Swimming is often regarded as the most intimidating triathlon leg for beginners.
Even intermediates sometimes get butterflies before an open water swim. It doesn’t have to be that way, as you can become a competent swimmer with a little practice and some mental preparation.
As with any other sport, there is a method to learning how to do a triathlon swim, and there are tried-and-true ways triathletes can use to transform from non-swimmers to effective swimmers.
One great thing about swimming is that its benefits will impact all phases of your triathlon, and really all phases of your fitness. For someone who is a non-swimmer, even doing just one short, weekly swim will result in improvements for your health and conditioning.
For example, swimming gives your heart and lungs an excellent workout that you really can’t get any other way. According to Harvard Medical School, the need for highly-controlled breathing while swimming helps your body learn how to use oxygen more efficiently. This benefit can then translate to your other sports, including cycling, running and anything else you happen to do as part of your routine.
So if you are not yet a swimmer, where do you start? Here are four steps you can take to go from being a non-swimmer to a competent swimmer in no time.
Commit to a regular swim routine
If you want to improve your swimming, you need to get your feet wet! Finding a pool where you can start doing laps on a regular basis – once a week – is where you begin. Start as soon as you decide to sign-up for a race, don’t try to cram your swim training in at the end. You don’t need much — a swimsuit for females or swim jammers for men, and a pair of goggles is all.
Most communities have pools that are part of a community center or public school with posted open lap swim hours. If you are a member of a health club with a pool, great. I remember my first few swims as a new triathlete — they lasted all of about 15 minutes, and my goal was to make it all the way to the other end without having to stop and rest. That is normal.
The improvement, though, was a rapid one, and before I knew it I was doing 20-minute swim workouts with relative ease.
Consider a Class or Coach
Many elite swimmers swimmers you see in a triathlon have gotten that way because they swim with a class or coach on a regular basis. You do not have to be coached in order to become a good swimmer, but using one can accelerate your improvement and help you eliminate the bad habits that are bound to introduce themselves to new swimmers.
A masters swim class can be a great way to start. Don’t let the term “masters” fool you — it simply implies that it is for people who are 18 or older. Beginners are welcome. Masters swim is a nationwide network of swim clubs and groups, often hosted by YMCAs and other public pools. They are coached, and you will also learn from other swimmers too. It can be a great way to make sure your form is good, your stroke is right, and that you are creating the right base for your growth as a swimmer.
Take Advantage of Youtube and Videos
One thing swimmers today have access to that people in past generations did not are videos, YouTube and other online resources. Many coaches put snippets of their training videos online, to help you focus on one aspect of the swim at a time. Perhaps you need to make sure your legs aren’t sinking down — you can find a video for that. Or maybe you are worried you have a hitch in your stroke; you can find resources online to learn from.
If you want to invest in a paid video series, the Total Immersion line is one that I have used and like, but there are others too. A good trick is to occasionally have someone catch a quick video you swimming, so you can see your form and what needs work, and then compare it to the resources you are using.
Don’t overlook open water swim practice
If you are going to be doing a triathlon swim in open water, don’t overlook the need to get in that environment a few times before race day. Open water swimming is a little different than swimming in the pool, although all the practice you did in a pool will translate in a major way. Safety is imperative if you are going to swim in open water, so find a friend to spot you, or ask someone to kayak or paddleboard next to you if you have access to it.
Luckily, many races hold a practice open water swim a few days before the race, which can be a great environment for practicing the swim in the actual environment for race day. If you are using a wetsuit, be sure to give it a few tests before race day, too, because you want to get used to how it feels on you.
Come race day, you will be supported in the water by lifeguards and volunteers whose goal is to be sure you are safe and having fun.
Von Collins is part of the Complete Tri team, focused on providing guidance and education for triathletes of all levels. He is the author of several fitness and training-related books, including Your First Triathlon Guide: Do Your First Triathlon in 100 Days or Less.
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.