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by Matt Donovan

June 10, 2019

A different approach in how you train in the pool might be the key to getting over the hump on race day

Many triathletes come from the running world or cycling world, with swimming being the specialty added last. There may be many reasons for this progression, but that doesn’t make swimming an unimportant part of a triathlon. An Ironman Masters division champion once told me, “You can’t win the race in the swim, but you can lose it there.”

Although there’s no substitute for actual open water training, here are a few tips to keep in mind when you’re in a pool working toward your triathlon goals.

Stop Kicking Like a Cyclist

As a longtime pool swimmer and swim coach, I can immediately tell if someone new to the pool comes from a cycling background. How? Their kick.

Muscle memory is very real. Taking time to learn how to kick like a swimmer has several important benefits.

Invest in a good pair of swimming fins that are designed for instruction (not scuba fins or ones designed for intensity). Adding fin training into your workouts will help you develop a more efficient kick and improve your overall swimming technique. Kicking like a swimmer will also help strengthen elements of the core and leg muscles that you aren’t engaging in your training outside of the pool.

I’m often told by triathletes that they don’t want to work on kick because they want to save their legs for the rest of the race and that trimming a few minutes off their swim isn’t worth the sacrifice that it may have on their bike or run.

My reply to that is two-fold: 1) You need a better kick to train effectively as a pool swimmer; and 2) kicking better is about being more efficient in the water. If you’re kicking correctly, it will help your overall swim. The time may not come down drastically, but the level of exertion that you’ll be putting into the race will be less, thus saving more energy for the remainder of the race and an overall drop in time.

Train Like a Swimmer

A common question I receive from triathletes is, “Can you give me an 800-yard workout?” My answer: “No, I can’t.” In swimming, 800 yards is warm-up, not a workout.

In running, you would never do a marathon in your training, and for most people, the first time they do the distance of the race they’re competing in is the actual day of the race. The exact opposite is true in swimming.

By design, we do over-distance training and often train at race pace (through interval set work). Plan out your day and week to spend more time in the pool. This is the only way to truly get better at swimming. This extra time in the pool can help offset some general conditioning/cardio goals that you might have for the week. Lastly, time in the pool will give your joints a break from all that pavement pounding.

Leave the Technology at the Door

Especially for a newcomer, keep it simple. Swimming is an old-school sport; just come in and do the work. There’s a lot of great training gear out there. There may be a time that it’s right for you, but it’s certainly not day one. Take time to learn about yourself as a swimmer, and effectively assess your goals and needs. Borrow some different training items from friends in the sport with similar body types and performance goals. Putting a lot of money into something this early isn’t ideal for anyone in any activity. Potentially wasting money might be one more reason/excuse for not getting to the pool and doing your workout. And for the record, swimmers don’t use headphones.

Final Thought

Whether your goal is to become a better swimmer or just to lower your overall time come race day, the ideal way to train and enjoy pool swimming is to become one of us. When you’re in the pool, you aren’t a triathlete. You’re a swimmer.


  • Triathlon


  • Training
  • Triathletes
  • Triathlon