How to Overcome Swim Fatigue as a Newbie Swimmer

By Dave Burgess | March 21, 2019, 5:12 p.m. (ET)

Swimming

As I’ve discussed before, the swimming discipline is one of the most mechanically dependent for any triathlete.

This isn’t to say that running and cycling don’t have their own mechanics and gains from improved bio-mechanical efficiency, of course. But for the beginner triathlete — who might be new to swimming — getting into the pool and attempting your first workout can sometimes seem like one of the most challenging workouts they’ve yet done.

It’s not uncommon to see someone in the lane next you making things “look easy.” Almost effortless.

Don't worry, time and determination will get you there.

There are a lot of basic training methodologies to keep in mind and incorporate into your training to help you get your swim training moving in the right direction.

But even with the best laid plans and quality swim programming at the ready, it’s not uncommon to feel absolutely beat after a very short period of time in the water. With that said, what are the primary causes of the muscle fatigue that is almost assuredly experienced by everyone as they begin their swim training on the way to their first triathlon?

Let’s start with your breathing.

You need to have a complete air / gas exchange while you swim. What do I mean by that? I mean that after you inhale during your stroke recovery, you need to exhale when your face is in the water (through your nose, mouth, or both).

This is critically important, as without a complete air exchange, carbon dioxide (waste product from muscular exertion) begins to build up and your muscles begin to become deprived of oxygen (the primary fuel for creating energy during aerobic exercise). When this happens, muscular fatigue begins to set in.

This isn’t to say that by doing a good exhalation when your face is in the water you’re going to get ‘all’ of the waste product out of your system. But it alleviates the most common mistake made among new swimmers or triathletes: holding your breath between inhalations.

When you hold your breath between inhalations, as small and fractional as it may seem, his incremental build-up of carbon dioxide is called “stacking.” And it doesn’t take long for this build-up to begin to cause fatigue.

Now, there are a couple schools of thought on the exhalation portion of the swim. To keep it simple, just give a steady exhale when your face is in the water so that when you turn to breathe, your exhale is finishing and all you’re doing is inhaling.

It’s quite common to work with an athlete who says that they swim 25 or 50 meters and "feel exhausted.” By incorporating this breathing change, it’s almost a guarantee that the huffing and puffing they experienced after 50 meters of swimming will disappear.

The key here is to relax.

I will grant you that the two following things can be challenging:

  • Breathing on a schedule
  • Exhaling with your face in the water

Neither of these two things are the most normal things to do for someone new to swimming. So try and relax. Tightening up from a muscular standpoint only makes you work harder as you become more inefficient. And tightening up from a breathing standpoint only makes your breathing shallow. Hence not providing enough oxygen to fuel your muscles.

Easier said than done, I know, but once you become more comfortable in the water, things will begin to get easier. Additional training sessions during the week, and strict regularity of swim training will help speed up that comfort level.

There’s another factor to high fatigue rates during your swim training: Form and mechanics. Working harder than necessary in the water is a sure fire way to induce fatigue. “Fighting” with the water via poor mechanics ensures a guaranteed lack of propulsion and high fatigue rates.

I’ve discussed this topic before, and this limiter can be a bit more challenging to resolve. The first step is to have a qualified triathlon, or swimming coach, look at your stroke. Ideally, capturing underwater video from differing angles to fully examine your stroke. This is rather difficult to do on your own (both from a video capture standpoint as well as determining what needs to be remediated in regards to your stroke.)

Once video has been captured, it becomes fairly easy and straightforward to pick out what’s working well within your stroke, as well as limiters that need to be addressed.

Key aspects of the stroke that we want to see include the following:

  • Moving from the anchor phase to a vertical forearm position as quickly as possible.
  • A stroke that moves along the long-axis of the body, and finishes strong at the hip, without crossing the medial line of their body
  • Neutral head position.
  • No unnecessary body rotation and good body alignment.
  • A quick catch and transition to an early vertical forearm.
  • A recovery phase that stays over the predominant body mass and doesn’t swing wide.
  • Some common limiters that you discover can include (but are not limited to):
  • Dropping of the shoulder, and the stoke crossing the medial line of the body
  • Dropping of the elbow – and the elbow leading the stroke with no vertical forearm
  • Head position is “up” and eyes are looking forward
  • Too much, or too little, body rotation.

These will all become quite obvious when the video is viewed – especially in slow motion. These are not the only physical identifiers that can be seen, of course. There are numerous possible items for correction which is why it’s important to have a qualified individual take the video and review it with you to ensure accurate analysis and a proper prescription of drills for remediation.

The goal here is to ensure that you exit the water as efficiently and effectively as possible. Saving energy in the swim portion of your race only ensures that you’re setting yourself up for success later in the race.

Dave Burgess is a USA Triathlon Level II Certified Coach, USA Swimming and ASCA Level 3 Coach, and has been involved in the triathlon and endurance sports community since 2000. Dave is also  a US Masters Swimming Level 3 coach.and he holds a certificate in sports and performance nutrition. As the founder and head coach of Podium Training Systems, Dave works with athletes of all levels, from first-time competitors to elite-level athletes, competing in all race distances. Learn more at podiumtraining.com.


The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.