Andy Jackson
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Triathlon swimming guide

Andy Jackson
Posted by
18 Mar 2015

For many triathletes swimming is the most difficult discipline to get to grips with and the one that they least look forward to training for and doing on the day. However, it doesn't have to be and the key to success is technique. Master the technique and the swim will take care of itself. Here are five top tips to help you make a get started:

1. Learn to relax in the water

As humans we possess a mammalian reflex which means that our natural inclination is to hold our breathe the moment we submerge our head in the water - a natural recipe for disaster when you combine it with the physical exertion of swimming. Therefore we have to first override this natural reaction by learning how to relax in the water. 

The best way to start doing this can be done before going anywhere near the pool or open water. Using a sink or bowl of water, submerge your face and completely relax, then slowly and consistently start to exhale from your nose under water to produce a stream of small bubbles. When you surface to take your next breathe you should be calm and not need to be desperate for air. Take a breathe in through your mouth as you would in the pool and again submerge.

The idea is that you become accustomed with relaxation under water and begin to learn to manage your breathing. Focus fully on relaxation. Look to produce a steady slow stream of bubbles and work on extending the amount of time you can stay submerged for without discomfort.

2. Learn to bubble, bubble breathe!

Once you've mastered the basics of breathing under water it's time to put that in to practice in the pool and develop a good breathing technique which will stop you getting tired so quickly. The Bubble, bubble breathe drill is one of the best for this and will help to develop breathing relaxation and a bi-lateral breathe that creates stroke balance. Here's how you do it:

  • Take a breath and on each of the following two strokes say 'bubble' into the water
  • On the third stroke take a breath to the side and say 'breathe' to yourself (not out loud!)
  • Repeat for the remainder of the lap

This is likely to feel alien at first - especially breathing to your unfamilar side - but stick with it as it will pay dividends in the long run and is a great way to coordinate good exhalation with the timing required to breathe every two stokes as opposed to every three.

3. Incorporate the 'sink down' into your training sessions

The sink down is a great way to begin every training session especially when you're starting out as it will help you to relax and get comfortable with being underwater. To perform the sink down, take a deep breath, put your arms by your side and start to exhale. Once your lungs are out of air return to the surface. The aim is to try and sink all the way to the bottom of the pool.

If you struggle to get to the bottom the chances are that you've been subconciously holding your breath. If you sink a little but not completely then you haven't been exhaling quickly enough. Keep practising until you get the hang of it and once you've become accustomed to it aim to do three 'sink downs' before the start of every session to remind you of how you should be exhaling.

4. Minimise the splash

The top swimmers produce very little splash even when they're going quickly and besides looking graceful the reason for this is simple - it's not energy efficient and means that your stroke is incorrect. To hone technique requires hours of practice but body position and stroke technique are the key and if you're doing it correctly it should have a passing resemblance to something like this:  

Now Jonjo Van Hazel has spent hours honing his technique but here are a few pointers to consider to get yourself started:

  • Keep your body position as flat as you can to be streamlined in the water with a slight slope down to the hips to keep the leg kick underwater.
  • keep your head and spine as still and relaxed as possible. Instead, rotate your hips and shoulders to generate momentum through the water. Your head should only join the rotation when you want to breathe.
  • Don’t start pulling back as soon as your hand is in the water – you should give yourself room to reach forward under the water before you start to bring your hand back to the body.
  • Keep your legs close together with ankles relaxed and in a continuous motion.
  • There’s no need to take large down and upbeats – a steady, small motion is fine. While the most pressure should be on your feet, remember to move your whole legs.

5. Get your glide on

Put simply the fewer strokes you take per length, the more proficient you become as a swimmer and the less energy you use up unnecessarily. Elite swimmers like Michael Phelps can complete a length of a 25m pool in seven strokes (each hand entry counts as a stroke). You should aim to try and keep yours below 20 by conserving momentum and looking to stretch as far as you can with each stroke. Once you feel like you're coming to the end of your glide look to start the next stroke. Count how many strokes you do and look to do better with each length. The results will be worth it!

Practice, practice, practice!

Most of us are fortunate enough to be able to walk to the shops without too much exertion which means we should also be able to swim 400-500m at a similar intensity. The reason we struggle in comparison is because whilst we are fairly technically proficient at walking we are inefficient as swimmers.

This means, of course, that the key to being able to swim continuously without becoming tired comes down to technical proficiency which is a case of practice, practice, practice and you should aim to devote about 20% of your overall triathlon training to swimming as that, on average, is the time split for nearly all triathletes.

A huge thank you to Paul Roberts from TribalTriathlete for helping put together these triathlon swimming tips.

We've also got more information, tips and advice in our Unstoppable Triathletes Facebook Group.