The Real Reason You’re Not Getting Faster at Swimming


, by Emma-Kate Lidbury

Photography by: Jacob Lund

Most triathletes head to the pool and swim up and down at the same steady pace wondering why they never improve. We’re here to help you unlock that next level.

There’s no doubt that learning to swim as an adult can be an arduous task. Newcomers to the sport of triathlon who have a background in cycling and/or running could be forgiven for wondering what on earth they have to do to master swimming. While the unfortunate answer is that you might never be as accomplished in the water as those who swam in their younger years, with the help of some myth-busting insights on training prescription and stroke mechanics you can become the swimmer you’ve always dreamed of being—or at least make it through your next triathlon and actually enjoy (not dread) the part before you reach your bike. 

RELATED: How to Get Started in Triathlon

Factors Affecting Your Swim Success As a Triathlete

Triathletes are often time-starved creatures, fervently looking to fit multiple workouts into each week alongside work, family life, and other commitments. If swimming isn’t a sport that comes naturally to you it’s very easy to simply squeeze a couple of swims into each week and call it good. And unlike with bike and run training (where tempo, fartlek, intervals, and all manner of high-intensity sessions are commonplace) it’s not uncommon for triathletes to just swim steady for 45 or 60 minutes and consider the session a success.

Yet the fact that you might only have a couple of hours a week available for swimming means that this time needs to be maximized extremely efficiently if you’re going to make progress. While swimming up and down at a steady pace is certainly better than not swimming at all, it’s no way to get maximum bang for your swimming buck. So let’s expand on how to do exactly that. 

The triathlon swim can be daunting. Photography by: Pavel1964

The Importance of Volume, Pace, and Intensity

Before we get into pace and intensity in the pool, a quick note about swim volume: Most beginner triathletes don’t swim enough to improve fitness or technique. Three swim sessions a week seems to be the sweet spot for most newcomers to triathlon, so if you’re currently only swimming once or twice a week the first key step is to swim more frequently. Unlike increasing volume with cycling and running, increasing volume in the pool comes with zero to low risk due to the low-impact nature of swimming. 

RELATED: Triathlon Distances: From Sprint to Ironman and More

The next key step on the road to triathlon swim success is the architecture of those three workouts—and that’s when pace and intensity come in. Unlike cycling and running where workouts typically tick one box—aerobic, intervals, technique, tempo—there’s absolutely no reason why every swim workout can’t include a little bit of all of these. This kaleidoscopic approach to swim training isn’t just the most efficient way to get the most from your training, it also helps keep every session varied, interesting, and motivating.

Three swim sessions a week seems to be the sweet spot for most newcomers to triathlon, so if you’re currently only swimming once or twice a week the first key step is to swim more frequently.

If we think about what the swim section of your triathlon race involves (and we assume you want to be well prepared for each part of it) then training needs to reflect these demands if we want to be on the start line feeling fit, fresh, and confident. Let’s break down the 1500m swim in an Olympic distance race to use as an example:

  • Start to 400m: Swim at 85-90% effort and be accustomed to breathing hard and in close proximity to other athletes.

  • 400m-1400m: Settle into a comfortable ~80% race-pace effort that is sustainable; be able to swim in a pack if appropriate.

  • 1400-1500m: Increase effort slightly, swimming at ~85%, kicking more to help blood flow in legs in anticipation of reaching land and heart rate spiking as you go from being horizontal to vertical.

RELATED: How to Fuel for an Ironman Triathlon

From the breakdown above, we can see that being able to “switch gears” and move between 75% to 90% is a key part of the swim. We can see how an athlete who has only swum at 75% intensity in their training will encounter problems if, when the gun goes, they suddenly try to swim at 90%+ (especially when you add in the adrenaline and nerves of race day, being in a wetsuit in open water, and being surrounded by scores of other athletes). This is why it’s so important to vary effort within each swim workout, regularly accessing intensity and speed (and also to practice swimming in open water in your wetsuit in close proximity to others, but more on that another time). 

Learning to swim in close proximity to others is essential. Photography by: shot4shot

We’ll give you a couple of example workouts below to help illustrate how easy it is to vary pace and intensity in a workout, but first let’s also address improving technique, which is often a frequently asked question from novice triathlete swimmers. 

Improving Technique and Muscular Endurance

Novice triathlete swimmers can often become overly concerned with improving their technique, erroneously thinking it will magically help them improve their swimming. While there is, of course, truth to the thinking that efficient and improved technique will bring improved speed, there is also a lot to be said for first gaining the swim-specific muscular endurance needed to physically move you through the water. 

Gerry Rodrigues, the founder and head coach of triathlon swim program Tower 26, says: “You need to train your muscles and build the muscular endurance necessary in order to perform the basic stroke mechanics before attempting to change or improve them.” If newcomers can do the following two skills then he advises them against any further technical instruction until their fitness has improved:

  • You can breathe to the side, keeping your head in the water rather than above it;

  • Your arm stroke is an underwater propulsive movement.

Dedicating entire swim workouts to doing technical drills won’t make you a faster swimmer, it’ll just make you a better driller—which won’t pay dividends come race day. On the other hand, if you can blend some technical work into each session, alongside speed work and aerobic efforts, then you should start seeing improvements across all aspects of your swimming. 

You need to train your muscles and build the muscular endurance necessary in order to perform the basic stroke mechanics before attempting to change or improve them.

Of course, the greatest gains will come from swimming with a group or team of more experienced swimmers and having a coach on poolside to give you live feedback. If that’s not possible then the next best alternative is having someone video you swimming and sending this to a coach for feedback. Swimming is a sport that humbles everyone and rewards those who are patient, consistent, and dedicated to making improvements. 

Sample Triathlon Swimming Workouts - Workout 1


  • 10 mins. easy swim

Prep set: 

  • 8 x 100 as 50 kick/50 swim progressing effort with every two 100s and focusing on body position in water (technical work while ramping effort)

  • 5 mins. swim focusing on incorporating technical work from above into full-stroke swimming 

Main set

  • 20 x 25 @ 90% effort on 10-15 seconds rest

  • 400 pull (with buoy) @ 75% effort

  • Repeat for three rounds

  • (Note: the above can be reduced/modified as 12 x 25 into 300 pull based on fitness/experience/time available)


  • 200 pull @ 70% effort

Sample Triathlon Swimming Workouts - Workout 2


  • 10 mins. easy swim

Prep set

  • 12 x 50 progressing effort 1-4 as 70%, 75%, 80%, 85% x 3 rounds

Main set

  • 4 x 100 as: 100 @ 70%, 100 @ 85%, 100 @ 70%, 100 fast

  • Repeat this pattern for 3-4 rounds but on each subsequent round the 2nd 100 increases in distance by 100, so:

  • Round 2: 100 @ 70%, 200 @ 85%, 100 @ 70%, 100 fast  

  • Round 3: 100 @ 70%, 300 @ 85%, 100 @ 70%, 100 fast, and so on…

  • Rest intervals should be 10 seconds for the 70% and 85% efforts, 15 seconds for the fast efforts.

  • (Note: 3-4 rounds is plenty for beginners. More advanced swimmers could do 5-6 rounds total.)


  • 200 pull @ 70% effort

Related Tags

More Stories