The Swim: Training for a Triathlon

The Swim: Training for a Triathlon – Wallen Swim School in Roseville and El Dorado Hills, CA

It was fall, and I was turning 40 the following February. I like to set different goals for myself, and usually ones that have some sort of base in my personal wellness. I have been physically active my entire life, and at that time I was working as a full-time Lifeguard, Aquafit Instructor, and Water Safety Instructor. My personal fitness adventure at the time was immersed in kickboxing, but I was looking to change it up.

So, for my 40th turn around the sun, I decided to do a local triathlon. I thought about doing the sprint distance for about 30 seconds and settled on the full Olympic distance: 1.5km swim, 40km bike, 10km run. My goal was to finish, just finish. For the next six months, my life revolved around training for the race day.

I knew our triathlon ran in mid-July, so I set January 1st for the start of my triathlon training.  I bought Joe Friel’s book “The Triathlete’s Training Bible” and it was my constant companion; over the coming months, it became dog-eared, water-stained, highlighted, and smeared with bike grease. As I live in northern Canada, my runs began on a treadmill, my biking was indoors and stationary, and my swim was pool based. I started with two a day training sessions and felt pretty good about my progress.

Preparing for Race Day…

One would think that as a waterlogged lifeguard and swim instructor, the swim leg of the triathlon would be a breeze for me. It was not. Every triathlete I talked to said that the swim leg is the toughest. Nothing could have prepared me for the swim portion on the actual race day. It was more exhilarating and more terrifying and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

I hung back in the crowd, maybe a third of the athletes ahead of me. I wasn’t in it to win, and I had read and watched enough videos to know that being at the front of the pack meant chaos. This seemed strategic, but on race day it really didn’t matter. Our local triathlon is small, just several hundred people. As I stood, first on the gravel beach, then making my first tentative hop steps into the water, I got caught up in it all. I don’t remember making a conscious decision to start swimming. Prompted by the excitement, the adrenaline coursing through every athlete, the surge of bodies toward the lake, and I was in the water, instinctively moving into some semblance of freestyle.

Bodies, arms, and legs were everywhere, lake water splashing, choppy waves hitting my face. Seeing anything was nearly impossible, but I caught glimpses of other swimmers and buoy markers. Underwater, I saw feet furiously kicking right in front of my nose. I moved like a fish in a school, with no real knowledge of where I was on the course. It wasn’t far into the first of two laps that I felt a searing blow to my left cheek. Water flooded my goggles. They were useless anyway. I left them on and continued as one with the pack.

Soon I felt a slight difference as there was more space around me. I wasn’t getting struck by arms and legs so often. Stroke, stroke, stroke, a slight lift to breathe and get my bearings…and then the swim was done. I gained a foothold, pushed my body upright, and began my run up the boat launch exit. The picture my husband took of me at that moment tells the whole story. Water streaming down my body, goggles cracked, bruised cheek, and complete and utter joy were written all over my face.

It was the best swim of my entire life.

If you are thinking about taking on a triathlon, there is a wealth of resources out there. The best information comes from seasoned triathletes. Listen. They know their stuff. They have been there. Every triathlete I talked to, including on race day, wanted success for me. They wanted to share their passion.

I highly recommend picking up a copy of Friel’s book. It has an honest, fundamental, and straightforward approach to finishing, and finishing with a smile on your face. I don’t think I would have had such a great race day if I had not relied so heavily on this text. With that said, here are some highlights of what I learned about the swim portion of my triathlon, and my take on how to prepare for that wild water ride!

Take a Swimming Lesson

Even though I had been teaching swimming for years, I wanted to get a freestyle tune-up.

By having another skilled instructor first look at my overall stroke, and provide feedback on what was working and what needed to change, I knew I would have a better swim during my triathlon. Having another set of eyes showed me where I could break bad habits and improve on some efficiencies.

Together, we broke my freestyle down into its components, and I worked on those components by doing drills, drills, and more drills. Taking the time to get this analytical about my stroke made a massive difference. I continued to improve my swim speed and endurance right up until race day.

Know Your Race Day Setting

If you have the opportunity, get to know where you will be swimming on race day.

The unfamiliar can be intimidating, while the familiar is a place of comfort.  As I said earlier, I live in northern Canada, so from January until June, my swimming was entirely pool based. If you have ever done a comparison, you know that your stroke is much stronger in the pool than in a lake or open water setting as you don’t have to contend with wind, waves, and bone-chilling temperatures.

As soon as June hit, my daily swim sessions were in the lake. Losing the ability to see the bottom, having the wind push you wildly off course, the waves slapping into your face just as you breathe in are all realities of open water swimming. The sooner you become accustomed to these challenges, the better your race day swim will be. I know of a few first timers that didn’t transfer their pool swim to a lake setting until race day, and it was not such a positive experience for them.

To take it a step further, train at the actual race course if you can. This will give you the opportunity to familiarize yourself with the entry and exit, as well as the course layout, lapping system, water temperature, wind patterns, and more.


Take the time before the race starts to get into the water and warm up.

This will alleviate some tension, get the blood going to your muscles, and work out any problems with google and cap fit. Warming up will better prepare for the race by warming the muscles, preparing the joints for a full range of motion, and to adjust to the water temperature.

Wetsuit or no Wetsuit? What is a tri suit?

While wetsuits are commonly allowed in triathlons, this is not always the case. Take

the time to determine if your race of choice allows for one. Shop carefully, it can be a substantial investment. It must fit well, and it must allow for full movement. Check with your swim mates, they may have one that you can borrow. If your wetsuit is too large, it will fill with water and create a large amount of drag. If it’s too small, you will be constricted in your movement and will feel like you are suffocating. A well-fitted suit will allow for a small amount of water between your body and the suit. During the transition to the bike leg, a too-tight wetsuit will be a nightmare to get out of.

Wetsuits are usually made from neoprene, and come in a variety of styles, leg lengths, and sleeve styles. Wetsuits aid in buoyancy, which means less drag, which means a better swim time. If your race allows for one, I recommend it. If your race location is on the chilly side, a wetsuit will keep you warmer. If you are highly competitive, and you don’t want to lose precious time during the transition from swim to bike, a tri suit might be a better choice for you.

A tri suit is worn throughout your race. They come in one and two-piece styles and are made from thin, breathable fabric. These suits do not offer any buoyancy but do come in a variety of styles in terms of leg length and sleeve style.

Drink It In

You have invested a ton of time and energy by preparing for this day, and have likely made a ton of personal sacrifices too. Be present.

Enjoy the moment, look around, absorb the positive energy and excitement of your racemates. No matter what the outcome of your race day is, be proud of putting in all the training effort.

If a triathlon is on your horizon, join us at Steve Wallen Swim School.

Take part in a private or semi-private lesson or have a one on one lesson with video analysis! Get that winning edge by improving on the most challenging leg of your race!

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