Triathlon Swimming

In past swim related articles I’ve written for AT, the focus has been on the advantages of being swim-fit and how this benefits your overall triathlon performance; on open water swimming specific tips and tricks, and how to get swim-strong using hand paddles along with dry land swim-specific training.

As technical as the sport of swimming can be, it is tough to narrow down the answer to the often-asked questions: “What should I concentrate on in swimming?” Or “What should a swim stroke look like?”

Following is a general list of steps to improve your swim for a triathlon. These aren’t necessarily in any order of priority but should go a long way in helping you achieve your goals – whether you are a beginner or trying to accomplish that triathlon personal best this coming season.

Hand entry
A lot of adult triathletes, new to swimming cross their hands over in front of their head on entry into the water. To combat this turnover, I encourage my swimmers to imagine that their head is at the twelve o’clock position on a clock face and, aim the right arm towards the imaginary one o’clock and the left at eleven o’clock. So, a slight ‘v’ is being thought of with hands entering wider than the head, at around shoulder width. Another important thing to remember is to avoid overreaching with entry before your hand enters the water – your hand needs to enter first then extend out front.

Extend your arm forward after your hand has entered the water, keeping your elbow high, angling your hand down and pulling back with your hip rotation. Your hips drive as your hand enters the water to start the pullback – as your right hand enters, your right hip rotates down, then the opposite for the left side arm pull.

In freestyle, your hands should pull all the way back past your hips. The last part of the stroke before recovery, which happens when arms come out of the water . This should be the acceleration of your arms behind you rather than an acceleration up out of the water. The aim here is working the back part of the stroke and focusing on brushing your thumb against your thigh (not your hip, which is higher).

Head position
Keep looking straight down when swimming freestyle. It’s important to keep your head down with only a small part of the back of your head out of the water. Also, as you rotate through the water, try not to move your head with the rest of your body rotation. When you roll to, the head will rotate with hips and torso.

Try minimising your kick as you train for swimming. Most people will kick extra hard to make up for lack of balance in the water. Reducing your kick will allow you to improve your balance, as well as conserve energy.

Swim Squad
Move to a slower lane to work on stroke improvement when new to the game. If you belong to a squad, don’t feel that you always need to keep up with your lane mates at every workout. Your coach will and should keep it real for you and ensure you’re in a suitable lane and will progress you in time. Remember that technique comes before all else, and if this is a blow to the ego at first you need understand and appreciate how much more efficient, faster and fitter you’ll be in the long run.

Keep the feel
If you find swimming the hardest of the three sports in triathlon, it is essential to ‘keep the feel’ for the water and get in the water at least three days a week. This way, your body maintains its awareness of being balanced in the water. A recovery day does not mean you have to have the day off – getting in the water and doing a light swim, even using fins and small finger paddles can help relax you, keep the muscles moving in a stress-free environment, focusing on body roll/catch and high elbows in control.

Expand the lungs
Mix in some hypoxic training sets into your swim. I like to add in warm-ups and drill sets in my Noosa-based squads – a set of 6x50s or 4x150s breathing every 3-5-7 strokes by 50, with 10 seconds rest in between every 50 or 15 seconds if 150. This is a good ‘primer’ pre-main set and good for the head also as it takes some discipline, and will help on race day if done consistently.

Work your weakness
In triathlon, most coaches agree that you should spend the most time working on your weakest of the three sports – especially when new to the sport and still developing.
For many age group adults, this is swimming. For example, spend the most time working on the weakest part of your stroke, whatever that may be. You will gain the most out of your training by spending your swim time improving on that weakness.

Words: Nick Croft
Korupt Vision


Nick Croft

Nick Croft is a former professional triathlete, Australian Triathlete of the Year and two-time winner of the Noosa Triathlon.
With 19 years coaching experience under his belt, Croft provides online training programs for athletes of all ages and abilities through and runs Noosa Tri Camps in Noosa Heads, Australia.

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