The most incredible thing I have noticed during my career first as a triathlete and then as an Ironman is that triathletes almost never consider themselves to be swimmers. On the contrary, they consider any such comparison to be almost demeaning. They think of themselves as runners and, even more so, as cyclists, but not swimmers. The problem is that to improve at swimming you need to have the mind set and training routine of a swimmer.
Swimming requires more technical skill and basic feel than the other two disciplines of the triathlon. Learning how to balance your body in the water, reduce front resistance, improve your leg kick and learn how to turn are all factors a triathlete should consider before “snubbing” the water section of this three-sport discipline.
The second aspect that athletes should think about carefully is swim technique. Water is approximately 700 times denser than air, which means that any technical mistakes made in the water will be extremely costly. People often think that freestyle requires less attention than the other strokes, but that is a serious mistake for both slower and faster triathletes.
Another thing that should not be underestimated is the kind of physical conditioning you get from swimming. Swimming actually develops your aerobic system better than running or cycling. This kind of aerobic conditioning helps with all three sports. Nevertheless, most triathletes only devote just over three hours-a-week to swimming.
Bearing in mind that the distances to be swum in a triathlon range from 750 m in the Sprint event to 3800 m in an Ironman, you need to devote much more time to swimming if you want to perform a satisfactory swim leg. At least twice as many hours as mentioned above (approximately 6 hours-a-week), during which you should work on your technique and develop just the right race pace.
Finally, breathing. This is often a major problem for many triathletes. Apart from the most common mistakes concerning the position of your head, shoulders and body during the breathing phase, the main issue is that many triathletes swim in a hypoxic state! Oxygen is vital for any athlete, even more so when competing in extremely long races.
If you breathe in-and-out approximately 50-60 times-a minute during the bike and run legs, it makes no sense for triathletes to drastically reduce their breathing rate during the swim. You only need to breathe once every two strokes to make sure your breathing actually boosts your swim leg. Some triathletes, who are particularly strong swimmers, actually breathe every stroke during the swim in order to set the right pace and adopt the right technique for the water section.
My final tip is to follow the advice of a trainer, who will be able to tell you exactly what to do. Unfortunately, video clips are not enough to help you correct any technical flaws. It takes a trained eye that can see what you need to work on to improve your swim technique and speed. Above all, when a triathlete is in the water, they need to think like a swimmer. That is the only way they will really improve their swimming.