March 12th, 2010
04:48 PM ET

Swim tips and drills for triathletes

By Laura Cozik
Athletic Director, CNN Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge
CEO, Team Lipstick Triathlon

In a triathlon, the swim is the shortest part of the race, but mentally the swim can be the most difficult part of the competition. In my opinion, it is just that type of adversity that makes triathlon so rewarding. Bring it on!! You must learn to embrace the open water, make friends with it, find peace in it, and enjoy the camaraderie of those around you. And in order to do that, you must prepare.

The following drills focus on improving your upper-body technique as well as your breathing. Since you’ll be using your legs to bike and run, a strong upper-body swim is the way to go in triathlon. And improving your lung capacity will help you to calm down and breathe easy when swimming. I am listing a few of my favorite swim drills, plus a few tips for the swim portion of the triathlon, focusing on your race-day experience. You can type the drills below into YouTube to see video demonstrations.

*Catch-up drill: A very popular drill, for a reason. The catch-up drill teaches swimmers to delay their catch, keeping the body more streamlined, focusing on a long stroke and a long body position. One arm goes through a full cycle of the freestyle swim stroke, while the other arm remains extended forward. When the stroking arm “catches up” to the arm that is extended forward, the waiting arm then takes a turn.

*Tennis ball drill: This is a great drill for teaching swimmers how to use their entire forearm when pulling under the water. Swim regular freestyle, but with a tennis ball in each hand. In this closed-fist position, swimmers have to use their entire forearm to pull themselves through the water. After practicing for a while, get rid of the tennis balls and try to perform the same good technique, but now with the added power of your hand!

*Fingertip drag: This drill encourages a high elbow during the recovery phase of the swim stroke, when the arm is out of the water. As the arm exits the water, fingertips drag along the surface of the water before re-entering. This should be done very relaxed.

*Group swimming: The triathlon swim is a contact sport, so practice swimming in small, close proximity groups. You can swim 3-4 athletes side by side in one lane of the pool, or maybe a small cluster of 6-7 athletes. Get used to feeling other arms and legs while swimming. It’s nice to know you’re not alone!

*Sighting: There are many ways to practice sighting- the skills that allow you to swim in a straight line toward your intended location, while in open water. One of my favorites is to swim directly toward someone in your lane. Just before you bump heads, swim around each other (to the right or left, but that should be decided ahead of time), then swim back where you came from. You’ll have to sight a LOT.

*Hypoxic sets: Improving your lung capacity when swimming is key! When you bike or run, you can breathe as often as you like, but when you swim, you have to follow a timed pattern. Doing hypoxic drill sets will help to improve your lung capacity. One way is to try swimming a 25 meter lane, from one end to the other, without breathing at all! Take a break when you get to the other side until you feel completely recovered, then repeat. Do about 4 of these during every swim workout and watch them improve!

Here are some other tips that will be helpful during your triathlon swim:

*You must, must, must practice swimming in open water prior to race day. If the race allows you a practice swim the day prior, or minutes prior to start time, DO IT! Get rid of the fear of the unknown before the gun goes off.

*Wear a wetsuit, for warmth and buoyancy. Practice swimming in it, and especially removing it, prior to race day.

*Find the objects you plan on sighting during your swim, just prior to race start. Buoys are good, but sometimes it’s also beneficial to find a building, a particular object, or something that is not actually IN the water to sight.

*Choose your goggles according to the clearness of the day. Orange is my favorite tint as it brightens up a cloudy day, and also cuts the glare of a sunny day.

If you are nervous, think “just keep swimming, just keep swimming”, or whatever mantra helps you. You can also picture the cocktails and friends that will be waiting at the celebration that night.

Keep up the good work with your training, and please send any questions you may have about triathlon training.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. Tamborine

    Those are good tips, thanks. I like the swimming drills, and the hint about the orange goggles.

    Some other tips:
    1) buy BodyGlide and use it for runs and bikes (keeps friction from rubbing skin from giving you a painful rash). You can use spray cooking oil before putting on the wetsuit to make it come off easier, and then either oil or Glide at the points where the suit stops to prevent chafing (again potentially painful).
    2) People generally don't win or lose a race in the swimming portion (it's so short), so don't use up all your stamina there – it's easy to do. Just keep it nice and relaxed and leave yourself some energy for the bike and run.
    3) Get a "Bento box" carrier (~$15) on your bike to hold Gu or gels, and anything else you might need on the bike. It's just a mesh "box" that straps around your bike bar, putting everything right within hand's reach.
    4) Instead of running at a really slow pace, run-walk at a pace that works for you – you paradoxically go faster overall. It's natural to want to "tough it out" by just running the whole time, but let me tell you I got passed by a heck of a lot of run-walkers! You can run 1 minute and walk 1 minute, or run 3 minutes and walk 1 minute, or whatever works for you.
    5) Ladies, look at putting your hair in Heidi braids. That's easiest to shove into a swim cap and then under a bike helmet, and doesn't look heinous while it's wet or after it dries all funky. Plus the braids hold the water better than straight hair, so you get the nice effect of damp hair keeping you cool for longer. You get hot in 3-4 hours of continuous exercise! (oh, that's for the Olympic distance)
    6) Google "Tri Newbies" for free tri training schedules. And make sure you're running after biking (even just 10-15 minutes) since that is the most difficult adjustment in a tri.
    7) Have fun! It's the only sport I've been in where I had a huge grin on my face as I crossed the finish line. And I'm big and not so sporty, so trust me you can do it!


