Triathlon Swim Training: All You Need To Know | ZEN8 - Swim Trainer

Triathlon Swim Training: All You Need To Know

​Triathlon Swim Training: All You Need To Know

​​Do you have a triathlon event approaching and want to get your best swim time possible? Let's get you swimming faster! But what exactly should you be doing? How can you improve your time? What are some effective ways to train? The answers to these questions are provided by our experienced team of coaches.

triathlete swim training in wetsuit

What is Triathlon Swimming Training?

The goal of any swim training program is to develop your ability to perform well in all aspects of the swim. This includes developing a strong stroke, improving efficiency, technique and building strength and endurance.

Triathlon swim training is different from just swimming laps in a pool. You'll need to train your body to deal with the feeling of being potentially cold in open water and comfortable swimming with a wetsuit. Plus, you need to practise sighting, which normally you wouldn't consider doing in a pool.

Unfortunately, few people think about the swim leg in detail as they plan their triathlon training.

This is troubling as this first part of the race can be one of the most challenging parts to train for and is often where many beginner athletes give up before even attempting the cycle and run. However, if you follow a few simple guidelines we’ve covered below, you’ll have prepared your body and mind for a successful swim experience. The following information should provide enough detail to cover all your initial questions. However, if all else fails and you need some guidance or encouragement along the way, don't hesitate to reach out. We would be happy to provide any assistance needed on getting you started or with improving your technique!

Firstly, some questions for you…

  1. What would you classify your swim experience and proficiency level as? Beginner level, intermediate or advanced?
  2. How much time do you have available? Consider the time you would typically spend travelling to a swim venue (whether swimming pool or open water) and getting ready etc.
  3. What swim goals do you have?

There’s a fine line between imitating the experts and trying to do too much that is not required and will lead to overload and burnout. The pros have built up to their level from years of practice and would be too much for your typical time-strapped triathlete just getting started.

A beginner level class swimmer would be identified as someone potentially uncomfortable getting in the pool, or especially open water, who finds it a struggle breathing consistently and in rhythm. Often finishing in the bottom 25% of finishers at a triathlon. We would expect an average pace of 2:00 per 100 metres or slower from them. The best training approach for this level would be building upon the basics. The foundation of technique and increasing their fitness. A beginner level swimmer would aim for 4,000 to 8,000+ meters per week spread over 3-4 sessions of around 1,000-2,000+ meters.

An intermediate swimmer is someone moderately experienced with good technique and a solid foundation of fitness. Possibly someone who has taken to swimming later in life but still needs to maintain form as they get tired. We would expect this triathlete to often be in the middle of the pack with a pace of around 1:40 - 2:15 per 100 metres and swim around two to three times per week. This triathlete would get most from resetting the way they think about their swim technique and improving upon their training process to build new principles moving forward (this is covered further below in this article). An intermediate level swimmer would aim for 8,000 to 12,000 meters per week spread over 3-4 sessions of around 2,000-3,000+ meters.

An advanced swimmer is someone who most likely is a lifelong swimmer, has a strong background in competitive swimming, often in the top 10-15% in swimming events and to generalise, would swim four or more times per week with a 1:30 per 100 metres pace over longer distances. This type of athlete would benefit most from building up their strength and fitness over technique. An advanced level swimmer would aim for 12,000+ meters per week spread over 4-6 sessions of around 3,000-5,000+ meters.


Time - A time-crunched athlete should ideally aim to swim three to four times per week to work on form, intensity, endurance and threshold. If any of these sessions can be open water, then great but this is more important the closer the race approaches. Next, if they could also add two 30 min strength and power sessions on the ZEN8 Swim Trainer, for example, they’ll be able to make further improvements without time-intensive swim sessions eating into the week. The variables are technique, stamina, strength and confidence. Frequency is very important. Even a shorter swim session is better than an ad hoc longer session as it builds upon consistency that yields better gains.


Goals - Be honest with yourself about what your goals are and what you want from the training realistically within the constructs of your day to day life. Are you trying to win your age group or simply make it round the swim within the time limit? This will lead to a very different training plan entirely. The elite level is training at least five sessions a week. Volume and frequency would be key here.

triathlon swim start

Types of Triathlon Swim Events

Firstly, let’s discuss all the different triathlon disciplines.

Sprint Triathlon

Sprint racing has been called the most intense sport in triathlon because it's a 750m swim, 20km bike and 5km run. Even for competitive swimmers, it can be just as tiring to race hard for this type of event compared with standard distance events like an Olympic triathlon, where you're going much longer in distance, but not as intensely.

