Swimming to TRI … Tips on Surviving the Swim in YOUR First (or Next) Triathlon

Let’s be honest, if you’re swimming laps at your local YMCA, then it’s probably not because you are a diehard lover of the swim.  You have a triathlon on the calendar, right?  Yeah, me too!  And that’s why I’m in the lane right next to you.

lap swimming

Every time I meet a new triathlete, I hear the same story.  They fear the swim.  In today’s world, every parent I know, besides myself, has their kid signed up to be Olympic swimmers on a local swim team.  But in my day, swimming wasn’t all the rage.  Sure we went to the pool in the summer.  We swam in the lake with our friends and family.  But nobody was going to be the next Missy Franklin.  It was a different world when I grew up but it’s those “non swimmers” from my generation who are now creating the newest group of triathletes.  Why?   Cuz we are now middle aged women.  Looking for something that we can call our own.  Something outside the hubby, kids and the J.O.B.  Something just for us.

sky is not the limit

And so we sign up for our first triathlon.  We know we can run, been doing that for a few years now, right?  And we learned to ride a bike as a child.  Once you learn, you never forget, right?  The bike may be old, need a tune up or possibly new tires (since the old ones were dry rotted) but it will cover the distance for a sprint triathlon.  So you’re in and registered.  But what about the swim?  Here is everything I know about swimming a TRI.  I’ve never taken lessons but have done a few swim clinics and I always ask advice from lifeguards, swim teachers, swim coaches or high school/college swimmers when I get the chance.  If you’re a swimmer, I’ll probably ask you questions, even if you are my 10 year old niece.  Smile

Triathlon SWIM Tips:

  • Relax.  You’re not going to drown.  And if you think you might drown, please stop reading this and go find a coach!
  • Practice may not make you perfect but it will ease your nerves.  You have to swim before your TRI.  Minimum 1x a week.  More if you have the time.  The more time you spend in the water pre-race, the better.  You will get more comfortable with each swim session. 
  • Get a good swim cap and a tinted pair of goggles.  Start using them in the pool  while practicing so they won’t seem foreign on race day.  Goggles are not required during triathlon but you do want to protect your eyes from other peoples fingers, the water & even the sun (thus the reason for tinted goggles).  Swim caps will be required and provided by the race to distinguish your swim start & age group.
  • There are no rules regarding the type of swim stroke in a triathlon.  You can freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, sidestroke or even dog paddle, as long as you get in and out of the water on your own power.  So if you start to feel panicky while swimming, pull your head out of the water and do a different stroke. 
  • Keep moving in the water.  Triathlon swims normally start in waves, usually by age group.  Each wave is separated by a specified amount of time, anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes.    Meaning that groups will start before you and then there will be a group immediately behind you. Keep moving because the faster swimmers from the wave behind you will be upon you (and passing you) before you know it. 
  • Mentally prepare yourself to be around people while swimming.  This won’t be like your lonely practice swims at the Y.  There will be 20-100+ people around you at any given moment. 
  • There will be lifeguards and spotters in the water with or near you.  On boats, paddle boards, wave runners, canoes, etc.  If you cramp or panic, you can hold into a boat/paddle board/buoy for support as long as the lifeguard doesn’t have to actually assist you in any way. 
  • Fastest stroke for most people is freestyle, or front crawl.  Where your face is in the water. 
  • If you tend to swim crooked, try bilateral breathing, where you breathe equally on both sides of your body.  Easier said than done for someone like me.  Bilateral breathing has been a goal of mine for 4 or 5 years and I’m just finally getting it now.  Bilateral breathing tip (from a swim coach at the YMCA of Dekalb) – Use a kick board initially.  Hold the kickboard out in front of your body with straight arms.  Just kick to propel yourself & the board forward, then put your face in the water and practice breathing.  First breath on your strong side, next one on your weak side.  Couple times down and back & you’ll be ready to rock this on your own while practicing your freestyle.  You may get a few partial mouthfuls  of water (at least I do) but it will help even out your stroke and straighten up your swim.
  • Freestyle stroke requires that you lift your head out of the water on occasion to “spot” or check your position in an open water swim.  The most efficient way to spot is to do so right before you breathe.  So lift your eyes slightly out of the water in the front, then turn your head to breathe.  You just need a quick glance to make sure you are still on path.  Example HERE with a video in section #4.
  • If you are in a slip stream of another swimmer, you can just follow along and that will require less spotting (and less energy) on your part, just don’t follow them blindly in the event that they get off course.
  • Some TRIs, have a line or rope that runs between buoys.  If you can find the line and stay on it, you will not need to site because you can just follow that rope.  Sweet!
  • Swim freestyle with a wider arm stance.  Don’t cross your arms in front of your body when you swim.  Most of us ladies, bring our arms over our head and our hand enters the water in front of our head/face.  Wrong.  That’s wasting motion, kinda like running with your arms pumping and crossing in front of your body.  It’s the same thing.  Think wider, almost awkward, swim stroke where your hand enters the water parallel to the body.  Confused?  Hold your arms straight out in front of your body, parallel to the ground.  Like a movie zombie or sleepwalker!  That’s the position of arm entry.  At the side of your ears.  Not in front of your head.

