The Weak Swimmer’s Guide to Starting Triathlon

Want to tri but scared to swim? Here’s how to get comfortable and fast in the water.

Does the mere thought of swimming put your nerves on edge? It is the least natural of triathlon’s disciplines for most people, and probably the least liked. Everybody has their weak spot, but it is safe to say that swimming claims the majority.

If swimming is your kryptonite and you’re trying to get into triathlon, this article will show you the way to become adept at swimming in the shortest time possible. The right gear, mental preparation, and focused practice will go a long way toward your mastery in the water.

Get the Right Gear

Swimming is a simple sport when it comes to gear. You don’t need much, but having the right stuff will help you learn and enjoy it better. Men, I’m going to speak to you specifically up front: don’t wear board shorts or regular trunks to do your swim workouts. It’s like swimming with a parachute.

Instead, find some good jammers from brands like TYR, Roka, or Finis, and you will be far happier in the water. Although they look similar, don’t try to use compression shorts to do the job. The chlorine will tear them apart, and you will be showing people your butt before you know it (ask me how I know).

Once you have your suit squared away, spend some time finding goggles that you will love. If swimming is not your thing, you want to give yourself every reason to succeed, and having comfortable eyewear really helps. Goggles come in so many shapes and sizes that the best approach is to head to a store and try some out. Don’t settle for anything less than comfortable and leak-free. You may want to pick out more than one pair: a more clear-colored pair for pool swimming, and another with some shading or mirroring for outdoor swimming. This will help you get the most out of both environments.

Finally, snag a swim cap if you want one. Most guys can get away without one, depending on their hair situation. Ladies, you will almost certainly want one, unless you don’t mind hair in your face all the time. There are two main types to consider: latex and silicone. Latex swim caps are cheap, thin, and come in all kinds of designs. They aren’t the most fun to put on or the most comfortable to wear, however. Silicone caps are slightly thicker, still have many designs, but are easier to put on, are more comfortable, and last longer.

Training Aids

Your suit, goggles, and swim cap are the bare necessities. If you want to speed your learning process along, or are interested in better focusing on specific aspects of your stroke, then training aids are something to strongly consider.

There are four training aids that I highly recommend for aspiring swimmers: fins, a pull buoy, a tempo trainer, and paddles. These aids will help you get comfortable with the water and make it easier to figure out drills or break out specific aspects of your stroke.

swim training aids

Fins are helpful in several ways. First and foremost, they make it easier to cover some distance while getting in some practice. The added propulsion hides some flaws in the back half of your stroke, allowing you to make progress down the lane while better focusing on what you want to work on. Fins are incredibly helpful in learning new drills, as the extra momentum they give you helps you stay comfortable as you try out new things. Feeling like you won’t drown is a big win when you’re trying out weird new drills.

Pull buoys are similar, but without the propulsion. They keep your butt and legs from sinking, so you can spend your time focused on the toughest parts, like breathing and figuring out what your arms are supposed to be doing. Without the added propulsion, swimming with a buoy will feel a lot more like regular swimming, and translates well as you get closer to putting your whole stroke together.

A tempo trainer is essentially an underwater metronome that you place beneath your swim cap. It is very helpful when you get to the point in your training where you need to work on rhythm, timing (stroke rate), and stroke length.

Paddles serve two main purposes. Primarily, they help you to develop strength and a punchiness to your stroke. They also help you develop a longer pull, which is something that sometimes gets lost as you focus on all the other pieces you are trying to tie together.

As a bonus, paddles like the Agility Paddle from Finis also help you to develop correct entry and catch technique, as they will actually fall off your hands if you aren’t moving correctly through the stroke.

Set Yourself Up For Success

Once you have the right gear, swimming progress becomes all about mental preparation, and spending your time in the areas that will get you the biggest gains in the shortest time span.

I came into triathlon as a weak swimmer, and the biggest mistakes I made up front were mainly mental. I didn’t know anything about swimming, and I did not respect it. I thought I “knew how to swim,” and was athletic enough that it would come easily—it did not. Don’t make my mistake. Meet yourself where you’re at, and your time in the water will go far more smoothly than mine.

The biggest key to feeling competent in the water begins with seeing consistent improvement, which is all about knowing where to focus your efforts. The first question you have to ask yourself is, “Do I really know how to swim, or do I just think I do?” As a coach, I have run across a lot of folks that think they do, which leads to them focusing on the wrong things, not improving, and ending up incredibly frustrated.

As a novice swimmer, 80% of seeing steady improvement comes from focusing on a small handful of areas. I will get into the details in a minute, but first, let’s ask a couple questions to figure out what this handful of areas should be.

Start From Square One

If this is you:

• Cannot swim with your face in the water

• Cannot make it more than a length or two without feeling tired and winded

• Don’t feel like you get enough air

• Think that you may drown if you try to swim more than a length or two

Then you need to start at square one. In the very beginning, expect to spend almost all of your time on getting comfortable, and on drills. It will likely be 5-10 sessions before you are ready to try your hand at a complete freestyle stroke. Patience pays off.

