Swim Training Tips

Swimming is a unique form of human movement in that even the best swimmers in human history can hardly hit the speed of a brisk walk. That’s mainly due to the tremendous amount of drag that water places on objects moving through it. There is also the fact that the water you’re moving through is the only thing you have to push against for propulsion.

Both of these facts combined make swimming the most technically challenging and technique-dependent event in a triathlon. With that in mind, much of your time spent in the pool will be focused on improving your technique, however, the only way to find out which aspects of your stroke need to be improved is to have someone watch you swim. Do a little research to find a master’s swim group in your area and drop into a practice; most master’s coaches are happy to give feedback on your stroke if you ask them to. If you don’t have a masters group, contact the coach of your local youth swim team and ask to set up a stroke critique session. You certainly don’t need to do this every week, but having your form critiqued in the first week, and then every few weeks after will go a very, very long way.

We understand that this is not possible for everyone, and this plan is structured to help you improve your efficiency in the swim regardless of input from anyone else. We have included plenty of useful tips and drills to ensure you’re ready to rock it come race day! 



Training Zones- Just like running and cycling, you need to set your training zones. In swimming, we think in terms of split times per 100m. During your test, you will also be counting your strokes. What you should notice is that during your 50m effort your stroke rate will be lower than the last 100m of your 500m effort. Your stroke rate and speed are strongly correlated, so counting strokes per lap can help give you a reference point of pace during those longer efforts.

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is used to structure your workout based on your perceived work rate and (dis)comfort. A scale from 1 to 10 is used, with 1 being an easy effort that you could maintain all day, and 10 being a maximal effort like a sprint. RPE can be a much more useful guide to pace and effort when swimming because you don’t have access to as much data as when cycling and running. You may be able to see the pace clock at certain points in the pool, but you can always tune in to how you’re feeling. 

Open Water Swim- Practice swimming in open water when possible. Event-based training plans will include “Open Water Simulation” workouts. If you have access to open water, substitute a real open water swim for this session. This is a much better way to practice swimming in a straight line, sighting and alleviating any fear of open water. 

If you can’t find open water, swim in the pool with your eyes closed.

Practice sighting- Lift your head up slightly every 3-6 strokes and look forward (“sighting”) to see where you’re going. If you’re in open water, look for a buoy, tree, beach, house, etc. in the direction that you want to go. If you’re in the pool, look for something specific on the wall or fence of the pool at the end of your lane.

Swim in your wetsuit on occasion 

If you don’t have access to open water, swim in your wetsuit at the pool. You will likely overheat relatively quickly, but it’s beneficial to remind yourself how it feels if you will be racing in it. Rinse it with fresh water when you’re finished.


Swim Equipment you will need for training and racing

Swimsuit and a wetsuit if you need one on race day.

Most triathlons held in open water allow wetsuits (and some even require them). Not only will it help keep you warm in colder water, but it also makes you more buoyant, which makes you faster. Wetsuits can be an expensive purchase so you may want to consider renting one from a local shop to train in prior to purchasing or racing in one. This will allow you some time in it to adapt to the change in body position as well as force you to practice putting it on and taking it off without damaging the suit. There are products you can apply to your skin before putting the wetsuit on which will make both entry and removal easier.  In addition, renting different wetsuit brands and models prior to purchase may help you find the one you are most comfortable in since there can be variations between suits.

Swim cap- Since you have to overcome so much drag while swimming, making your head as smooth as possible actually makes you a bit faster. Since not everyone wants to shave their head to achieve this you can get the same result with a swim cap. While you don’t need one for training, you will want one if you have long hair to keep it out of your face. In addition, you will be required to wear one on race day for safety reasons. Since you don’t want to try something new on race day, training with one occasionally is a good idea if you don’t wear one all the time.

Goggles- Being able to see in the pool is helpful for keeping a straight line during training, but during race day they are needed for proper sighting. Since your head will only be out of the water for a split second you don’t want to deal with water getting in your eyes while trying to focus on the horizon. It might also be a good idea to get two pairs; a clear set and a tinted set. On race day the sun will likely be up and may produce a glare on the water, so you’ll want a tinted pair to cut the brightness and to be able to see where you are going.

  • Ensure a tight fit with no leaking 
  • Two pairs; one clear and one tinted
  • Apply an anti-fog solution (baby shampoo and spit work just as well as special anti-fog solutions)

Swim Training Aids

Flippers (or fins) - Training with fins can help improve your ankle flexibility, body position in the water, cardiovascular conditioning, and the propulsion from your kick. They can also help relieve stress on the shoulders if you need some reprieve from time to time.

Kickboard- Using a kickboard during a kick set provides balance and stability, allowing you to concentrate on developing strength and power. 

Pull buoy- A flotation device held between the thighs to hold the hips and legs high in the water. Swimming with a pull buoy provides several benefits: improved body position and alignment (especially helpful when performing swim drills), reduces heart rate, respiratory rate, and overall effort/stress, and allows the legs to rest while putting more emphasis on the arms. Swimming with a pull buoy is often referred to as “pulling.”

Swim paddles- Used to develop upper body strength, as the paddle increases the surface area of the hand, which works the back, chest, arms, and shoulders. Paddles can also be useful for helping athletes develop certain aspects of the stroke, like the catch phase because the paddle allows a better “feel” of “grabbing” the water. Beginning swimmers should focus on improving their technique before training with paddles in order to prevent injury. Experienced swimmers should introduce paddles into their routine slowly; starting with 10% or less of the total workout distance for the first four weeks. If there is no shoulder pain and you’ve adapted well, distance can be increased by 5% per month, but not to exceed 25%.


Looking for Training Advice?

Are you trying to decide what training plan to use or how to plan your race schedule?  We have some resources available:

Check out the Blog!  Turn to the Wahoo Sports Science team for the best training advice. 

Join the conversation in the Forum.  Join our community of like-minded athletes to share training tips, advice and more.  

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