triathlonThe sport of Triathlon has been around now for about 30 years and the sport has evolved from being a “bucket-list” activity (i.e. something people did as a once in a lifetime physical challenge) to a highly sophisticated, internationally competitive Olympic sport.

Whereas once, Triathletes could have been considered “jack of all trades” endurance sport generalists, they are now high performance athletes in their own right and training for triathlon has become highly specialised and targeted to meet the unique demands of the sport.

What is Triathlon?

Triathlon is an endurance based sport consisting of swimming, cycling and running (in that order in most events).

The physical, technical, tactical and mental demands of the sport can vary considerably depending on race distance, climate, course geography and race format.

There are relatively short distance triathlon sprint races which involve a 750 metre swim, 20 kilometre bike-ride and a 5 kilometre run.

At Olympic level, Triathlon is raced over 1500 metres (swimming), 40 kilometres (cycling) and 10 kilometres (running) and it usually takes elite competitors around 2 hours to complete.

The real die-hard, purists of the sport pursue the “Ironman” dream: 3.8 kilometres of swimming, 180 kilometres of cycling followed by a gruelling 42.2 kilometres (a full marathon) of running.


Trying with Triathletes: Coaching Triathletes in a Swimming Squad.

A Triathlete who swims….not a swimmer.

The key fundamental issue for all swimming coaches to understand is that Triathletes are not swimmers: that is, they do swim, but they are not specialist swimmers.  As such the coaching approach to enhance the swimming performance of a triathlete is very different to helping a pool swimmer realise their performance potential.

One important difference is that Triathletes generally lack the flexibility and physical capabilities to swim fast the same way that swimmers do.  That’s not to say they can’t work hard and achieve remarkable things in the pool: on the contrary, some Triathletes can learn to swim very, very fast. Their overall fitness and commitment to training means they can handle relatively high workloads and recover very quickly.

What it does mean is that swimming coaches need to find ways of improving the swimming performance of triathletes without relying on traditional swimming philosophies and paradigms and the achievement of the technically “perfect” swimming model.

A great example is ankle flexibility.

Having good plantar and dorsi flexion is considered an asset for a pool swimmer as it allows kicking power generated in the hips to flow naturally along the legs and be released as effective propulsive force in the kick.

In general, Triathletes lack that same high degree of ankle flexibility owing to their training loads in cycling and running.  Trying to change this will not only take considerable time and effort (frustrating for both the triathlete and the swimming coach) but it can actually impact negatively on the triathlete’s running performance. The difference between the two sports could be summarised as:

Swimming coaching is about developing swimmers;

Triathlon coaching is about developing triathletes – not swimmers who ride and run a little.

Some of the differences coaching swimming with Triathletes:

It’s Multi-sport – more than just swimming. Triathletes have to train swim, bike and run and may be coming to your evening training session tired and fatigued or if it is a morning swim session they may be preparing for a tough ride or run session later in the day. This can impact on their capacity to complete a tough swimming workout so it may be necessary to modify your planned training session to meet the needs of the triathletes in your program.

Start fast! All Triathlons require competitors to start fast, scramble, fight and claw through large numbers of other Triathletes all battling to find some clear water. There is rarely time to relax and settle into an even paced swimming rhythm until well into the race. This “fast-start” is a skill which needs to be learnt and mastered in training.

Navigation skills.  There are no black lines in the ocean, in creeks, in rivers or in dams! Triathletes need to develop navigation skills so they can compete effectively in open water swimming competitions. This requires them to learn how to swim efficiently and effectively (in a straight line) with their heads up and out of the water occasionally.

It’s not all about technique, technique, technique – it’s about swimming effectively in open water race conditions. Spending a lot of time coaching triathletes to perform classic swimming drills like “sculling” may be proven to enhance the swimming performance of pool swimmers but the value of such drills for triathletes is less certain. Coach triathletes using broad concepts, e.g. instead of spending hours doing “sculling” exercises, talk to them often about having “soft hands” and feeling the water. Instead of forcing them to complete hundreds of metres of sprint kick every workout, remind them about the importance of maintaining a steady, even, balanced, rhythmic kick every time they push off from the wall.

Some of the most common mistakes swimming coaches make with Triathletes:

Trying to teach them to be pool swimmers. The difference between pool swimming and triathlon is as great as the difference between pool swimming and rugby. The aim of triathlon specific swimming training is to enhance the triathlete’s ability to perform in rough water, surrounded by hundreds of flailing arms and legs, often in currents, dealing with waves and other challenges and then be able to jump out of the water with enough energy to race hard for another 10 hours. When a swimmer touches the wall, the aim is to have nothing left in the tank, having given everything they have to win the race or achieve a personal best time. With triathletes, the swim is usually less than 20% of the total race time and having nothing left means having a disastrous race performance.

