Triathlon Swim Training

Triathlon Swim Training

I recently hosted a Triathlon Swim workshop for our members at our Elite Sports Club – River Glen location and this summer I will be partnering with a few Elite Personal Trainers to offer a full-scale Triathlon Training program. Until then, let’s just focus on the swimming part. Often this can be the most intimidating part for newbies and seasoned racers alike. There’s just something about swimming (especially in open water) that tends to freak people out. But, you know the best way to alleviate those fears? PREPARATION & PRACTICE!

Triathlon Swim Tip #1: Caps

The race will give you one. You are required to wear it. The colors signify your age/gender group, and they are usually very bright so lifeguards can see you better. If you aren’t used to wearing one, get used to it now, so you don’t feel “off” on race day. They go on easier if you get them wet first, or fill the cap with water and dump it on your head.

Triathlon Swim Tip #2: How to read a written workout

Don’t do the math. Just like weightlifting, swim workouts are written in “sets” and “reps.” Interval training for swimming is a much more efficient workout than just trying to swim a certain distance (i.e., go out and swim a straight mile non-stop.) Interval training will give you more “bang for your buck.”


4×50 yards freestyle with :15 rest DOES NOT mean swim 200 yards straight through. It means swim 50 yards, rest :15 seconds, and then swim 50 yards again, for a total of 4 times.

Triathlon Swim Tip #3: Times given in workouts usually include rest time.


5 x 100 yards freestyle on 1:30

You have one minute, thirty seconds to complete 100 yards, and then you start the next 100 yards. The time includes both your swimming time and your rest time. (The faster you complete it, the more rest you have).

Workouts & Drills we did in the Triathlon Swim workshop:

Warm up:

  • 100 swim
  • 50 kick (hold the kickboard under your armpits, with arms supported on the board)
  • 50 pull (pull buoy goes between legs, just above knees. Use only your arms.)

Triathlon Swim Drills:

Learn two strokes, in case you get a cramp, get kicked, or need to use a different stroke to get your bearings. I do not recommend backstroke—you will get off course in an open water triathlon swim. We worked on freestyle (front crawl) and breaststroke.

Freestyle drills:

Kicking on side—Lie on your side, bottom arm extended above head and top arm resting at side. Kick only on one side, and then switch sides each length. Works on balance for axial rotation during swimming, as well as leg strengthening.

Zipper (high elbow) drill—Imagine a zipper going up your leg all the way to your armpit. Swim freestyle, but use your thumb to unzip the zipper. Works on keeping elbows high during arm recovery, leading to a more relaxed stroke, less wear and tear on the shoulder joint, and less shoulder muscle fatigue.

Catch up drill—One hand is in front. The other hand takes a stroke and tags the first hand. Then the first hand takes a stroke and tags the other hand. Allows you to focus on only one arm at a time, as well as making your stroke longer.

Bilateral breathing—You should learn to breathe on both sides. This helps with sighting during the race (see below) as well as even muscle development on both sides of the neck and shoulders. Start with breathing every 3 strokes. Increase to every 5 or 7 if you have the lung capacity. You may have to force yourself to do this at first, but eventually it will become a habit.

Best freestyle—Put all of the above together and slowly perform your best stroke. Go easy on the turns; you can’t push off of walls or do flip turns during an open water swim race!

Breaststroke drills:

Kicking with hands at hips—Develops even kicking and proper frog kick motion. Hands at hips, just kick, and try to hit heels to hands while kicking.

In and Out Drill—Develops proper arm stroke. Breaststroke arms, if you had a clock in front of you, should only go to 10:00 and 2:00. Anything past that is a waste of energy, because it pushes the water sideways instead of behind you. For this drill, keep your arms straight, and just push them out and in, to get the muscle memory of where your hands need to turn.

Reaching drill—Hands together, pull them into chest and push back out. Works on propelling the stroke forward, not up and down.

Best powerful breaststroke—Don’t swim like a grandma! Reach forward, then out to 10:00 and 2:00, then scoop around and reach forward again. Imagine a salad bowl in front of you; you are using your hands to scoop out the salad, and then throwing it forward.

Sighting Drills:

Swim stroke of choice, eyes closed. This will show you if you have a tendency to drift to one side or the other (which would lead you off course in a race.) It also shows you what it is like to swim in a murky lake with no lines on the bottom to guide you.

Now swim stroke of choice again, but lift your head and look forward every 10 strokes. In a real race, scope out the course ahead of time. If it’s a straight course, look for a landmark, such as a large tree, that you can aim for. If it’s a circle/square/triangular course, make note of the buoys marking the course, and note where you will have to turn. Also pay attention to where the sun will be at race time, so you know if your vision will be impaired.

Drafting Drills:

Swim as a group, with the people behind the leader trying to stay at their toes. It is more efficient if you can draft like this in a race. It also gets you used to swimming closer together and having bubbles in your face.

Other Triathlon Race Specific Notes:

Wave starts mean your whole group will walk out into the water and go at once. A new group goes about every 3 minutes. This is a more chaotic form of start and tends to be bunched up at the beginning, but also helps the competitive spirit since everyone is starting together. Strong swimmers should try to get to the front of the wave before the race starts; weaker/less confident swimmers should stay in the back. This is just common race courtesy.

Time Trial Start means 1-2 people will start every 3-5 seconds. This is done in races with a narrow entry point, or if the race directors prefer it for safety reasons. The crowd is more spread out. You will still be close to people in your age/gender group, but you are racing the clock more than the whole group. Sometimes races will change from a Wave Start to a Time Trial Start the morning of, based on visibility conditions (i.e., fog or waves) at the time of the race.

Some racers at the start will do a modified form of butterfly. That is to get over the waves until the crowd thins out, then they will transition to freestyle.

Increase your kicking pace at the end of the swim. This will get more blood flowing into your legs to get you ready to run to your bike and start biking.

Don’t panic if you think you are spread out from the crowd, and then all of a sudden run into another crowd. You are probably catching up to the wave in front of you.

Try this Mini Triathlon Swim Workout:

  • 2 x 100 at 50% (half of your maximum speed), rest :10
  • 3 x 75 at 75%, rest :15
  • 4 x 50 at 100%, rest :20

Cool Down:

  • 1 x 100—25 freestyle, 50 breaststroke, 25 freestyle

Now this is obviously a TON of information, especially if you are just starting out. But I like to be thorough, and this is just a preview of all the great information you’ll get when you sign up for our Triathlon Training program this summer! Please feel free to contact me with any questions!

Get Started! Tell us about your goals!

Jessica Heller Headshot

Written by Jessica Heller, Aquatics Director at Elite Sports Club-Mequon

Jessica Heller has a B.S. in Biological Sciences, minor in Spanish (UW-Milwaukee, 1999), Doctor of Chiropractic (Northwestern Health Sciences University, 2002), and post-graduate continuing education focused mostly on rehabilitative exercise, sports injuries, and nutrition. She is a certified Water Safety Instructor (since 1996), Lifeguard/CPR/First Aid Instructor (since 2010), Red Cross Babysitting Instructor (since 2015), Certified Pool Operator (since 2013), Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (since 2006), Aquatic Exercise Association Aquatic Fitness Professional (since 2008), and Arthritis Foundation Aquatics Program Instructor (since 2011).

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