Return to Swimming - a Triathlete's Guide

by James Teagle

Many of us have been out of the pool for over a year now, with just a few weeks inbetween.  With indoor pools reopening in April (in England), many triathletes will be feeling a mix of excitement and a little nervousness.  Having a break from swimming will obviously have impacted your fitness and muscle condition, but there are also plenty of opportunities to make sure you come back with a better technique, improved swim efficiency and reduced potential for injury.  Athlete and coach James Teagle shares some valuable pointers in this short video. 

Return to Swimming | Training Tips

If you are a triathlete or do some cross training, you will have been on your bike and running, which will have increased your fitness.  You will be as fit as a fiddle, but it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to swim fast.   So there are things you need to think about before going back into swimming.

Prepare to swim

Mobility and Conditioning

If you have spent a lot of the bike or hunched over a desk, your thoracic (top of back and neck) will be tight, which is not great for swimming.  Use the next few weeks for some mobility work, get your thoracic back moving by using stretches like ‘thread the needle’ or similar, working through those areas to loosen up your thoracic back.  The other area to start thinking about are your shoulders.  There are loads of exercises to loosen them off, such as the sleeper stretch, stretching on a wall.

Core Strength for Swimming

Maybe you’ve been doing a lot of core work, but for a lot of the triathletes I work with, if there’s a session that get’s skipped, it’s going to be the core session.  When you are swimming, you need your core engaged, so now is the time to add in some more core work if you have been skipping it out.

First Swim Sessions

First things first, don’t panic.  Yes, you have been out of the pool for a while now and you are not going to be as fast as you were this time last year, so accept that.  The good thing is that no-one is going to be as fast, so it’s a level playing field.  Swimming is quite a technical sport, so you can be as fit as a fiddle, one of the greatest runners in the world, but put in a pool you will probably not be that fast. 

Swim Technique

You can’t get away with swimming with poor technique as it costs you so much energy.  For the first few sessions, get in the water, don’t look at the clock, and just get a feel for the water.  Some people will feel alright when they get in the water for the first time, some will feel shocking, but just swim for that first session.  Not for too long, and start thinking about your technique.  A lot of advanced athletes will know which areas they are a bit weak on - maybe you are slipping through the water, perhaps your catch is a bit low. 

Fix bad habits

It is really hard to change your stroke as an advanced swimmer, as you get into bad habits.  Since spending a lot of time not swimming during lockdown, those habits will be nowhere near as enforced, so if you start thinking now about getting your technique right you will be able to break it down and make good progress.  You won’t swim faster straight away as you won’t be conditioned enough, but start thinking about technique now and it will pay dividends down the line.

Get an underwater camera

If you can get a camera that’s great.  You will be able to see what you are doing under the water, to see where your stroke is breaking down and so easily fix it without the muscle memory that you would have had this time last year.  It can be hard to feel what is happening in the water, so camera footage can be very useful.

Swim Flexibility 

Your first few sessions are going to be like doing lat pull-downs constantly.  The first session might be alright, but after that it is going to feel hard because you won’t have the muscle conditioning to do it.  Really think about stretching afterwards and keep going with the swim-readiness flexibility work. 

Build Swim Volume and Intensity

Swim Intensity build sessions

After a few intro swim sessions, maybe a week to a week and half (depending on how much you are swimming, your background, what you are trying to achieve), then start to bring in some intensity.  This intensity might look something like 12 x 25m hard (not max effort. 95% effort, focusing on technique), 25m easy.  There is no point in max effort swimming – the ‘windmill effect’ is not efficient.  Right from the start you are better off focusing on technique, thinking ‘what’s my stroke doing here’, ‘am I swimming well when I am swimming fast, or is my stroke breaking down’?

Increase your Swim Training Volume 

If you are an advanced swimmer you might do the 12x25m session, one hard one easy, with 300m of good technical work in between for say 3 sessions.  Then start to build up the volume gradually before starting to introduce intensity.  You should be able to swim the distance of your event pretty comfortably before you start to bring in too much intensity. 

When you introduce intensity it might look something like 12 x 50m at race pace with rest.  (e.g. if it takes 60sec to swim 50m, take 30secs rest.  If it takes you 40 secs to complete 50m, take 20sec rest.)  Then gradually build up, for example to 6 x 100m the next week, then 16 x 50m the week after.

This is in parallel with increasing your volume and should include some easier sessions and focussing on technique throughout this whole period. 

Triathlon Swim Training in 2021

It is going to take a while to get back into swimming properly.  It will probably be around 6 weeks before you feel anywhere near where you were.  Don’t worry about your times and remember everyone is in the same boat.  Just enjoy getting back into the water and relax.


About James Teagle

Triathlon Training Guide | Swim Training for Triathlon

As well as being a member of the Neuff Red Ambassador Team, James has raced at Elite World and European races, as well as coaching for Scientific Triathlon