This is the ultimate guide for triathlon swim survival in 2023.

If you want to:

  • Get tips from professional swimmers
  • Learn common mistakes in triathlon swimming
  • Be better prepared than your competitors

Then you’ll love this new guide.

Let’s get started.

By Maria Rezhylo
3x World record holder in swimming & swim school owner
Jan. 5, 2023


How do I improve my triathlon swim time and survive?
The BEST swimming stroke for triathlon & its technique
Basic swimming breathing technique for triathlon

Triathlon swimming: how do I survive?

How to survive a triathlon swim

Race Day Strategy

1. Stay calm
Here's a thing: the worst is actually over.

The hardest part of triathlon swimming is preparing for it. As a beginner, you spent hours, days, and weeks trying to prepare for this swim. Assuming you got the work in, it's time for the best part - the race!

When the word is done, your body will do the rest. You worrying about it won't help the race.

2. Warm-up
Warm-up is a crucial stage in race preparation. Let those muscles know that they are about to put in some work.

There's no one size fits all warm up. Every athlete is different. Experiment before the race day; when the time comes, you will know how to get yourself going.

3. Forget about the distance
Think about executing a big project at work. It feels so far ahead when you think about it as something enormous. And when it's far ahead, every step of this project feels endless. Sounds about right?

In competitive swimming, we are guilty of that too. I would get absolutely TERRIFIED before a long event. And I have no doubt other swimmers can relate to that feeling.

So, here's advice from the pro swimmer:
Don't think about the distance you got to swim.

Instead, focus on the little details you want to execute correctly.

Take it one stroke at a time and make the best of it. That way, the swimming part will pass faster than you think.

4. Be careful during the mass start
Long races, like triathlons, usually begin with a mass start.

It can be a memorable part of your first triathlon, but it can also be quite rough for a rookie.

Place yourself in a crowd according to your swimming level. You can be up-front or in the middle if you are a fast swimmer who doesn't mind fights.
But it's your first triathlon, it's better to be on the side or at the end of the group.

3. Fuel before & after
With excitement and nervousness, it's easy to lose your appetite on race day. And before you know it, you are already swimming on the last night's dinner.

Energy levels are getting lower, speed is dropping, and muscle cramps are heading your way.


Fueling before and after your swim can make or break the whole event.

It's best to follow these simple recommendations:

  • Eat your usual breakfast a few hours before the start;
  • Don't experiment with the foods. Eat whatever sits well with your stomach;
  • Pack some carb-rich gels or snacks of choice to re-fuel after the swim;
  • Replenish glycogen reserve spent during the swim;

And just like that, you are one step closer to getting through your swim without dying.

Triathlon swimming technique tips
1. Establish & hold a steady pace
Practice keeping the same pace throughout the entire race.
A study conducted among triathletes in 2009 shows that reduced intensity during swimming increases performance in running and biking. So, whether training with the coach or on your own, you should know a comfortable pace for your tri-swim.

If you are unsure about a reasonable pace, just use our simple swim pace calculator.

2. Take an adventure of drafting
Drafting is this secret technique to moving forward with less effort.

Excited enough?

Just follow a swimmer with a faster or the same pace right behind their legs. You'll get into a slipstream which significantly reduces drag.

A win-win situation: you'll save energy and finish faster.

Pro tip: don't try to chase someone who is too fast for you!

3. Maintain a consistent cadence
Your swimming speed consists of two parts: length per stroke and cadence. Cadence is the frequency of your strokes.

A sustainable cadence during longer events it's something that you have established in your training.

A common mistake beginners make is starting too quickly with a high cadence and then dropping it. Don't be like that!

Ideally, you want to maintain the same cadence throughout the whole race.

8. Apply more power with your arms
Everything that happens underwater is important because that's how you generate propulsion.

Pulling will be the main driving force of your length per stroke in the open water swimming.

Combine a comfortable cadence with powerful pulls, and you'll maximize your swimming speed and efficiency.

A common misconception among many triathletes is weaker pull can be compensated with a higher cadence. That's wrong! You can only muscle through high stroke frequency for so long until you build up lactic acid.

