Getting ready for a triathlon involves a lot of training and research, but don’t let that put you off. The reward for putting in the right amount of effort is more personal bests and more wins.

If you have already completed your first, or even second, triathlon you are no doubt feeling elated. You may also feel a little frustrated that things didn’t go exactly as you expected. Maybe your time was slower than in training, or something knocked you off your game. It happens.

Whether you are just starting out or have a race under your belt, breaking down each race section can help. It can be overwhelming trying to fine tune the run, cycle and swim all at once. Take them one at a time and work on every element. Let’s start with triathlon swimming.

Like any new endeavour, the easiest thing to do when you start competing is make mistakes. Try not to linger on them, accept that they will happen and that they are opportunities for improvement. Three common mistakes that beginner triathletes make when swimming include technique, training and gear. Let’s look at each of these some more.

Mistakes Beginner Triathletes Make When Swimming

Not Giving Enough Focus To Swimming Technique

Swimming is swimming, right? You had lessons as a kid, have been swimming ever since and you are strong and confident in the water. That’s a great starting point, but it’s not enough to be successfully competitive in triathlons. Here are four ways to improve your swimming technique for triathlons.

Take Lessons

Swimming is like driving in that we start out with lessons and good technique, then let bad habits slip in. In triathlon swimming, those bad habits can slow you down without you realising.

Adult swimming lessons are refresher courses that quell bad habits. Find a swimming instructor with triathlon training experience for the best results. Your swim instructor will teach you the right way to do things and help you spot habits that need work.

Kick More When You Swim

There is a school of thought that if you kick less during the triathlon swim you reserve leg strength. The theory is that because you don’t kick, your legs will work better for the bike and run parts. Unfortunately, what really happens is that you use up more energy during your swim. Burning up more than you need to in the very first leg (pun intended).

Kicking will increase your speed and burn an even amount of energy. Remember, what you do in training shows in your swim results. If you are training without kicking, you will need to build up your stamina again before you compete.

Get Better at Breathing

Breathing whilst swimming can be a distraction if the technique isn’t quite right. There’s no getting around its essentialness to life though.  Breathing the right way during a triathlon swim can speed you up and maintain energy. Here’s how:

  1. When you lift your head to breath your bottom end dips. Inevitably this slows you down by creating drag. To counteract the dip and drag, your kick tempo needs to increase, or at least maintain momentum. The focus on kicking whilst you get your breath will buy back important seconds. Preventing the dip will conserve energy as you won’t need the extra push to get your back end back up again.

Triathlon Tip: Awareness of the dip and drag is a step towards improving technique. Practice in the pool to start with to get used to your body’s movement when you lift your head up. Once your confidence is built up, take it to the open water to practise more.

  1. Forget about bilateral breathing and breath when you sight. Bilateral converts would have you alternate sides for taking a breath every few strokes. Let’s be honest, you have enough to do. Take your breath when you sight (more on sighting below). How often you do this depends on the water and course. In choppy water you might want to sight and breathe more. Still water that allows for straighter swim lines also means fewer breaths per stroke.

Triathlon Tip: Open water breathing feels very different to pool swimming and your body reacts differently in different conditions. Use the pool to get the rhythm right but open water for fine tuning technique.

Practise Open Water Sighting

What your GPS won’t show you is how much you zigzag when you swim. All those little detours add up to extra time. Without pool ropes or the tiles at the bottom to guide you, open water sighting is the skill you need.

Sighting is an underestimated tool for better triathlon swims. By perfecting your open water sighting skills, you will not only stay on course but also swim quicker.

Good open water sighting involves lifting your head out of the water completely and looking straight ahead. Using the route markers and surroundings as guides. Avoid using the person ahead of you (if there is one) as a guide as they could be zigzagging to. Stay your own course to swim straight.

Choosing The Wrong Training location

Swimming pools do have a place in triathlon swim training but should not become the chief training location. Triathlon swims are open water and the experience is very different to a pool swim.

Your body’s reaction to getting into water varies depending on the water type, temperature and conditions. We have built-in survival instincts that will kick in when your brain thinks you’re in trouble. In a swimming pool our brain and body slip into a relaxed mode because it knows you are safe. Logically, getting into deep, cold, wild water is one of the scenarios in which your brain detects danger. Panic can often ensue and if you haven’t trained for this it can stop you in your tracks.

As often as weather allows for it, train in open water. If you know that your next race will include a sea swim, that’s where you should train. Ideally get to know the water at the exact race location. Train in a variety of open water types if you don’t know what race you are entering yet.

Getting The Wrong Gear

Some triathletes arrive on race day with all the latest gear and gadgets. Triathlons do require a basic kit to start with. Though truthfully, you only need the gear that works for you, the gadgets are optional.  When chosen properly your kit will boost your performance and keep you comfortable on each leg.

Here are the do’s and don’t of picking the right triathlon basic gear:

Triathlon Goggles

Do try on goggles before you buy them and have different types for pool training and open water swimming.

Don’t forget that some swim days will be bright and sunny so choose open water goggles carefully. Options like goggles with copper polarized lenses and tinted masks will help stop glare sending you off course.


Do look for something that is designed for all three legs. A good tri suit will be:

  • Quick drying
  • Lightweight
  • Flexible
  • Aerodynamic

Don’t wear something new on race day. Everything you race in should have been tried and tested by you in all stages of training.

Essential Triathlon Extras

Do accept that chafing and rubbing happens to all triathletes, even in perfect fitting suits. The transition from salty water to a sweat inducing ride and run can irritate the skin. Thankfully there are anti chafing and anti friction creams to help prevent this.

Don’t forget to fuel after your swim. Beginners often underestimate how much energy the swim takes out of them. This can lead to an energy crash and to disappointment. Stash your preferred energy booster in your trisuit pocket or ready at your station to have before you bike.

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