Swim - Braden Currie Kona 2019 training.
© Graeme Murray

Swimming tips to help you smash your first triathlon

Sharpen those elbows and also the mind. Here's how to nail the most daunting tri discipline of them all...
Written by Joe Ellison
9 min readPublished on
No other triathlon discipline is as technically challenging, closely fought nor as wildly unpredictable as the swim. But when you've upwards of 100 competitors to dodge underneath the waves that's all part of the fun.
Get off to a strong start in the water, in fact, and there's no telling how you might do.
If avoiding being rescued by the emergency kayak is the current goal, how about going one better? How about being able to power through the waves with your energy tank close to full?
British triathlete Lucy Charles-Barclay swimming in a pool.

How Lucy Charles-Barclay has trained for Kona 2019

© James Mitchell/Red Bull Content Pool

Enter Manoela Tessarin. A former international triathlete who specialised in the water, she once spent four months training with the top five triathletes in the world. She also provides one-to-one swim coaching for triathletes at The Marker Hotel, Dublin, as part of Turner Swim's elite coaching roster.
As well as picking the brain of Manoela, we've asked Andrew Turner, the founder of the group which provides swimming lessons and bespoke packages across a range of cities in the UK as well as Dublin, to impart his own expertise for those looking to make serious progress on the swim.
Their advice to budding triathletes, or even those looking to improve on past performances, is 24 karat gold. Get reading and then grab those goggles...

Don't half-a*se it

A: “The biggest error new triathletes make is thinking they can ‘just get through the swim and it will be okay'. Every year we watch lots of people panicking and getting rescued by the support boat at events. If you aren’t a confident swimmer in open water then really practice, starting with your technique in the pool before moving outdoors. So many people trying a triathlon for the first-time will struggle to get to the actual distance, but specialist coaches enable you to hit your goals."

Watch those kicks

M: “I see a lot of beginners kicking their legs more than they need to during a swim. Bending the knee too much will cause too much resistance, while the amount of energy being used means you lose vital oxygen because your muscles in the legs also require it. A smoother, more controlled motion will help steady both position and air intake. After all, breathing is what makes everything work - and not work."

Technique always beats speed

Lucy Charles-Barclay hydrates during training

Triathlete Lucy Charles-Barclay knows the importance of good hydration

© James Mitchell / Red Bull Content Pool

A: "People often come to us and say they want to be faster at swimming to help their overall triathlon. I always question this: does being faster on the swim mean they’ll be faster on the cycle or the run, or are they going to use up more energy in the swim? One outcome with proper training in the water is that they can achieve the same time on the swim but they’ll be far less tired, allowing them to maximise gains on the cycle and run.
"Put simply, many rookie swimmers tend to swim too fast and get out of breath, exhaling all their air so can’t get fresh lungs back. This often means they have to stop prematurely. Recently a guy at a pool saw me swimming and asked me for some pointers because he felt out of breath after two lengths. I told him to focus, to slow his swim down by 30 percent, and make sure all of his air was out before breathing in. After a few tries he was swimming four lengths with no trouble at all."

Take notice of your body movement

M: "I always tell first time competitors to understand that swimming takes time - for technique, for breathing, for your arms. A lot of swim training is about awareness, paying attention to your body so you can fix your technique. It’s not like running where you can you look down and see if your feet are moving a certain way - if you don’t have a coach watching you in the pool, you have to feel it. This might be as simple as realising that you're crossing your arms overhead, which causes a lot of resistance and makes you less effective in the water."

Use your head

A: “Something important to work on is your head position. Many swimmers will try and look forwards in the water when they first start training, but our spine tries to stay flat, as it would do with walking or running. If we aren’t looking directly down in the water it’s harder to breathe in and out. Also, our legs start to add a lot of drag if our head looks forward."
The biggest error new triathletes make is thinking they can just get through the swim and it will be okay
Andrew Turner, swim elite swim coach and founder of Turner Swim

You'll have to leave the pool eventually

The start of a swim event

You have to be mentally prepared for a closely fought start swim

© Kevin Sawyer

M: "Unlike the pool, in the sea you don’t have a wall to take a break on. The temperatures can fluctuate a lot, too. Here in Ireland, for instance, the seas are colder, but if you go elsewhere the sea may be warmer and you may not be used to the heat. Which is pretty important because temperature will change the way you’re breathing. Don't forget you'll also have a lot of people around you on race day, which can make you a bit more anxious and make it more of a struggle underwater, so it helps to be comfortable with your open water technique."