    March 22, 2010 at 16:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Cec

    As a former swimmer, I think these are pretty good tips. Never heard the orange goggle thing before, though, but definitely worth a try.

    I've never really done a triathlon, only the swim portion of a couple team triathlons. However, I can say you definitely need to do some practice in open water before the race. Its tougher and the techniques very a little, also swimming in a swarm of other racers is kind of unnerving if you're used to swimming in a lane by yourself.

    March 31, 2010 at 04:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Steve S

    I believe that of the three triathlon sports, swimming is the one where bad form and inefficiencies will penalize you the most. This is doubly bad when you consider it is the first event. So make an investment and get some swim lessons if you have not had any (self taught or taught by someone untrained like a well meaning family member) or have a feeling the group lessons you had as a kid might be somewhat obsolete. Find a swim instructor who has successfully trained triathletes. For example, as the author of this article said the emphasis should be on the upper body not the kick. I do a fluuter kick just powerful enough to keep my legs streamlined. I do not try to get a hugh amount of propulsion from my kick. I save my leg muscles for the next two events. A swim instructor should "get it".

    April 16, 2010 at 17:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Maria

    I find the swim the most enjoyable part of a tri. Especially long swims on beautiful mornings when the sun is gliding over the water. I'm not there to win or set a personal best record. I'm there to enjoy my time. So I let the warriors go before me and start with the nervous newbies. Then I will gradually and steadily swim and pass all these other people who are by now struggling. I often swim breast stroke so I can focus my mind on the next person to catch and at the same time I have no problem orienting myself. Unconventional-yes. Would I be faster doing freestyle-no! I am able to pass other people rather than being passed just from the mental effect of 'trying to catch the next swimmer in front of me'. I will come form the water with a eager smile and tons of energy for what is up next.

    April 19, 2010 at 09:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Nida

    Great tips! Looking forward to doing my first triathlon hopefully this year!

    April 21, 2010 at 17:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Sarah

    I have competed in a few sprint tri's and I always have the same problem during the swim. I freak out and pretty much have a panic attack, I can't breathe right, can't put my head underwater and end up basically dog paddling. I don't know if it's the cold or the adrenaline or a combination of the two but it's really frustrating. It's a good thing I'm a decent runner to make up for my horrendous swim! Any tips???

    April 23, 2010 at 18:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hussein

      Is a Sprint Triathlon a good first Triathlon? I have been on summer swim team for the past 2 summres, but I'm not in it this year and I was a sprinter, not a distance swimmer. This is also my second year in cross-country and as for bicycling I use it as a form of transportation.I was planning on doing each sport 2 days a week, once for endurance and the other for speed.Oh, I forgot to mention I live in Ohio although I have wanted to visit California.

      September 13, 2012 at 23:35 | Report abuse |
  7. Greg

    There are other great tips posted by triathletes on Holosfitness.com. The site is a social networking website focused on fitness. Holosfitness.com has swim drills, running drills, and biking drills. All of the tips, information, and exercises posted on the site are completely free.

    April 26, 2010 at 16:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Brooke Young

    i always use Swimming as may daily exercise, it is much better than jogging and running-":

    May 21, 2010 at 01:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Carson Washington

    swimming is my favorite way of burning of those extra fats and calories,;"

    August 1, 2010 at 14:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Accent Chair 

    swimming keeps my body very fit and healthy, it is my way of developing strong muscles`,-

    October 13, 2010 at 17:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Detoxification Diets :

    swimming is my favorite way of exercising my body, it can really make your back shoulder muscles big and strong-::

    October 25, 2010 at 06:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. customized swim workouts

    I really like this post. Very informative. I've been a swimmer for 3 years until now and these tips are very useful. Thank you for sharing.

    February 10, 2011 at 06:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ahmed

      I am an 18 year old guy and I just did my first triathlon which was a spnirt triathlon. My goal is to do an Ironman around the age of 30 if not sooner. Should I work my way up spending several years in each of the main triathlon distances or should I skip straight to training for an Ironman? Or maybe some other method?

      September 14, 2012 at 01:04 | Report abuse |
  13. help

    i like this post a lot. ill be coming laterfor future poststhanks.

    December 14, 2011 at 19:52 | Report abuse | Reply
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    May 17, 2012 at 03:13 | Report abuse | Reply
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    I cannot swim

    November 19, 2012 at 19:12 | Report abuse | Reply
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