How to Swim in a Triathlon

People wanting to participate in a triathlon usually bottle out because of the swimming leg. After all, the swim remains the most dangerous leg in the sport because open water poses the greatest threat to an exhausted triathlete. Racers are at risk of drowning due to cramps or exhaustion. This is why learning how to swim in a triathlon is an essential part of your training.

In this post, we’ll share the differences between pool swimming and open water swimming and guide you on how to swim in a triathlon in 9 steps.

Let’s get swimming!

Pool Swimming vs. Open Water Swimming in a Triathlon

Swimming in a pool is vastly different from swimming in open water, and being good in the pool doesn’t prepare you for what you will face in the triathlon. Pool swimming is safer than open water purely because of the confined area and lifeguards near you. Most beginners opt for pool-based sprint distance triathlons due to this reason.

However, to truly learn how to swim in a triathlon, you must practice swimming in open water. However, before proceeding any further, you must learn how pool swimming is different from open water swimming.

Water Temperature

Open water temperatures vary depending on what month you swim, the body of water, and the country. If you’re swimming in a Los Angeles triathlon, the average annual ocean temperature is 68 degrees. However, if you’re swimming in Alaska, temperatures average between 40 and 55 degrees. Hence, you’ll require a wetsuit. In comparison, an average pool temperature is 80-85 degrees.

Air Temperature

Air temperature depends on the weather conditions. Low temperatures significantly affect a triathlete’s ability to swim relaxed and makes breathing more difficult. The arms feel heavier, and you’ll burn more calories in open water.

Mental Challenges

You’d think twice jumping into open water compared to a pool. First, you can’t stand up in the middle of the sea or lake like a pool. When you look down, all you might see is the darkness, making you feel or out your depth and fear what lies underneath.


In open water, you’re free to be one with nature, and you can swim for miles without stopping. In a pool, you’re restricted to the pool’s length and manage with doing laps.

Swim Stroke

You need to prepare yourself to swim in open water by practicing in rougher conditions. You also need to learn how to swim against waves that come towards you with force. Swimming in a pool cannot prepare you for these conditions since the water is calm. So, keeping up the pace in open water is difficult due to interruption. However, in a pool, you’ll be forced to break up the stroke when the wall approaches, disrupting your rhythm.

How to Swim in a Triathlon

Learning how to swim in a triathlon is not easy and will take time, usually months before you race in a triathlon. You must adapt to different conditions, especially if you’re swimming in open water, and build endurance.

Here are 9 steps to conquering the swimming leg of a triathlon:

1. Forget Everything You Know About Swimming

Swimming in a triathlon isn’t about being the first to make it to land. It’s about conserving your muscles for the bike and run stage of the race. The race doesn’t end with the swim, so this generally why you don’t see people swimming breaststroke at triathlons to save energy in their legs.

2. Understand Your Cardiovascular Health

If you have a positive family history of heart disease, at least see your family doctor before participating. It might be nothing, but it’s worth it knowing that you’re medically clear to go all-out and meet the demands of the swim when you line up at the start.

3. Familiarize Yourself with the Course

During your training, commit the course to memory, and this includes remembering the points at which you need to change directions. On race day, as you wade into the water, you’ll know exactly where to go and turn. If you are not visiting the swim site, study its map and visualize the direction and turns you’ll be making while swimming.

4. Grab Your Gear

Unless the water is warmer than 78 degrees, you’re allowed a wet suit. Wet suits make you swim faster due to their flotation and reduced drag. Other essential swimming gear includes swimming goggles, pull buoy, swim cap, mesh bag, and swim fins.

5. Get in the Water

You’re not going to learn how to swim in a triathlon by just reading. Head to your local pool or open water near you to get started. Avoid open waters if you’re a beginner to reduce the risk of forced deep-diving (drowning) upon exhaustion.

6. Use Tools during Training

To improve your power in the water, use a pull buoy. You can grip this foam tool between your thighs to make your legs float as if you’re swimming in a buoyant wet suit. Their purpose is to help you conserve energy in your legs as it will force you to use just your arms for swimming.

7. Engage Your Core

The added buoyancy of your wetsuit or pull buoy encourages the core muscles to work less. However, not engaging your core while swimming can cause you to overwork your upper body and eventually slow down. The key is to swim on your side and not on your belly to speed up.

8. Keep Your Head Up

The most difficult part of swimming in a triathlon is swimming straight in the open water. By practicing keeping your head up, you can spot course buoys or landmarks that keep you on track. To ensure you don’t slow down, practice getting just your eyes out of the water instead of your head or chest without a breath.

9. Practice Breathing

Practice bilateral breathing – taking a deep breath by turning left or right every couple of strokes. If you’re still in the early stages of learning how to swim in a triathlon, stick with what you know. It’s all about rhythm on race day.

Our Final Thoughts

It’s easier to put on a pair of shoes and go running or cycling. However, swimming goes beyond learning how to swim. It’s also about doing it well enough to make it to the first transition with enough energy to excel in the remainder of the race.

Learning how to swim in a triathlon is going to be a struggle at the beginning. A positive attitude towards learning will make it easier over time, and you’ll gain more endurance every time you get in the water.

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