It’s the first stage of the race. Swimmers often identify with the stroke that they excel at, but most stick to the term “swimmer” as an identity.

Triathletes Swim Distance

Transitioning to Triathlon Swim Training Practices 

If you’ve trained in swimming before for competition or general fitness, you might think you don’t need to focus on the swimming aspect of a triathlon. But triathlon swimming has a different set of skills than swimming in a regular pool:

  • Swimming in Open Water. Triathletes swim in a variety of environments. They can swim outside in lakes or oceans in different weather conditions. Their environments require specific techniques that won’t be picked up by training in a pool because pools are too controlled. A swimmer will face a greater challenge in a choppy ocean with strong currents than an inside pool.
  • Breathing Technique. Triathletes with a swimming background should not bring their low-profile breathing strategy to the triathlon. Swimmers breathe close to the water, which works in a calm pool. Triathletes who try this in an ocean are going to get a mouthful of salt water. They need a high-profile style of breathing, so they’re not as close to the surface when they take a breath.
  • Effective Kicking. Swimmers can kick more while they swim because they’re trying to beat records and be as fast as possible. Triathletes still want to be speedy, but they have to consider the cycling and running portions that are still ahead in the race. Too much kicking will tire you out. Triathletes might have two-beat kicks for this part of the race so they still have energy for cycling and running. Try and adjust your swim style to kick less frequently.
  • A higher stroke rate per minute helps you swim in outside water conditions. Turbulent waves could upset a swimmer’s rhythm. Higher stroke rates help you adapt to choppy waters.
  • Build Endurance. When swimmers want to improve their stamina in the pool, they’re given advice to run. Going for runs provides a full-body workout. Triathletes who want to better their swimming stage of the race already have to train with running. They should focus on improving their technique and mechanics so they can move efficiently through the water.

Triathlon Swimming Skill Set

Triathlon Swimming Techniques

Swimming like a triathlete means you have to train to stay balanced, efficient and focused on getting better with each day. If you’re a swimmer, this might require moving away from what you know.

Triathlete Swim Training

It’s more than getting faster or building your endurance. When you’re swimming like a triathlete, you have to think about all the separate mechanics of swimming and how they combine to propel you swiftly through the water without overexerting yourself. According to, you should pay attention to these main points to improve your swimming.

  • Work on staying balanced in the water. When you’re off balance, your body will compensate by overworking to correct itself. This could be kicking too much or throwing off your rotation. When you’re balanced in the water, you’re able to conserve energy.
  • Body Position. Your head should be kept down while swimming. One problem some swimmers get into is turning their head when they rotate each arm. Practice keeping your head straight down while your body rotates.

Hand entry is technical skill that you might not think about but improving it could make a big difference in your swimming. Instead of bringing your hand all the way around and up for each rotation, bring your hand to your sightline and go through the water. Reducing the time your hand is in the air is more efficient. Your stroke should be pushing you forward. If you’re pushing up and out of the water, your balance and position are probably off.

  • Weakness Improvement. Identify the areas you’re struggling with and make them your priority. Even if it means slowing your pace so you focus on fixing technical errors that are holding you back. As you develop muscle memory and gain better balance and body position in the water, you can increase your speed.
  • Keep Practicing. Avoid long periods of time out of the water. Try and swim every other day. Your body needs to get used to being in the water on a regular basis. You’ll also have better habits for practicing and being in the water will be a familiar place.
  • Bilateral Breathing. Most swimmers breathe on one side. You want to learn how to breathe on both sides because it suits outdoor swimming conditions. Your muscles improve equally and you reduce the risk of injury from overworking one side. Bilateral breathing also lends to your mentality. If you’re swimming in the ocean, you won’t have given lanes like a pool. Another competitor can choose to swim right next to you. If you can only breathe on one side and they’re on that side, you’re going to be watching them the entire race. This can be intimidating and make you focus more on them than what you’re doing. But a swimmer who can breathe bilaterally can simply choose to breathe on the other side and never have to look at the competitor for the remainder of the race. To help improve your bilateral technique, these tips should help you out:
    • Relax Your Muscles: Keep your neck and shoulders loose. Stretch every time before you swim so you don’t strain or pull muscles while rotating.
    • Time Your Breathing: If you feel like you’re not getting enough air on your weaker side, breathe earlier in the stroke cycle. When you start to extend your hand forward you should begin to rotate your head.
    • Know Your Arm Position: Keep your arm strokes even and at a steady pace. This will keep your balance and you won’t have to worry about pulling yourself under water and not getting a full breath of air. 

