Swim technique for triathletes

Swim technique for triathletes

Swimming is often the weakest discipline for triathletes but Swim Smooth coach Martin Hill believes a change in approach can have a huge impact.

For the majority of triathletes, swimming is their weakest discipline and as a consequence is also the part of the race that they dread; the race starts once they have successfully got through the swim as fast as possible and without too many issues!

The swim always generates more comments than any other part of the race – whether it’s the water being cold, dark, too crowded, too choppy or being kicked, the list of reasons for a poor swim is endless.

It's partly understandable as many triathletes don’t have a swim background, so haven’t got the swim technique and confidence that years of club swimming from an early age brings to those fortunate to have done so.

However, other than gaining more experience and time in the water, I’ve found that with an understanding of both the technique and what to cover in training, most triathletes can easily and quickly improve their swim times and enjoy the experience.

This knowledge is essential for a triathlete to understand - triathletes are a very competitive breed, in life in general as well as in triathlons, and often seek out information to help improve themselves. However, this can often lead to confusion as there is so much information available, much of which is contradictory, and apart from not knowing what/who to trust, it often does more harm than good.

Triathlon – a sport, not a swim, bike and run

In triathlon races today, it’s almost impossible to win a race by being a good swimmer, but it is very often the case that a race result is detrimentally affected by having a poor swim. It is therefore important for a triathlete to understand that swimming in a triathlon – and therefore swim training – is NOT the same as a swimmer would do. It might sound odd, but once the basics are understood it can lead to a step change in how a triathlete approaches swim training and their performance.

The main areas I see in swim technique which is very common amongst triathletes comes from them trying to swim like a swimmer, and often from being coached by swim coaches!

Front crawlI’m not aiming to criticise swim coaches or swimmers as most are obviously very good and getting good results. However, a swimmer's race is, in triathlon terms, very short. They typically cover 50m, 100m, 200m, occasionally 400m and sometimes 800m or 1500m; only the latter two are representative of a triathlon swim but are not very commonly undertaken by most swimmers.

The point of this is that for a swimmer to do these kinds of events, their training is different and their swim technique is different. Also, the swimmers themselves are very likely to be in a different age group; ie much younger, or have been swimming since being young, and as a consequence have a much better range of movement.

Most age group triathletes are older and do not have a swim background as so are a) lacking swim technique and b) less flexible than their younger swimmer counterparts. Both these factors play a large part in how a triathlete should approach their swim training and technique.

Being aware of the appropriate triathlon swim technique gives the triathlete the confidence to know what to do and how to implement it in the water, especially when supported by hands-on coaching.

Focus on what's important

Swom video analysisThe first point I always aim to get across to a triathlete is not to try to emulate a video of a good swimmer – Sun Yang, Michael Phelps, etc. as the way they swim is probably going to be impossible to follow! Triathletes (and many coaches) need to be aware that what they see a swimmer doing above the water is immaterial, it is what happens under the water that is important as this is the only part that is propelling the swimmer.

Once this point is understood, it then becomes easier for the triathlete to focus on what is important, especially when it is acknowledged that the older triathlete needs to adopt a technique that works with their (probably) limited flexibility, even though strength may not be a problem.

In the majority of triathletes I have coached and see at swim clinics and camps, three very common areas need to be developed and once these are addressed the other ‘supporting’ areas can add to make a more rhythmical and efficient stroke. However, the way that each is addressed and tailored to the individual is exactly that – tailored to the individual; there is no single style / technique that works for everyone.

Three key areas to address

Filming the swimTop of the list, only because it is fundamental to everything we do as humans, but especially as we are not made to be in water, is breathing – not in the terms of swimming and being able to perform bilateral or unilateral breathing, but simply breathing and in particular exhaling.

Once mastered, this will fall down the list and often drop off but for over 80% of adult swimmers / triathletes this is a big issue, made even worse in open water and worse still in an open water triathlon.

The other two main problem areas are being able to retain a good aligned / streamlined position in the water and then having the ability to generate propulsion – and this can only be optimised with a body that is well aligned (otherwise there will be drag / resistance to prevent optimum propulsion).


Swimming for triathlon has to be approached in a different way to that for purely competitive swimming and has to account for the ability of (generally) an older triathlete in terms of flexibility.

By understanding how to swim effectively, a triathlete can often make step changes in their performance but only when coached appropriately, and in a way that suits the physique and stature of the triathlete.

The best way to start off this process is to have a coach – who understands the needs of a triathlete – to perform a detailed swim video analysis; one that occurs very soon after being filmed and one that is followed up with some specific and targeted coaching.

Related articles:
Triathlon swim technique - breathing
Triathlon swim technique - streamlining
Triathlon swim technique - propulsion

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