10 Steps to Improving Your Triathlon Swim

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As technical as the sport of swimming can be, it is tough to narrow down the answer to the often-asked question, “what should I concentrate on?” So, I came up with a “top ten” list of steps to improving your swim for a triathlon. These aren’t necessarily in any order, but should go a long way in helping you achieve your goals, whether you are a beginner or trying to go pro. Here are the 10 steps to improving your triathlon swim:

1. Hand Entry. Slice your hand into the water right about at your goggle line, and drive it forward. Many swimmers attempt to get as much “air time” as possible by reaching the hand out before entering into the water, but it is actually more efficient to go through the water with your hand as you rotate from one side to the other.

2. 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.

3. Pull. In freestyle, your hands should pull all the way back past your hips. The last part of the stroke before recovery (arms coming out of the water) should be an acceleration behind you, and not up out of the water.

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

5. Training Intensity. The best way to measure your training intensity is to count your heart rate immediately after each swim. You can estimate your heart rate by counting your pulse rate for six seconds immediately after each swim. Add a zero to this count, and you will have your approximate exercise heart rate per minute.

6. Master’s Swimming. Move to a slower lane to work on stroke improvement. If you belong to a masters team, don’t feel that you always need to keep up with your lanemates at every workout. Masters teams typically have many people with many different swimming goals. It’s important to do your own thing! Remember that technique comes before all else and if this means swallowing a little pride to make improvements, just think of how much faster you will be for this in the long run.

7. Habit: Keep your arm from crossing over.
One of the most common bad habits I see in swimmers is the arm crossing over to the opposite side on the pull. Breathing on your left side results in your right arm crossing over, breathing on your left side results in your right arm crossing. Often times this happens when one goes to breath, but sometimes it’s caused just from over-rotating. To avoid this, make sure your head isn’t moving with the rest of your body, and try to pull more in a straight line (still bending the elbow) and ending the pull on the same side you started (i.e. right hand slices into the water, pulls back and hand ends up near right hip).

8. Keep the Feel. If swimming is your toughest sport, it is important to “keep the feel” for the water, and get in the water at least every other day (no, showers and baths don’t count!) This way, your body maintains its kinesthetic awareness of being balanced in water.

9. Work Those Lungs. Mix in some hypoxic training sets into your workouts. For example, do a set of 4×100’s breathing every 3-5-7-9 strokes by 25, with 15 seconds rest in between each 100. Your lungs will thank you for it towards the end of the swim part of your race!

10. Work Your Weakness. In the sport of triathlon, most coaches agree that you should spend the most time working on your weakest of the three sports. For many of you this will be swimming! Within swimming, the same concept applies. Spend the most time working on the weakest part of your stroke. If balancing on your side is an issue, do some kicking drills on your side. If moving your head is a problem, focus on head position most of the time.

Whatever it is, you will gain the most by spending your pool time improving on that weakness.

3 thoughts on “10 Steps to Improving Your Triathlon Swim

  • Paul says:

    Without a pull-bouy, or a wet-suit, MY HIPS KEEP SINKING when I swim!!! It kills my time!

    How do I get more horizontal (like when I’m swimming with the pull-bouy or a wet-suit)?!!

    If I kick to get my hips up, I start sucking a LOT of air!

    Can you help? I need your top 3, best suggestions!

    I’ll try them all!


    • Matt Triick says:

      I also have the same problem as the previous comment, that being that my legs continue to drag unless I use a pull bouy. All of the drills I have tried all end the same way, with my legs sinking. Any suggestions or drills I should focus on?

      • Swift E.S. says:

        Here are a couple tips I have:

        1. Work on your kick specifically. Get a kickboard so you can isolate just the kick for part of your work-out, maybe 12×25 just kicking. Occasionally using Zoomers, or fins, can help strengthen the leg and hip muscles used for the flutter kick.

        2. Integrate the “just kicking” into parts of the swim without the kickboard. Kick one length of the pool on your right side, right arm extended and left arm at your side. Kick the next length on your left side, left arm extended and right arm at side. Do a couple of these with your head looking straight down at the bottom of the pool, and a couple looking straight up at the sky or ceiling. Once you start feeling more comfortable with this, add in a rotation: do 10 kicks on one side, pull and rotate to the other side, do ten kicks on that side, then pull back to the first side, and keep repeating with 10 kicks between rotation.

        3. Strengthen your ab muscles. Along with the kick, these muscles help keep your body position where it should be. Try planks in many varieties. Hold a front plank for 30 seconds to a minute. Do the same with side planks, holding each side 30 seconds to a minute. Another great one is a side plank dip. In the side plank position, drop your hip to the floor and then pull it back up. Do 20-30 of these reps on each side. There are many varieties of planks you can do, and they’re all great for abs and even lower back, which will help you keep your position on the water.

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