Swimming for Triathlons: Open Water

The ocean is not a controlled environment. While you might be prepared to deal with choppy waters and cold temperatures, you also should be aware of what other aspects of the ocean you can encounter during your race.

Training in distance and simulating ocean conditions will help you prepare for the swimming stage of the triathlon, but you should also mentally prepare for how triathletes race in the water.

  • Open Water. Swimming in open water means you can swim into anything in the ocean. You might have to swim through clumps of seaweed or deal with the sound of boats in the distance. One particular event that triathletes need to think about is swimming through jellyfish.

Jellyfish are unpredictable. The water could be crystal clear the day before your race and the next day they’ve washed up. Wearing a long-sleeved wetsuit deters stinging, and athletes can usually go on with a mild sting. If you think you’ve had a serious injury from a jellyfish, you should go back to shore and talk to the lifeguard about getting proper medical attention.

  • Swimming Without Lanes. Everyone is swimming to the same location and there aren’t individual lanes for each swimmer. You’ll be part of a pack of swimmers and could experience some occasional kicks or jabs. If the person in front of you kicks you, or if you’re touching them as you swim forward, give them space. The same goes if you’re stuck swimming next to someone. Stay calm and remember any hits or touches are not intentional. Focus on your swim and either let swimmers pass you or try and find more space.

If you want to try and avoid the pack swimming, you can swim out in front or hang back at the start and allow other swimmers to go first. Swimmers who have a strong speed and experience in high-intensity conditions have a good chance of getting to the front. But there is nothing wrong with letting the crowd get ahead of you if you’re stronger in cycling or running.

Avoid the pack while swimming in a triathlon

During your training, practice swimming with a pack of swimmers in a pool. This will simulate the noise and confusion that could overwhelm you if you’ve never been in that situation. Then, practice this same scenario in open water. When you put yourself in this position, you get used to being surrounded by swimmers and in rough currents. You’ll be able to develop techniques for keeping yourself calm and focused with all of the commotion around you.

Practice can prepare you for the triathlon, but some athletes do experience panic attacks. If you have a panic attack during the race, swim away from the pack and float so you can calm your heart down. When you feel better, you can start your race again. If you don’t feel better or are light-headed and weak, do not resume the race. Seek medical attention. Your health should be your top priority. There will always be time for another race.

  • Directional Awareness. Make a habit of checking your direction every four strokes. You can look for buoys that make up the course. If the water is choppy and blocks your sightline from the buoys, you can use natural landmarks like surrounding mountains so you know where you’re going. There’s no guarantee the swimmers ahead of you are checking their direction, so use those physical markers to stay on track.

Strengths From Triathlon Stages

Triathletes are aware of how the stages of their race are so connected. All of these sports help build on the other. Whether it’s improving cardio, flexibility or strength, balancing your training between the three sports will have positive impacts on the others.

When participating in these sports, you are gaining the benefits from each one:

  • Running
    • Cardio
    • Muscle Strength
    • Lungs
  • Cycling
    • Cardio
    • Muscle and Bone Strength
    • Flexibility
    • Joints
    • Lungs
  • Swimming
    • Cardio
    • Recovery/ No Impact
    • Muscle Strength
    • Breath Control and Pacing
    • Balance

If you want to improve one sport specifically, don’t let yourself get bogged down in doing the same workouts over and over again. It’s okay to switch sports and workouts.

Let the crossover benefits inspire you to change up your workouts if you’re getting bored or stuck as you train to be a triathlete. If swimming is giving you trouble, try cycling to improve your flexibility and strength. After a difficult and high-impact training with running, let your body recover by switching back to swimming.

Triathlete Swimmers

Triathletes swim in open, rough water and still go on to cycle and run for hours. Proper training in the right environments, practicing situations you might encounter and building mental strength are all crucial to being a successful triathlete.

As you make these changes and put in the time to practice, you’ll swim like a triathlete and will be ready for a triathlon.



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