The #1 Swim Training Mistake Made by Beginning Triathletes

Uncategorized Feb 24, 2017

Beginner Swimmers: Don’t Make This Mistake

Learning to swim well can be quite challenging as it is a technical skill.  To a certain extent with other sports such as cycling and running improvements can be made simply by exerting more effort. But this approach backfires when applied to swimming.  To swim more efficiently is not a matter of trying harder.  Instead, swimming more efficiently (faster and with less effort) is about reducing the natural resistance of moving through the water. It takes technique.

The number one mistake beginner swimmers make is to swim “X” number of laps or for “Y” amount of time.  The mindset around this type of training is understandable.  You're concerned about maximizing your time in the water.  Unfortunately, there are more drawbacks to this type of training than there are benefits.

Should the athlete be able to complete the distance of their intended race prior to race day? Of course! However, to swim every training session in this fashion practically ensures minimal improvement. In fact, it makes slow swimmers. How?

It limits development in technique
It restricts improvement in speed
It is boring
It inhibits confidence

Many triathletes when discussing swimming improvement will reflexively respond they don’t care about swimming faster. Improving your swim technique will increase your swimming speed which means you will not only be in the water less time, but you will begin the bike having used less energy.  Even if you don’t care about improving your swimming ability, you can swim faster and be less fatigued.

The best way to improve your technique is to intentionally concentrate on various aspects of your technique.  Ideally get feedback in-person from a swim coach who can analyze your stroke with guidance as to which parts need the most attention.  By breaking the complete swim stroke down into its individual parts you can focus on improving each part individually. 

When it comes to swimming, improve the parts and you will improve the whole.  Working on technique is best done in short increments.  When your swim training plan is to swim straight through without planned breaks, it’s extremely difficult to focus on just one aspect of your stroke on which you want to improve.  Additionally, using a clock to time a given distance is an excellent method for verifying improvement.  This does not happen when you swim the entire session straight through.  Improving technique is the best way for a beginner swimmer to not only swim faster but to use less energy doing so.  Consider a triathlete that takes 50 minutes to complete an Olympic Distance swim.  Improving technique can easily get that same swimmer down to 35-40 min.  Think about how much energy is saved by spending 15 less minutes in the water. 


Once you reach a certain level of proficiency though, training methodology leads to further gains.  Performing each swim at the same pace will NOT lead to improvement. Instead, swim like a swimmer.  Add intervals and preset rest periods or “send-offs.”  An example of a send-off would be 5 x 100’s on 1:45. This means you would swim a series of five 100’s and you would leave the wall for a new one each minute and forty-five seconds.  If 100 takes you 1:30 then you would get 15 seconds rest before beginning the next repeat.

A Better Way To Train

Let’s say we have a swimmer doing a training session of 1,000 yards in a time of 22:30 which equates to a 100 pace of 2:15. A different and better way of training would be to create a set where the pace is faster than 2:15/100.  As an example, we could break the same 1,000 yards into the following workout:

Warm Up: 300 yards including 100 yards of drills specific to the athlete’s needs of improvement.

Main Set:

6 x 50 yards at 2:00-2:05 / 100 pace.  Rest :20 sec between repeats

2 x 100 yards at 2:05-2:10 / 100 pace.  Rest :15 sec between repeats.

Cool Down: 200 yards easy

Half of this workout is at a faster pace than the athlete typically swims.  The athlete’s body and mind will need to adapt to get through the water more efficiently by reducing drag and by improving technique.  Of course, the athlete can swim a little faster than normal by exerting more effort.  Even this is an advantage over always swimming the same pace straight through.  The human body adapts to training stress placed upon it, given it is an appropriate amount of stress. In a few weeks the same swimmer will now be consistently swimming at a pace that is faster than their previous 2:15/100 pace.  Improving one’s 100 yard pace by 5 seconds per 100 yards will yield a 2 minute 16 second improvement off their Olympic Distance swim.

One of the most common complaints beginner swimmers say is that swim training is boring.  Of course, swimming can be boring when every swim session is the same!  However, when an athlete does a “swim workout” it requires concentration and focus which creates engagement of the brain.  When completing swim workouts the time appears to go by much quicker in the water.

When taking swimming to the open water it has been known to induce a panic attack or two.  Lakes and oceans are not always clean and clear. You no longer have a black line to guide you. Practicing in open water will build confidence and reduce stress. The more swim confidence a person has, the less they are freaked out by contact and the more skilled they are at avoiding contact by being able to swim away from it.  Panic attacks happen at a much greater rate to less confident swimmers than to more confident swimmers.

Transferring pool performance to the open water can be a difficult task. You can make this easier by practicing a lot of the open-water specific drills in the pool: Sighting, drafting, swimming in close proximity to others or even buoy turns can all be added to your regular pool swimming routine. With every rep you do, remind yourself to do at least one head up stroke or a sighting breath every other length. 

One key to improving confidence is to improve competency or ability.  When you notice an improvement of your 100 pace, your confidence improves.  In addition to improved confidence, you will be more excited to train when they notice improvement.  With each increased bump in confidence in one’s swimming ability the idea of a mass swim becomes less intimidating.  Talk to any group of beginner triathletes and typically the number one fear expressed is the swim portion of a race.  Athletes are worried about contact from other swimmers as well as water conditions: cold temperatures, rough water and waves, etc.  The higher swim confidence a triathlete has the less they are concerned about the swim leg.  The opposite is true for those with the lowest levels of swim confidence.  More than one triathlete can tell you a story of hanging on to the side of a paddle board or kayak for several minutes during a race while they recover from a panic attack.  The bottom line is an improvement in your swim confidence will result in a more favorable race experience.