The main areas to focus on in the very beginning are comfort, breathing, and balance, which is the ability to stay horizontal and near the surface of the water. To get comfortable, you may need to spend some time in the shallow end just practicing exhaling (blowing bubbles) and letting yourself sink. Move your hands around while you do, playing with different movements to get more familiar with the feel of the water.

As you get more comfortable, you may want to practice breathing as you kick against the wall, or doing kick drills so you can experiment with balance and head position. Once you feel good about your comfort, breathing, and have some semblance of balance, you can move on to drills that look more like an actual swim stroke (next section).

If you want more details on these drills, including video demonstrations, read the article Triathlon Training: Find Your Breath In The Water.

Technique Troubleshooting

If this is you:

• Can swim with your face in the water, but feel still feel a little uncomfortable or slow

• Feel sink-y, or like you can’t stay horizontal and near the surface of the water

• Feel like you don’t have any timing or rhythm, or like your stroke isn’t getting you anywhere

Then you have some idea of what you’re doing, and just need to clean things up a bit. This usually comes after 5-10 sessions of swimming. At this stage, a lot of athletes are still making a lot of mistakes around the breaths. Take a moment to double-check your breathing technique. Are you exhaling completely? Are you holding your breath at all, even if it is just for a split second?

Outside of breathing, you can start to focus on cleaning up your actual stroke. Drills like single arm side swimming, 6-1-6 or 6-3-6 are great to isolate a side and clean up your arm mechanics and breathing technique. Once you feel good with those, try hand swapping (a.k.a. the catch-up drill). As you practice the whole stroke, be mindful of any dead spots. Look for areas where you aren’t creating forward momentum. Pay special attention to what’s happening when you breathe. You don’t want to pause here to make more time to breathe, which is a very common mistake. This only slows you down. Instead, try to be moving water at all times.

After that, double check your kick. Are you kicking from the hip with pointed toes (correct), or are you kicking from the knee (incorrect)? It’s still worth doing kick drills at this stage if it needs to be cleaned up.

If your kick is solid and your arm mechanics are okay, the last and most crucial area to focus on is the catch. The catch is the portion of the stroke that comes right after your hand enters the water and reaches full extension. When done correctly, it feels almost like you are grabbing the water and pulling it back. The catch is something that takes time to truly master, but you can make yours effective in short order with deliberate practice.

Most people don’t actually grab the water at all, so much as push it down with a straight arm. This creates upward propulsion instead of forward, and causes your torso to rise, and feet to sink.

swim catch comparison

Rather than push the water down, focus on keeping your fingertips below your wrist, and your wrist below your elbow on extension. Then, drop your fingertips, bend your hand down from the wrist, grab the water with your palm, bend your elbow, and pull straight back toward the wall behind you. It should almost feel like you are lying on your belly on a conveyor belt, and you’re pulling yourself forward with your arms down beside the belt.

The catch is the hardest part of the stroke to get a good feel for. Drills like sculling or any single arm variations help to break it out so you can focus on it. Once you start to develop a strong catch, you will start to feel a nice “punch” to your stroke that will pay huge dividends in open water conditions.

Coach Shawn Gerber is the creator of TriStrong – A 16 Week On-Ramp To Triathlon. You won’t find a better place to start your journey in triathlon. There are three key components that make TriStrong stand out: it’s built for fun, it is made to work with real lives (you know, like the ones with crying babies, demanding jobs and all that stuff that gets in the way of training sometimes), and it focuses on total fitness, not just endurance.

Open Water Swimming and Race Selection

That brings me to my last point for aspiring swimmers: spend time practicing open water skills, like sighting, bilateral breathing, and drafting. And you have to get out in the open water itself. There is no substitute for experience when it comes to swimming outside, and with other people around you. The more you do it, the better and more comfortable it becomes.

If you are just getting into triathlon as a weak or beginning swimmer, choose your races carefully. Do not make my mistake and try to swim in Lake Erie after two “lessons” with a friend. A bad experience will mentally hang with you a lot longer than a good one. There are lots of races that feature indoor pool swims, or smaller lake swims. Both will have calmer, more controlled conditions that will help you build some mental momentum for yourself.

Coached or Self-Coached: Should You Get Help?

Learning to swim, especially as an adult, is a uniquely challenging undertaking. Do you have to have lessons or a coach to do it? No. But having a trained eye to guide your efforts can save you a lot of time and effort. A coach can also help get you out of your head, and keep you motivated and focused on practicing the right things. In short, there is far less guesswork.

If you don’t use a coach, I’d encourage you to either grab a friend who is an experienced swimmer, or find someone with a GoPro or waterproof camera to snag some video of you. Being able to actually see what you are doing with relation to how it feels can help you connect the dots.

14 Day Swim Challenge

Do you want day-by-day guidance and challenges to get your swim game started? Be sure to check out my upcoming 14-Day Swim Challenge. It will feature videos of all the drills and exercise you need to do each day to go from absolute beginner to swimming freestyle in two weeks. All you have to do is follow along and put in the work. Look for details soon on the Breaking Muscle Facebook Page.