How to avoid common mistakes in Triathlon swimming

Technical Focus


No swim instruction is complete without a few technical pointers to illustrate what you are aiming for! However, because new swim skills are difficult to master and you can’t focus on more than one new movement at a time, it’s important that you incorporate these tips into your new stroke one by one. Get familiar with one aspect, learn it well, then incorporate the next into your training. Remember that old trick about patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time? Learning a new stroke is no different!

Hand Entry

With each stroke, enter the water fingertips first and “send” your fingers on a continuous downward trajectory towards the bottom of the pool. By getting the fingers in first and driving them down instead of forward you set yourself up to immediately start the pull phase. There is no glide phase!

If you’re a “careful placer” of your hand into the water from too much technique swimming then you are not developing energy-saving momentum in your stroke. Break yourself of this habit by forcefully PLUNGING your hand into the water with a powerful thrust! It’s important not to “slap” the water surface – think of the rest of your arm tucking in behind your hand and slipstreaming into the water behind it. You want to put a lot of force into this component of your stroke because this sets you up for a quick, strong catch. Remember – no glide!

Once your hand is in the water, imagine coins sitting on your fingertips. You must keep constant water pressure on the coins to prevent them falling off your fingertips. Use this imagery to eliminate any remaining dead glide in your stroke and ensure that you develop a continuous, constant rhythm in your stroke. Your arm is always moving into the water and immediately catching the water! A nice byproduct of this approach is that the timing of each stroke improves as your hand is immediately in position to pull. There is no glide!


With no glide component your whole stroke speeds up and you remove your own worst enemy – the thinking process – and the resulting robotic, “careful-placement” swim stroke learned by the majority of swimmers who follow classic swim drill training (especially those trying to swim like dolphins!). More momentum in your stroke sets you up for a more powerful pull, and ensures that the force you apply then goes towards maintaining speed and not re-accelerating in the water.

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Now that you have your hand entry sorted you need to develop what happens next. After you have started “catching” the water with coins on your fingertips, pull back straight and powerful – picture your arm wrapped around a barrel as you initiate this. You can train yourself to apply plenty of power in this aspect of your stroke by incorporating plenty of “water polo” freestyle into your swimming. At ironguides, we also incorporate plenty of lengths using small paddles so that you are consistently training swim strength instead of spending your time doing drills that don’t teach you the power or rhythm needed for open water. By focusing on a powerful pull you ensure that your stroke is continuous and not disrupted by currents, waves, or other competitors – or thinking!

Stability and Body Position

To propel yourself forward you need to establish a strong body position in the water. In open water we use our hand as an “anchor” to pull our body through the water. The best way to do this is to keep your hand relaxed and to slightly open up the fingers – no water will pas through your fingers when they are slightly spread, and this will greatly increase your hand’s surface area in the water. When your hand enters the water at the front of the stroke aim to enter slightly wide of center and just in front of your head – this stabilizes your body and limits snaking of your body through the water.

As well, in conjunction with the use of paddles, especially if you are a less-skilled swimmer, make sure that you incorporate plenty of pull buoy work into your swimming. The bigger the pull buoy, the better! The pull buoy helps your body achieve a more optimal (higher, horizontal!) position in the water – again, without you having to think about it! In swimming especially “thought” is the enemy!
When you swim with a pull buoy you reduce your focus on maintaining body position, freeing yourself to focus on other aspects of your stroke, and reducing struggle and aerobic work trying to kick frantically in order to hold your body position. And, without needing to think about it, the pull buoy helps you train core stabilizers that work to hold proper body position when you swim in your wetsuit, and helps you apply other aspects of your stroke from a more optimal position. End result – you develop better technique without having to think, and without spending your limited time on low-intensity, drill work.

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For effective triathlon swimming you need to develop technique that is appropriate to our sport. Triathletes do not have the strength or conditioning and in most cases the physical stature to use the technique used by swimming legends such as Ian Thorpe or Michael Phelps, or indeed ven national class swimmers. Using a technique that is momentum-driven, avoids gliding to a stall, and applied in more frequent, shorter strokes is more efficient and faster in open water, and also spares your energy stores for later in the race.


ironguides is the leading Lifestyle Facilitation company for athletes of all abilities. We provide coaching and training services, plans and programs, as well training education, health and fitness products to help you learn and live a healthy lifestyle. Come get fit with one of our monthly training subscriptions, event-specific training plans, coaching services, or a triathlon training camp in an exotic location! ironguides also provides Corporate Health services including Corporate Triathlons, Healthy Living retreats and speaking engagements. At ironguides, your best is our business!

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