4 "Shortcuts" to a faster Triathlon swim

My new race strategy and it should be yours too

Posted Chris Articles

This past weekend I took a completely different approach to racing the swim part of the triathlon that I competed in. What I would typically do in the past is go out hard and push the pace throughout the swim so that I could come out of the water in a specific time. For the most part, this plan worked. I felt like I gave a good effort and I did. But just because I gave a good effort does NOT MEAN I WENT FASTER! In fact, I most likely went slower both in the water and on the bike and run after. It was a lose-lose-lose scenario.

Unlike running and biking, extra effort does not always equal extra speed when swimming. Unless you are an experienced swimmer whose form remains strong regardless of pace, if you give more energy, you will not speed up proportionately. You might muscle out an extra 2 or 3 seconds but is it worth the chunk of applied energy?  

To answer this question, I decided to do a little experiment. I tossed my “push hard then go harder” plan and decided to go with a 100% focus on form. Instead of worrying about my time, I focused solely on:

  • My rotation and reach.
  • “Popping my elbow” to start my pull and keeping that elbow high throughout the pull.
  • Settling into a good stroke.
  • Breathing especially exhaling fully into the water.
  • Sighting frequently.

This was a risky move given that it was one of my top priority races of the year. But I went with it hoping it would pay off.

The air horn boomed out across the not-so-calm lake where we were racing. And chaos ensued as it typically does with any mass start. 187 athletes surged forward and made the small waves into white caps. I could feel bodies all around me, but I stuck with my plan. I relaxed and focused solely on each stroke and my exhale.

After about 200 meters, the scrum thinned out. I could see a few swimmers in front of me, and while it was tempting to surge forward to close the gap, I resisted and returned to my high elbow catch and breathing rhythmically. Thoughts about how slow I felt I was going popped into my mind. But I recognized them as just thoughts.

If I was going slower. at least I would not come out of the water exhausted. Towards the end of the 2 km swim I passed one swimmer, then another swimmer, and then another. I came out of the water one minute later than what I wanted, but I didn’t care. I felt fresh, energized, and ready for the bike. My experiment had worked.

I am definitely going to take this approach for all my upcoming races, and encourage you to experiment with this as well. By focusing on your form, the time will take care of itself.  

Chris Hague, Tri Swim Coach