Conquering the Swim stage of a Triathlon

A lot of people who want to get in to Triathlons are put off by the swimming stage. Understandably. Certainly in the UK we’re not a nation of swimmers and the memory of school swim lessons hardly evoke pangs of nostalgia. I had the exact same trepidation before signing up to my first Tri in 2014. Don’t let the fear put you off getting started: it can transform from a bore and a trial to one of those gratifyingly frustrating pursuits of perfection.

I’m not an expert swimmer by any stretch, but I am able to swim 1500m in 30 minutes and emerge feeling fresh, where two years ago I struggled to to do more than a length of frontcrawl. Yes, it’s far from lightning speed but it’s also respectable and easily quick enough to set yourself up for a sub 3 hour Triathlon.

If you’re interested in doing the same, here’s the advice I can give you:

Forget everything (about swimming) they taught you at school.

Swimming in a triathlon isn’t about being the quickest out of the block: it’s about conserving your leg muscles for the ensuing bike and run. Even at the top level you’re never going to win the race on the swim (though you might lose it). This is generally why you don’t see people swimming breakstroke at triathlons as it’s much more leg intensive.

Having said that, you absolutely can swim breaststroke! The only stroke you aren’t allowed to do is backstroke though butterfly is a questionable choice. Breaststroke is a simpler stroke and one people often fall back on when they run out of breath on frontcrawl and that’s ok! A friend of mine swam the London Triathlon stage breaststroke in just over 40 minutes, easily quick enough for a sub 3-hour total time.

If you’re interested in lerning frontcrawl properly though, my number one tip is to watch this video series. Seriously, it will change the way you swim. By applying science and study to the technique of moving yourself through the dense medium of water: you can move faster and more easily through the dense medium of water. Who would have thought it?

Get in the water and try it out!

My first attempt at swimming long distances was a crossing of a 400m wide lake in Poland. The difference before and after applying the techniques described above were astonishing, it was immediately so much simpler. I’d previously been panicking like mad about whether I would be able to swim 1500m at all and this gave me the confidence I needed.

You’re not going to learn anything out of the water though, head down to your local pool and see for yourself how much easier it can be. That fire in your lungs and thrashing of the water will rapidly evolve into a gentle glide which can actually be relaxing and almost meditative.

Take it outdoors.

If you’re doing your Tri in the UK, or anywhere non-tropical, the chances are you’re going to be doing your swim outdoors and in a wetsuit. The major advantage of this is that wetsuits are more buoyant so you’ll spend less time worrying about floating and be able to concentrate more on your stroke. It also means you’ll go faster but it does take a little bit of getting used to. Remember to pull it up as much as possible and give yourself some room around the shoulders.

If you don’t feel like forking out for a wetsuit not knowing if you’re going to enjoy swimming long-term, there are plenty of companies who will rent you one for the season and give you the option of returning it or buying it at the end.

Training for an outdoor swim provides a new challenge as most indoor pools don’t allow the use of wetsuits. There are plenty of swimming lakes outside of London and across the UK which provide you with a venue and a visibility level of about 50cm, but we also have a great selection of Lidos.

Brockwell Lido

Lidos are amazing for a number of reasons:

  1. They're usually old which means they have some interesting architecture or at least a bit more about them.
  2. They're generally next to a good cafe.
  3. It's common to see 50m or even longer ones (Tooting Bec Lido is 70m).
  4. They are full of good swimmers and often host Triathlon clubs.

The latter is an important one because I found it really useful to study other people’s techniques while I was trying to improve mine. Even Alistair and Jonny Brownlee have trained at Ilkley Lido. Triathlon clubs often do their training at Lidos and this can be a great way of asking advice and meeting people with similar goals.

If you get the bug - take a lesson.

If you can afford it and are keen on improving your stroke, I found taking a swim lesson a fun, and really fascinating, experience. There’s no shortage of swim coaches across the world who specialise in training for Triathlon and long distance swimming.

I took a few lessons with Sam Williams at Swim Studio London. He has an endless pool (essentially a swim treadmill) which is rigged up with a bunch of different cameras. Lessons are 60 minutes but you swim for only about 20. The rest of the time you are replaying video and working on different parts of the stroke. A really interesting and worthwhile thing to do.

Keep it interesting.

Even if you get into the technique part of it all, putting in the distance can still be quite repetitive. Some people like to listen to music underwater with the (still magic to me) underwater headphones. I prefer to keep it interesting by mixing up the location. It’s amazing how nice some of the publicly available places are to swim, and all for four of five pounds. You don’t have to pay £60 a month to join a gym just to use the pool.

Chase the lengends at the Olympic Park

That the Olympic Pool is municipal and you can use it for under a fiver is incredible. Use it while it lasts because it must be costing a fortune to run that place. The art-deco pool on Marshall Street, just off Carnaby Street and hidden right in the centre of London, is also a work of art and its white marble floor is something pretty special to swim above.

Swim Dem Crew in London meet weekly and mix up the venue around London. They also help teach people to swim and have taken complete newcomers to triathlon level. Other swim clubs are available.

Swim somewhere you can't cheat.

This could well be terrible advice but it worked for me. I’m lazy, so when doing lengths, no matter how much I try not to, I always end up cheating and taking a little break every now and again. To combat this every time I was on holiday I searched for a lake I could swim across or an island I could swim to and just went for it. Slightly dangerous so ideal if you can do it in a pair or at least have someone on the bank watching you. That feeling when you’re halway across and starting to get fatigued is something else though…

Enter a swim only race.

The Great Swim Series organise 1 mile races across the UK. These are a good idea to enter just to give yourself an idea of how you will feel after a race and how it is to swim closely alongside others. From my experience they’re not particularly competitive so you can go at your own pace and not have to worry about others swimming across your back as might happen in a Tri.

Great Manchester Swim - Salford Quays

On race day.

Don’t panic.

Don’t pull your goggle so tight, fearing they’ll be kicked off, that you end up with a splitting headache all the way around.

Pull your wetsuit up as high as you can around your shoulders. The more room you can make there the less restrictive you will find it.

If you’re nervous start towards the back of your wave, you’ll have the chance to move past people as there’ll be plenty of room and you’ll avoid being kicked in the face or having some one swim across you. If you start near the front this will absolutely happen but be forgiving, you’ll likely be able to see very little underwater and no one is actively trying to bump into you. If you want some free water just move to the side and you’ll be back on your own.

If you get tired, get in someone’s slipstream. It’s amazing how much easier it is to swim behind someone else, where the water is already moving towards you. If you’re starting to fatigue this can be a great way to take a moment to relax your muscles and stretch out in long easy strokes whilst still gliding forward easily. Often it can actually be detrimental to move ahead of someone into clear water so bear this in mind. It’s quite a hard balance to find though.

Enjoy it. Take a moment to remember that X months ago you couldn’t swim further than 50m without a break and now you’re 1km into your first triathlon. That’s a big step up and something to be proud of.