10 swim racing and training tips from tri’s best swimmers

Want to improve your swim? Here is some advice from some of the best swimmers and coaches in triathlon, including Jess Learmonth, Lucy Charles-Barclay and Henri Schoeman

Lucy Charles showing us how it's done. Credit: James Mitchell

01. Strategise the start

Everyone uses a different strategy for the start but I usually pick the start point that’s the shortest distance to the first buoy. Also, I look where the swell and current are going because it can influence my position start. If you’re a GB age-grouper, you don’t want to start next to too many good swimmers! You don’t want a mid-water fight to slow you down. If you’re not as strong a swimmer, start next to the athletes who are slightly faster than you so you can use their feet to drag you to the front.


Richard Varga, one of triathlon’s strongest swimmers and multiple aquathlon world champ

02. Speed up the start

Swim speed for me is individual to the demands of a particular race. The only time you really need speed in the water is off the start, so look at the starting arrangement. Is it a deep-water start, pontoon dive or shoreline sprint into the water? Let this factor guide how you want to train for speed off the start line.

Josh Amberger, fastest swimmer in Kona 2018

03. Master the buoy turn

If you can swim around a buoy correctly, you can easily save up to 5m per buoy, so that’s some valuable seconds. If you’re in a mass of people when approaching a buoy, it’s always good to take a few breaths so you’re prepared in the event of getting dunked, pulled back or someone swims over you. If you start panicking or find yourself in a compromising position, pull off to the side, out of the carnage, and carry on in clear water. Approach the buoy straight on and take shorter strokes around it to manoeuvre a lot quicker. As soon as you come around the buoy, look up to see where the next marker is so that you can position yourself in the right direction.

Henri Schoeman, 2018 Commonwealth champ and Rio Olympics bronze medallist

04. Pick your position

I always aim for the outside edge of the groups, either on the beach start or the water starts. Then once the lead group is established I’ll decide whether to join for the draft or stick to my own line away from the melée.

Lucy Charles-Barclay, 2 x Kona runner-up and Kona swim record holder

05. Nail the catch

Try and slice your hand into the water near the top of your head (fingers relaxed and elbow slightly bent). The next step is the glide. As the hand enters the water refrain from wanting to pull down straight away. The glide is, I think, one of the most important phases as it’s the ‘set-up’ before being able to move yourself forward. When driving the arm down past your body try not to cross your centre line (belly button). So in short, relax, really use the glide phase for a good set-up for the catch and engage your lats when propelling yourself forward.
Lucy Hall, 2012 Olympian and top ITU swimmer

06 Pace the start

So many triathletes struggle with both pacing and breathing at the start of an event, but both are linked – keep your focus on your exhalation and sound out ‘breathe-bubble-bubble-breathe’ and you’ll be both less anxious and also less likely to go off too quick!
Paul Newsome
, Swim Smooth founder and head coach

07. Focus on posture 

Because you can only think of so much when you swim, focus on good posture, keeping your spine as long as possible. It will lift your hips up in the water – making your life easier and faster – and make your stroke better and stronger without trying to improve anything else specifically.
John Wood, swim coach

08. Maintain quality

As you inevitably increase the volume of training to target a long-distance race, it’s equally as important to maintain the quality key workouts that target speed endurance. Threshold sets are equally, if not more, important in long distance as long rides and runs, and incorporated as part of a balanced programme only add to your fitness profile. A good coach is valuable in creating the right individual mix for an athlete.

Jodie Cunnama, Olympian and 2010 70.3 world champ

09. Know your race pace

In the tri swim, you have no biometric feedback like power, heart rate or average speed, so it’s essential to know what your correct race pace for that distance feels like. Use disciplined, specific race-paced intervals with short rests to ‘groove’ this feel. Start a race too fast at your peril!

Richard Smith, 220’s swim coach

10. Stay flexible


The thing that people don’t do often enough is flexibility work outside of the pool. Activities such as yoga can help open up your shoulders and increase your reach.
Jess Learmonth, 2018 Commonwealth silver medallist