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.

Your First Triathlon

If you are sitting on the couch right now wanting desperately to change your life, this book is for you.

The first thing you must do is forget everything you have heard about triathlon. It doesn’t require super-human strength or the will to push through excruciating pain. Yes, to race an ironman distance race, you need a lot of training, dedication, and perseverance; but that should not be your goal for your first triathlon. Your goal for your first race is to get your lazy butt off the couch and turn your life around.

You and I will set a goal, for this change in your life, of completing a triathlon. Whether you finish your triathlon or not will not define success or failure. Read that sentence again, it’s important. Success is getting off the couch. Success is going out for that run. Success is when you get a flat tire out in the middle of nowhere and you change the tube and get going again. Success is being outside exercising and pushing yourself. You will put un-needed stress on yourself if you focus on finishing the race. Triathlon is a journey that starts with a swim, then a bike ride, and ends with a run. The finish is the end, but every swim stroke, breath, pedal turn, stride, and drink is more important than the finish. Do them all well and the finish will happen.

For you, the focus of training and racing should be having fun. That’s it. Each workout should be difficult, but never painful. You should end each workout happy and looking forward to the next one, not in pain for three days losing fitness because you went too hard. You need to gradually build your strength and stamina and that means starting easy and only doing more when your body is ready for more.

Triathlon is a celebration of life. It is not torture. You are alive! Celebrate each day by moving your body, laughing, swimming, riding, and enjoying the outdoors. This is the true win. You will not win your first race, but this true win will be yours.

For your first triathlon you should not care about your time or how you place. Why put that added stress on yourself? The race should be a celebration of everything you have accomplished. You should invite everyone you know to come watch you and be a part of your accomplishment. Triathlon can be a lonely sport during the workouts but having friends and family at the race makes it all worth it. Nobody coming to watch you cares one bit about your finishing time. They want you to finish because they care about you and wish you the best. That will not change if you do not finish.

It’s now time to find a race around twelve weeks from now that is close to your home. Your first race should be a sprint distance race. A sprint is a perfect first race because each of the distances is something you will do as a normal daily workout in the last months of your training.

Check out TriFind.com. At TriFind you can search for triathlons in your state just by clicking on their map.

You can then pick the year and the month that you want to find a race for.  You’re looking for a sprint distance race, something with about three miles of running. Don’t be fooled by the name. Sprint does not mean you have to sprint the whole race. Sprint means it is a shorter distance race.

The Journey


Triathlon is about the journey. Both in training and the race. For me, thoughts of victory need to be far from my mind. When I entertain thoughts of winning or comparing myself to others, I am setting myself up for disappointment. I do it all the time though…

My triathlons are about the experience of doing all three sports. I approach each triathlon like I would a backpacking trip. I am going on an adventure! The trip will be long but I will enjoy every minute of it. I make a point of smiling at the spectators, thanking the course workers, and cheering on my fellow athletes. I’m the one at the end of the race encouraging those athletes walking up that last hill to finish strong! I’ve also been one of those walking athletes and needed that same help from others. Finishing with a smile is always my goal. Most of the time it is a smile of relief that it’s finally over but also of a goal achieved. Triathlon requires so much training. It is important to set a goal, like finishing a long practice, finishing a race, or just getting past all those voices in your head keeping you on the couch, and then celebrate that goal achieved.

Racing is special, but the true journey is the training. The majority of your time will be spent in training, so why not treat that as an adventure also? When I see a road stretching out before me like the road in the picture on this page I feel so lucky to be able to ride that road. So lucky to be on a bike zooming around the corners and getting to the top to look at the view. I feel the same thing when I am swimming. I love open water swimming because I love swimming like a fish, looking across a long lake, and then getting to the other side. I don’t really like swimming in pools. I feel ok sometimes when I’m running. Not often. But even when the running is hard and I am tired, I think of how thankful I am to be moving, to be exercising, to be alive.

On race day I begin my day eating good food and getting excited for what I am lucky enough to be doing. All my packing is done (I hope) and I am just putting everything in my car to get to the race. My routine is that I stop at a coffee shop and get a large coffee and a pastry for the drive there. I love showing up really early and getting my bike and gear in transition and set up where I want. I am then able to relax, watch the morning unfold, and watch the other athletes hustle and bustle.

The swim is a time for me to relax and enjoy being in the water.  Don’t get me wrong, I want to go fast. I want to do my best. I look at my finishing times as much or more than the next triathlete. But adding stress to your race will not make you faster. Relaxing and staying within your ability, in my opinion, will result in a better time on the clock as well as a more enjoyable time. So I relax. I get into my swim stroke and remember my technique. The swim is the most nervous time for most first year triathletes. You imagine getting pulled under by others. You’ve heard stories that scare the hell out of you. They’re probably all true, but you should not start your race in the front. Starting just ten seconds behind the front of the pack will put you in clean water and keep you out of the washing machine.

The bike ride, for me, is a time to go fast! I love going fast on the bike. I am not that fast compared to most riders who have been doing it for years but I love covering ground fast. I really love the downhills where my love for speed overcomes my fear of falling.  I also try to enjoy the scenery, but concentration on the task at hand comes first on the bike. Most of the deaths in triathlon come during the swim, but most of the injuries happen on the bike. You  have to keep your wits about you and stay within your abilities on a bike. And unless you’ve been riding a long time, expect to be passed all race long and just get over it. You are going your speed. It’s your race.

The run, for me, is always a necessary evil. I love running when I feel fast and like I can run forever. But those times are few and far between in training and have never happened in a race. Maybe as I run more and build up my strength running will be more fun. The run, however, is when I can really enjoy the scenery, the crowd, and my fellow triathletes. By this time, the speedy ones are long gone and the slower ones are behind. You usually settle into a group of people going about your pace. I run slow and controlled. I pick up the pace when I feel good and I walk when I have to. Most triathlons have an aid station about every mile on the run. I usually plan to walk through the aid stations so I can get all the water and nutrition I need in with no hurry. When I get through, I’ll start with a light jog and see where I go from there.

The finish is a time for celebration. You’ve done it! I have to admit that I usually get caught up in racing those around me along with the fact that I can see the finish line, that I usually sprint that last bit across the line. But you shouldn’t. High five your family and friends that are there. Celebrate with the other athletes who are finishing along with you. The finish is what you worked for, a goal achieved. Take your medal and enjoy being a participant in such an awesome sport.

You could not finish. We put so much into the finish in triathlon that the possibility of not finishing is a cause of so much stress and worry to the first year triathlete. Your friends and family are all there and not finishing can feel like a huge failure. I was so worried about getting a flat in my first race that I had two tubes, three CO2 cartridges, and a bottle of that green-gu stop leak. I ended up not needing any of it but I needed the peace of mind. I just had to finish.

Things can go wrong. You could have a mechanical breakdown. You could get sick during the swim. You could pull a muscle during the run. There is only one thing you need to know and understand when this happens. Everyone around you in the race as well as your family and friends are there for you in that moment. Everyone is on your side, thinking about you in the most positive light. Everyone has your back.

You toed up to the starting line. You were in the race. There is no disgrace to anyone who enters the ring, starts the race, and puts forward the effort they are able to put forward on that day.

Put that stress and worry about not finishing behind you and enjoy the journey. Things will occur, bad things may happen, but you can get through each one. And if something keeps you from finishing, so be it. Hold your head up high and race another day.

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.