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Five top tips for learning triathlon swimming from scratch.

Swimming is the most technical aspect of the sport

The swim is often the most daunting of the three disciplines in triathlon. But don’t worry if it puts you off the idea of getting involved in the sport, because you are not alone. Anybody can learn to ride a bike and go for a run but the thought of having to swim in open water can be quite an intimidating one. To help you get started, here are five really basic steps to make the swim part that little bit easier.

You may be bombarded with triathlon jargon from all quarters when you enter the sport as a newbie and advice will come in thick and fast. Don’t be overwhelmed and become intimidated. If you stick to some of the basics outlined below, it’s easy. As long as you can keep your head above water unaided and have some form of swimming style structure in place, you can complete the swim leg of any triathlon. Just make sure you start with the shorter swim distance triathlon events first before setting goals for the bigger events such as the 1.5km Olympic distance swim or 1.9km and 3.8km swims in middle- and long-distance races. Take small steps at a steady pace to build your confidence levels and then you can aim to increase your speed and distance.

  • Use Swim Fins

If you have never experienced the thrill of swimming with fins do yourself a favour and buy these training aids first. Even the weakest of swimmers will feel like a speed machine with swim fins on and the bigger the better. When you are new to the sport and swimming is a struggle, fins will give you the boost that might be needed to spike your swim proficiency and motivational levels. Weaker swimmers tend to drag their body through the water with most of the effort coming from the arms and upper body region. The fins will allow you to kick a little harder, streamlining the body and thus elevating the legs. This will naturally improve your swim speed through the water. You can start off by doing all your swim training with the fins on. As you get fitter, you start doing a little less with them on and so on, until you are ready to drop them completely from the programme. Just make sure your pool allows the use of fins. If they don’t, swim somewhere else.

  • Swim Shorter Distances Faster

If you’re starting triathlon swimming from scratch, even a 25-metre stretch is going to seem like a long way. The best and easiest way to start swimming and training from scratch is to swim shorter distances but at greater speed. There is no direct benefit for weaker swimmers to plod along endlessly in the pool, length upon length. The rest period between each effort should also be extended to ensure adequate recovery time before you set off for the next one. If you are just starting up with swim training, I would suggest keeping your intervals pitched at 25m. You can do these a number of times (20x25m for example) with a rest period of between 30 and 60 seconds after each one you complete. You now need to try and swim faster over that 25m stretch in the first couple of weeks. You should carry on doing this until you see a significant improvement in your split times (the time it takes for you to complete one length). You can then progress to 50m and do pretty much the same by swimming a number of these 50m efforts with adequate rest periods in between until you see a vast improvement in the split time. The theory behind this method of swim training for start-from-scratch swimmers being that it is easier to swim and improve faster over a shorter distance than it is to improve by swimming longer distances but at slower pace.

  • Join a Swim Squad

Joining a swim squad is the easiest way to improve quickly. Not only will you be coupled with swimmers of the similar abilities but your confidence levels will be pushed on a regular basis. This all contributes to you feeling better about yourself in the water and ultimately, swimming better. Besides the added benefit of having a swim coach telling you what to do instead of having to think for yourself is far more motivating. It’s also more sociable, as you’ll be training with like-minded people. If you’re having fun and enjoying yourself, the swim training part suddenly takes on a new dimension and the fear begins to fall by the wayside. You don’t need to attend a swim squad all the time. Once per week is enough to start off with and then increase to a maximum of two sessions per week with a possible third open-water swim session at weekends when the weather is warm enough.

  • Get Swim Lessons or Video Stroke Analysis

Swimming fast involves a huge element of skill, just like any other sport. You need to be taught that skill, because it won’t just come to you in the night or through aimless practice. A one-to-one session with a good coach or teacher is the best way to learn. They will analyse your stroke, possibly using video feedback, showing you in real time what your stroke looks like (both on top of the water as well as underneath). They will give you pointers and drills to perform and then finally invite you back after a few weeks to see you swim once again. A comparison will then be done to see the exact difference between the before and after swim strokes. Ideally you want to do this right at the beginning of your swim training so you don’t waste too much time reinforcing bad technique. It’ll give you something constructive to think about every time you swim and you’ll soon start seeing the benefits.

  • Make Your First Wetsuit A Good One

Some novices make their first venture into open-water swimming in a wetsuit that’s designed for surfing rather than swimming, in the hopes that they will one day progress to a top-of-the range triathlon model. Their train of thought being that the surf suit will be more than good enough for their level of swimming ability. This is a big mistake that could cost time, effort and money in the long run. You’re better off investing in a tri-specific model right from the outset. They are made from better quality materials, are made to be more flexible around the shoulders and in a lot of cases are much more buoyant. A strong swimmer won’t see a huge difference in swim times when wearing a wetsuit whereas weaker swimmers have far more to gain. Yes, triathlon wetsuits can be expensive (between £100 and £600) but they’re well worth the investment.

This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine. Save time and money by having every issue delivered to your door or digital device by subscribing to the print edition or buying digitally through Zinio or Apple Newsstand.

You’ll find loads more triathlon training advice in’s Training Zone section.