You can’t win the triathlon in the swim, but you sure can lose it.

Even though the swim takes up the least amount of time in a triathlon, a good triathlete still needs to be proficient. There are 9 swimming workouts written explicitly for triathletes if you want to take you swimming to the next level.

How Much Time Should You Commit to Swimming?

In half and full Ironman, you will spend roughly 10% of your time swimming, 50% biking, and about 40% running. Whereas in the Sprint and Olympic distances you will spend closer to 20% of your time in the water with a little less time biking (45%) and running (35%).

As a result, triathletes often tend to commit less of their total training time to swimming. This is not necessarily a bad idea; It all depends on your current swimming abilities.

New triathletes with little to no swimming experience will benefit most from spending more time in the pool. The benefit for these athletes is two-fold; they drop significant time from their swim splits and additionally conserve precious energy by learning to swim more efficiently.

Therefore, the main focus of these athletes will be on improving their stroke technique. For the more experienced swimmer, the advantage to be gained is considerably smaller.

If you are already comfortably finishing your swims in the middle of the pack, it may not be worthwhile to spend eight hours per week in the pool. While you may shave off a few minutes from your swim time, you may be missing out on a twenty-minute improvement on the bike or run if the same training was devoted to these disciplines.

How Much Technique Training Should You Do?

Having an efficient stroke is what separates the elite from the rest of the pack and can conserve valuable energy for the end of your race.

If you ever swam next to the youth swimmers of your local swimming club, you have probably wondered how a small 12-year-old girl can effortlessly out-swim a 30- year-old top triathlete.

The secret of these young swimmers is their immaculate technique. If you are the type of triathlete that needs to work on your technique, be sure to check out our article on swimming techniques for a more in-depth discussion.

While technique is essential, you still need the swimming-specific fitness to maintain your technique throughout the race. As your muscles fatigue during your swim, your technique will suffer.

Allocating the right amount of time between working on your technique and swimming enough yards is a balancing act that is different for everybody. It is up to you to decide your balance point based upon your swimming history and future goals.

2 Differences Between Triathlon Swimming and “Regular” Swimming

Most triathletes swim triathlons in open water, in lakes, oceans, or channels.

Only on rare occasions does the swim take place in a pool, such as when weather is terrible (think thunderstorms) or when safety for the athletes cannot be guaranteed. Therefore, to optimally prepare yourself, you need to complete some of your workouts in open water.

No Turns & Underwaters

Competitive swimmers spend a lot of time perfecting their turns and underwater dolphin kicks. Thanks to the push off the wall and the tight streamline, you usually reach maximal velocity.

Unfortunately for triathletes, there are no walls to push off from in a lake. Consequently, you do not have that short boost of speed nor a brief moment to rest your arms. When training in a pool, do not bother working on your flip turns, and don’t waste time doing underwater kicks.

First, push off the wall and come to the surface right away to maximize your time spent swimming.

Pack Swimming

When the race starts in a big triathlon, more than 100 swimmers are running in at once. As you can imagine, this can quickly become chaotic. If you are nervous about pack swimming, there are a couple of things you can do to avoid getting smacked or kicked by another swimmer.

First, you can wait to charge at the water for a couple of minutes until the chaos has settled. You may lose two or three minutes initially, but it can save a ton of energy by swimming in less turbulent water.

Your other option is to start at the outer edge of the start line if you are confident in your swimming skills.

You may swim a bit more than others, but swim in clean water and stay clear of other swimmers.

9 Swimming Workouts Specifically Written for Triathletes

You can use these workouts for all triathlon distances. Additionally, for these workouts, you should have an intermediate swimming ability and be able to swim 400 meters/yards consecutively.

For triathletes, the longer the pool, the better, so if you have an Olympic size 50 meters pool near you, great! But, any other pool, yards or meters, will work too.

Intensity Levels:

  • Easy = comfortably cruising
  • Moderate = breathing deeper, feeling a little uncomfortable
  • Hard = hard work, heart is racing
  • Sprint = all-out effort
  • Drills = Focus on freestyle drills such as one-arm freestyle, catch-up drill, six-beat kick, or sculling. Drills are great to improve stroke technique and proprioception in the water.

Workout 1: Short Ladder (Total = 2800)

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Workout 2: Endurance + Kick (Total = 3900)

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Workout 3: Tall Ladder (Total = 4150)

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Workout 4: Long Endurance + Kick (Total = 7000)

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Workout 5: Strong Aerobic (Total = 3700)

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Workout 6: Strong Aerobic (Total = 3400)

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Workout 7: Lactate Threshold (Total = 2950)

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Workout 8: Ultimate Lactate Threshold (Total = 3700)

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Workout 9: OPEN WATER SWIM – No pdf printout for this one, get out there and study the conditions!

Every Breath Counts!

Regardless of which triathlon distance you’re competing in, the rough waters, nerves of competition, and other athletes kicking and splashing around you make every breath in this leg important. This relies on technique, but also the capacity of your respiratory muscles.

There are training devices such as the Airofit breathing trainer which allow you to train the muscles of both inspiration and expiration. Adding this type of training into your routine allows you to take better control of your breathing rate and depth, making your breaths more efficient and taking less energy away from your limbs propelling you through the water.