parallel stroke

Source

  • One your hand enters the water, reach in front of you to get the full motion of the stroke, then pull back in the water with loose fingers (not a tightly cupped hand which wastes energy) toward your hip bone.  At the same time your body is rotating for efficiency and to get ready to take a breath.  When you hand gets to where your hip was, the hip should be gone because the body has tilted/rotated.  When I’m in the water, I imagine my hand almost pushing my hip up and out of the way.  Not a perfect example below.  I’d like to see his hip rotate out a bit more on the top pic but still a decent example.

body rotation

Source

Complete diagram of full stroke.

stroke

Source

That’s pretty much everything I know about swimming.  If you have additional tips, please share because I am far from an expert and would love to learn more!!  Know that I’m not fast but I can cover whatever distance.  I’m trying to get to the pool at least 2x a week now.  Still not a lot but better.  I just think about my bilateral breathing, wide arm stance/entry, reaching thru the stroke so as not to cheat myself, and then body rotation where my hand pushes my hip out of the way.  I still need  to work on my flutter kick.  Sometimes I forget to kick.

If you plan to wear a wetsuit in your TRI, watch the first video in this link HERE.  Judy, please watch it cuz I’ll need you to help me get my too small wetsuit on at Steelhead!!!

Other helpful TRI posts: 

** Swimming to TRI ** Amanda – TooTallFritz

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7 thoughts on “Swimming to TRI … Tips on Surviving the Swim in YOUR First (or Next) Triathlon

  1. My coach actually told me to kick less. You waste more energy kicking hard and it wears you out faster. I actually swim mostly with my arms which leaves my legs fresh for the bike and run. Of course, this means that I can’t go very far (yet) but I’m working on it!

    He also has us use paddles on our hands because it keeps you honest about your arm motion. If you cross your arms under your body when pulling down the paddles will catch way too much water and feel super awkward. Or, try swimming with your hands in fists to focus on on using your forearm to catch water and not just your hands.

    We also do a drill called “catch up” where you practice leaving your arm out in front until you your other arm has done the stroke and goes back to enter the water. You basically slap the top of your extended hand and then you start your next stroke. Probably doesn’t make much sense in writing so here’s a video!.

  2. Awesome post and tips on a subject I know little about! In fact….I didn’t make it past your first test and would have to hire a swim coach/teacher before I even considered Triathlon. Water scares me if it deeper than 4-feet and my feet can’t touch bottom…even in a pool. I have nadda buouyancy and I sink like a rock…more like a boulder…like iron…which is why I refer to myself as an Ironman….cause I sink that fast. Someday I hope to be as strong and courageous as you and learn how to swim and tackle a Tri. I guess I would have to go that Tri-Smart gal, (M.J. ?) and let her see if she can get me up and floating…and swimming the crawl stroke. So if you can swim…be grateful!

  3. These were great tips! I’ve been toying with the idea of a sprint triathlon and just as you said, the swimming part is the most intimidating. Your post made the idea seem more manageable. Thanks!

  4. I’ll help you with your wetsuit…,,but your going to need to help me get my too small for me wetsuit on also!!! 😛

    Come to the lake and we can practice stretching them out!!!

  5. Pingback: Triathlon ….. The Refresher Course | TooTallFritz

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