Nail Your Triathlon Weak Sport: Swim

More time in open water—and with other swimmers—pays off

If swimming is your triathlon Kryptonite, you’re not alone. As much as I love running and cycling, I’ve often pined for an alternate tri reality wherein the first component of the race has been replaced with something more land-based, like shot put or Olympic ribbon dance.

Unfortunately, swimming is here to stay, and pulling off a successful triathlon hat-trick is impossible without a certain degree of educated buoyancy and water propulsion. Just getting in good shape isn’t enough once you’re in the water, and landlubbers who work on their freestyle technique are grateful to skip playing catch-up for the rest of the race.

I met with Steve Stonecipher-Fisher, triathlon race director and owner of the Tryathletics sports store in Columbia, MO, to get tips on how weaker swimmers can balance out their skills. Stonecipher-Fisher can relate to triathletes who struggle with the swimming component. As a lifelong runner who placed 40th at the 1984 Olympic Marathon trials, he says swimming is harder mentally for most people because there’s not much stimulation underwater during training. That’s not the only major difference he sees between the sports.

“If you’re running and you get tired, you can slow down,” he says. “If you’re on the bike, you can coast. All you can do in the swim portion is drown, so you better get used to swimming and become decent at it.”

Ahem. See why his advice is so crucial? Take notes—here are Stonecipher-Fisher’s top five tips to improving your swim.

1. Spend more time in open water. Call it the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy principle, but this boils down to one simple rule that can be applied to most aspects of life: Don’t Panic. “Everyone’s taken a mouthful of water in life,” Stonecipher-Fisher says. “And it’s not any big deal if you don’t panic.” How do you reach that level of anxiety-proof comfort in open water? Spend as much time as possible in it.

2. Focus on swimming, but not too much. You want to emphasize more initial training on your weak sport but not enough to risk injury or lose fitness in your stronger sports. Stonecipher-Fisher recommends starting with half-hour swims four times a week and then building up time as you adapt to the sport.

3. Join a club or team. “One thing you get with swimming that you don’t get elsewhere—especially if it’s a mass start—is a lot of initial banging around,” Stonecipher-Fisher says. “Find a local triathlon club to swim with. They’ll rough you up, but they won’t hurt you, and you’ll get used to it.” If you can’t adjust to the “throwing bows” aspect of a mass swim start, Stonecipher-Fisher recommends starting on the edge and waiting three seconds after the starting gun to make your move. “You won’t lose much time, and you’ll probably end up swimming a better stroke.”

4. Have your stroke analyzed by a swimming coach. Form is important, and if you want to prevent injury and get the most from training time, you need to optimize your stroke. There are a number of videos and online resources to help you work on your freestyle form, but your best bet is to contact a local expert for stroke analysis.

5. Tri to love swimming. Chances are you’re going to spend the most work on the sport you enjoy the most—probably because it will be your best sport. But if you can’t learn to have fun in the water, at least get to the point where it’s not a chore, Stonecipher-Fisher says. “I know people who just do enough swim training to get through it and get to the parts they like.”

If all else fails, consider switching to a duathlon. Sure, you’ll miss out on eventual Ironman bragging rights (and genius puns like “tri to love swimming”), but with all your spare time to focus on running and cycling, you might just rediscover why you started racing in the first place—to have fun.

Need help with a different leg of the tri? Check out other expert tips on Nailing Your Tri Weak Sport.