Home » Q&A » Swimming 101- Questions Answered

Swimming 101- Questions Answered

Ack, the last swimming 101 was in May…cannot believe how fast time goes!  After I wrote the first three Swimming 101 posts, I got many questions either through comments or email.  The 4th swimming 101 (this one) was supposed to be about workouts, OWS and what to wear when swimming…but I have decided to incorporate that into this, since questions about those topics have been asked.  I hope that, after reading more about swimming, some of you who have yet to take the plunge, will.  And above all, I hope you have learned something 🙂

How much should you be swimming weekly to be ready for a tri?  How long should I swim at the pool each time I go?

The answer to this really depends on your current swim ability and also the distance of your intended race swim.  Since the nature of this post is for beginners I will use the example of a first time triathlete doing a 1/4 mile swim.

You should be able to easily swim at least 100 meters more than the race swim.  Therefore if your race is 400 meter swim, you should be able to swim 500 meters without problems.  

If your goal is to simply finish the race, then you could probably get away with swimming once or twice a week.  Some people swim for time and others distance.  I prefer to swim distances; I lay out a plan and accommodate enough time to fit in my determined distance.  My swims are almost always a combination of free swims and drills that range anywhere between 25 minutes to an hour, usually twice a week.

Remember that in a pool you are able to push-off the walls, stop at turnarounds and stand if needed.  While the pool is a great place to practice, it is not indicative of race conditions.  I highly advise against going into your first race (unless it is a pool swim) without having OWS practice.  And if/when you do a OWS, never swim alone!

Can you doggy paddle in a tri?

You can swim however you want- whatever gets you from point A to point B safely.  Of course the freestyle stroke is the fastest and also the most effective swim, but if you doggy paddle your way through that is just fine!

Do you have recommendations for goggles, swim caps, wetsuits and bathing suits?

I can only tell you what I use; each person is different and it is important to find out what you are comfortable using. 

The best goggles I have ever used are the ones I currently have, the AquaSphere Kayenne’s.  They stay on tight, without hurting and don’t leak.  You don’t have to spend a ton of money on the best goggles (mine were $22) but remember if you get your goggles for $5 at the local general store, you get what you pay for.

For bathing suits, I tend to stick with Speedo and TYR.  They are well-made, comfortable and affordable.  Personally, I like to wear a one-piece but many triathletes wear two-pieces.  (Sorry dudes, I have no swimsuit advice for you!)  I cannot really help with wetsuits, as I have only ever used one, but I can say I love mine.  I have a Xterra sleeveless, that I got on sale at Xterra.com, and I really like the fit and comfort.  If you don’t want to purchase a wetsuit before knowing if you will like wearing one, many places rent them out to try.

As for the swim caps, I use the ones I have gotten at races.  I think the first one I ever bought was a Speedo but I tend to think a swim cap is a swim cap.  During a race you will be given one to wear, so this is not something to spend a lot of time/money on.  The one thing I will say is this…for cold weather swimming (as I learned in Black Bear) a neoprene swim cap is a life-saver!  I would highly recommend that if you plan to be in cold water.

Do you need a tri suit or can you just wear a bathing suit?

Tri suits are great because they are made for the athlete to swim-bike-run comfortably.  In my personal opinion, for Sprint tri’s, they are not necessary.  I typically wear a bathing suit with shorts over them; I never have a problem and I am totally comfortable.  I would however recommend a tri suit for longer races, especially because after 20 miles or so on the bike you will wish you had one! 

Do I have to have equipment such as paddles or a kickboard to workout in the pool?

While equipment is great to help strengthen your swim muscles and ultimately make you a better swimmer, it is not necessary in order to complete a great pool workout.  In fact, for beginners, it is probably better to start out slow and work your way into incorporating the equipment into your workouts. 

What kind of workouts should you do in a pool to be a better open water swimmer?

