What A Triathlon Beginner Needs To Get Started: The Swim

Seriously thinking about entering a triathlon?  you’re in the right place. 

In this post you’ll learn four things that we think everyone should know at the start of their triathlon journey:

  1. Triathlons are not reserved for elite athletes, more and more events now cater for beginners (and EVERYONE is a beginner once);
  2. You may need to learn new skills, but this is part of the excitement;
  3. It is okay to seek advice, ask questions, feel confused or a bit overwhelmed- there is a lot of new kit, training and terminology to get your head around; and finally

Swimming Gear

The basics, the niceties and the luxuries 

Here is a rundown of what you absolutely need to train and race the swim leg of a triathlon, as well as some tips on adding to your gear later. You don’t have to break the bank – especially when you’re first getting started. You’d be amazed at how much quality gear is available second-hand on the internet – it’s worth trawling.



Goggles seem like they are all the same, but they fit quite differently. A little trick is to take a pair of goggles and stick the lenses onto your eyes without putting the strap on. Give them a little push. If you can take your hands away and the goggles stay on your face just from the suction, they are probably a pretty good fit. This will require taking the goggles out of their packaging at the shop, but stores are pretty used to this. Open-water-specific goggles do tend to come with larger lenses, which therefore provide better peripheral vision. The other area to consider is the lens colour, to cope with the different lighting conditions outdoors.

Goggles come with clear or coloured lenses. Clear is great for the indoor pool, but if you are swimming in a triathlon with the sun coming up in front of you, you might want tinted lenses. A light tint or blue lenses are a nice compromise, though some say it’s difficult to see orange buoys on the swim course when wearing blue-tinted goggles. Seek advice, fellow athletes are normally more than happy to share their knowledge.


Superstars On Straight-Line Swimming – World Open Water Swimming AssociationHow to avoid panicking when open water swimming6 Week Swim-Focused Training Plan for Triathletes – Triathlete

You need to think about training in the pool as well as actually completing a triathlon. The reason this is important is that there are a few pieces of gear that don’t switch very well between the two. 

For example, a nice tri-suit or a pair of tri-shorts is going to deteriorate very quickly in chlorinated pool water, so you don’t want to wear your nice race gear for training unless you train exclusively in open water.

Get one made mostly or entirely of polyester, like the Speedo Endurance suit.  Nylon and lycra will break down in chlorine and quickly become too stretched out (or see-through) to wear.

You also don’t want something that is going to cause drag in the water and slow you down, water is 830 times denser than air. For women, a suit that is fine for the beach — one that scoops low in the back — might act like a bowl and scoop up water when you are moving forward in the lap lane. 

For men, it seems a lot less embarrassing to wear regular old swim trunks, but you will be able to swim much more efficiently in a suit that is tight to your skin. 

If you don’t have the nerve to sport a speedo, the “jammer” style that fits like compression shorts is a great compromise.  

Although you should always rinse your suit in clear water, avoid hanging it by the straps or wringing it out as this can cause the suit to stretch. If you need to hang a women’s suit to dry, try folding it in half and hanging it by the middle to reduce the amount of weight pulling on the shoulder straps.

Nice to Have

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If you’re sure you want to get into this sport, you should invest in a triathlon suit. This is a type of clothing that you can wear throughout the entire triathlon, from swimming to biking to running, without needing to make any changes.

They eliminate all those headaches and questions surrounding what to wear if you are completing the swim in a swimsuit. There’s no need to pull on bike shorts or running shorts or worry about your swimsuit rubbing you the wrong way ‘ouch’, especially with another layer over it.

A tri-suit is a one-piece suit that includes lightly padded tri-shorts and a connected top section that covers your torso. 

Tri-suits are comfortable at the waist because there is no drawstring or elastic band to cinch your tummy.

For women, virtually all tri-suits are designed to be worn with a sports bra underneath. Make sure to practice so that your bra-tri-suit combination doesn’t pinch or rub against your skin.

Some prefer a pair of tri-shorts and a top or shirt of some kind. This is a popular combination because it makes it easier to navigate bathroom stops without completely undressing, and the tops and bottoms can be mixed and matched if something wears out, or if your size changes on top but not on the bottom.

For tri-shorts, the main thing to look for is that there is no seam running straight up and down through the crotch. An ill-placed seam is uncomfortable on the bike. A good pair of tri-shorts will be sewn along the edge of the padding, not through the middle of it.

Triathlon tops are meant to be worn on the swim and need to be very snug so they don’t take on water.

Men’s tops are pretty straightforward. For women, some can get away with the built-in bra that is part of the top. Others find they need to wear a separate sports bra underneath to have enough support for the run. Choose a sports bra that’s made of a thin, quick-drying fabric and doesn’t chafe underneath the tri-top.

Do I need a wetsuit?

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Best triathlon wetsuits reviewed - 220 Triathlon

The simple answer is YES if you planning on open water swimming in the UK, you want to enjoy the swim, not dread going in the water. Wetsuits make you more buoyant and shield your body from the cold, they will give you lots of confidence and assurance.

If cost is no problem, a triathlon-specific wetsuit, designed for swimming mobility and buoyancy, is fundamental and is a great item to have if you plan any cold water swims, they also help with your transition times. But beware of cheap wetsuits, you don’t have to buy the most expensive on the market but the old saying ‘buy cheap and you’ll buy twice’ comes to mind.  Make sure you get the right fit, you don’t want to fill pockets of water in the suit. As I said before water is 830 times denser than air, so don’t swim with an unwanted passenger.

And while we are on that subject, practice makes perfect. practise taking off your wet wetsuit, don’t try when your suit is dry, it’s a different animal. Get used to kicking it forward and standing on part of it while you pull your foot out, you’ll be amazed at the time you will save in transition.

