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by Erica Slaughter

July 21, 2020

Just because it’s laborious doesn’t mean it’s drudgery

If training for distance swimming in a triathlon feels more like a chore than a charm, you’re not alone. But there are defined best practices when it comes to getting the most bang for your buck with swim training. What you need most is certainty that the time you’re putting in and the work you’re doing is going to pay off. And a little fun along the way won’t hurt, either.

Pace training for the swim leg of a triathlon should achieve three goals: building swimming-specific endurance, improving technique, and providing measurable data (time per distance) for charting your progress over the course of a season. But these don’t have to be tedious—there are ways that you can and should vary your workouts to keep yourself and your workout partners eager to return to the pool.

Don’t Keep It Simple, Swimmer

The old standby method of jumping in the pool a few times a week and straight swimming the exact distance of your upcoming race swim is a surefire way to burn out in a hurry. It would also negate your objectives because a continuous swim of steadily declining technique due to fatigue is not best for building endurance or improving technique in swimming, nor does it provide you with any meaningful data to chart your progress.

Remembering the training variables of volume, intensity, and frequency that are most important for building endurance in swimming, you can use a combination of these to structure your workouts. Frequency is easy—you should do a swim workout at least three times per week regardless of your race distance, because training gains in swimming tend to be washed away with missed workouts. If building endurance is your goal, then volume should be gradually increased over the course of your season. Intensity should be used as a complement to volume—applied in the right context like variable pace, speed work can result in improvements in aerobic capacity.

Best Uses of Your Time and Energy

Regardless of the swim distance for which you’re training, you can furnish your pace workouts with a few different tools to keep things interesting and add value. You can start with a rough outline—10 x 100s, for example—and add extras such as freestyle drills, kicking and pulling, open water swimming drills, and variable pace repeats.

The freestyle drills likely to work best for triathlon swim training are those that focus on distance per stroke and breathing rhythms, such as catch-up, fingertip drag, and bilateral breathing (breathing on odd-numbered strokes). You can also challenge yourself to take as few strokes per pool length in the fastest time possible. These are drills that contribute more valuable data in practicing your pace.

The most important benefits of kicking and pulling sets for a triathlete will be practicing body stability and rotation in the water, while adding to your overall endurance training gains. There are ways to modify kicking and pulling to amplify the stress it puts on your core, such as raising your upper body out of the water with your arms extended in front of you but without a board.

As a triathlete, you should be adding open water swimming drills to every workout. Every routine stroke you take in practice is another opportunity to practice sighting with head-up freestyle, and you can practice for changes in horizontal/vertical body orientation in open water by starting/turning/stopping without touching the bottom or wall.

Much more value is added to triathlon swim training with variable pace drills, and this can be done in at least a couple of different ways: You can vary your pace within a 50 or 100, or you can negative-split (swim the second half faster than the first) by 50s within a 100. When practicing for a swim finish into T1, you’ll want to add a stronger kick and increased speed at the end of repeats and sets.

Workout Set Recommendations

  • 4 x 100s (first 50 catch-up drill, second 50 build to race pace freestyle)
  • 4 x 100s (odd 25s, head-up freestyle)
  • 8 x 50s (odds breathe every 3, evens breathe every 5)
  • 4 x 100s (negative split by 50, build kick into finish)
  • 4 x 100s (upper body-up kick without a kickboard, arms extended in front)
  • 8 x 50s (no-wall turns under the flags without touching lane lines or bottom)
  • 4 x 50s (take as few strokes as possible under a set time)


  • Triathlon


  • Triathletes
  • Triathlon
  • Training