Triathletes who transitioned from running or cycling may find that swimming is the hardest of the three to really excel at.
Running and cycling both predominantly target the leg muscles. But when it comes to swimming, the shoulders and arms take more of the load. For this reason, runners and cyclists may have a hard time in the water!
One way to improve at swimming is to work on your form. This might be the most important thing a triathlete can do to get better at that first triathlon leg.
Here are some of the best tips we suggest if you want to boost your swimming performance and ultimately, improve your triathlon times.
Tips to Improve Your Swimming
1. Patience and Focus
The truth is, there’s no quick fix for swimming form. If you’re dedicated to improving your swimming, you’ll need patience and focus over an extended period of time.
There’s no specific time frame that it takes to improve your triathlon swimming. It depends on the person, the frequency of your training, and your general fitness level.
But you can expect to spend months on improving your form, and you’ll need to be focused and committed throughout that time.
We understand that you won’t necessarily be able to focus intently on your form every moment while you’re training. Sometimes you’ll be working on drills or speed, but we advise spending 10 to 20 minutes on form and style specifically in every workout.
It can be frustrating trying to implement style and form drills or practice every session, but it will be worth it in the end! Stick with it and it will soon become a habit, one that serves you well performance-wise.
2. Relax and Try to Smile
This may sound silly but focus on keeping a smile on your face as you swim.
Not only does it secretly trick your body and brain into thinking you’re super happy (and maybe releasing some more happy chemicals!) but it actually helps you to relax.
Getting your form right can be more difficult when you’re tightly wound! Relaxing can make a huge difference, but it can be hard while you’re on the move through the water.
This is where smiling can help. It does something interesting in the brain and helps the tight muscles to loosen up a bit and also takes the focus off of the struggle so you can focus more on your form.
Have you ever found yourself frowning while you’re trying to get your form right, either in the pool or on the bike or road? Although you may not realize it at the time, this can actually contribute to your tensing up, making it more difficult to do it right.
Don’t be so busy smiling that you forget to pay attention to your form, though! Rather, try to make it a habit. It’s a good thing to work on cultivating outside of the pool, too!
3. Focus on Fingers
Pay attention to your hands on every stroke. Your fingertips should be entering the water first, not your palm or wrist.
This means you’ll need to make a slight “cup” with your hand, so your fingertips are pointing towards the water when you bring your arms over.
Focus on hitting the water first with those tips and keeping your fingers tightly together. This will help you to create more resistance and pull yourself through the water more strongly.
So, hands slightly cupped, fingers in first!
4. Kick From the Hips
Less experienced swimmers often kick from the knees. This definitely gets you through the water, but it’s not nearly as effective as kicking from the hips.
Your knees should stay almost straight throughout the kick. You may need to do some work on your hip flexors before this becomes comfortable!
Your kicks should be smooth and controlled. No wild flailing! Practice kicking from the hip and not the knee every single time you’re in the water.
This will also help to reduce your chances of injury. Although swimming is a low-impact sport, overuse of the knee can still create pain and problems with the joint.
Kicking from the hip is a more natural and less dangerous movement.
5. Rock Your Hips
As you kick with your hips, focus on rolling your hips from side to side. You don’t need to wiggle too much, but performing this kind of “body roll” will help to facilitate smoother movement throughout your stroke.
As you rock your hips, it also helps to turn the torso (safely, without twisting it) so you can breathe more easily as you turn your head.
It may also take some getting used to. It might feel a bit weird at first, especially if you’re used to swimming very uniformly with little movement.
But keep at it – you’ll soon find that it becomes second nature and helps you perform your stroke more smoothly.
6. Train Regularly
You need to swim regularly if you want to get into the habit of better form. At least twice a week is necessary if you want to improve your triathlon swimming performance.
You can’t neglect your training and expect to get better! It can be tempting to focus more on running and cycling training, but swimming is just as important.
In truth, the more training sessions you do per week, and the more you focus on making these changes, the faster you can expect to see change and improvement.
We recommend 3 to 4 swim training sessions a week, with one specifically focused on form drills and practice. If you can’t manage that many, then 2 to 3 is all right.
