Improving your swim: technique, fitness & confidence

A source of challenge, frustration and even fear for many triathletes, the swim can put many people off from signing up for their first event. It’s arguably the most technical of the three disciplines and if you learn to swim as an adult, it can be tricky to pick up. 

But it is not impossible! Whether you are total beginner, or looking to improve, here are some tips to help you build your swim and become more confident in open water ahead of your race.

The basics

If you are totally new to swimming, taking a lesson from a swim coach can be a good first step. The Swim England Adult Swimming Framework gives information on basic skills and where you can find lessons close to you.

For the predominantly self-taught, the value of YouTube can’t be underestimated. From swim tip videos from Lucy Charles – the fastest pro swimmer on the long-distance circuit – to beginner tips from the Global Triathlon Network, there are videos on every swim topic imaginable. The Swim Smooth website is also invaluable. Watch, read, learn and practice!

When you feel comfortable with the basics, joining a swim squad takes your learning to the next level. The motivation of swimming with other swimmers helps boost your fitness, whilst the swim coach will be on hand to give small tips to sharpen up your technique. It can be intimidating at first; there is etiquette to be aware of and even the writing up of the session can seem like another language to the new swimmer. Pick a group that suits you and you will be guided through.

Remember, it can feel overwhelming with so many things to concentrate on at the same time. Be patient with yourself – and proud that you are brave enough to embrace the unfamiliar!

Taking on the open water

Taking your swim from the controlled environment of a swimming pool and plunging into the open water is a challenge. With most triathlon swims taking place in open water, it is good to be prepared.

First of all, you can’t always see your own arms. Trust me when I say this can be disorienting. One tip can be to swim part of your length in the swimming pool with your eyes closed to familiarise yourself with this sensation. 

Swim panic is real. If this happens, simply flip onto your back and take some deep breathes to calm down before starting off again. There is no shame in pausing to catch your breath – or swimming breaststroke. Just try to be aware of swimmers around you, but if you pick the right place to start, you should have no problems.

Which brings us to other swimmers. The ‘washing machine’ analogy is often used for the experience of trying to swim amongst a big group of people thrashing about in a triathlon. If the race is self-seeded – where you pick your starting point based on your assumed swim time – it is important to be realistic with yourself. If you are over optimistic, be ready for a lot of people swimming over you. If you start too far back for your speed, be conscious of the slower swimmers ahead as you work your way around. Let’s face it, no one likes being punched and kicked in head whilst swimming – a little bit of consideration goes a long way! This is where swim squad can be beneficial beyond fitness and technique. It helps you get used to having swimmers all around, which trains you to focus in on your technique in the middle of lots of distraction.

That said, you cannot really beat swimming outside and building confidence in this environment. Many new swimmers are disappointed when their hard-won gains in the pool don’t seem to translate into better race times. Swimming outside will help you build confidence and help you transfer your new skills and fitness into the results you want to see. 

Explore & swim safe

To get you started, the Swim England Open Water page has a comprehensive list of open water swimming venues. In terms of safety, never swim alone and if possible, swim with a buoy – like this one from Zone3. This helps other water users see you, it can be used as a flotation device if you get cramp and can even store your valuables. As with anything in life, knowledge is power. Look up the weather conditions in advance, be aware of any creatures you may be sharing the water with and, if swimming in the sea, be conscious of currents and tides.

Zone3 also has tips on swim sighting – looking up to check you are heading in the right direction – and on entry and exit to the water which will help with your open water skills. Lacking in inspiration? Check out The Outdoor Swimming Society’s Instagram page inclusive and beautiful photos.

There is no doubt that with some smart preparation, you can learn to swim and be ready for your first triathlon in 2020! Good luck!

Royal Windsor Triathlon Tip: The swim portion of Windsor is in the river Thames. Part of your swim will be against the current, part with, so it pays to be prepared! 

Do you feel ready to take on the swim?