Triathlon Swimming: Tips for a Faster Finish

Triathlons are almost always held in the same order: swim-bike-run. Many people are comfortable with the bike and run portions, but the swim leaves some people feeling wary. something-touched-my-foot But there are some simple things you can do to better your swim time, and in turn set your self up for a great finish. Here, they are laid out for you in a guide to walk you through every step of the way, whether it’s your first or 100th race.

Pre-Swim Checklist

It’s always good to take care of first things first. Even if you are already a big swimmer, triathlon swimming is usually open water swimming, which is a whole new ball game.
The most important thing to check is your suit. If your race is open water it’ll be cold- and up north it’s really cold. Normal swimsuits won’t cut it so you’ll probably want, if not need, to procure a wetsuit.
The biggest piece of advice here is to find one that fits right.
There’s nothing more distracting during a race than worrying about your wetsuit being too tight or too loose in places.
This means you probably won’t want to buy it online. Instead, go to a physical store where you can try them on. You should also pick up a pair of the best anti-fog goggles you can find. Visibility will likely already be pretty bad, so you want gear that won’t add to the problem.

Pre-race training

Now that you have your gear, it’s time to start swimming practice. The most important thing to remember here is that you want to train in ways that will help with the race.
This means replicating race conditions as much as possible during your pool sessions. Training the wrong way is almost as bad as not training at all. This means wear your wetsuit to practice once in a while if your pool allows it. That way you can get used to the way it changes your swimming- because it will.
Wetsuits are designed to keep you more buoyant and the material will restrict your stroke. You don’t want to find these things out when the starting gun goes off.
Have some friends join you a few times to mimic a mass start. The confusion, waves, and crowding at the beginning of the triathlon swim can be quite overwhelming so practicing a little might help (though it’ll probably still feel overwhelming at first).
Don’t practice medium power, easy, mid-length sets all the time. Triathlon swimming courses are long and you’re trying to make time. Practice long sets that build endurance and varying power sets that mirror the race.
You won’t want to go high power the entire race, but you won’t want to crawl the entire time either. Starting slower and then building power through a long set would be a good training start.
Finally, master your breathing technique. The adrenaline rush at the start of a race combined with a mass start and open water can easily lead swimmers to panic, either a little or a lot. Spending every stroke freaking out about getting your next breath in won’t help.
Bilateral breathing is the best technique to practice, as it will help you swim straighter- an important point discussed below. Bilateral breathing basically means you alternate which way you rotate your head when taking a breath. It takes most people about 2 weeks of concentrated training to get comfortable with this, and the biggest obstacle is usually forgetting to exhale when their face is in the water.

Check-in tips

Anxiety is always highest during the pre-race wait and at the start of the race. Knowing this, try these confidence-boosting tips to calm down.
– Get there plenty early so you have time to check in and change into your gear.
– Have some one else help you put on your wetsuit so you know it’s on right. Using lube will help this process, as well as pouring some water down your back after it’s on.
– Study the course so you know where every turn and exit is. Note the colors of the different buoys. This way when you’re in the water you don’t worry about missing anything.
– Position yourself where you’ll be most comfortable at the start. It’ll be crowded at the beginning until people spread out. Don’t go to the front if you don’t want to fight with the more experienced people, or the back if you want to go faster.
– Also, with it being crowded, don’t take bumps personally. No one is trying to hit you. It’s just close quarters. If you really don’t like it, hang to the back or off to the sides. Also remember that you can always move away from swimmers if it becomes a problem.
– Remember that if you get tired or panicked, you can flip to your back to calm down or rest.

in-race tips

Swim straight. The fastest way from point A to point B is always a straight line, not a zig-zag. But when you’re swimming in open water there’s no nice, black line at the bottom to follow. Heck, you might not be able to see much of anything. So how do you swim straight?


As already mentioned, bilateral breathing is a big help.
Always breathing to the same side will eventually cause your stroke to become uneven. An uneven stroke means that your pull on one side will be stronger than the other, and you’ll start drifting to one side as you swim. During a race, this means you’ll spend a lot of time and energy correcting your course. It’s worth it to learn bilateral breathing.
Sight while you swim. This will also help with swimming straight, along with increasing your confidence. Sighting allows you to get a handle on where you are in the course and make sure you are heading in the right direction. Doing it incorrectly can really slow you down though.
The basic idea of sighting is to raise your head above water and get a look at your location. The biggest thing to work on is not raising your head too far.
As with swimming laps, the higher you raise your head, the more your legs drop down and cause additional drag. So raise your head the minimum amount to be able to see anything.
You also don’t want sighting to throw off your swimming rhythm. The best way to do this is to sight right before you take a breath. So you raise your head to take a look and then turn your head to breathe. Your normal stroke doesn’t have to change at all.
Sighting this way won’t leave you much time to look, so instead of getting the big picture all at once, you should sight several times in a row and piece together a picture of where you are.
Finish Strong When you approach the exit, don’t stop swimming. You want your hand to touch bottom when you stroke, and then keep pulling yourself along the bottom. It’s easier to glide into the exit than try and wade through the water.
Most importantly, never stop reminding your self that you can do this!
You can finish and you’ll feel great about it.

Your turn

How do you deal with start-of-race panic? What’s the most helpful tip someone gave you before your first race?

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