Triathlon: Key Tips to Be Ready for the Swim Leg

Whether you’re ready to take your body to the next level in physical competition or if you’re just looking for a new way to challenge yourself, triathlons offer a little bit of something for everyone. A triathlon is a race that consists of three activities that you must accomplish back-to-back: swimming, biking, and running. 

You might be wondering: Do you have to be an athlete to take on such a challenge? No, almost anyone can compete in a triathlon – no matter their shape, size, or experience level. And the best part about training for, and competing in a triathlon is that even if you’re not in peak for to start with, you’ll end up getting in good shape in the process. 

Triathlon Swimming Segment

Many people usually find the swim leg the most intimidating portion of a triathlon. 

The swim leg can occur in any available body of water, be it in a swimming pool or a natural body of water.

Swim legs that do not occur in a swimming pool are considered ‘open water swimming’ where the course generally proceeds around a series of marked buoys before triathletes exit the water near the transition area.

Triathletes exit out of the water, enter the transition area, and change from their swim gear into their cycling gear. Stiff competition and the pressure for faster times have resulted in the development of specialized triathlon clothing that’s suitable for both swimming and cycling, allowing many triathletes to have a transition that consists only of removing their googles, cap, and wetsuit, then pulling on their cycling shoes and helmet. For some, they leave their cycling shoes attached to the bicycle pedals and slip their feet into them while riding. Some triathletes don’t even wear socks, decreasing the time spent in transition even more!  

Triathlon swimming is different from competitive swimming. While the goals are the same – completing the distance as fast as possible – triathlon requires you to be as efficient as possible so you can save energy for the biking and running you will have to do later on. Many triathletes often feel that the race does not really start until they get on the bike, and they consider the swim as a ‘warm-up’ for the hard parts still to come. 

Training for Your First Triathlon Swim: Swimming Basics and Training Tips

Most of your triathlon swim training should focus on getting used to the distance you need to swim in the race and on perfecting your technique. As your technique improves and you gain experience in the water, you can start to focus on increasing your speed. Your greatest improvements in speed will happen as your technique improves. The more efficient your swimming is, the less energy you will need to complete the distance in a faster time. However, the biggest challenge you will have to overcome is learning to use the resistance created by the water to your advantage, instead of letting it slow you down. 

Swimming Basics. The swim leg of a triathlon is usually the most challenging for those new to triathlons. If you are new to swimming, it is important that you find a team or a coach that you can practice with to ensure that you are using correct swimming techniques. Usually, the hardest part if learning how to coordinate your breath with your strokes. Remember, if your stroke is inefficient and you are struggling to breathe, you will head into the biking and running segments with less energy. 

To help you prepare, here are some basics you should keep in mind: 

  • Equipment. For the race, you will be given a swim cap that indicates your start time (this will be determined by age category), so you will want to practice swimming with a cap to get used to the feeling. Also, make sure to find goggles that fit and have a good seal around your eyes. When swimming, wear the goggles first, then the cap, as this will help keep your goggles from getting lost in the open water should you get bumped by another swimmer during the race. Make sure that you choose a good quality swim cap and goggles! 

Depending on the swim venue (the swim leg can occur in a pool or in any open body of water), you may also want to invest in a wetsuit. According to the USA Triathlon rules, if water temperature is below 78°F, wetsuits are legal and actually provide a bit of an advantage due to the extra floatation it offers. With water temperatures between 78°F – 84°F, wetsuits are still allowed; however, if you choose to wear one, you will not be eligible for any awards. If the water temperature is above 84°F, wetsuits are not allowed as they pose more of a health hazard due to overheating. Furthermore, to avoid disqualification, make sure that your wetsuit is less than 5mm. 

Under your wetsuit, or as your swim attire, you should wear some type of triathlon-specific race suit. There are numerous options for both males and females (i.e. built-in sports bras, triathlon-specific shorts, etc.). If possible, try out a few options over the course of your training to find out which one you are most comfortable in. 

