Swimming is often the most challenging of the 3 disciplines for new triathletes. Swimming technique is tough to master, and combined with the chaos of open water on race day, triathlon swims can feel pretty overwhelming. But they don’t have to be!

Whether you’re training for a sprint, Olympic, a half Ironman or a full Ironman, keep reading for tips to improve your technique and get comfortable in the water for your first triathlon.

1. Get the Right Gear

The first step in your swim training is to gear up! Having the right gear will help you get the most out of your training, and can keep you safe!

  • Swimsuit: Find a comfortable swimsuit to train in. Most triathletes race in a tri suit, so you may also want to purchase one to practice swimming in it. 
  • Swim Cap & Goggles: Keep your hair out of your face with a swim cap — find a bright colored one if you’ll be training in open water frequently. Test out a few different kinds of goggles to find one that works best for you.
  • Safety Buoy: If you will be training in open water, you MUST get a safety buoy. These bright-colored, inflatable buoys are very light and attach to your waist. Wear one when you swim for added visibility to boats and other watercraft. Many buoys also double as a dry bag for your phone, keys and snacks!
  • Wetsuit: Depending on the water temperature and if your race is wetsuit legal, you may also need to purchase a wetsuit. 
  • Smartwatch: Triathletes love tracking their data! The best way to know how far you swim, and how fast, is to wear a smartwatch! Remember: What gets measured, gets improved! We love the Garmin Forerunner 945 for triathlon training >

2. Build the Foundation

Before you dive headfirst into distance swim training, you need to build a strong foundation of technique. When you swim with poor technique, you’ll be less efficient, and tire yourself out more quickly — which we don’t want on race day! 

Related: How to Swim Freestyle with Perfect Technique

We recommend working on technique in the pool to remove potentially challenging open water conditions from the equation.

A few general technique tips for freestyle:

Body Position: Your hips should be high, close to the surface of the water. Look straight down at the bottom of the pool to keep your neck in a neutral position.

Breathing: Turn your head to the side to breathe, rather than lifting your head up. Try to keep one eye and one ear in the water when you breathe!

Hand Entry & Pull: Your hand should enter the water about 18 inches in front of your shoulder, at about 11 or 1 on a clock. Once your hand is in the water, bend at the elbow and pull straight back, keeping your elbow high. This “Early Vertical Forearm” will increase your pull power and take pressure off your shoulders.

For more technique tips and drill videos, download the MySwimPro app

3. Build Endurance

Triathlon swims require lots of endurance — in a full Ironman, you have to swim 2.4 miles straight!

It may be tempting to ramp up your swim volume quickly, but building endurance takes time! As a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t increase your weekly swimming distance by more than 10% per week. For example, if you start with 1,000 meters in your first week, you’ll move up to 1,100 meters the next week.

Related: How I Use MySwimPro to Train for Ironman Triathlons

Exceeding 10% per week can put you at risk for overuse injuries that will hinder your training. Be patient!

When you’re doing endurance training, it’s important to find a balance between longer distance workouts and speed work. Understanding your goal race pace for your swim can help you break down how fast you need to go in training.

4. Incorporate Open Water Swims

If your triathlon swim is in open water, try to incorporate open water workouts into your training. Swimming in open water is very different from training in a pool, and it’s important that you get comfortable in the open water environment to avoid any nerves on race day.

Related: How to Log Open Water Swims with MySwimPro & Garmin

If you can, make time for 1 open water swim per week. Ideally, you’ll swim in conditions that are similar to those of your race location. For example, if you’re going to be wearing a wetsuit for your triathlon swim, make sure to do training swims wearing it! If you’ll need to take any nutrition during the race, practice that during your training swims as well.

In open water, you can also practice sighting to make sure you stay on course during the race. To sight, lift your head forward and find a landmark straight in front of you (a tree, a hill, a pier, etc.) and swim toward it. Take 10-20 more strokes and sight again, always keeping your landmark in front of you. Learn more about open water sighting >

5. Have a Plan

Many triathletes struggle with the swim because they aren’t sure how to train for it. The swim is just like the bike and run: You need a training plan! The right plan will challenge you and ensure you continue to progress in speed, endurance and technique. It should build up your volume and then taper down as you get close to race day.

Related: Why This D1 Swimmer Started Training for Triathlons

Ideally, you’ll be able to fit in 2-4 swims per week, along with your bike and run training. If you’re in need of a swim training plan for your triathlon, download the MySwimPro app! Check out our plans designed for building endurance and open water racing:

Try This Triathlon Swim Workout!

This pool workout will help prepare you for your open water swim on race day!

Distance: 1,700 yards/meters (1x main set) or 2,600 yards/meters (2x main set)

Warm Up

  • 1×300 Freestyle easy
  • 4×50 IM order
  • 1×200 Pull

Main Set (1x for beginners, 2x for advanced)

  • 4×75 Freestyle (middle 25 work on sighting)
  • 1×400 Pull or Swim
  • 4×50 Freestyle fast

Cool Down

1×100 Freestyle easy

Do you have a triathlon coming up? Share your training strategy in the comments! For more swim workouts and training plans, download the MySwimPro app and start a free, 30-day trial of ELITE!

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