Miller Swim School blog

Thursday, April 06, 2023 by sarah

Overlooked Swim Training for a Tri Can Be Most Beneficial

Triathlon season is just around the corner-if you are considering training, most likely the swim portion of the race is becoming your biggest anxiety. Don’t worry, you are not alone! In fact, for the majority of triathletes, the swim portion  is the most difficult and intimidating part of the race. Statistically speaking, 52% of athletes expressed feeling overwhelmed or fearful about the swim portion of triathlons. So much so, the swimming portion of the race has even prevented some athletes from following through with competition. Although swimming may be the most intimidating of the three race elements, surprisingly it can provide the most training benefits and can be most beneficial in improving overall race times. In this article I hope to give you some pointers on how to overcome this anxiety and how to gain the most from incorporating swimming into your training regimen.

The swimming portion is the first of the three race elements and can often dictate the performance of the other two elements, biking and running. Distances for the swim portion range from 0.465 miles to 2.4 miles depending on the type of race, and can be performed in pools or in an open water setting. Little gear is needed for the swimming portion of the race; a suit of some type, goggles, and a swim cap. You may perform any stroke during the race, but the Freestyle is the most efficient stroke as it eliminates the most drag through the water.

If you have done little to no training for the swim portion of a tri, you may be surprised at the extensive benefits of incorporating water workouts alongside your time spent on the pavement. Research shows that swimming is the ultimate all- in- one-fitness package – working most muscles in the body in a variety of ways. When performed correctly swimming provides increased flexibility, endurance and balance. One of the biggest benefits to swimming, however, is the improvement in the cardiovascular system. The nature of breathing when swimming, with breath being somewhat limited in volume and frequency, promotes greater lung capacity and a consistent intake of oxygen. Furthermore, swimming is a low impact activity that can provide both exercise for training purposes and recovery from other training activities as it puts little stress on the bones and joints of the body. In other words, by incorporating swimming into your tri training program, you may find an increase in lung capacity and efficiency of breath control, stronger core stabilizers, and fewer injuries related to stress on bones and joints.

For the running and cycling aspects much of the training is focused on distance training.  However, with swimming the greatest improvements can be achieved through focusing on technique and stroke development.   Proper breathing and body position in the water do not come naturally for the athlete that does not have a strong swimming background.

If you do not know how to swim or are not comfortable in the water, I highly recommend taking a few lessons. You will be surprised at how much you learn in a short amount of time. If you are a more experienced swimmer, you should focus on stroke over speed. Coach Larry Miller, a veteran triathlete and founder of Miller Swim School, states, “You never want to swim any faster than you are technically sound to do, or you may be at risk of losing your stroke.”

  • He encourages his triathletes to focus on swim technique over volume of laps or time-spent swimming. Efficiency in the water will ultimately help you perform better on the bike and run portions of the race.
  • Swimming requires a different approach to oxygen intake, one that you cannot master without practice. Improper breathing can inhibit your stroke which can ultimately cause you to struggle during a race. You must swim with your head below the water and learn to breathe on both the left and right side.
  • Practice lengthening your body and using a good forward reach to extend your stroke.
  • Release your head into a natural position so that your body is streamline in the water.
  • Finally, swimming takes a great amount of self-awareness. Unlike running and biking, there is virtually no way to see yourself swim. The ability to feel your head and body placement in the water takes a lot of training. Coach Miller recommends a Coach or a training partner who can help critique your stroke, breathing and body position until you are able to feel it yourself.


For race day preparation, practice swimming in your gear, practice swimming in a pool or in open water (whichever is the setting for your race), and practice sighting (spotting the lanes, other swimmers and/or buoys in an open water swim). When swimming in open water such as lakes or oceans during training, you should never swim alone or without a safety flotation device.  Taking the most safety precautions while in the water is a crucial aspect of training.

On race day, start away from the pack. Don’t push your way to the front.  If you are nervous about swimming, wait 30 seconds after your wave starts to begin swimming.  Stay in the back or the sides. And last, but not least, start slow.  If you go out too fast on the swim, you will cause you heart rate to spike, leaving you in oxygen debt at the onset of the race. How you feel after the swim, especially regarding your heart rate, will be a major factor in your overall race performance.

The swimming portion of the triathlon is often the most overlooked part of the race. To boost your confidence and reduce swimming anxiety train for this event by focusing on the key aspects that will produce the greatest results.  With your attention on technique and executing the swim portion strategically you will put yourself in a better physical position to hit the bike hard when you exit the water and lead to a more successful triathlon experience.