In addition to the workouts you should already be doing, speed-sets and drill-sets, there are specific things you can do in a pool that help train for open water.  Here are a few drills that I have used to help me in the open water:

When swimming in a pool, every wall is a chance to rest and recover before the next lap. However, out in the open water there aren’t any walls.  A good way to help adjust to this is by doing a swim without touching the wall.  Instead of turning at the wall, flip at the end of the underwater lane marker.  You will be forced to use your arms and legs to get moving again.

Unlike in a pool, there are no lane lines in open water.  You have to learn how to sight and stay straight in the open water so you do not add work to your swim by heading off into the wrong direction.  A good way to practice this in the pool is to swim with your eyes closed (having a friend there helps with this one) for 8-10 strokes, and lift your head to sight.  The most efficient way to do this is to raise your head up as your arm extends forward in the water.  As you press your arm back down, your head will life more naturally.  If you notice you always tend to swim one way in the wrong direction, attempt to find out what the imbalance is; it almost always comes down to incorrect stroke mechanics. 

Practice turning while swimming.  An open water swim will have at least one turn if not as many as three or four.  Turns are tight and require a more choppy stroke.  Choose an item to be your “buoy” or just pretend one is there and in the middle of a lane, make a turn.  For easier turning (and to help with sighting) breath to the side of the object of which you are turning.  Practice also transitioning back into bilateral breating after the turn.

Learn to breathe bilaterally.  I personally feel that this is the most important skill to practice for open water.  To breathe bilaterally means to breath every third stroke; many people breathe either to just the right, or just the left…with bilateral breathing you are alternating the left and the right.  (I tend to breathe only to my right and will attest that while this was a hard skill to teach myself, it has made a huge difference in my swim.) 

Don’t forget, nothing is like the real thing; doing the above in a pool is great but in order to experience open water, you must get into the open water!

Do you have to wear a wetsuit?  When should you wear a wetsuit?

In races where the water temperature is 84degrees or below, the wetsuit is optional.  It is never mandatory to wear a wetsuit; you never have to wear one.  But if you do wear one, you will benefit from it for sure.  Regardless of your swim ability, the time is takes getting the wetsuit off in transition will surely be made up in your faster swim time.  The wetsuit adds buoyancy and helps you to glide faster through the water.  Personally, I wear mine for cold swims and swims longer than 800 meters.  Even for a strong swimmer like myself, it just makes me feel better to have one on during longer swims.  And a tip for helping to get the wetsuit on and off- load up on the body glide, especially around the feet! 

Do you get a DQ or penalty if you use the help of a guard at a race?

If you get nervous or tired and need a rest, find a lifeguard (usually in a kayak or on a wakeboard) and hang on to get yourself together.  You can grab onto a kayak to fix your wetsuit, goggles or to simply catch your breath.  You can stop and rest as much as you want during the swim, but you cannot interfere with the progress of other swimmers nor can you use the kayaks or buoys to gain progress on the course.

If you find yourself in trouble during a race and cannot get to a lifeguard, raise your hand as high as you can and yell out.  Do not be embarrassed and if you are in trouble do not wait to ask for help.  Get a lifeguard to come over at the first sign of distress.  Just because you call over a lifeguard, does not mean you will get a DQ.  Typically, the lifeguard will determine with you if you are okay to continue the race.  The only two ways you get a DQ is if you do not finish within the time limits (vary from race to race) or if the lifeguard determines (or you decide) you need to get into the lifeboat.

 How can you avoid contact with others in the water during a race?

The truth is, there is no way to avoid contact in the swim.  Hanging back at the start will help, but only if the next wave isn’t starting right away.  During a tri, every swimmer has their arms flapping and feet kicking.  Being prepared for this is your best defense.  Whatever you do, don’t panic.  Stay calm and swim out to the side or stop to let the swimmer go. 

What if I am the only beginner swimmer?

This will never happen 🙂


If I missed any of your questions, or you think of one after reading this, please post in your comment and I will be sure to answer to the best of my abilities.  Additionally, if you have anything to add, please do!