Acclimatisation is vitally important

A: “If you jump into cold water you’ve a risk of going into shock. The blood starts to flow away from the edge of your skin to protect your heat and goes to your heart. However, at the same time, if you start swimming, you’re going to demand more oxygen, increased blood flow, which means the heart gets stuck and this can lead to irregular rhythms, so it’s very dangerous and a lot of people die each year from getting into cold water.
"It’s really easy to solve this with acclimatisation. People don’t enjoy it necessarily, but it makes such a difference on the overall swim. Here's how to do it:
  • "Firstly, start heavy breathing through the mouth as you get to the water.
  • Sit down before getting into the colder water, ideally from a ledge or pontoon.
  • Place your feet in and start putting cold water on your pressure points – the back of your wrists, your neck, your face, and keep breathing heavily.
  • Goggles on, slide yourself in slowly and just lie on your back horizontally, your head looking up, ears in the water, breathing through your mouth. You’ll notice that your heart rate shoots up to start with and then starts to settle down into a calm rhythm.
  • After about a minute and a half, depending how cold the water is, you can go to stage two which is getting used to having your face in the water, breathing in and out for about 40 seconds.
  • By now you’ll probably feel okay to go ahead and swim."

The best gym exercises are 'off the cuff'

M: "As a triathlete, I think functional exercise is beneficial and that you really do need a strong core - not just for the water but also on land. I also recommend targeted exercise for areas of the body, including the shoulder cuff muscles, those tiny muscles protecting your shoulder-blades and keeping them in the right place. Work these muscles with an elastic band, keeping your elbow tucked into the side while puling this band towards your body, slowly rotating your shoulder. Keep it low in intensity but high in repetition and you'll strengthen those shoulders."

Enjoy it – you never know where it may lead...

Participants take part in the Bosphorous Cross-Continental swim in Instanbul, Turkey.

The Bosphorus Cross-Continental Swim

© Getty

A: “Don’t be stressed by swim training. Enjoy it. Who knows, it might even put you on a path for bigger swim events. This year I swam the Monte Cristo Swim in Marseille, which involved a 6.5k swim from one of the islands back to the mainland. Before COVID, I went to Istanbul and swam the 6.5k Bosphorus Cross-Continental where about 15% percent of people get rescued every year because the river flows so fast in the middle that they overshoot the exit. I found it exhilarating and have done it twice now, using two different routes. They close the shipping lanes of a couple of hours each year, and there are about 3,000 participants with you."

Really nail those open water sessions

M: "Here's a good example of a drill that we give for sprint triathlon swim training...."
  • Leave just 60 seconds of rest between each swim over a total of 35 minutes.
  • Once you've acclimatised, power up with 5 minutes of head up breaststroke, followed by 4 minutes of front crawl.
  • Now for the main set:
  • 5 minutes front crawl with neutral head position
  • 5 minutes front crawl with explosive breathing
  • 5 minutes front crawl (50% of maximum effort)
  • Once you're done you'll want to 'swim down' for recovery, which can be done with 5 minutes head up breaststroke.

2 min

Lucy Charles-Barclay swimming tips: Preparation

Triathlete Lucy Charles gives tips and advice on how to train for an Ironman competition.

Bonus tips ahead of the big day
(i) A: "As your training becomes more intense, print off your swim set and attach it to your water bottle when you go training. Anyone can sign up to the Turner Swim app for €10/£10 a month and get access to a ton of swim sets and there are some coaching recap videos on there, too."
(ii) M: "Even high level athletes can feel a little anxious before a race because of adrenaline and I think that’s good. It’s going to make you go really well. Try dealing with nerves before they arrive by visualising the event ahead of time - that always makes me feel confident."
(iii) A: "With a strong current behind you, you want long strokes with a lengthy glide at the front end, so you're maximising the distance per stroke. However, on the off chance you find yourself in choppy water you might want very short, sharp, rapid turnover of strokes, a bit like a waterpolo stroke."
As well as offering one-to-one adult swim coaching in the Marker hotel Dublin, Turner Swim also operates in 7 London hotels, an open water venue at Canary's Wharf's Docklands Sailing and Watersports Centre, Manchester, Glasgow and Reading.

Part of this story

Lucy Charles-Barclay

A former competitive swimmer, Great Britain’s Lucy Charles-Barclay made the switch to Ironman triathlons and is now a world champion.

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Braden Currie

New Zealand's Braden Currie has emerged as one of the most respected names in the world of multi-sport and adventure racing.

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