9. Control your body position
Don't let your technique fall apart, no matter how tired or lazy you get. If your swimming technique falls apart, it'll affect your body position.

Body position is detrimental to moving forward with maximum efficiency. Believe me or not, you'll spend more energy swimming the wrong way.

With the broken technique, you will most likely shorten your length per stroke and create more drag. Drag is your enemy in the water, and length per stroke is the key.

9. Leg movements
Before you know it, your swim is going to be over. And if you were kicking like crazy, your run and bike performance won't be pretty.

Remember, we want to be strategic in the beginning!

Now, it doesn't mean leaving your legs hanging because that means more drag.

If you're swimming freestyle, use a two-beat kick and the power of your hips to minimize the drag and support your arms.

Focus on gliding longer after every kick if you choose to swim breaststroke.

Either way, your focus has to be on forward progress with the least stress on your legs.

10. Stay on course
A common mistake that leads beginner triathletes to struggle in swimming is getting off the course.

It's not a surprise because open water swimming differs from swimming at the pool.

Before the start, make sure to examine the swimming route carefully.

Afterward, pop your head forward from time to time to check if you're going in the right direction. The worst thing is getting lost and being disqualified in the beginning.

11. Remain close to the group
Another great way to stay on course and maintain the same speed is staying within or near the group of athletes.

It'll be much easier to swim because, chances are, other athletes are checking the direction. So you can just focus on swimming.

But be careful, and don't get into a pack of athletes who are too fast for you. Additionally, if you are in the center of the pack, maintain some space between you and them.

12. Enjoy
Make the most of it, and enjoy this crazy race!

You put into work: planned and prepared for it. You spent an insane amount of hours training for it!

Now, it's time to appreciate the race and get the most out of it. All the brain work will happen later.


Everything about the different strokes & techniques for triathlon

The best swimming stroke for triathlon

Freestyle stroke

There is no doubt that front crawl is the best swimming stroke for triathlon. Front crawl is widely known among swimmers as freestyle. Most triathletes choose freestyle over other swimming strokes for one important reason: it's the fastest stroke.

And while swimming breaststroke can seem easier, it's actually not. Think about it, your swim leg is 1700 yards. Now, think about swimming breaststroke for that long.

I've done that. So let me explain to you why it's not your best choice.

Freestyle stroke

There is no doubt that front crawl is the best swimming stroke for triathlon. Front crawl is widely known among swimmers as freestyle. Most triathletes choose freestyle over other swimming strokes for one important reason: it's the fastest stroke.

And while swimming breaststroke can seem easier, it's actually not. Think about it, your swim leg is 1700 yards. Now, think about swimming breaststroke for that long.

I've done that. So let me explain to you why it's not your best choice.

Why you shouldn't swim breaststroke

I swam that much breaststroke at once 9 times in my life. Here's what I've learned:

  1. Breaststroke is the most taxing of all swimming strokes on your legs. It's not the best choice for triathlon swimming because you'll have 2 more leg-driven events.
  2. It's slow. In fact, the slowest among the other 3 strokes.
  3. Swimming breaststroke in a controlled environment like a pool might be okay, but open water is different. You might have waves and choppy waters that will create continuous resistance to your efforts.
  4. You won't be able to keep up a proper swimming technique for long. Bad technique = more drag. More drag means you will swim slower.

Should I keep going?

Why swimming freestyle and not breaststroke:

  1. According to research, you spend the least amount of energy when you swim freestyle.
  2. It's the only stroke that will help you to combat choppy water.
  3. You'll have unlimited access to oxygen.
  4. It's the least taxing swim stroke for your legs.

Swimming freestyle explained

Let's dive deep into our PRO tips for the best freestyle form for triathlon.

1. Powerful pull saves energy

front crawl triathlon
Research shows that when swimming freestyle, your pull is the most propulsive phase of the stroke. What does it tell us?

We should apply all the arm strength to each pull. Keep fingers slightly spread (~10°) to maximize propulsion.