Now…my challenges for you:

-Haven’t been in the water for a long time?  Start by just getting in.  Just swim around.  Simply enjoy being in the water. 

-Want to start actively swimming but still apprehensive?  Buy one good suit and a kickboard (or any pool toy).  Commit to one hour a week at the pool. 

-Been swimming pretty regularly, want to do a triathlon, but still concerned about an OWS?  Find a race that uses a pool for the swim and sign up for a race in 2011 🙂

-Feel good about your swimming and comfortable with OWS but still haven’t done a tri…whatta ya waiting for, there is plenty of tri-season left, go sign up!!!

Are you going to accept the challenge?


(PS- HUGE Give-a-way coming soon 🙂 )

16 thoughts on “Swimming 101- Questions Answered

  1. See this is the quality material I’m talking about. I hope you get responses from those on the fence that do take the “plunge” after this article has cleared up fears and misconceptions.

    So here’s the deal.
    I’ll swim laps with my eyes closed for a few strokes at a time tomorrow, and then send you pictures of my injuries.
    Seriously, awesome tip, best way to simulate the lack of visual clarity in an open water swim.
    Sadly, I can see myself zig-zagging now…

  2. I love the doggie paddle comment :). You are so full of detail – thanks for everthing! Swimming is one of my strengths but I’m a little freaked out by the OWS. I just gotta do it one day just to say I did. I bet I’d swim about a mile apart from everyone though. Haha.

  3. This is an absolutely amazing post! I only wish you had written it 3 years ago when I started swimming 🙂 I’m definitely saving for when people ask me how to start training for a triathlon.

    You are yet another person recommending the AquaSphere Kayenne’s. I think I better just take the plunge and try a pair.

    I love, love, love my Xterra wetsuit as well. I went with the full suit. I could probably have gotten by with the sleeveless, but the full suit isn’t restrictive at all and some of the bigger lakes stay pretty chilly here in Michigan.

    A couple of things I have learned to add to your list.

    In regards to equipment (paddles, fins, kick boards), I have found that a lot of pools will have this equipment to borrow. Great way to save some $.

    Sick of your lyrca suit “rotting” after a couple of months in the pool? Google “lycra vs polyester swim suit”. I recently switched to polyester and while it fits a bit differently and is a few dollars more up front, it last a heck of a lot longer than lycra.

    And even though you mentioned it already… drills, drills, drills. Do them! I felt awkward at first doing them, but they seriously help. If you aren’t sure how to get started check out Youtube for videos of “swim drills” and you’ll get a ton of hits.

    • Wow- I wish my pool had equipement there! That would be so nice- and easier that lugging mine back and forth!

      So right- I felt pretty dumb doing drills at first too but they help so much!

  4. Hi Jill,

    Great advice.
    The biggest thing with swimming either in the pool or open water is confidence.
    I am lucky to come from a competitive swimming background so I no issues in water (and I’ve been a surfer for most of my life so I love the ocean) – what I need to work on is my biking and running ( I suck at running!!!)

    Too many people get in a pool or the ocean with too high an expectation and end up getting scared and this can affect any future experience. The best piece of advice I can give to anyone would be to take your time, talk to a coach, get the technique right and this will make a world of difference for years to come.

    Don’t skimp on buying cheap goggles – this again is a confidence thing. Try before you buy a wetsuit, I have a 2XU tri wetsuit, it’s awesome and has gotten my time down. I did a 750m open water swim race last summer with a time of 10min 18sec – not bad for an old bugger like me!!

    Best of all, just enjoy your swimming.


  5. I would love to do another tri but I still don’t have a nice racing bike (stupid, slow mountain bike) and I am not super great at the swimming… and I lack the motivation to train for the swim portion. I will get back out there and do another one someday though. And it will be a real sprint tri (instead of the super sprint with the swim at the end and in open water- is it weird that I think I’d prefer to be in oepn water?).

  6. great Q+A! i feel like this was for me personally cuz i am the worst swimmer ever and have tons of wonders/worries. lol. i can breast stroke…. 🙂

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