7. Keep Those Arms Moving
Your arms are the things that keep you from sinking in the water! Keep them moving to stay on the surface where you can move more freely through the water.
It might sound obvious, but you need to keep your arms moving in the water. You can slow down a little as you get tired, but keep your arms going in order to propel yourself through the water.
The moment you stop moving your arms, you’ll find yourself sinking.
8. Keep Your Head Low
If you’re not the strongest swimmer, it’s tempting to try and keep your head up as you move through the water. However, this can actually slow you down and keep you from improving your form!
Keep your head down. Try to keep your chin as close to your chest as you can, and turn it towards your shoulder as you swim. You should be looking directly to the side when you turn your head, or even slightly behind you.
The moment you start noticing your head lifting too much, make an effort to tuck it in again. When you’re doing your hip roll motion, this becomes easier!
9. Make Yourself as Long as Possible
Try to focus on lengthening your spine and legs. Basically, this means you should pay particular attention to your posture, even though you’re in the water.
Imagine being told to stand up straight by your mother or teacher! Now take that “standing up straight” action, and transfer it to the water.
That’s what you’ll be doing in the water. Try to “stand up straight” while swimming, lengthening your back and staying as straight as possible.
Your legs, butt, back, and shoulder blades should all be up at the surface of the water, forming a line. Nothing should be dipping further below the surface of the water!
10. Focus On Form, Not Distance
We know that if you’re training for a triathlon, you’ll probably be focusing on distance as part of your training. But when it comes to form, we suggest you set aside some time each training session to forget about distance or pace and focus hard on form.
When you’re aiming for a particular distance or pace, it’s easy for your form to start slipping the closer you get to it. We tend to lose form when we’re straining towards something, or naturally when we become fatigued.
The more you focus specific time on getting your form right, the more ingrained it will become. As it becomes a habit, you’ll find that your form stays strong for longer even across longer distances.
11. Follow Through
Don’t sell yourself short on your stroke. You should be following through with your hands, all the way past your hips again.
Take care not to bring your hands up and out of the water until you’re ready for your next stroke, though. Bringing it out of the water too early can cause you to miss an extra bit of acceleration.
Once your hand has landed back in the water (fingertips first!), the final phase of your stroke should be an acceleration behind you, pushing you forward. Some swimmers bring their hand up and out far too quickly, losing out on that last bit of a push.
12. Swim at a Low Intensity
When you’re specifically working on your form, there’s no need to go all out. Swim at a lower intensity than you would normally train at, so you can focus specifically on getting the small details of your form right.
Obviously, you need to swim at a decent pace so you’re not feeling like you’re dragging! But there’s no need to go intensely like you would during normal training.
13. Improve Your Exhaling
We tend to think that inhaling is the most important part of breathing when you’re swimming, but the fact is that exhaling can make or break your swim.
If you don’t exhale properly while you’re in the water, you can quickly start to feel winded. Although you’re probably getting enough oxygen in, you’re not letting all the CO2 out, which takes up valuable space in your lungs.
You should start exhaling as soon as you’ve finished inhaling. Exhale through your nose while your face is underwater, keeping it steady and controlled. Breathing out through the nose prevents water from getting into your sinuses!
It may take some time but work on exhaling fully, until you feel you’ve got nothing left in your lungs.
You may need to do some experimenting to figure out what timing is best for you. Some swimmers find that inhaling on every second stroke (ie. the same arm every time) works for them, while others find it easier on every third stroke (alternate arms).
It’s up to you to do a bit of work on this and see which works for you. Try to pick one and stick to it, instead of flipping back and forth. This way, you can effectively train your body into it.
14. Focus On One Problem at a Time
If there are multiple things you need to work on with your swimming form, we strongly recommend focusing on one thing at a time. Once you notice an improvement in that particular thing, you can move on to another.
It may seem like a long way around, but trust us! This way, you can focus intently on the specific thing you have to change and make sure it’s fixed before moving on to another.
Trying to work on a few different things at once only means you won’t be focusing closely enough on any of them. You may end up frustrated and with form that’s really no better than before!
We suggest focusing on one element of your form in each training session if you’re in this boat. After a few weeks or months, when you see improvements, you can start to put them all together.