I Signed Up For My First Triathlon, But I’ve Never Actually Trained For Swimming. Where Do I Start?

Congrats, signing up for an Olympic-distance triathlon takes bravery! It also keeps you accountable to actually train to swim 1.5km (0.93 mi), bike 40km (25 mi), and run 10km (6.2 mi). Typically the hardest activity to train for is swimming, because it's where most people have the least amount of experience. In this blog article, there are some tips to help prepare you for the swimming portion of the race, as well as some tips on what to avoid.

It might sound silly that I even have to ask someone (who signed up for a triathlon) if they know how to swim. But you'd be surprised at the answers I get. Yes, this really does happen.

Having a deadline makes people motivated to learn. But this is NOT the time to learn! You should know how to swim and be comfortable in the water before ever enrolling in a race. The dangers of swimming are often underestimated. You will have people swimming very close to you, or on top of you. You might get kicked in the face. If you are a novice, it's common to panic if you choke on water, get water in your goggles, or are pulled underwater. I hope this doesn't make you regret participating. Just be ready for this reality.

Assuming those still reading are strong swimmers, let's talk training. Runners and cyclists love putting in the miles! But maybe you don't have time to get to the pool for 2+ hours. Well, there's no need to. The most time efficient way to improve speed is by incorporating sets, intervals and drills as opposed to just swimming for hours straight.

A “set” is the amount of times you go a certain distance. Interval is the amount of time you have to complete that distance. Drills can be kicking, pulling, breath control or stroke technique.

Create sets that break up your workout into different distances. For example, short and fast sets (ranging from 25s to 100s), middle distance sets (200s to 500s) require more endurance but are still quick, and longer distance sets (500+) are usually holding a specific pace. Changing up your training allows you to get more out of your workout, reduces the time spent at the pool, and decreases overuse on the body thus preventing injury. The variety in your workout will also help you identify your Perceived Rate of Excursion (PRE) which is the sense of how much effort you're exerting. This sense is very helpful, because it will give you an idea of your pace out in open water without having a clock.

Building your workouts are important to prevent over-training and injury. Start your swimming training 6-9 months before your race. Depending on the race determines your training. A general rule of thumb is to start your training half the distance of your race.

For example, if doing a Half Ironman Triathlon (1.2 mile swim) then start with .6 miles (around 1000 meters) in the pool 3 times per week. Gradually increase your mileage until you double the distance of your race. So for this triathlon you're getting in 1.5 to 2.4 miles (around 2500 to 3000 meters) 3 times per week.

This progression is important to gradually improve your strength and endurance in the water without over-training. Add in open water swims 1x/week, 3 months before the race to get used to the water’s current and learn how to spot. Spotting requires swimming higher on the water in order for you to see where you're going. Finding the shore line or buoy will orient yourself in a large body of water; and this will change your breathing and stroke from the pool.

For open water swimming its also best to practice swimming in a wetsuit before your race. The wetsuit also changes your stroke cause it is more constricting and decreases your body’s natural rotation which usually puts more load through the shoulder. Getting used to your wetsuit allows you to practice this range of motion before the big day. 

Finally, there's rest and recovery. The time in the pool is just as important as the time out of the pool. It's best to not bike or run on the days you swim to avoid over-training. It's also mandatory to take 1 day off of all training per week. No matter who you are, this is essential for the recovery process. Over-training is the biggest mistake triathletes make. Oftentimes, this will lead to injury and jeopardize your training or race. Be smart and healthy with strategic training and rest.

You can learn more about this topic by visiting our Overhead Athlete page.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this article are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.

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Dr. Tia Totura

Physical Therapist | Doctor of Physical Therapy
Tia Totura is a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) who specializes in sports, general orthopedics, TMJ disorders and headaches. She works at Activcore in Denver, Colorado, located just one mile from the popular Cherry Creek Shopping District. As a former Division I swimmer and captain of the Women's Swimming and Diving Team at the University of Denver, Tia has a special interest in treating swimmers and other overhead athletes.
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