To Swim or Not To Swim

There is no real choice when it comes to doing a triathlon – you simply need to be able to swim to compete. But why is it such a big problem for many people?

If you cannot run then you can walk or run/walk. Other than being slow anyone can attempt to get out there and run. Bike? Well, that is a bit trickier. You do need to be able to ride a bike however once this is mastered then it becomes a matter of what speed you go. But swimming? Here lies the problem. In the swim, you can’t just put your feet on the ground, you have limited ability to breathe when you want to and you can’t control the actions of others around you – it can get pretty crowded at the start of a swim. Unless you can swim you won’t finish this leg.

If you are a weak swimmer, nervous about swimming in the open water or trying to improve your swimming in a triathlon then the best advice is to head to a pool and get yourself a good coach who will focus on open water swimming.

How to get comfortable swimming
First up, to be a good swimmer and to be comfortable in the water you need to have good technique – having a good technique will make you more efficient in the water and therefore faster. Your swim coach will be able to provide you feedback on your technique and help you correct any mistakes – this includes stroke technique and body position in the water.

Next up, you need to practice skills that are required for open water swimming, such as the warm-up, transitions (entering and exiting the water), time trialling and sighting while swimming. You also need to develop strategies about how you are going to go about the swim leg in a race – your coach can assist you with this.

Pool drills to help prepare you for the open water

Breathing – The assumption will be your swim technique is coming along nicely, and this needs to include the ability to avoid panicking and feeling like you can’t breathe when you plunge into the water in a race. The key area to focus on here is your ability to blow out under the water and empty your lungs. When you turn your head to the side to breathe in, your lungs should be empty, allowing plenty of volume for the air to come in with fresh oxygen for your body to use. Blowing bubbles when your head is under the water at a steady rate is a good way to make sure you are doing this.

To improve your breathing and to prevent any panic, practice the following drills:

  • Swim underwater as far as you can
  • Scull with face in the water and then breathing to the side after 10 sculls
  • Breathe every three, four or five strokes to help the body get used to regulating your breathing when swimming.

Drafting – Drafting can save around 20% energy, which, time-wise can be 60+ seconds in an Olympic Distance race or 5minutes in an Ironman. This is a very easy skill to practice in the pool and you will soon see the benefit of sitting on someone’s feet.

Drills to practice your drafting include the following:

  • 10x 25/50m- sitting on a person’s feet/hip in the lane and rolling turns. Once the front person gets to the wall they rest and the second person takes over the lead. Very quickly you will feel the difference between leading or sitting behind one, two, three or more people.
  • Swimming two to four across the lane for 25m/50m (rest 10-20 seconds). Once again rotate the person that is leading. This prepares you for the closeness of other swimmers as well as dropping back to draft when needed.

The best place to draft effectively is directly behind and slightly to the side of your preferred breathing side. So, if you breathe to the right, get your head in line, behind the swimmer’s right leg. Swimming immediately behind produces around a third less drag, compared to drafting at a swimmer’s hip.

Sighting – Unfortunately there is no black line to follow in the open water or lane rope to keep you swimming in a straight line. In order to swim straight, you need to learn to sight – a technique that allows you to check where you’re going in a race.

The goal of sighting is not to interrupt your stroke. This can be achieved by only looking forward at where you are going as your hand comes forward to start the catch. You will need to arch your back slightly and look forward. You then return your face to the water and breathe in on your next stroke. It also helps to kick a little more when you look up. With regular practice, you won’t lose any speed while sighting in the open water.

Drills to practice your sighting include the following:

  • Swim with your eyes closed and only open your eyes to sight every four, six and 10 strokes. Can you make it down the lane in a straight line?
  • Start in the deep end of the pool, swim four strokes and sight the start block at the other end. Next lap, swim six strokes before sighting; next lap, swim 10 strokes before sighting and so on. Complete eight to 10 laps.

Transitions – The swim leg starts as you run into the water or start swimming after a deep-water start, and doesn’t finish until you’re running out of T1 with your bike. So, you need to prepare for the hectic start and prepare to run out of the water, while getting your wetsuit off as quickly as possible.

There can be two different swim/race starts:

  • Sprint start. This includes a running start into the water that can involve diving straight in and swimming, or running into shallower water and then wading/dolphin-ing before starting to swim.
  • Deep-water start. This involves lying in a horizontal position while sculling and then swimming straight away when the start gun goes off.

While you can’t practice running into a pool, you can still practice the intensity of a swim start, which involves swimming faster than race pace for 100metres and then backing off to race pace for another 200-400metres.

  • Example drill: 5x (100m faster than race pace/200m at race pace/20sec rest).