Expanding on the above, sprint triathlons are an incredible way to challenge yourself and explore your limits. Many people new to the sport often are advised to tackle these first. Don't be fooled, what they lack in distance, they more than make up for with high HR exertion. The key thing with these races, though, is that you should plan ahead for training! Depending upon where you are starting from, you'll be wise to give yourself at least 12 weeks of hard work before taking on this event because the swim can make or break your result - it usually requires 750 meters in open water which will set back most people significantly if they haven't swum much already and are just hoping to “get through it”. To ensure everything goes smoothly during race week: prepare well enough, so there aren't any shocks on the actual day itself.

A sprint triathlon would require around 5,000-8,000+ metres swim in workouts per week spread over 2-4 sessions of around 1,000-2,000+ metres)

Olympic Triathlon

An Olympic triathlon event would encompass swimming 1500m, cycling 40km and running 10km. This is a great test of endurance, speed and strength for even the most conditioned athletes. It's a long haul to be able to perform well at this event, but the reward is worth the effort - if you've never seen an Olympic distance triathlon before, it can be a spectacular sight as you watch people stretch their physical limits.

An Olympic distance triathlon would require around 8,000-10,000+ metres swim per week spread over 3-4 sessions of around 2,500-3,000+ metres)

Half Ironman Triathlon (Ironman 70.3)

Now we’re getting to the serious distance events. An Ironman 70.3 is a long-distance triathlon race that consists of a 1.2-mile swim (1900m), 56-mile (90km) on the bike and 13.1-mile (21.1km) run. As logical as it sounds, it’s exactly half of what you would do in the full Ironman.

A half-ironman would require around 8,000-10,000+ metres swim per week spread over 3-4 sessions of around 2,500-3,000+ metres)

Ironman Triathlon

This colossal distance event would include swimming 3800m, cycling 180km and running a marathon (Just over 42km) - it's twice the distance of an Ironman 70.3 to put into perspective! This event requires the most amount of training and also has the highest chance of 'hitting the wall', which is what happens when athletes run out of glycogen during a marathon.

To recap on the above, the swim leg alone requires 3.8 kilometres of swimming which is one of the most challenging things you may do in a race. Not only will this take over an hour to complete typically, if conditions are bad such as strong tides and choppy waves, it can also be very challenging indeed. Swim training is essential to not only doing well but having the confidence that you know you can complete it.

Whilst not rigid requirements, this would require around 10,000+ metres swim per week spread over 3-6 sessions of around 3,000-5,000+ metres)

triathlon swim warm up

Triathlon swim training workouts include:

1. Warm-up

The correct swim training warm-up will help you avoid injury and prepare your body for more strenuous exercise. Pending on where you will be warming up (home, pool or open water), a warm-up will get your body ready to perform relative to the environment you are in safely. A warm up can be as little as 5-10 mins of easy swimming and drills.

2. Pre-Sets With Stroke Drills & Technique Work

The fastest, most efficient stroke is freestyle (front crawl). Your freestyle swim technique is crucial to propelling yourself through the water as quickly as possible. Having an efficient stroke is key to going as fast as possible whilst maximising your distance per stroke. The fantastic thing is that stroke drills can be practised both in and out of the water on dryland. If you're new to triathlon or just want to improve how fast and efficiently you swim, practising your swim technique will help you get a leg up on your fellow triathletes who simply believe just putting more swim volume in is the only key to getting better results.

If you’re unable to get yourself to the water on any specific day and you want to get some training, specifically stroke drills, the ZEN8 Swim Trainer is the perfect option for you. To really improve your strength, technique and stamina, you would benefit from having at least 4-6 swim sessions per week. That’s not always possible if you don’t have a pool nearby. If time-strapped, our swim trainer could make all the difference to you keeping your training consistent and not letting your swim training take over your life.

The fact you can practice stroke drills on dry-land means you can make use of the swim trainer and strengthen your core quickly, allowing you to catch more water and maximise propulsion. All in all, you’ll swim stronger, for much longer when you regularly practice stroke drills and your overall technique will see an improvement. Plus, you’ll be able to isolate every single move you do and refine it. The ZEN8 Swim Trainer is key to making life much easier when training for an event. 

- Kicking

Triathletes often have the option of using kickboards whilst training when they swim. Kick drills can be important for developing efficient and powerful kicks in your legs, helping you to keep up with other swimmers who use them as well and potentially break away from the pack at the start. However, typically you would want to preserve your leg strength as much as possible for the bike and run, especially on longer triathlons. With this said, kicking can be incredibly important for maintaining balance, rhythm, and rotation. The kick should be from the hips and ideally nice and compact to preserve energy. There are many useful swim aids to experiment with such as fins to help with ankle flexibility and to kick more efficiently (just make sure it doesn’t become a crutch where you rely on them too heavily).

