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Effective Triathlon Swimming

By David Bertrand

To become an effective triathlon swimmer, you must be efficient in the water. Improved efficiency comes from mastering these three elements (in order of importance): 

  1. balance
  2. rotation
  3. stroke (the pull)

triathlon swimmingThis article will focus on balance. Balance is the most important factor because it has the biggest influence on your ability to swim efficiently and achieve proper body position in the water.  I see a lot of beginners spend enormous amounts of time trying to perfect the stroke first, neglecting balance and rotation. The pitfall of this approach is that you may start seeing results in the pool, but the results do not transfer to the open water.

Open Water Swimming vs. Pool Swimming

To become an effective triathlon swimmer means to become proficient at open water swimming. This suggests taking on a different approach from the traditional teaching methodologies of pool swimming. With triathlon swimming, not only do you want to take into consideration the open water, but also it requires a unique approach because of what comes after — the bike and the run.  

Coaching a triathlon swimmer versus a pool swimmer involves two different sets of tactics. For example, swimmers typically breathe every 3 strokes (bilateral) or every 4 strokes. But for triathlon swimmers, we recommend breathing every 2 strokes. There are a couple of reasons for this:

To increase the amount of oxygen you take in (you will cash this in later on the bike and the run), and

For sighting purposes as it a) saves you from looking up, which in turn spares your hamstrings for the run, and b) gives you a better chance at keeping your draft (due to increased frequency in sighting).

Being consistent with your swimming is one thing. Infusing your swim workouts with specificity towards your triathlon goals? Now that’s something new that will lead you to better results.

I want to “save my legs” for the bike and run, right?

I often read in magazines or overhear beginners strategizing about how to improve in the water. One of the most common tips I hear people sharing is, “Don’t kick too much, save your legs for the bike and run.” Good advice, right? This comment fully acknowledges the demands of the bike and the run and suggests a pacing strategy so that your legs are not too worn out by the time you are running. So, yes, actually this is good advice!

But here’s the rub — take a beginner that has average body balance at best, tell him or her to “save your legs,” and what you get most of the time is awful positioning in the water.  In order to receive a benefit from a reduction in kicking in the swim portion of a triathlon, you must already have near perfect balance. And please note that when I say “reduction,” I mean a lessening of the intensity of the kick, not necessarily the amplitude or the continuous nature of the kick.

6 tips to help you improve your balance in the water

  1. Keep a neutral head position. Look down (not forward or back towards your feet).
  2. Maintain a small and continuous (constant) kick.
  3. Keep your arms from crossing over to the opposite side.
  4. Feel your hips on top of the water by engaging your core muscles.
  5. Add weights to your training program. Focus on core strength and rotational movements.
  6. Just relax. “The water is your friend. You don’t have to fight with water; just share the same spirit as the water, and it will help you move.” – Alexander Popov, Olympic Gold Medalist

Improving your balance and efficiency in the water takes time and patience, but is well worth the investment. I hope these tips help you in your pursuit of becoming a more effective triathlon swimmer.

Fast swimming is in your future!

Coach David Bertrand has been training, racing and coaching endurance athletes for over 10 years. His pursuit of mastery began in graduate school where he earned a master's degree in health and human performance and became fascinated with finding new ways to help athletes perform better and more efficiently. A true Professor of Practice, David teaches at Southern Methodist University in the Department of Applied Physiology and Wellness and has been featured in many leading publications. He can also be found speaking and teaching at many of the industry's national conferences, including USA Triathlon and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. David is Head Coach of DFW Tri Club in Dallas, Texas, and leads DFW Tri's Coaching School, an institute for the education of endurance coaches. David is married to Nikki (also a coach), and has two beautiful girls, Annie and Tessa. To reach David, please visit or email