Sleeveless suits are less restrictive and you would normally wear them if swimming in warmer waters, probably abroad, or especially true of men with big shoulders or broad chests. Others feel that if you really need a wetsuit, it should be very cold, and you may as well go for the long sleeves. Just remember it’s all about being streamlined as well as being comfortable, it will make a big difference.

Other nice accessories include your own kickboard, pull buoy, fins and paddles to take to the pool. Most pools have kickboards and pull buoys available for use. Fins and paddles are a less common find, and they can be useful for technique drills or for improving strength.

Other swimming accessories include a sports watch that counts your laps and calculates your stroke efficiency for you, as underwater stroke count metronomes and underwater mp3 players. 

 Almost every race provides a swim cap, but a cheap one is all you need to get started, it also gives your hair some protection from chlorine in the pool.

All the gear in the world won’t make you a good swimmer. If you have a choice between buying a piece of gear or purchasing swim instruction always choose the instruction. Out of the three sports, swimming is the one you really can’t master just by working hard.

And, as always, remember the triathlon mantra: Nothing new on race day. That means don’t wear anything or try anything that you haven’t used in training!

Open water

For many, their biggest fear is the open water swimming aspect. If open-water swimming REALLY isn’t your thing you can look for pool-based triathlons or opt for a duathlon (run-bike-run).

Getting over the fear of open water swimming: This can be one of the most daunting things about starting a triathlon as a beginner. It is completely normal to feel nervous, to worry about what is beneath you, or how cold/dark the water is. The main thing is to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. With swimming, it is important to relax as much as possible and try to keep your breathing regulated. But in general, our top tips are:

  1. Become confident and comfortable in a pool first. Build your endurance and stamina, and try some relaxation techniques.
  2. Look for swim venues that offer an introduction to an open-water swimming course.

If the fear of deep dark water is putting you off, search for venues that offer shallow wade-in entry. This will give you a chance to take things at your own pace rather than being out of your depth straight away. 

Similarly, if you’d prefer clearer water look for registered venues based in old chalk pits as these can have some of the best water clarity around.

You don’t have to put your head under or even swim far on your first go. Just use that first time to float or paddle about in the water and get comfortable with the idea of open-water swimming.

Invest in a tow float, they’re great to hold on to if you’re feeling nervous or if you get cramps.

And finally, wait until late spring/early summer before getting started as the water will be warmer, this will help you relax and avoid the extra shock of cold water. 

Swimming Stroke

Swim cadence: Is there a perfect stroke rate? - 220 Triathlon

If the crawl isn’t for you that’s ok. Plenty of people use breaststroke during a triathlon, or a mix of crawl and breaststroke.  However, BTF rule 4.1 states: “Backstroke is not permitted in pool swims; any competitor wishing to use backstroke at an open water event must indicate this to the Event Organiser before entering the water.” Backstroke in open water can also lead to some sighting issues though.

Crawl is preferable because it is more streamlined, avoids kicking people and we find it much faster and more comfortable in a wetsuit, but there is nothing wrong with breast-stroke if that suits you.

What’s a catch-up drill?

A catch-up drill is a swim drill to lengthen your stroke. One arm should be out in front, while the other goes through the whole stroke motion and catches up to it. Then switch arms and repeat. it’s similar to your normal stroke action, just with one arm waiting on the other before starting to move. This takes practice, but will significantly improve your performance.

Things to focus on in training

Sighting: One thing that makes open water swimming very different to the pool is that there is no lovely line along the bottom to keep swimming in the right direction.

Learning to sight in open water is essential otherwise you’ll be heading off in a random direction and posing a hazard to others when you suddenly swim in front of them. 

Sometimes this literally requires you to fully lift your head out of the water, then as you become more competent you can lift just your eyes and incorporate sighting seamlessly with your stroke/ breathing. 

Buoy Turns: Focus on comfortably pulling yourself around and when to breathe, the roll method may well suit you better, again practise makes perfect and will pay dividends, bearing in mind that the water is likely to be choppier at this point.

One-armed swim drills: One thing we have practised and found useful is one-armed swim drills. This gives you the chance to confidently continue to swim if you suddenly can’t use your arm due to another swimmer nearby and they’re great for some buoy turns.

Practice your transitions: Use the long pull cord and free yourself from the upper half of your wetsuit as you leave the swim exit, then remove the lower half in your transition space by gently standing on it so it goes inside out. A wet wetsuit is definitely easier to get off!

How much should you train?: When we first started we were doing 2 pool swims a week and 1 open water swim every 7-10 days as time allowed. We love swimming and it feels natural to us, if swimming is your weakness- don’t shy away from it, you will improve.

Race Day:

Focus on what you can control, rather than what you can’t. On the day, arrive with plenty of time to spare. We find arriving 1.5 hours before my wave time is the minimum amount of time I need to get everything done calmly. 

Always attend the swim briefing, ask questions if you’re unsure and ensure you know the route.

You’ll likely be given an ankle tag, we promise this will fit under your wetsuit. Check this is secure but don’t fasten too tight otherwise it’ll dig in on the run.

When entering the water, if you’re worried about getting pushed or clawed at by other swimmers, start at the back and let them go. 

There are also ladies-only waves or some events that offer mates waves where you can swim with someone you know.

When exiting the water you might feel a little dizzy, take some deep breaths, and give yourself a moment. Pull your wetsuit down so that it’s near your waist before arriving in transition and then while in transition, step out of one leg kicking the wetsuit in front of you, and tread on the wetsuit to help pull the other leg out, this does need practice but again will pay dividends. There are various gels on the market to make this important process much easier.

Whatever your triathlon goal is, we hope you enjoy the process of training for your next triathlon- it’s a real adventure, great for meeting like-minded people, and a fantastic chance to push your limits. Welcome to the triathlon family.


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