Starting with the swim – Tips for triathletes

by Coach Mali Gaber

Plagued with the “survive the swim” mentality? Even for seasoned racers and tough competitors, sometimes the game plan starts on the bike.

If you’re one of the many athletes who dread the swim or are frustrated with your progress in the pool, it may be time to make some changes in your training. The off-season is the best time to make major changes in the pool and hone in on technique. Check out these areas to work on in order to become a stronger overall swimmer!

Frequency & Focus.

If you want to become a better swimmer, you have to get in the water. Not a revolutionary concept, but don’t expect to see large gains in the water if you’re only getting in the pool twice a week. Get in the water frequently to develop comfort and a good feel for the water. It’s important that workouts have a purpose and incorporate variety. Avoid swimming monotonous laps at the same pace. Mix it up by integrating sets that focus on endurance, speed, stroke work, and technique.


A problem area for many triathletes is having “one speed” or “one level” in the water.  In order to develop the ability to swim at different paces, it’s crucial to incorporate a variety of speed work into your training. Just as you would vary intensities on the bike and run, it’s important to work at different efforts in the water. Sprint, build, and descend sets are great ways to include speed work into swim sessions. Working at these different intensities in the water will promote the development of distinct levels and cultivate depth in your abilities.  


Swimming is arguably the most technical discipline of triathlon. Even if you have the engine, without good technique you won’t maximize your performance. Technique is important in the water to be efficient and avoid wasting energy. Drills are a great way to exaggerate and isolate certain technical aspects of the stroke cycle. While practicing drills make sure to be engaged and know the purpose of the drill. If you don’t know why you are doing the drill, it’s difficult to carry the benefits of the drill over into your stroke. Lastly, remember when working on technique to focus on form, not speed.


As freestyle is the primary stroke used in a triathlon, many triathletes don’t see the benefit of learning other strokes besides free. Time permitting, working on other strokes – backstroke, butterfly, and breaststroke – can help you become a stronger overall swimmer by building a better feel of the water and strengthening muscles essential to swimming . Furthermore, supplementing non-free stroke work adds variety in swim sessions and helps keep you fresh in the pool.

While working towards changes in the water remember that developing sound technique and gaining fitness takes time and consistent practice. It won’t feel good every day and positive changes will likely feel awkward at first. Good habits take time to form! Integrating these areas into your swim training will help you build depth and confidence as a swimmer. Shift away from the survival mindset and challenge yourself to start the race in the swim!

Here at SBR Endurance Performance Center we can help you reach your swimming goals! Consider a swim stroke assessment to receive structured 1-on-1 direction in the pool. The evaluation includes video analysis, corrective guidance, and drill prescription. Click here for more information about our evaluation services at SBR. 



Jessica Laufenberg