You can’t really practise wading in the pool, however, ‘dolphin dives’ in the shallow end of a pool is very doable. This involves swimmers diving down and then launching themselves to the surface, diving back down and repeating until it is too deep – they would then swim to the other end of the pool. You can do 10x 50metres with 10seconds rest in between.

Another good open water skill to add to these is to not perform a tumble turn at the end of the lane but instead perform a deep-water turn as if you are going around a swim buoy.

Deep-water starts where you are really just sculling in deep water as you wait for the start gun to go are easily practised in a pool. The key to these starts is to be in a horizontal position – legs behind you and using your hands to scull and maintain this position. Many athletes make the mistake of being vertical while they wait and when the gun goes they have to get their legs up and behind them, and by that time the athletes behind them are swimming over the top of them. Include 5x 100metres – starting in the deep end – lying in the horizontal position to start and then also not touching the wall when turning each time. Include 20seconds rest between each hundred.

What to do in open water swim sessions

There is really nothing better than getting into the open water as soon as you can – easily done in northern states but for some, the weather really restricts when you can swim in the open water. For those who are lucky enough to live in a warm climate and near the water, as soon as you can, take the plunge! But before you do, here is a general checklist of things to know before you launch into the sea/lake/river/ocean.

Never swim alone – always buddy up or have someone one support you from the shore.

  • Wear a swim cap, preferably a colour that can easily be seen – fluoro yellow, pink, and green.
  • If in a group have a sign in/sign out sheet or at least everyone pair up so you can regroup.
  • Have a paddler (this becomes difficult, however, if you can, this can add a great support to swimmers)
  • You can buy a floating swim buoy that you can attach around your waist that certainly identifies you are a swimmer. It is also useful in a group for leaders to wear.

The benefits of swimming in the open water cannot be underestimated. Experiencing exactly what race day will throw at you – the waves, swell, currents, no black line or lane ropes, the ability to run in and out of the water. Ideally, try to get into the open water once per week or every second week. However, for the more experienced athlete, every three to four weeks would be enough.

For beginners, the open water gives them an opportunity to face their demons. Whether it is understanding how to breathe when there are waves, how to relax when they have the fear of not being able to touch the bottom or even to gain confidence that they can swim the distance of the race without stopping.
For a more experienced swimmer,
training and improving your skills, which include entering and exiting the water, sighting landmarks and swim buoys, drafting and, of course, swimming non-stop (TT work) are all very achievable in the open water.

Outline of an open water swim session:
Warm Up:
This can include all or some of the following –

  • To get used to the water temperature (as low as 14 degrees in the southern states), put feet in first and then splash water on your face. After a couple of minutes, you could dive in and slowly start swimming remembering to breathe out/blow bubbles when your head is down.
  • Where you will be running in and out of the water, check the water depth and also check what you will be putting your feet onto.

Given most races involve some wading and dolphin diving you can incorporate this into your warm-up routine.


  • Sighting: using landmarks, poles, swim buoys. In groups of 5-10 send each group separated by 10-30seconds towards these. Regroup and then discuss how to improve, how conditions may be affecting peoples ability to swim straight etc.
  • Drafting/swimming in pack: depending on the size of your group, be in groups of 2-5. Practise single file and sitting behind or on the hip of a competitor. Try to swim with people of similar ability. Changing the lead at regular intervals allows swimmers to see how much easier sitting on an athlete’s feet is, as well as varying the intensity of the session, which adds value to the session. At the same time, athletes will be practising their sighting. You can include rolling turns as well. The back person has to swim to the front of the group. When they pass the person who was second from the back, that person then jumps on their feet and so on.


  • Running into the water: it is critical athletes learn to wade and dolphin dive into and out of the water. Not only from a skill point but also from a fitness point. It is not easy and to help prepare the body to go from resting to maximal effort one needs to train the body to get used to it. Start athletes on the beach or water’s edge and simulate a race start. Countdown from 10 and have a buoy or person they need to swim to. Have them come back in, easy for recovery.

The reverse of this can be done. Have some feathers or a finish line set up on the beach. Have them swim in hard from a buoy or pole in the water and dolphin/wade out of the water to the finish line you have set up on the beach. The last time you do this, practice getting out of your wetsuit – the final part of the swim leg.

  • Practising deep-water starts where you are lying horizontal and sculling in deep water until the gun goes then sprinting for 100m. This can be repeated three or four times.

Finally, open water swimming is an opportunity to develop your swim fitness with longer intervals or swim distance time trials included within each session, varying the distances each session will help keep the athletes on their toes.

Hopefully, you now have many ideas and an understanding that no matter where you are in your swimming career there is lots to be gained by practising your open water skills regularly. Obviously in the open water would be ideal, however, if that is unavailable practising in the pool is also a smart idea. Very quickly, the skills you need become second nature.


Julie Tedde

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