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by Erica Slaughter

April 17, 2020

It’ll take some time if you don’t have a swimming background, but you can learn how to swim

For nonswimmers aspiring to do a triathlon, the thought of training for that first leg of the race can be overwhelming. Most people can just put on a pair of shoes and go out for a run or hop on a bike and start pedaling. Swimming, however, requires not only learning how to swim but also how to do it well enough to make it to T1 with enough energy to do well in the remainder of the race.

But don’t let that deter you from trying. Depending on your level of comfort in the water, you may need to work with a swim instructor at first. Once you feel competent, narrow your focus to your specific goal to avoid being unnecessarily overwhelmed.

Keep it simple. You don’t need to learn how to do any stroke besides freestyle (other strokes will make you a better swimmer, but you can learn those after you gain competence the stroke you need to compete in triathlon). You don’t need to learn sprint freestyle, flip turns, or starts off the block. If all you want to do is make it through a triathlon swim, none of those things apply to you. All you really need is to develop swimming-specific endurance, distance freestyle technique, and open water swimming skills.

Why can’t running and cycling endurance translate to swimming?

You may be a great runner or cyclist, but it may seem like your stamina goes away when you try to swim. Don’t fret—this is not uncommon. You’re not the only one who feels this frustration and gets exasperated with swimming.

Why does it happen? It’s most likely inefficient technique and difficulty with breathing properly. You’re literally chopping at the water, and the water is fighting back.

Becoming an efficient swimmer is not about increasing your cadence and application of force. It’s completely unlike running and cycling in that regard. Swimming is about finesse.

Working on the fundamentals to develop a base

To propel yourself through the water efficiently, you need to keep these basics in mind:

  • Body position aligned with the surface, including hips, legs, and feet
  • Maintaining body stability through repetitive movements
  • Timing a consistent breathing rhythm during your stroke cycle
  • A narrow kick with ankles loose/toes pointed
  • An arm stroke that extends far forward for a maximum-length pull to the hip

Shaping your stroke

To get through a triathlon swim with sufficient residual energy for the next two legs of the race, you must not expend more energy than necessary in the swim. The specific freestyle technique you’re seeking is to maximize your distance per stroke. You may hear some coaches refer to it as “hip-driven” freestyle.

This technique is about deliberately and evenly distributing your energy. It features reduced kicking and an exaggerated stroke extension so that the hips rotate. You’ll need to work on symmetrical hip roll and keeping your whole body at the surface.

Watch out for movements that will slow you down and make everything more exhausting: lifting your head too high to breathe, dropping your hips/legs/feet, and kicking more than six times per stroke cycle. Just relax. Don’t give in to the frenzy.

Dealing with the open water environment

When all’s fine and good in the pool, it’s time to confront the next challenge: relocating to open water. Just think of it as trail running compared with running on the track. You just need to make some adjustments.

  • Stop panicking about not being able to see or touch the bottom. You’re staying right on the surface, so what’s deeper is irrelevant.
  • The reliable black line isn’t on the bottom, so you should stay with the pack of other swimmers and learn to sight for the buoys to keep on track.
  • You need to be constantly vigilant about everything going on around you: where the other swimmers are, where you are on the course, water/wave conditions, etc.
  • Don’t fear choppy water; use it as traction for your stroke. Feel the natural rhythm of the water’s movements and work with it, don’t fight it.
  • Expect and accept that there may be some moments when you’re unable to take a breath because of water hitting your face. Stay calm and try again in the next stroke cycle.
  • If wetsuits are allowed and the water isn’t too warm (80-plus degrees), wear a wetsuit. The added buoyancy keeps your body close to the surface and therefore frees up some energy you’d otherwise expend on maintaining stability.

Don’t let being a novice swimmer stop you from at least trying to train for a triathlon! Be patient with yourself and remain completely open to learning this vital life skill.


  • Triathlon


  • Triathlon
  • Triathletes