- Pulling

The pull refers to the action of moving your arm and hand through water from in front of you towards your hips. This will propel you forward during freestyle strokes, so ensure you keep elbows high while pulling arms toward the hip area. This is one of the key moves that beginners often need to focus on the most. Making use of the ZEN8 Swim Trainer allows you to understand and learn the pull. By strengthening your core muscles you’ll be able to focus on your arms and avoid the problem of sinking legs too.
swim training catch

3. The Main Set

Interval swimming is the most common form of swim training. Swim sets, which can be referred to as "intervals" or simply just 'sets' consist of repeating a particular distance and amount of time allocated (for example, 6 x 100 metres @ 2:00 pace). It's important that each swim session gives you enough rest with 30 seconds to 1 min recovery periods between intervals in order to avoid over-fatiguing yourself while increasing your speed. Then, it becomes easier and you know what race pace feels like! Of course, the more you use ZEN8 Swim Trainer, the more training you’ll be able to get in and the higher your stamina. We would suggest the main set totalling 1,000-2,000 metres typically although this can increase when approaching an ironman for example to ensure you are comfortable completing the entire distance.

The main set would typically be broken down into various workout types. They would include:

  1. Endurance (long intervals of 440 metres or more at a zone 2-3). Example sets include: 1) 3-6 X 400 metres 2) 3-4 X 500 metres 3) 2-3 X 800. Each with 20 seconds rest at around 75% effort.
  2. Intensity / Speedwork (Short intervals of 25-200 metres usually in zone 4-5). Example sets include: 1) 3 X 100 metres, 6 X 50 metres, 12X25 metres. 2) 20 X 25 metres. Each with 15-30 seconds of rest at around 95%.
  3. Threshold Pace (In between endurance and sprint intervals). Example sets include 1) 12 X 100 metres 2) 2 X 200 metres, 3 X 150 metres and 4 X 100 metres. Each set has between 10-20 seconds rest at zone 4 / threshold pace.
  4. Technical Work (covering your swimming form, open water and tactics). For example, this may be 3 X 150 metres, broken up into 50 metres kick on your side, 50 metres kick and switch and 50 metres catch up.

4. Cool-Down

Like with all exercise, a cool down is recommended to help bring your body back to a reduced heart rate slowly rather than an abrupt stop. This can be optional of course if you are short of time but still recommended. Something as simple and easy as 100-400 metres spent working on technical stroke work such as the pull or just zone 1-2 swim is fine.

- Recovery & Stretching

Like it or not, being an athlete, you would be wise to pay close attention to the small details of your cool-down routine after your main workout. Stretching, icing and compression will help your muscles recover faster than just swimming alone and allow you to perform better the following workout that you may otherwise if still tight from the workout before.

5. Open Water Exposure

Open water exposure is a very important component to include as a triathlete. This means swimming in open water (ocean or lake) as frequently as possible, especially in the run-up to the event as it will most likely be what your triathlon will include when you are doing Olympic or large distances. Not only will open water swimming help you to understand what it's like under different weather conditions, choppy water and how a wetsuit feels, but it'll also help you feel more confident in the water and know how it feels before race day! As a side note, for those days where this might not be possible or practical, ZEN8 would be a fantastic training option to get additional sessions in at your convenience whilst at home and save you precious time travelling to and from the location. Basically, you’re getting the similar benefits of training in water but you’re saving time in packing all your swim bits up, travel, fuel costs and parking.

- Sighting

When you're swimming in open water, one of the common things triathletes who have only trained in pools face is swimming off course by not looking up where they are going. Whilst there's no such thing as a "right way" to sight, it is important that your eyes and nose are out of the water during one stroke. If done correctly, this will allow you to see exactly where you are before making any adjustments with regard to direction. Try looking for landmarks you can easily identify, like a buoy or even a mountain or some large structure in the distance so you know you are heading in the right direction without too much stop/starting to course correct. As little movement as possible so it doesn’t affect your body alignment to maintain speed and technique.

- Wetsuit Practise

We recommend that you wear a wetsuit to practise in and get a feel for how it makes your body respond. Plus ensuring it fits correctly and offers enough shoulder mobility. Whilst, helping you retain heat and prevent you from getting as cold as you would without it, it'll provide buoyancy and often helps weaker swimmers swim faster by keeping the body in better alignment and helping to lift the legs of less experienced swimmers that tend to let their legs sink a little more.


- Environment

It would be most effective to get used to the environment you intend on racing come race day so that you are accustomed to any water temperature on the day (hot and cold). Most triathlons take place in open water so if you have the option, this would be a good fit for purpose.

