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Triathlon Swimming from Scratch
Triathlon Swimming from Scratch
20 May 2019

It’s official! When it comes to the three disciplines in the sport of triathlon, the swim is the most daunting. You may have been thinking of taking up the sport but are not too sure about the swim part of it. Anybody can learn to ride a bike and go for a run, but the thought of having to swim in the open water puts the fear into you, right? You are not alone.

You will be bombarded with triathlon and swimmers jargon from all corners when you enter the sport as a newbie, and the advice will come in thick and fast. Don’t be overwhelmed or become intimidated. If you stick to some of the basics outlined below, it becomes easy. If you can keep your head above water un-aided and have some form of swimming style structure in place, you can complete the swim leg of any triathlon.  I have outlined five basic steps to get you started. We are going to make it as simple as possible.

  1. Join a Swim Squad

For every one of you nervous wrecks out there trying to get your head around starting up the swim training required for a triathlon, there are a handful of others living just around the corner, thinking the exact same thing. Joining a swim squad is the easiest way to get into the swim of things fast. Not only will you be coupled with swimmers of similar abilities, but your confidence levels will be pushed on a regular basis.

This all contributes to you feeling better about yourself in the water and ultimately, swimming better. Besides the added benefit of having a coach telling you what to do instead of having to think for yourself, the fun factor comes with training with like-minded people. If you’re having fun and enjoying yourself, the swim training part suddenly takes on a new dimension and the fear begins to fall by the wayside.

You need not join a swim squad all the time. Possibly once per week to start off with and then increase to a maximum of two sessions per week with a possible third open water swim session on the weekends. You can do this until you become totally confident in your own swimming abilities after which you can switch to training on your own. 

Time constraints with work and family often make committing to a swim squad difficult. However, one month of squad swimming with a maximum of two squad sessions per week should be enough to see you on your way. Make sure you start with the shorter swim distance triathlon events first before setting goals on the bigger fish like a 1.5km Olympic distance swim or 1.9km and 3.8km IM swims.  Small baby steps first to build the confidence levels and then you aim for much faster and further.

  1. Buy some Swim Fins

If you have never experienced the thrill of swimming with fins (Flippers/Scuba Fins), do yourself a favour and buy these training aids first. Even the weakest of swimmers will feel like a speed machine with swim fins on. The bigger the better. When you are new to the sport and your swimming is below standard, the fins will give you the boost you need to spike your swim proficiency and confidence.

A novice swimmer tends to drag their body through the water with most of the effort coming from the arms and upper body region. Having fins allow you to kick a little harder, streamlining the body, and thus elevating the legs to a higher degree than when swimming without fins. Most swim programs and coaches discourage the use of swimming with fins too often as they give you a massive advantage in the pool over a normal foot kick, which is an advantage you will not have when you line up for a race.

You can start off by doing all your swim training with the fins on. As you get fitter, try to do a little less with them on until you are ready to drop them completely from the program. Most triathletes going forward will add an element of fin swimming or kicking into their programs, but the majority of training is done without the aid of the fins. As a beginner, you could start off with the fins and then progress from there to non-fin swim.

  1. Swim shorter distances faster.

If you’re starting up triathlon swimming from scratch, even a 25-yard stretch is going to seem like a long way. The best and easiest way to start training from scratch is to swim shorter distances but at greater speed. There is no direct benefit for weaker swimmers to plod along endlessly in the pool, length upon length. The preferred option is to swim shorter distances but with greater intensity.

The rest period between intervals should also be extended to ensure adequate recovery time before you set off for the next one. An interval is the number of lengths/yards you will complete at any one time without a rest period in between. I would suggest keeping your intervals pitched at 25 yards. You can do these a few times. For example, 20 x 25 yards with a rest period of between 30 and 60 seconds after each one you complete. You now need to try and swim faster over that 25 yard stretch in the first couple of weeks. You carry on doing this until you see a significant improvement in your split times, which is the time it takes for you to complete 1 x length.

You can then progress to 50-yard intervals and do pretty much the same by swimming a number of these 50-yard intervals with adequate rest periods in between until you see a vast improvement in the split time. The theory behind this method of swim training for beginners is that it is easier to improve by swimming faster over a shorter distance than it is to improve by swimming longer distances at a slower pace.

  1. Invest in a good Wetsuit

The number one shopping item on any new triathletes list is the bike purchase. Then comes all the other bits and pieces that make up the required tools for the trade. The triathlon-specific wetsuit is considered an essential item but does not hold as much weight as when compared to buying a tri bike or race wheels.  What most novices tend to do when buying a wetsuit is to start off with an entry-level model wetsuit in hopes that they will one day progress to the top-of-the-range models. The general assumption is that the entry-level model will be good enough for their level of swimming ability. This is also a common mistake that can end up costing them both time and money in the long run.

Buying the best model you can afford right from the outset can help you avoid this. The top range models are made of better quality materials and are made to be more flexible and more buoyant. A strong swimmer will not see a huge difference in swim times when moving from entry-mid range wetsuit models to the top end models, but a weaker swimmer will notice a big difference. They may be more expensive, but it is worth investing in the best wetsuit your money can buy. You won't regret it.

  1. Get a Video Stroke Analysis


It sounds like some big words and hard work but, it’s quite simple. A specialist in the field of swim stroke analysis will take a video of you swimming when you start your training. They will show you in real time what your stroke looks like when you start swimming both above and below the surface.  They will then give you some pointers, some drills to perform, and then finally invite you back after a few weeks to film you once again to note any differences between the before and after swim strokes. 

Hopefully, by viewing yourself in action during the actual swim motion via Video Stroke analysis, you will be able to see the mistakes you are making, take some basic steps to correct those mistakes, and then come back to see the improvements. Ideally, you want to do this right at the beginning of your swim training. It is important to see what you are doing wrong rather than being told what you are doing wrong.  Having two sessions, one before and one after, and the training will help improve your swimming significantly.

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