How to Start Strong: Swim Workouts for Triathletes

May 30, 2023
swim workouts for triathletes

No matter what type of triathlon you compete in, the swim is always going to come first. It’s an opportunity that can either make or break the race. With the potential of enhancing, hampering, or distorting a competitor’s physical and mental state going into the other events, dedicating time to isolated swim workouts for triathletes might make all the difference in your training.

Especially in the shorter distances, ensuring you’re confident in your swimming ability has been shown to have a dramatic effect on overall performance. For Sprint and Olympic distances, the swim is the most important predictor of success, while cycling and running play a bigger part in the Half-Ironman (70.3) and Ironman (140.6), respectively.

In the shorter events, you have less time to make up for a slow swim on the bike and during the run. This makes it all the more important that you get in and out of the water quickly with lots of gas left in the tank. If you’re a beginner in the water, and think a half-mile swim in the sprint is nothing to worry about, you’re in for a rude surprise once you start triathlon swim training.

Tips for Beginner Swimmers

Swimming is difficult. It is the most dangerous part of the race because of the very real possibility of drowning. You also have to control your breath far more than in any of the other disciplines. All this while dealing with the anxieties of race day that may include lack of sleep, start-line jitters, and a bunch of fit, trained people next to you looking to win.

This is why preparation is so important. While you can’t very well replicate the nuance of the actual event, you can do workouts that have a direct impact on the triathlon swim itself. Knowing you can easily swim the required distance in similar conditions will provide significant mental space for everything else you will have to deal with.

So, the biggest takeaway here, don’t overlook the swim. Just because it’s the shortest, just because you’ve swam the distance in a pool while you’re completely relaxed and alone, does not guarantee success. In fact, it can even give you a false sense of preparedness, resulting in dismissal of any further training, choosing instead to focus more on the bike and run.

Especially in open water events, the swim can quickly become crowded and dangerous. (Image credit: Adobe Stock)

One kick (or elbow, hand, head, knee, etc.) to the face, one missed breath, water filling your goggles, losing your goggles, going off course…these are all regular occurrences in triathlon. One or more probably will happen during your race, and they don’t give you a restart because of it. Take it seriously, and prepare accordingly.

Swim Workouts for Triathletes

Below you’ll find some different types of triathlon swim training that you can incorporate into your programming. Various techniques will be described to make you as well rounded as possible. Keep in mind, like cycling and running, swimming is a whole sport on its own, and as such has an entire training methodology that cannot be encompassed in this short article. 

Technique Focus & Coaching

It’s important to make sure your technique is as clean and efficient as possible before stacking strength and endurance on top of it. If you’re a beginner, this is one of your advantages. Investing in some 1-on-1 sessions with a coach can make a world of difference, because while working on fitness by yourself is possible, solo technique correction is very difficult.

Endurance Swims

Building a large base of aerobic capacity is one of the keys to swimming success in triathlon. You should be performing at least one long, steady swim per week that is anywhere in the range of 75%-110% of your actual race distance. This should be a swim that is below race pace, comfortable, and done with excellent technique.

Interval Training

Throughout a triathlon, you will have to change pace at various times to get into a better position behind or ahead of other competitors. This is one of the reasons it’s important to train intervals in swimming, which alternate between periods of high and low intensity. An example could be repeats of a moderate 200m pace, followed by a 50m all-out sprint, then 100m at an easy pace.

(Image credit: Adobe Stock)

Sprint Specific Training

Most people perform sprints incorrectly, usually by taking too short of a break. These are important workouts for developing strength and power, which will help with the start, positioning, and finish in the swim. A sample workout could be 10 x 50m repeats at 100% max effort with long breaks in between, i.e. 3-5+ minute rest periods. Incorporate weekly.

Open Water Training

Once you feel you have a good swimming foundation, it’s important to expose yourself to open water environments. The dynamics of an open water swim can be significant impediments to the indoor pool performance you’re used to achieving. Start to incorporate these periodically when you feel your technique and fitness are sound, especially as race day approaches.

Strength & Mobility Training

Swimming is unique because of the water’s anti-gravity effect on our bodies. As a result, swimmers need to train outside the pool under the effects of gravity and other external resistance to keep their bones and muscles strong. It’s also important to do mobility work so that your joints don’t stiffen into the repetitive ranges of each sport. Try to incorporate both 2-3x per week.

Join the Dynamic Triathlete Team!

Perceived time constraints, not knowing what exercises to do and how to do them  to be barriers for triathletes participating in strength training. When you sign up for Dynamic Triathlete, we’ve removed all those barriers for you! High-quality instructional programming available 24/7. Try us out for 7 days FREE by clicking here!

 Written by Eric Lister – Certified Personal Trainer & Corrective Exercise Specialist

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