Swim Workouts for Triathlons: Be Prepared to Go the Distance

Triathlon & Open Water
Written by: Thomas Board at 18 February '22 0
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Triathletes have a different nut to crack when it comes to their swim training. Triathlons and Ironmans are not easy swims, and they force swimmers into open water with hundreds or even thousands of other triathletes. Swim workouts for triathlons require a bespoke approach for both the event and the swimmer. 

Triathlons are multisport events, and swim sessions only make up a third of a triathlete‘s training schedule, alongside cycling and running. Swimming drills often take a back seat as many triathletes make on-land training their main set due to convenience. Time is a commodity busy people don’t have a lot of, and triathletes need a training plan that doesn’t take forever to complete.

In this article, we’ll outline what sets triathlon training apart from standard swimming drills. Then, we’ll provide you with swim workouts for triathlons

What Should You Consider When Designing a Swim Workout for Triathlons?

group of swimmers swimming

If you’re gearing up for your first triathlon, be aware that it will differ from the swim meets and pool training you’re probably accustomed to. There are a number of considerations you should take into account as you plan your training so that you can feel confident on race day.

Get Outside

Being a city dweller and enjoying the great outdoors isn’t always an easy task. You don’t want to waste your membership fee at your local pool, and the convenience it offers can’t be beat. 

Pool training is perfect for improving your cardiovascular fitness, strength, and stroke technique. But it doesn’t prepare you for the experience of open-water swimming. Some unprepared first-time triathletes panic when entering open water for the first time. They will be surrounded by swimmers on all sides, unlike the calm waters of their local pool. You may find yourself bobbing about in more unpredictable waters and may take on an unwanted mouthful of water. 

As race day approaches, find your nearest lake or coastline and try to set your swim workouts for triathlons in open water as much as possible. There’s nothing like the real thing. Just make sure you do all your research and follow the guidelines of open-water swimming to keep yourself safe in the water.

Improve Endurance

After a few weeks of training, you’ll probably start attempting some race pace swims. It’s important to remember that a triathlon swim is just the beginning. Triathlons start with a swim and lead on to a cycle and then a run.

You need to train beyond the limits of the swim portion. So it’s important to push yourself to near failure during training to get the times you are dreaming of. 

It can be argued that the swim is the most demanding section of a triathlon as the upper body is worked harder than in any other segment. Ensure you train your entire body adequately so that your overall endurance can be on point. 

Focus On Freestyle

Even though most triathlons will let you swim using any stroke (sometimes backstroke is banned for safety reasons), there is no doubt that freestyle is the dominant stroke of choice. It’s the fastest stroke and uses a lot less energy than the butterfly. You may tread water or briefly use breaststroke and sculling to conserve energy, but let’s face it freestyle swimming is your weapon of choice. 

Don’t over complicate your swim workout for the triathlon and just focus on the freestyle. Breaststroke may come in handy for the warm-up and cool-down phases, but to put it simply, freestyle, freestyle, freestyle.

Swim Workouts for Triathlons

swim workout for triathlon: group of swimmers running in the water

The swim portion of a triathlon varies depending on the type. An Ironman is 2.4 miles with a half ironman not surprisingly coming in at 1.2 miles. Olympic-distance triathlons are 1.5 kilometers long, and a sprint triathlon is 750 meters. 

The recurring theme is that most triathlons cover longer distances than what you may be used to in the pool. What you need is a swim workout for triathlons that focuses on endurance, pacing, and minimizing fatigue.

Pyramid Set

This nice and simple triathlon swim workout is freestyle only. During the first and last 100 meters, swim at your race pace, but keep your pace high for each of the other distances. You’ll give yourself 30 seconds rest between each distance. 

The pyramid will work as follows:

  • Swim 100 meters, then rest for 30 seconds
  • Swim 200 meters, then rest for 30 seconds
  • Swim 300 meters, then rest for 30 seconds
  • Swim 400 meters, then rest for 30 seconds
  • Swim 500 meters, then rest for 30 seconds
  • Swim 600 meters, then rest for 30 seconds
  • Swim 500 meters, then rest for 30 seconds
  • Swim 400 meters, then rest for 30 seconds
  • Swim 300 meters, then rest for 30 seconds
  • Swim 200 meters, then rest for 30 seconds
  • Swim 100 meters, then rest for 30 seconds

Pyramid sets are designed to give you a second wind. As you make your way back down from 600 meters, you should feel the reps getting easier. Try your best on that last 100 meters and see if you can match your time on the first one. 

This swim set works well to help build your confidence and improve your speed. After a few weeks of training with the pyramid set, time how long it takes to complete the swim portion of the triathlon you are training for. Take note of your new times; you should begin to see improvements.

Open-Water Endurance Set

Almost all triathlons happen in the great outdoors, and it’s important to train with this in mind. To warm up for this set, swim 200 meters at your own pace, then 200 meters with just your legs and a kickboard. After that, swim 200 meters using a pull buoy and your upper body only. Finish with two sets of freestyle:

  • 3 x 50m at a medium pace with 20 seconds of recovery between reps
  • 3 x 50m at a medium-high pace with 20 seconds of recovery between reps

Now it’s time to hit the main set:

  • 8 x 50m alternating between high and low intensity on each rep with 15 seconds of recovery between each rep
  • 4 x 100m at race pace with 10 seconds of recovery betwen each rep
  • 2 x 200m (75m aerobic + 25m fast) with 20 seconds of recovery between reps
  • One minute of recovery
  • Repeat the set
  • Cool down at your own pace

The familiar distances of a pool makes interval training like this easier to follow. But, if you can find open water, use buoys or other objects as markers. Swim workouts for triathlons designed to improve your open-water endurance make a lot more sense in open water.

Non-Stop Swimming

This may not be the most exciting workout out there, but one of the best ways to train for an event is to practice the event itself. This workout has to be performed in open water for it to be effective and will take a bit of forward planning to get it right.

Using the length of your triathlon‘s swim portion, mark the distance in open water or use a sports watch. You can start with a quarter of this distance, then half, before attempting the full length.

Now swim the distance at your race pace and get a pair of pacers for either side of you. As your confidence increases, get them to swim closer to you, emulating what an actual triathlon swim will be like. This is a great workout to see where you are currently and to improve times with a bit of a competitive element as well. It’s also a great time to practice your sighting, a technique which can help you to plan your lines and keep you safe.

Plan Your Swim Workouts for Triathlons

Swimmer swimming underwater

Always remember to plan your swim workouts for triathlons rather than training aimlessly. Use a calendar or an app to plan when and where you’ll be swimming and with whom. If you’re fortunate enough to have a swim coach, tell them that you want to train more in open water and that you want to focus your training on improving the endurance and speed of your freestyle

Try these swim workouts for triathlons and feel free to change them to suit your abilities and needs. Triathlons require reliable equipment to keep you safe while swimming your best. You’ll need good goggles that can protect you from UV light and a race suit, such as the Powerskin range from arena. Be sure to check out the arena online store to get you triathlon-ready. 


Written by:

Thomas Board

Tom is an outdoor and adventure travel writer and full-time firefighter based in Leeds, UK. He spends his free time summiting the mountains of Wales and wild swimming in the lakes of Snowdonia all year round.