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Home / Training / Swim / Stronger, faster, fitter 2/5: Swim

Stronger, faster, fitter 2/5: Swim

Now is the time to analyse your racing year, make the necessary tweaks over the winter and set yourself up for your best season ever in 2013. Part two is swim

Issue ID: October 2012

It’s often said that you can’t win a triathlon in the swim, but you can certainly lose it. A bad first leg can put a real downer on the rest of your day, both physically and psychologically, whereas coming out of the water in good shape does at least set the scene for a decent result.

Were any of your 2012 swim legs adversely affected by the problems listed here? If so, implement the suggested solutions before next year.


In the UK we tend to go to the pool for most of our swim training. The open water is a very different place, and swimming in a restrictive wetsuit, in cold, turbulent water, with other swimmers and poor visibility can make the experience very intimidating.


Ensure you get plenty of open-water practice before the season. This is without doubt the number one way to gain confidence in that environment. The more hours you can accumulate in lakes, rivers and the sea, the more comfortable you will be during races.

Learning to control your breathing is the key to success if you start to panic. When training, be sure to swim with others at all times, and in places where you know the water quality and conditions are safe. If open-water swimming is not an option, see if you can at least practise in your wetsuit at the pool to get used to how it feels.


When you’re pumped up for a big race, the body is locked into fight or flight mode. Adrenaline is flowing to increase your heart rate and mask the pain of intense effort. This can easily lead to maxing out in the first few hundred metres and paying for it later on.


Practise swimming negative splits (a training method where successive sets are swum faster than the previous one) regularly during your winter training. This ingrains the ability to pace yourself properly and allows your mind to acclimatise to increasing the level of effort as time goes on.

As a general rule in races, if you feel like you’re working hard in the first few minutes you’re probably absolutely cranking it and should back off. Think about regulating your stroke rate and only using a powerful leg kick in the first few metres when you want to accelerate hard.


Taking the shortest line round the course is critical if you want to produce your best swim; the main reason for needlessly clocking up extra distance is not swimming a straight line between the marker buoys.


In both the pool and open water, practise looking up every 4-6 strokes to navigate above the water. When swimming outside, ensure you have well-fitting, anti-fog goggles, with clear or light-enhancing lenses for cloudy days and tinted lenses for when the sun’s out.

Practise picking out landmarks on the shore that line up with the buoys, so you can sight them if the actual markers are too hard to see from water level. Also, when racing, don’t blindly follow the feet of the swimmer in front and assume they know where they’re going. Check for yourself from time to time and stay on course even if they don’t.


Many triathletes who aren’t from a swimming background punch below their weight in the swim, as they lack sufficient technique to make the most of their otherwise impressive fitness levels.


Over the winter, seek out front-crawl swim coaching to help make your stroke more efficient. Of the three sports, swimming is by far the most technical and the rewards for increased efficiency are huge. Teaching yourself technique is extremely difficult as you can’t really see what it is you’re doing wrong, which is why external feedback from a coach or camera is so useful. Bear in mind that dedicating time to technique work might mean taking one step backwards in terms of fitness in the short term, as you aim to take two steps forwards in the long term.


Now’s a good time to do an MOT of all your swim gear. The biggest item to check over is your wetsuit: does it still fit well, are there any nicks or tears that need repairing, or is it time for a new one? There are off-season bargains to be had in the shops but be brutally honest about fit – are you likely to change weight before starting racing again next year? If so, it might be wise to hold off on a purchase until you’ve established your 2013 racing weight.

It’s also worth checking that your goggles aren’t too scratched up from being thrown around in transition – new ones are a relatively modest investment. Swim training is much more productive if you can see where you’re going and read the pace clock!

If you swim on your own a lot without a coach on poolside to offer feedback, consider a stroke and lap-counting watch like a Garmin Swim or PoolMate. While they won’t be able to correct your technique, they will help you count lengths during long efforts and make sure your stroke rate isn’t dropping or increasing too much as you get tired at the end of a set.


If you’re swimming for 90mins or less in a training set, it’s unlikely you’ll need to refuel during sessions. A bottle of water or something with electrolytes in (especially if you’re prone to foot or calf cramps) should be all you need poolside. The main nutritional considerations are how late you can eat before getting in the water and how to refuel afterwards.


In terms of the pre-swim meal, most find that eating 90mins to 2hrs before hitting the water is ample. But everyone’s different, so experiment to see what works for you.


For refuelling have a light carbohydrate snack ready to go as soon as you’re out of the water. Put a banana, energy bar or recovery shake in your kit bag to have on the way out of the pool, and aim to have a proper meal within 90mins.

Profile image of Matt Baird Matt Baird Editor of Cycling Plus magazine


Matt is a regular contributor to 220 Triathlon, having joined the magazine in 2008. He’s raced everything from super-sprint to Ironman, duathlons and off-road triathlons, and can regularly be seen on the roads and trails around Bristol. Matt is the author of Triathlon! from Aurum Press and is now the editor of Cycling Plus magazine.