Trying to teach them to be sprint kickers. There is no doubt that all triathletes need to possess an efficient kick – even if its primary function is to maintain body balance and body position. Occasionally they may use a stronger kick to gain a tactical advantage, e.g. moving away from one pack of swimmers to join a faster pack. However, even in short, sprint distance triathlon, a “sprint” kick is of limited value considering the time and effort it takes to develop a good one.

Trying to teach them to hold “classic” traditional pool swimming body positions in the water. Triathletes often lack the physical ability to hold the “classic” strong, solid, rigid core body positions which are so critical in fast pool swimming. Work with them on maximising their swimming performance utilising the physical abilities they do have.

Treating them as second class swimmers. And the biggest mistake of all a swimming coach can make when working with a Triathlete is to take their money, stick them in an outside lane or with the little kids and have them do a generic program which offers little in the way of triathlon specific and race relevant training.

And some of the common challenges for Triathletes in the pool:

They do their slow work too fast and fast work too slow.  Triathletes are notorious for wanting to train at one speed…..flat out. Whilst their work ethic is admirable, they never learn to swim at a range of speeds and often neglect the “top-end and bottom-end”, i.e. their aerobic speeds and sprint speed.

If they do not come from a swimming background, they usually lack the four “Fs”: flexibility, feel, floatation and “fast” (i.e. they have never learnt how to generate speed and power in the water). Therefore swimming coaches need to focus on how they can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Triathlete’s swimming and not spend too much time worrying about their physical and technical limitations. It is easy to look at a triathlete, compare them to a specialist pool swimmer and observe their technical limitations. Think differently! Look at their strengths and their abilities and what they can do and design a training program which enhances their swimming within that framework.

They don’t “get” swimming etiquette. A 50 year old triathlete who has been training for 2 years has a swimming “training age” of 2. That means all the “pool-rules”, like leaving on time, finishing on the wall every repeat,  not swimming on the feet of the swimmer in front of them etc. have not been learnt. Take time to teach them how to train in a pool and don’t assume anything.

They don’t breathe. One of the most common issues with triathletes, particularly adult triathletes without a swimming background is they lack the understanding of the most fundamental and important of all swimming skills…..breathing. Talking with triathletes about breathing and teaching them how to breathe is an invaluable coaching intervention and often solves a lot of the problems they experience when trying to enhance their swimming performance.

No coach communication. Another of the big challenges for triathletes is when they face the situation of having multiple coaches who are writing different programs without communication or engagement with each other. For example, it is common for a triathlete to attend swimming training under one coach and running or cycling training under the guidance of another coach. It is important for these coaches to communicate and collaborate on the triathlete’s training or at the very least, for these coaches to respect the fact that the triathlete may be working hard under competing coaching philosophies.  Imagine if the triathlete’s swimming coach is setting a “threshold” workout and independently the triathlete’s running coach is also setting a “threshold” workout for the same day, as is the triathlete’s cycling coach…..that’s one fatigued triathlete!

Some swimming training set ideas with Triathletes:

Pack starts. Have 5 or more triathletes treading water and upright sculling close together in a pack in one lane close to the end of the pool.  Say “go” (or blow a whistle etc.) and have them sprint a lap of the pool. Jump out at the end of the pool and repeat. A great variation is to change the organisation of the pack, e.g. 1st 50 metre repeat, have the best swimmers lead the pack and teach the slower swimmers how to “sit and drag”. In the 2ND 50 metre repeat put the best swimmers at the back of the pack and ask them to weave and fight their way through the slower swimmers.

Sprint outs. This concept works with many swimming distances. As all triathlons begin with a fast, supra-threshold period, triathletes need to learn to start a race swimming at high speed but then be able to relax back into a more realistic race pace, stroke rate and rhythm. For example, a set like 5 x 400 on 7 minutes could be done with the first 100 metres at above target race pace, followed by 300 at target race pace.

Sighters. Another concept that works well with all swimming distances. Ask your triathletes to swim any set you choose but at the end of the pool, have a board or a sheet of paper with a big, black number written on it. The triathletes must swim the set, achieve their target pace and yet lift their heads 6-8 times every 50 and “sight” the number. Change the number every few laps.  Alternately, have a brightly coloured marker, cone or similar object at the end of the pool which you move slightly every few laps to challenge the triathlete’s “sighting” abilities.


If you are prepared to “Try”, working with Triathletes can be a rewarding, challenging and interesting swimming coaching experience.

Learning to manage their unique needs can take a bit of energy and effort, but in general triathletes are hardworking, committed, dedicated and driven to succeed and these qualities can often enhance the overall performance culture of your swimming squad.

Wayne Goldsmith