  • Training Schedule. To get in shape for the swim leg, aim for 2 swims per week. For a sprint even, work up to swimming around .5 – 1.0 mile in the pool, as well as in open water, as most races take place in lakes or oceans. Before swimming in open water, make sure that you are competent and comfortable swimming in a controlled environment. Moreover, when you do decide to practice in open water, make sure that you know the area and whether there are any regulations, sea creatures, or rip currents in the area you are swimming in. It is always safer to practice with a group or a swim partner, and make sure that you swim during daylight hours. 
  • Technique. When swimming, the most important thing that you need to remember is to keep your head down. Imagine that you have a dowel rod that goes through the top of your head and out of your feet. You should be rotating about this rod from one side to the other side of your body with each stroke, breathing every 2 – 3 strokes to the side during the glide phase of the stroke. 

For triathletes, it’s important to be able to breathe bilaterally so you can adjust to the venue, water conditions, and other swimmers around you. ‘Sighting’ is also something that you should practice during training so that you can stay on course. Every 3 – 5 strokes, look up and make sure that you are still on track toward your next turn or buoy, then put your head back down to get the most out of each stroke. 

Tips When Swimming in Pools. Here are some tips to keep in mind when swimming in pools. 

  • Evaluate your level. For a pool triathlon start, ask people who share your swim lane what time they think they achieve and define a ‘swimming order’. If one of them thinks that they have a lower lap time than you, don’t tire yourself out by trying to leave first. You will have to fight even more to keep your position in the lane! This can result in fatigue, stress, and may losing count in the end. 
  • Work on your technique. It’s not just about laps! A good triathlete swimmer will tire less quickly, move faster in the water, and go the distance. When it comes to triathlons, you need to pace your efforts. You can use the energy you save up during the swim for the rest of the race. 
  • Learn how to breathe. It can be difficult to coordinate swimming movements, kicking, breathing, sighting, etc. Everyone has their own technique (i.e. breathing every 2 – 3 strokes) – it doesn’t matter as long as you find your own rhythm. 
  • Choose appropriate equipment. Make sure that you choose good quality swimming equipment, particularly when it comes to your goggles. Your choice of goggles may be critical – adjustable googles, tinted or clear lenses, etc. But, how do you choose? It’s simple – choose ones that you are comfortable with. In pools, clear lenses are preferable as they provide better visibility. Also, you may want to opt for more flexible googles to avoid injuries in case someone accidentally hits you. 
  • Count your laps. In competition, don’t forget to count your laps! There’s always a person per lane to count the laps, but it may happen that you swim an extra lap. So, count your laps – and practice counting them – because it’s easy to lose count! 

Tips for Open Water Swimming. Open water swimming is vastly different from pool swimming. Further, depending on the water temperature, you will have to wear a wetsuit and that needs preparation too. Here, we share with you some tips to help you get used to triathlon open water swimming. 

  • Practice in open waters. Putting on a wetsuit properly, swimming straight, getting used to the water temperature, and ‘taming open water’ – these are some criteria that will help you get ready for your swim start. Before the race, test different water points because each dam, lake, or ocean will provide different sensations! 
  • Test water temperature. Any triathlete will tell you that entering cold water is not an easy task – but it’s not insurmountable! There are some things you need to know to help your body deal with the temperature shock. Enter the water a few minutes before the start so you have enough time to enter slowly. Splash some water on your face and neck. Once you’re in the water, start moving immediately and let some water run inside your wetsuit – it will warm up to your body temperature and create an extra barrier against the cold. Finally, put your head in the water and reposition your wetsuit if necessary. 
  • Adapt your breathing. Swimming in open water requires adaptability. To find your way, you need to look ahead. While you don’t have to sight at each breathing, make sure to lift your head (instead of turning it) every 2 – 3 strokes. Also, if someone is creating great water movements or kicking hard beside you, don’t risk swallowing mouthfuls of water (it’s neither good nor pleasant), and breathe to the other side.
  • Learn to find your way. Swimming in open water can be more exhausting because you may deviate from your course. A few triathletes even end up swimming several additional meters. Proper orientation can help you save your energy. To do so, here are some tips: look in front of you and look for a visual reference other than a buoy. Never rely on another swimmer – if they deviate, so will you. 

The Bottom Line

When it comes to your swim training, make sure that you have a plan. Whether you’re a beginner or an elite triathlete, think about what it is you want from your training and race experience, and pursue that to the best of your ability. Good luck!

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