Written by Terry Laughlin

Has your experience in triathlon training gone something like this? You train for swimming with a distance-and-effort oriented approach similar to cycling and running. It works well for the two land disciplines, but brings precious little progress in the water.

If so, there’s a perfectly logical reason—and solution. When cycling and running, we have the advantage of millions of years of evolution for efficient locomotion on solid ground. You’re also doing activities that you spent countless hours—and miles—doing in childhood. Even if you gave them up for a decade or two, it’s easy to resume in mid-life.

In contrast, most of us come to swimming in survival mode. As terrestrial mammals, aquatic skills are quite alien, and utterly counter-intuitive. And unless you were a competitive swimmer in your youth, you lack the basic familiarity—water sense—to swim at even moderate exertion without significant loss of efficiency.

And finally, even after many miles of pool training, beginner triathletes often feel overwhelmed by the open-water swim with which most races begin. Triathlon vets may survive their ‘trial by water’, but many feel as if they get through it only by wearing a wetsuit—a situation that no amount of training seems to improve. This is because more miles of training mainly make your “struggling skills” more permanent.

A triathlete’s first goal should be to swim easier, not build their tolerance for hard efforts. Improvement—both in the swim and the entire event–comes most quickly to those who focus on increasing efficiency instead of endurance.  You’ll not only get more out of each stroke; the energy you save will propel you to faster bike and run splits.

The Oxygen Consumption Conundrum

Endurance athletes are fundamentally oxygen-utilizing machines. The amount of oxygen we can metabolize in the time frame of the event is finite and will determine the pace we can maintain. Triathletes face a greater challenge than other endurance athletes, because they must strike the right balance among three different disciplines, each with different oxygen-consumption rates.

According to Michael Joyner, MD, who studies human performance at the Mayo Clinic, at paces of 2 mph in swimming, 8 mph in running, and 20 mph in cycling athletes of comparable ability will burn approximately the same amount of oxygen. However, to increase pace by 5 percent (to 2.1, 8.4, or 21 mph) oxygen consumption will increase by 5 percent while running, 12% while cycling, and 30% to 40% while swimming.

Because you have a finite ‘oxygen budget’ to expend in a race (your rate of oxygen uptake multiplied by the duration of the event), the smarter choice is to use as little as possible in the water—to spend more on land, where oxygen converts into locomotion far more efficiently. According to Dr. Joyner, the smartest strategy for a triathlete is to “swim your intended pace as easily as possible so you can work harder . . . longer on land.”

Here’s one more bit of eye-opening data: The efficiency of uncoached lap swimmers averaged just 3 percent in one study; 97% percent of energy was diverted into moving the water around, and moving around in the water. Even the world’s greatest distance swimmer, Katie Ledecky is slightly less than 10 percent energy-efficient. That’s right, Ms. Ledecky wastes over 90% of her energy.

Thus the logical choice is to use swim training time to reduce energy waste, rather than trying to continually ‘top up’ an extraordinarily leaky fuel tank. Total Immersion Swimming has devoted nearly 30 years to refining a program for saving energy. It’s based on transforming your swim sessions from distance-and-effort oriented workouts to skills-oriented practices.

What about conditioning, you wonder. Conditioning becomes ‘something that happens’ while you improve skills.

Smarter Choices in the Race

While you can’t ‘win’ a triathlon during the swim, you can very easily lose it by swimming too hard. The smartest choice is to swim at a comfortable, steady pace and avoid racing or chasing other swimmers.

At the start, position yourself where the crowds are thinner. After the start, focus on establishing a calm focus and a relaxed rhythm.

Even if you swim a little too easily, the potential cost to speed will be negligible. Just as you have to work a lot harder to swim a little faster, going a little easier will cost you very little speed. Many have discovered they actually swim faster by stroking more effectively. Even if you do lose some time – to harder-working swimmers – you’ll regain it many times over by feeling fresh and strong on land.

Smarter Choices in Training

Once you decide to stay calm and relaxed during the swim leg of races, the rationale for working harder during training disappears. In place of working harder to take a few ticks off the pace clock, focus instead on learning to swim the same speed . . . easier eg. If you currently swim 2:00 per 100 meters at a 90% effort, learn to reduce the effort it takes to 80%. Then 70%. When you do, a sub-2:00 pace will just happen rather than requiring a grinding effort.

An additional benefit of training as we suggest here is that your swimming practice will not only for improve your stroke efficiency. By avoiding wasteful exertion, your swim sessions will boost recovery allowing you to perform better in more demanding land workouts. To put this skill-based way of training to the test, here’s a brief ‘taster’ set.

Skills-Focused Training

  1. After a brief warm up, do a ‘benchmark’ swim of 50m at a moderate pace. Count strokes, take time, and give a Perceived Effort rating—from 1 for effortless to 5 for exhausting.
  2. Swim four to eight 25s for each of the six Focal Points below. Focus intently on making the described sensation stronger and more consistent during the set. Start the next repeat when you feel ready to swim with complete focus. Keep visualizing between repeats.
  3. Choose your favorite focus/sensation and repeat the benchmark swim. How has the matrix of time, stroke count and effort changed? For the next 30 days—or 10 training sessions—focus more on sensory improvement and focus than on distance and time. Enjoy the sense of increased efficiency, engagement, and purpose this brings.

Skill Categories

Balance: Can you make yourself feel lighter in the water, better supported?

  1. Fully release the weight of your head—until you feel it rest upon a ‘cushion’ of water.
  2. Strive to align head and spine. Visualize a towline atop your head-spine line lengthening your spine and pulling you forward
  3. Does lower body feel a bit lighter? If so, kick as little as possible.

Streamline: Use your extending arm to reduce water resistance.

  1. Enter the water sooner, cutting a ‘slot’ in the surface with fingers and slip your forearm through the same slot.
  2. After entry, reach forward a little more than usual. In fact, swim as if Job One for your arm was to make your bodyline longer—rather than push water back.
  3. Look and listen: Try to eliminate noise or splash on your entry and bubbles from your extension.


This has been a small taste—the tip of the iceberg—of the Total Immersion approach to smarter, more effective triathlon swimming.

Terry Laughlin has teamed up with online learning publisher The Expert Academy (www.theexpertacademy.com) to launch The Ultra-Efficient Freestyle Complete Self-Coaching Course, designed to bring Total Immersion drills and techniques straight to the poolside via your phone or tablet.  The course contains 15 downloadable videos illustrating the essential mini-skills required to achieve comfort, body control and weightlessness in the water, accompanied by an explanatory workbook, ebook and visual reference guide.  The Expert Academy is offering Tri Radar readers an exclusive 50% discount off the normal course retail price of £39.  To take advantage of this offer, simply use the following link: tinyurl.com/TriRadarTerry