Don't try to sacrifice the power of your pull to the higher cadence. You won't be able to maintain the same stroke rate for a long time due to the build-up of lactic acid.

Train your pull strength in the pool using paddles, and do some basic strengthening at the gym.

2. Bent-arm technique is the best

Bent-arm swimming for triathlon

While you can experiment and see what recovery type works well for you, we recommend sticking to bent-arm.

The truth is straight-arm swimming works well for high-cadence swimmers. That's why, if you watch Olympics, you will notice the majority of 50m freestylers swimming with straight-arm.

In addition, straight-arm also requires a lot more shoulder strength, stability, and mobility. So, stick to bent-arm to save more energy.

3. Relax during recovery phase

recovery front crawl
Every swimmer knows that you should relax your arms during a recovery phase.

After you apply power and strength to your pull, you'll have a chance to relax the arm muscles. Please take advantage of it.

Otherwise, your upper-body muscles will fatigue much faster.

4. Two-beat kick to save your legs

two beat kick for triathlon

As we mentioned, you should save your kick for two events afterward: biking and running.

So, use a two-beat kick and hip power to minimize drag but maximize your length per stroke. Plus, this kick rhythm is perfect for lower cadence swims.

With a two-beat kick, every part of your body will work in unison with every stroke you take.

5. Hip-driven freestyle is the key for triathlon

hip driven freestyle for triathlon

There are two main two types of freestyle: hip-driven and shoulder driven.

Shoulder-driven freestyle is more appropriate for short distances. It is very taxing for your upper body, so using it in longer swims is pointless.

Instead, focus on rotating your hips at the end of every underwater phase of a pull.

That way, you'll give an extra boost to your length per stroke by being more streamlined.

Practice hip-driven freestyle regularly before your first triathlon swim to develop muscle memory.

6. Body position & the importance of bracing

bracing in swimming
Recent research indicates that our trunk creates the most drag when we swim. When we create more drag in the water, we slow down and spend more energy. What's the solution?

Bracing! Think about bracing as bringing your belly button towards your spine as you inhale.

Bracing is one of the unknown keys to maintaining a straight line position. A straight line on the water surface = maximum efficiency.

Make sure to practice it frequently before your race!

7. Practice looking forward

how to sight when swimming triathlon
When you swim in the open water, it's hard to navigate. There is no black line to follow. All the orienteers are in front of you.

The key to looking forward without losing your speed is doing it quickly. Keep your chin underwater as close as possible to the surface of the water.

Try looking forward during preparation frequently.


Front crawl breathing for triathlon

How to take a breathe

Follow our simple steps to take control of your breathing:
  • 1
    Connect breathing to your pull
    Breathing while swimming front crawl should be connected to the arm movement. To inhale, you need to turn your face towards the hand ending the stroke underwater while the other hand supports you up-front.
  • 2
    Head turns with your shoulders
    The head rotation for breath should be performed simultaneously with the shoulder rotation. The inhalation begins at the beginning of the recovery phase. Make sure to take a breath into the same side of your recovering arm. Inhalation is carried out by the mouth and lasts 0.3-0.5 seconds.
  • 3
    Return your head back
    Your head should return to the initial position before the recovery phase is finished. After taking a breath in, the head returns to its original position without delay. Once you immerse your face in the water, start to exhale. Don't try to hold your breath, because you'll build up too much CO2. That will trigger you to feel out of breath and enter a state of hypoxia.
  • 4
    Breathing pattern for triathlon
    Breathe every two strokes to maximize the amount of oxygen consumption. You may have heard that the fastest way to swim is taking fewer breaths, but that's not the case for triathlon. The triathlon swimming is way too long for shorter breathing patterns.

    Try breathing to different sides, and see what feels more comfortable.

    Many swimmers have a so-called non-dominant side that doesn't generate an equal amount of power. You can try to breathe to that side and get the maximum power from rotation. This breathing pattern can help you beat bad weather conditions and almost slide through choppy waters.
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Now it's your turn! What's the first tip you are going to try?

Let me know in the comments below!