Swimming Workouts to Get Ready for a Triathlon

Medically reviewed by Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE on April 21, 2016Written by Nicole Bowling on April 21, 2016
Swimmer seen underwater

Whether it’s your first triathlon or you have a few under your belt, preparing for the swimming portion of the race will set you up for success.

To become an overall stronger swimmer, you should focus on three things: technique, speed, and endurance. Technique workouts will help improve your stroke and efficiency. Speed workouts focus on improving your time over specific distances. Endurance workouts will help you increase the distance you can swim in total.

Incorporate these three swimming workouts below into your weekly rotation to help you get ready for a triathlon. You’ll most likely use the freestyle technique during the race, so that’s what should be used here.

Swim tips for beginner triathletes

If you’re a triathlon newbie, there are a few things you should do before you start training for the swimming portion of the race.

First, make sure you’re comfortable in the water. The swim causes the most anxiety for a majority of triathletes. If you aren’t able to relax when you get in the pool or the lake, it will be tough to finish. Practice:

  • blowing bubbles
  • breathing with your face submerged
  • going underwater for extended periods of time
  • swimming with others in the vicinity (share a lane, do an open water swim race, etc.)

Anything that you can do to increase your comfort will only benefit you on race day. You should expect to be jostled, kicked, and splashed on.

Second, make sure you can swim at least 50 yards nonstop. You should plan for about 12 weeks of preparation leading up to the race so you can increase your endurance and speed. Having a base of 50 yards should be enough to start with.

Technique

After a 100-yard freestyle warmup, complete each of these drills back to back.

One arm

Swimming with only one arm will force you to focus on a symmetrical and balanced stroke. This will allow you to pay attention to your pull, breath, and kick on each side more closely.

  1. Complete 25 yards, keeping your right arm out in front of you and completing full strokes with your left arm.
  2. Then switch to your right for 25 yards.
  3. Complete 50 yards regular freestyle.
  4. Repeat 3 times.

Side to side

For beginners, a long stroke, which means extending each arm and gliding, can help save energy. This will allow you to maintain the correct technique for longer.

  1. For 100 yards, swim a regular freestyle.
  2. Between each stroke, keep both arms hyperextended and your face in the water for a 3-count.
  3. Focus on stretching your body out.

Side kick

An effective kick will make you faster and reduce the effort you need to exert while swimming.

  1. In this drill, flip to one side, keeping that arm straight out in front and the other at your side, kicking constantly.
  2. Kick from the hip and keep your toes pointed.
  3. Complete 200 yards, alternating sides.

Pull with buoy

Using a pull buoy between your legs will keep them afloat. This allows you to rely only on your stroke for forward momentum. This drill will help you increase your arm strength, improve your balance in the pool, and allow you to work on your breathing. If you find yourself bobbing from side to side, slow down to find stability. Complete 200 yards.

Some coaches warn against becoming too dependent on pull buoys. They make swimming easier overall by getting rid of the drag your lower body can sometimes cause. But practicing this drill in moderation can still give you an advantage.

Cool down after these four technique drills with a 100-yard freestyle swim.

Speed

Interval workouts will help you to increase your speed in preparation for a triathlon. When you sprint, go as fast as you can. Rest for 30 seconds between each sprint. When you recover, go slowly enough to catch your breath and concentrate on form. Try to cover more ground in less time each week.

Swim speed workout

Warm up: an easy 200-yard freestyle

Workout

1. 2 x 50-yard sprints
2. 1 x 50-yard recovery
3. 3 x 50-yard sprints
4. 1 x 50-yard recovery
5. 4 x 50-yard sprints

Cool down: an easy 200-yard freestyle 

Endurance

As a beginner or intermediate triathlete, the key to building up your endurance is to get in the pool and swim. Swim for time, not distance, to find your steady pace. Aim for 30 minutes nonstop swimming. Adjust your speed as needed. As you improve, the distance you travel during this 30 minutes will increase. If you can’t hit 30 minutes, start with 10 minutes and work your way up.

Next steps

You’ll want to focus on technique and form, not just the distance, to ensure you can finish the swimming portion of a triathlon with ease. If your race is in a lake or the ocean, practice open water swimming, preferably in the race area, at least a few times. It’s very different from pool swimming, so the more prepared you are for what to expect, the more relaxed you’ll be on race day. 

Nicole Bowling
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