- Drafting & Swimming With Others

Drafting when done correctly can help decrease your energy expenditure by as much as 15-20% meaning you require less effort to go as fast as you would alone and also the same effort you would normally exert would produce 15-20% increase in speed. The easiest place is directly behind another swimmer in their wake. This could be practised with friends. Additionally, it would be good to get used to swimming with others, especially close to one another as you’ll get more comfortable swimming over one another, feet in your face and arms coming down on you which are all very common, especially at the start of the race.


Pool swim - High elbows

The Main Principles of Swimming Effectively

The ultimate goal is to minimise drag and maximise propulsion in every swim workout you do.

  • Reducing Drag
It is crucial to reduce the amount of drag you produce when swimming. Try to be as efficient as possible through the water with a long bodyline and rigid core, hips high and as little friction as possible. Body position, rotation and correct breathing all help reduce drag.
  • Increasing Propulsion
Working hand in hand with drag is propulsion. The amount of power you can generate to move you through the water. This works your lats, shoulders and torso out especially. A good visualisation is to think of it almost like having an underwater ladder which you are pulling yourself along or train tracks. An effective kick can assist with propulsion as well as keeping legs near the surface and body in alignment (to aid with reducing drag).
  • Improving Technique
When simplified, it is broken down into the following phases: 1. The entry, 2, The catch, 3. The pull, 4. The exist and 5. The recovery. By mastering these elements of a freestyle stroke, you’ll move faster and easier through the water with less effort.
  • Increasing Fitness & Endurance
Whilst this is intertwined with fitness, naturally the fitter you become and the longer you can swim for, the easier you’ll be able to regulate your energy levels and speed when swimming.
  • Building Strength & Power
No matter how efficient your technique gets, you need muscular endurance to sustain keeping a strong, powerful and efficient swim stroke over a race distance or extended period of time. This is where a tool like ZEN8 will help you massively.

Training Cycles

Macrocycle - This would typically cover a full season, potentially an entire year. This is the overarching workout plan from start to finish.

The training phases would include:

  • Phase 1) Improving technique and endurance (8-16 weeks) of lower intensity work and building a solid foundation, good bodyline reducing drag.
  • Phase 2) High-end fitness training (6-10 weeks) is mainly focused on improving overall fitness. This is done with higher-intensity sessions.
  • Phase 3) Race-specific training would last anywhere from 4-8 weeks and build both race tactics and skills such as getting comfortable in open water, sighting etc.

Mesocycle - This would typically be a block of time training within the macrocycle and would last between 2-8 weeks typically.

Microcycle - This is a smaller training block, potentially just a weekly block broken down into days of the week typically.

How often should you swim when training for a triathlon?

It is all relative to the event you are doing. Triathlons vary in distance substantially; Sprint races consist of 750m, Olympic requires 1,500m, Ironman 70.3 is 1,900m and a full Ironman is 3,800m long. It's fair to say that only having one swim practice per week may not be enough to help you improve, rather possibly maintain at best what you already have. Try for at least three swim sessions per week. These could be in or out of the pool (with the use of ZEN8). It’s about using the time you have as productively as possible rather than simply swimming “junk miles”.

Endurance sets are especially important for swim races such as Olympic, Ironman 70.3 and full Ironman). The main purpose here is to build volume whilst at a comfortable aerobic volume. Breaking the sets into “long” intervals of anything from 400-1000 metres is recommended. However, you’ll also no doubt want to include some swims that cover the entire distance to build confidence and gain a good sense of pace. It can also be good to include some high intensity, speed work. 50 second hard efforts that are great in-between key workouts because they don't tax your body as heavily (and thus increase recovery time), and 25-metre sprints at least once weekly which help improve speed over short bursts. This may be especially important when breaking away from the pack or near the start when everyone is in close proximity to one another for tactical bursts.


How do you train for a triathlon swim?

If you want to swim faster, you need to maximise propulsion and minimise drag. This can be done by improving your technique as it will make you glide through the water easier, more powerful and ultimately lead to you being quicker. This can be done with drills that focus on different aspects of strokes for a more balanced movement pattern in the water. Additionally, by improving your endurance and strength, you’ll be able to swim harder, for longer distances.

Where can I train for a triathlon swim?

It would depend on the environment you're looking at training in and whatever is available or accessible but ideally, if possible, try to replicate what will be happening during your event as closely as you can so that it's more natural and your body is already acclimatised to it. You want to be as prepared as possible when things go wrong (or right!). If you're swimming in the sea on the big day, try doing as much sea swimming as you are able to. Get used to navigating choppy waves, the tide, sighting etc. However, if you will be swimming in a lake but there are no lakes nearby, then doing sessions using the ZEN8 Swim Trainer could massively help get those muscles working effectively and stronger. You do not need to face any uncomfortable weather conditions outside like rain or snow! You don't even need a pool!


