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Professional Techniques to Nail Your Swim

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So you want to be a triathlete, but even just thinking of the swimming pool makes you groan? Or the idea of getting in a lake with a hundred feet kicking you in the face sends you into a cold sweat?

You are not alone! Every one of us has felt the same way at one point or another.
I’ve been working with triathletes for the last five years on preparing them for their first swim ever or perfecting what may already be a great foundation. As we enter the season where we may be doing less long training outside and fewer races, I’d like to share with you a few thoughts and invite you to discover how pleasurable lap swimming can be.

  • Get your head in it. If you didn’t grow up in the water, I know being in the water can seem frustrating and even scary. But if you want to actually enjoy swimming, the first step is to pretend like you enjoy swimming. Instead of saying, “Ugh, the water is so cold!” try, “Wow, this cold water is really going to motivate me to swim hard today!”. I know it will seem forced at first. But as with so many things, committing mentally is the first step to gaining physically.
  • Join a Masters Swimming team. Swimming on a team may be the only shared training you get to do as a triathlete! So let yourself experience how fun these relationships can be—and how your friends can hold you accountable to show up for practice! There are material benefits as well. Swimming in a crowded lane helps prepare you to swim in a crowded race. Additionally, swimming with people who are a little better than you will help push you to become better yourself. Even if you have to skip a 50 here and there, pushing your limits in the pool will push your limits for race day. And finally, kindly ask your coach for stroke tips as he or she has time. A small tweak here and there, with time to implement in between, will help you far more than a one-day crash clinic.
  • Swim main sets by base interval, not by rest. If you do swim by yourself, holding yourself to a base interval helps ensure you’re accountable to your goal race pace and that you don’t slip as the workout goes on. A base interval is the fastest you can swim an entire main freestyle set with minimal rest, about a high Zone 2. If you’re working on speed, use a faster interval to motivate you to push; or, if you’re working above threshold, use an interval that allows for more rest. 

For me, a typical aerobic workout may include about 1,000-2,000 meters of race-pace swimming broken out over time. But there may be double that of steady, base interval swimming to get in the volume. For example:

1000 warm-up
600 transition set (short builds, 15 m sprints, drills, kicking, etc.)

Main set as:
- 400 negative split on base interval
- 6 x 100 race-pace on base -:05
- 2 x 50s active recovery

- 400 negative split on base interval
- 8 x 50s fast on base +:10
- 2 x 50s active recovery

Sprint set, with 25s on :30 to :45 interval

Cool down

  • Get in the open water for comfort—but don’t rely on it for speed. Steady swimming in choppy water, maybe with some 1 to 10 minute efforts, is great to practice sighting and tacking with a current, verify your equipment, and breathing when there’s chop. But if you want to get faster, you need to be in the pool! If you’re worried about the mass start, this is also a good place to practice with friends, ideally who are more experienced. Practice swimming and ask them to swim on top of you, pull at your legs, or get right up in your space in any way they can. The best thing you can do is to think of Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing—and KEEP YOUR DANCE SPACE, Baby. If you stop, you’re more likely to feel like you’re being pulled under and panic. So you’ve got to be strong, even as you allow the waves or that jerk with the scissor kick or whatever it is to wash over you. Swimming with ease is about finding a balance of both strength and surrender.
  • Swim more, look at YouTube less. There are some great resources out there. I particularly like the Richard Quick Championship Productions DVDs and Sheila Taormina’s book, Swim Speed Secrets. I teach from both. But at the end of the day, if you want to swim better you need to swim faster more often.
  • Care for your shoulders so they can care for you. Shoulder pain is usually a result of poor technique or of adding too much speed or volume too quickly. The good news is that there are all kinds of physical therapy you can do with bands and small weights. But do seek support if you have any kind of pain at all. Shoulder flexibility is also important for swimming. Try standing in front of a mirror and putting your arms in a streamline position. Do you see a gap between your arms and your ears? If so, you probably need to work on flexibility. You can do this by committing to a tight streamline off each and every wall. Or seek out yoga or targeted stretching. But whatever you do, do it with tenderness and care.
  • Treat yourself to a really nice swimsuit, your favorite towel, and luxurious shower products. I’m not kidding. For swimming to be pleasurable, you’ll want to take care with all aspects of swimming. So often I see people show up with ratty old bath towels and those cheap hotel-size shampoo bottles. No! Just like you wouldn’t ride on a saddle that wasn’t comfortable or wear running shorts that make you chafe, don’t skimp on your swim gear either.
  • Keep a log book to remind yourself of what you’re learning and what you enjoyed. You’ll want to track your time and distance, of course. But I also encourage swimmers to make a note after every practice: “I became a better swimmer today because…” Or, “Today’s practice was great because…”

The best swimmers in the world don’t even hit 10 percent mechanical efficiency in the water. So swimming is more craft than the other two disciplines of triathlon because you will be rewarded just as much for the art as for the strength. So hone your craft with love and with patience—swimming makes for a wonderful lifelong companion.

How’s swimming going for you? What do you enjoy and what do you struggle with? Please comment and I’ll get back to you!

Written by Kyra Wiens

Follow Kyra on Instagram! @kyrawiens

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