How to Improve Open-Water Triathlon Swimming

triathlon swimming

Did you know that more and more participants compete in triathlons every year, with nearly half a million competitors in 2013?

It’s no wonder. Triathlons challenge both physical and mental limitations. They demand discipline and perseverance. With that said, they’re also incredibly rewarding and fun.

For most, the grueling 0.9-mile (1.5km) Olympic swim requires the most preparation and work.

If you’re acing the biking and running but flailing around in open water, don’t worry! We’ve got the best tips for you making the most of your triathlon swimming.

Let’s get into it!

Improving Triathlon Swimming

Practice Straight Swimming

If you’re used to tallying up laps in your pool lane, open water can feel like an entirely different beast.

That’s because swimming in a straight line isn’t guaranteed like it is when you’re following the path of a pool lane.

Swimming crookedly ends up taking more time, more energy, and, yes, clocking way more distance than you want.

How to improve in this area of triathlon swimming? It may sound crazy, but you can benefit practicing with your eyes closed!

Try adding this into your training routine: practice swimming 5-10 strokes at a time with your eyes closed. Are you veering off? Constantly crashing into the lane dividers?

Recruit a trusty friend to give you feedback or simply record yourself by propping up your smartphone. Yes, you might feel crazy. But, this is one of the best ways to get yourself balanced and in line.

Master the Breathing

Did you know that athletic experts estimate that athletes can improve their performance by up to 15% just by improving their breathing?

Does that sound far-fetched? It’s not. Proper breathing allows you to prioritize oxygenated blood and muscle flow. It also increases the sense of relaxation and flow. That means it actually decreases the soreness and tiredness you may feel.

In a nutshell, breathing is important. Improper breathing can slow you down and even increase your risk for injury.

If you want to master breathing in your triathlon swimming, you need to focus on breathing bilaterally.

This means breathing every third stroke. Alternate to left and right. You will develop symmetrical and balanced movement. You will also decrease the chance for feeling strained or sore on just one side.

Focus on balancing both your inhale and exhale. You don’t want to be gasping for air only to choke on water.

Save the Legs

Triathlon swimming requires balance and conserving energy. You’re going to need those powerful legs to move for your running and biking events.

As a result, you want to focus more on the upper body during the swimming event. This will help you save energy and time. It’s also significantly more efficient.

Focus less on intensive leg kicking. Instead, increase your mindfulness. Focus on kicking twice during each stroke. Practice light kicking. The intent is to keep you afloat- not move you forward. Your upper body will do most of the work.

For advanced training in this area, practice swimming with a pullbuoy positioned between your legs. This technique forces you to focus on your upper body strength and power.

Improve Your Drafting

Triathlon swimming requires specific training, often in the form of drafting. Drafting essentially keeps you moving at a challenging and competitive pace.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to this technique:

1. Swim directly behind another swimmer as close as possible (without actually touching them). This is similar to tailgating you on the highway, and it can be quite annoying and irritable for the other swimmer. As a result, it’s not recommended.

2. Focus on ‘arrowhead’ drafting, which means swimming to the side and slightly behind the other swimmer. This requires taking on more of a diagonal position. You’re still close to the swimmer, but not so close that you risk getting in each other’s way.

Practice with training friends in short sprints. Again, the goal is to create an appropriate tempo, not get in the way of someone else’s performance!

Be Mentally Tough

Even though triathlon swimming is exciting, it can feel scary and overwhelming. Many people simply don’t have much experience with swimming beyond the comfort of a controlled pool.

With that said, it’s important to mentally prepare yourself. Before the swim even begins, get yourself into a calm and relaxed state.

Practice deep breathing and engage in positive visualization. Map out the route you’re about to swim. Imagine yourself successfully completing the distance and using proper technique and form.

Visualizing success and mentally calming yourself down is one of the greatest tools for unlocking athletic success.

Have a Solid Warm-Up

Just like any other physical activity, physically warming up before triathlon swimming is critical. You don’t want to enter the water with cold muscles!

Focus on a few high-mobility, plyometric exercises. We like the following routine:

  • 10-15 spinal rotations/twists
  • 20 knee hugs
  • 10 squats
  • 10 arm circles (going each direction)
  • About 30 seconds light jogging

You definitely want to ease your way into the swim with muscles that are ready to get to work!

Train for the Cold

This is for all those triathlon swimmers who have trained in luxurious, heated pools! Be prepared for CHILLINESS once entering that dark ocean or lake.

We definitely recommend getting some practice in open water before your event. However, if that’s not the case, you need to come in mentally prepared.

Before the swimming, familiarize yourself with the temperature. Even if it feels uncomfortable, get your feet and legs went. Practice breathing calm, controlled breaths.

Once swimming, focus on keeping your breath even. Many swimmers choke up and hold their breath underwater. This is a faulty mistake! It can lead to increased anxiety, stress, and even hyperventilation.

Remember, your body will warm up and adjust to the temperature. Stay calm. Breathe in, breathe out! You got this.

Final Thoughts

Whether you are competing in your first or hundredth competition, there is always room to improve your triathlon swimming.

Practice mastering the following tips, and you’re guaranteed to see improved results. Stay safe, have fun, and swim on!