Practice, practice, practice

It's not always an easy task, but with the proper plan for swim training, it can be done anywhere. Like many things in life, the more you can practice and put time into perfecting it, the better the results should be. If you're able to improve and strengthen your swimming stroke for example without wasting additional energy, you'll naturally see improvements in your swim time.

This can traditionally be difficult if you don’t live near a pool or open water. However, dryland training can be incredibly useful in this regard. An indoor swim trainer like the ZEN8 Swim Trainer might be the ideal solution for you as it allows you to save time whilst improving your swim fitness and technique.

When your body is properly trained and ready for some more challenging tasks, you can start practising faster and faster and work on building upon your speed. You should also practice regular swimming, not just sprinting, as it will help you in long-distance races like Ironman, where the swim part covers 3800m.

Power and strength are also important to work on because they will help you with the muscular endurance and stamina needed for the full race. You can practice this by doing some very short sprints, after which you get back into a normal pace and repeat it again at least 4-5 times in one workout session. Better yet, practice on ZEN8 to save time.

Triathlon swim training tips:

  1. Apply the main swim principles (above) to each session (reducing drag, increasing propulsion)
  2. Don't be afraid to start slow and build up your speed over time.
  3. Frequency and consistency are key. If you can't swim a lot, you can overcome the challenge of getting to a pool, lake or sea with the help of a swim trainer like ZEN8. Family, work, friends and other commitments outside the sport takes up a lot of time and since swimming is one of the most time-consuming disciplines it's the one that is being overlooked by age group triathletes. We recommend time-crunched triathletes to swim at least 2 -3 in water sessions per week and combine land-based exercises such as 2 - 3 ZWIM AT HOME sessions per week to build swim specific strength, endurance and good technique. Frequency and consistency are more important than overall volume and any massive long-distance days generally speaking.
  4. Different types of triathlon events and locations will affect the kind of training volume you need. An Ironman would require significantly more training time than a Sprint triathlon for example.
  5. Swimming strength workouts will help with pacing and increasing speed overall.
  6. Workouts you should do include endurance, sprinting and creating power/strength plus threshold and technique work.
  7. In the build-up to the event, practise swimming the full distance of your triathlon. Beginners find this very useful as it gives them the confidence that they can cover the distance come race day. More experienced swimmers may want to go more frequently.


How much should you practise in a pool?

Well, first, the more you can practise in the environment you will race in the better. This would typically be an open water event. However, for many reasons, location and where you are based plus what you have access to, conditions of the weather and season or simply factoring in safety when by yourself, many people opt for pool training (especially in the colder winter months). Therefore, you need to know what size of pool you are swimming in so you can accurately measure your distance and track how well you are doing. For example, the difference between a 25-metre pool vs a larger Olympic or outdoor style venue with 50-metre pools+. Start slow and build up your swim workouts frequency and duration over the coming weeks so you are doing at least 2-3 sessions per week swimming and ideally 2-3 sessions with ZEN8. If you do find yourself doing the bulk of training in a pool, please make sure you still consider the advice above such as swimming in a wetsuit and including sighting so you can adapt this to open water when you manage to incorporate it.

How long does it take to swim a triathlon?

A triathlon swim takes anywhere around 10-30 mins for a sprint (750m), 20-50 mins for an Olympic (1500m), 30-1 ½ hours for an Ironman 70.3 (1900m) and you’re looking at 50 mins to 2 hours potentially for an Ironman (3800m).

How can I do triathlon swim training at home, without a pool?

Yes! Believe it or not, you can do triathlon swim training at home and also without the use of a pool. It's never been easier to get in a full session of swim training, no matter where you are. Combine 2-3 fast and fun ZEN8 workouts with 2-3 water-based (in-water) workouts per week for maximum results. We provide all the gear you need to take your training to the next level.

Closing notes

Swimming is a specialized and demanding sport in itself. However, when you add the demands of a triathlon that include cycling and running, it becomes one of the most difficult endurance sports ever invented. Therefore, the more prepared you can become on race day, the better.

Hopefully the above gives you some solid guidance. For ZEN8 Swim Trainer customers, we offer a free 14 day trial period of our premium swim training program, designed by our Head Coach, Kieran Lindars and BMC Pro Triathlon Team. If you need any advice or want to reach out, our head coach can help. Good luck on the big day!


swim at home
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