Swimming for triathletes by Professor Greg Whyte OBE

Swimming for triathletes by Professor Greg Whyte OBE

Whilst the technique of front crawl swimming remains constant, triathletes are not swimmers. To that end, a triathlete should approach training for the swim discipline in subtly different ways to pool or open water swimmers. Of note, due to the subsequent cycling and running disciplines, a triathlete should aim to optimise economy, expending as little energy as possible for maximum speed. Accordingly, technique is of paramount importance for the triathlete. In addition, the body of a triathlete is different to that of a swimmer. The additional upper body muscle mass carried by swimmers can be counterproductive for fast cycling and running for the triathlete. That said, strength is important for triathletes and should be part of the training programme for performance and injury prevention.

When it comes to technique, front crawl is partitioned into the following elements:

1. Entry & Stretch: The hand enters fingertip first, followed by the hand (palm down) and forearm in line with the shoulder (b. elbow should be high, above the hand). The hand then pushes forwards through the water, just below the surface, without crossing in front of the face. Maximising stretch will optimise stroke length.

Top Tip: Avoid slapping (and wasting energy) by ensuring fingertip entry.

Drill: head up drill helps to optimise hand entry.

2. Downsweep & Catch: Flexing the arm at the elbow, the catch begins when the palm is facing directly backwards. Again, elbow should remain high (above the hand) and the forearm and upper arm push backwards. The importance of this phase is to place the hand and arm in the correct position to begin the propulsive phase.

Top Tip: Imagine you are swimming through a cylinder, the body roll should remain in the cylinder to reduce drag.

Drill: Catch up (where the entry hand waits for the opposite hand to touch before starting the downsweep – using a stick can really focus the mind on correct technique)

3. Insweep and Upsweep: The insweep begins just outside the line of the shoulder in the catch phase and finishes under the body in the mid-line (b. arm should be flexed to around 90O at the elbow). From the end of the insweep, the arm extends slightly (not completely) and palm pushes towards the thigh – the upsweep, the most propulsive phase of the stroke where the hand is accelerated to its maximum speed.

Top Tip: touch your thumb at mid-thigh as it approached the surface to ensure maximum stroke length.

Drill: Accelerate the hand as rapidly as possible leading to flicking up of water on hand exit (making sure the thumb touches mid-thigh prior to exit)

4. Release and Recovery: During the recovery, the elbow should remain high (above the hand) as it moves forward in a high arc. Relax the arm and expend as little energy as possible during recovery.

Top Tip: A common mistake is to allow the hand to lead the recovery, swinging it away from the body, which causes the body to wiggle and increase drag. Focus on keeping the hand close to the body and the elbow above the hand throughout the recovery.

Drill: Touch the thumb of the recovery arm in the armpit during recovery to ensure a high elbow (not as easy as it sounds!)


Kicking is often the nemesis of every triathlete and, accordingly, can be their weakest link. Kicking Is less important to a triathlete compared with a pool swimmer (particularly in wetsuit swims), however, optimising technique remains instrumental in fast, economic swimming. Generally, kicking provides little in the way of propulsion for a triathlete (particularly in wetsuit) however, kicking is important in balancing and stabilising the stroke. Triathletes should work on kicking in training to improve technique and economy.

Top Tip: Relax kicking. Excessive kicking significantly increases fatigue in return for limited propulsion. That said, including kicking in swim training is crucial (however bad you are at it!)

Drill: Sets of kicking with and without kick board. Focus on enhancing body position.


One of the most difficult aspects of the swim technique is breathing. To optimise economy Whilst, adopting a breathing pattern that optimises economy is the primary goal, it is important to remember that technique (avoiding the one-sided limp) and sighting (open water) are central to economy. To that end, bilateral breathing (breathing every third stroke) is optimal.

Top Tip: Don’t look down. Raise your eye line to look slightly in front. This has the bonus of improving body position. When breathing, using the roll of the body rather than excessively turning the head (look to the side/slightly backwards during breaths, not forward or up).

Drill: Breath every three strokes for a length and increase the number of strokes per breath (5, 7, 9, 11) over subsequent lengths. Control under fatigue will improve technique and economy.


Unique to open water swimming, sighting is a skill absent in pool swimmers. For triathletes, sighting can be the difference between success and failure in the swim discipline. Poor sighting leads to poor navigation and extended swim distances leading to slower exit times. In addition, poor technique leads to excessive energy expenditure and early fatigue. Integrating sighting into your breathing pattern limiting head movement as much as possible will reduce energy expenditure and stress. Including sighting as part of training sessions is required to optimise technique. Open water training is critical in enhancing sighting technique and should be practiced under fatigue.

Top Tip: Spend as little energy as possible sighting. Looking for small objects in the water (i.e. Buoys) to sight is difficult, particularly in mass start events. Use large, land based objects (i.e. buildings, trees, masts etc.) will reduce the time spent looking for the sighting marker, save energy and maintain speed).

Drill: Swim open water and much as possible (not easy in a British winter!). In the pool, add sets that include sighting at regular intervals i.e. every 10 strokes.

More than any other discipline in triathlon, coaching is central to performance optimisation. The intense technical nature of swimming combined with the limited availability of performance feedback (i.e. power meters etc.) means that coaching guidance can be the difference between progress and disaster. In addition, specialist support in programme design optimises all aspects of physiological development, as well as technical development.