Swimming is 90% skill. Find a good coach.

Triathletes swimming, Tony Coaching

Swimming is 90% skill. If you are a weak swimmer then your number one expense for race preparation should be paying for swimming lessons from a good coach. So many triathletes are willing to spend thousands on faster bikes and nothing on good swim coaching.

You have a choice when it comes to swimming. You can get out of the water tired and drained or you can get out fresh and ready to ride. The difference is in your swim technique. Good technique allows you to slide through the water with less effort. A swimmer with bad technique overcomes this deficit by expending much more energy and usually swimming slower.

For your first race, you just want to make sure you can swim the distance. If you get out tired, you will take it easier on the bike until you can go  faster. But if you are able, get some personalized swim lessons from a good coach.

You may hear people talk about joining a Masters swimming team. This is fine if that’s all you have, but Masters swimming is all about go go go and there is little patience for slow unskilled swimmers. If there is a Masters swim near you, find out who the coach is and see if you can book a few personal swim lessons. You need a coach who is looking at your swim and suggesting drills and technique changes often. A go go go coach that is barking out swim orders to twenty swimmers will get you stronger but wont help at all with your swimming.

When I joined my first triathlon club, one of our first swims was to figure out how fast each athlete was so we could be assigned lanes based on our speed. Well, I have a big problem when I am put side by side with other athletes and told to race. Even worse is when we will then be placed in lanes according to our speed. My problem is that I go all out. I may be dead at the end of it, but oh well. So we did this little test and I was placed over with the fast athletes with a coach that just barked orders and never looked at anyone’s swim.

I swam with the fast swimmers for a while and noticed that the slower athletes were actually getting more coaching on the other side of the pool. So I snuck over with the slower swimmers. I did that because I wanted to learn how to swim well. I knew I could go fast for a short time. But I also knew that speed wouldn’t last over a long swim.

My point in telling you all this is that you need to advocate for your own training. You need to find the coach who will help you with your swimming technique and not the coach who will tell you to go go go. Get your technique down first, then you can go fast for a long distance.

The best place I have found for learning how to work on your swim technique is Swim Smooth (http://www.swimsmooth.com). They have animations showing you the proper technique, apps, and articles every week on good technique. I could go on and on but it would never be as good as what you will find at Swim Smooth. Go there, sign up for their newsletter and  you will get valuable lessons sent to you every week.

Swim Equipment

Sprint triathlons can start in a pool, but most triathlons are in rivers, lakes, or the ocean. So for your training, you will most likely need equipment for swimming in a pool and equipment for open water swimming.

For the pool, you will need the following:

  • Swim suit
  • Swim goggles
  • Swim cap
  • Towel
  • Water bottle


Your swimsuit should be form fitting, not regular shorts, so that you can swim fast.  If you are a woman, a one-piece suit is the way to go because it is more hydrodynamic and is less likely to come off when you are pushing hard off a wall. If you are a man, find some swim jammers or a “speedo” type swimsuit. Loose fitting shorts or bathing suits with tie-up strings will slow you down.

Swim Goggles

The goggles need to fit your face well and keep the water out of your eyes. When shopping, you should take the goggles out of the package, adjust them to fit your eyes, and lightly press them up against your eyes with the elastic band hanging doing nothing. A good fitting pair of goggles will stick to your face and not fall off. This shows that the goggles can hold a seal well enough to not leak air. Water is thicker than air, so if they can hold air you should be fine. You also don’t want to have to tighten the elastic band so tight that your goggles gouge into your eye sockets. The better the fit of the goggles, the less pressure they need to hold a seal.

Swim cap

You will use a swim cap during your race, so you should use one when you swim. Any cheap swim cap is fine as that’s what you’ll get when you race. Buy a couple as you will loose them and rip them often. A swim cap makes you more hydrodynamic, meaning you will slide through the water more easily with a swim cap on than if your hair is free to wave all over the place, unless you are bald.


This may sound silly, but I can’t tell you how many times I have forgotten a towel when heading out to the pool.

Water Bottle

Swimming is hard work. And you sweat while you swim so you should replenish your fluids even though you are wet and in the water. It’s my opinion that the chlorine in pool water sucks the moisture out of your body a lot more than it puts moisture in, so I like to have a bottle of water or a sports drink sitting there on the side of the pool so I can take a drink during my rest breaks. A water bottle also stakes your claim to the lane in case you need to go off for a bathroom visit.


If there is a specific need for you to use fins then use them. But use fins sparingly. Nothing makes you faster and a better swimmer than fins. Fins can flatten out your body and keep your tail end from sinking, improving your swim stroke quite a bit. If you are having a hard time just getting through the water then some fins might help you to get through this stage in your swimming. However, once you can propel yourself through the water you need to jettison the fins as soon as you can. You can’t race with them, so you should not train with them.

image of triathletes swimming in a pool

Kickboards, hand paddles, and other toys

You will not be using any of these to train for you first race. If you decide to train for another race, especially a longer one, you will benefit from using kickboards and handpaddles to build muscle for different aspects of your swim stroke.

Open water swimming

For open water swimming, you will need a wetsuit. Many stores that carry wetsuits will allow you to rent a suit and apply your rental fees to the purchase if you wish to buy your suit later. This is a great way to try the suit out first and make sure it fits well.

Cammy and Tony at Shadow Cliffs

If you can only try the suit on dry in the store, put it on, make sure you have good freedom of arm movement, and no places where air can collect. Air collecting in an area means the wetsuit is too loose and when you get into the water those spaces will fill with water. You also need a good seal at the top so water cannot flow into your suit while you are swimming. Bend over, move around, and act like you are swimming in the air and see if anything opens up. If you can’t move your arms and legs around very well that means your wetsuit is too tight. You will, of course, feel a bit of restriction because the wetsuit is form-fitting, but you should be able to dance, jump around, and swim your arms around without too much restriction in your movements.

Sleeves or sleeveless? Go with sleeves. Sleeves make you faster. Unless there is some specific reason like warm water or you just can’t stand the restriction of sleeves, get a wetsuit with sleeves because you will then have all ranges of cold that you can swim in. If the water temperature gets too warm you can’t wear any wetsuit, nor will you want to.

Orange Buoy

Plenty of my friends use an orange safety buoy when open water swimming. There are plenty of good reasons to use one of these. Safety is first. If there is any chance that you or anyone you are swimming with might have a problem in the open water then having an orange swim buoy can save your life or someone else’s. Another reason is visibility. A swimmer in a lake is hard to spot by someone in a boat who isn’t paying attention. An orange swim buoy makes you much more visible to everyone.

Friends at Shadow Cliffs Open Water Swimming


You should never swim in open water alone. There are open water swim clubs and groups you should join if you do not have friends who want to swim with you. This is a great chance to find new friends who enjoy doing what you now enjoy and may help you out a little for your first few swims.