5 Great Swim Workouts For Triathletes

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The swim portion of a triathlon can be intimidating for beginners, particularly if you are transitioning to triathlon from a running or cycling background and have limited experience in the water.

However, even though swimming constitutes the smallest relative proportion of the three disciplines in a triathlon, it is still a vital component of effective triathlon training.

But what are the best triathlon swim workouts? How often should you do triathlon swim training? What are some good beginner swim workouts for triathletes?

In this article, we will discuss triathlon swim training and provide different swim workouts for triathletes of different experience levels and race distances.

We will cover: 

  • How Much Triathlon Swim Training Should You Do?
  • 5 Great Swim Workouts For Triathletes

Let’s dive in! 

A person swimming in a lap pool.

How Much Triathlon Swim Training Should You Do?

The amount of time that you will need to dedicate to swim training for triathlon racing will depend largely on the target triathlon distance.

Furthermore, if swimming is a relative weakness of yours, you might want to spend a little bit of extra time on your triathlon swim workouts, particularly for long-course racing, such as the half Ironman and Ironman distance triathlons.

For short-course racing, typically the Olympic distance triathlon and shorter, you can expect to spend about 20 to 30 minutes on your triathlon swim workouts.

Depending on the type of triathlon swim workout you are doing and your swimming abilities, this might be anywhere from 20 to 30 laps in a standard 25-yard pool.

Swim workouts for triathletes who are training for a 70.3 or full Ironman distance triathlon will need to be longer, at least occasionally, in order to build up to the full length of the swim. A 70.3 triathlon includes a 1.2-mile swim, while the Ironman distance triathlon has a 2.4-mile swim.

A person swimming in a lap pool.

The 1.2-mile swim might take beginners and intermediate triathletes anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes or so, whereas the Ironman distance swim will take upwards of an hour to 75 minutes. Of course, there will be some variability on either end of these ranges. 

Therefore, planning to do 45-minute swim workouts about once a week is a good target for most long-distance triathletes, with the understanding that those training for the Ironman distance will need to incorporate some longer endurance swims beyond the 45-minute swim workouts.

The number of times per week that you do your triathlon swim training will depend on your overall training program, your relative strengths in triathlon, and your injury risk. 

Swimming is a non-impact activity, so it can be a great way to offset the stress and strain of running while still providing a full-body workout.

Most triathlon training plans for beginners encourage getting in the pool at least three times per week. If you have more time to train, you might even add a fourth session, depending on your experience level and the type of triathlon swim workouts you are doing.

A person swimming in a lap pool.

5 Great Swim Workouts For Triathletes

#1: Beginner Triathlon Swim Workout

Triathlon swim workouts for beginners should focus on getting you accustomed to the swimming technique that you will use in your race while building up your swimming endurance. 

As you get more comfortable in the pool and have mastered your swimming technique, you can start focusing more on your swimming speed.

It is a good idea to incorporate steady-state endurance swim workouts that gradually build up to the distance of the swim portion of your triathlon and also to focus on technique-driven triathlon swim workouts that are broken into intervals. 

Interval swim workouts for triathlon training help you focus on different aspects of your technique, such as breathing, sighting, and your stroke mechanics. 

A pool buoy.

For example, you might use a kickboard to focus primarily on the legs and core components of your swim stroke, and a pull buoy can be used to focus just on the upper body technique.

Here is a beginner 1,000-yard swim workout for triathletes training for shorter distances and for those who are gradually building up to longer swims.

  • Warm Up: 200 yards at a steady, moderate effort.
  • 2 x 50 yards kickboard (focus on steady but powerful kicking).
  • 2 x 50 yards pull buoy (use hand paddles if you have them to increase the difficulty).
  • 4 x 100 yards, swimming 75 yards hard and then 25 yards easy with 30 seconds in between each set.
  • Cool Down: 200 yards easy.

As you get stronger, increase the number of sets for the main set. Instead of doing 4×100 yards, work up to five, and then six, and upwards to 10×100 yards at the same 75 yards hard, 25 yards easy split, depending on the target race distance.

An empty lap pool.

#2: 45-Minute Swim Workout for Olympic and 70.3 Triathlons

This is a 2000-yard swim workout for triathletes:

  • Warm Up: 200 yards at a moderate effort, then 100 yards with paddles and a pull buoy, and 100 yards with a kickboard.
  • 8 x 150 yards, swimming the first 100 yards at a heart effort, around race pace, and the last 50 yards as fast as possible. Rest for 30 seconds after each set.
  • Cool Down: 100 yards with paddles and a pull buoy and 100 yards with a kickboard, and then 200 yards easy.

#3: Fartlek 45-Minute Swim Workout for Triathletes

Long-distance swimming at a steady pace can get somewhat boring, particularly once you are working your way up to a full 45-minute swim workout. 

This 45-minute swim workout uses a Fartlek format to intersperse periods of faster swimming to not only challenge different energy systems and push your aerobic fitness but also to help break up the monotony of lap after lap of swimming at a steady pace.

People swimming in a lap pool.

This is a great swim workout for triathletes who are training for a 70.3 or half Ironman triathlon.

  • After 10 minutes at your steady state swim pace, begin interspersing intervals of faster swimming. Depending on how easy it is for you to see the clock or your watch, you can either do time intervals or distance-based intervals if you do not have ready access to a clock.

For distance-based intervals, for the next 30 minutes of the workout, every other length, push the pace. Then, settle back into the normal pace.

Using effort-based RPE numbers, if you’re swimming at 6-7 out of 10, the “on” length will be an 8-9.

Switching up the pace will also help train your body to switch gears in the triathlon swim.

There will be times when you might want to pass another swimmer or move quickly around a buoy. Practicing shifting paces without stopping is a great way to hone this skill.

A kickboard on the edge of a pool.

#4: Ladder Swim Workout for Iron Distance Triathlons

Here’s a 2,800-yard endurance swim workout for triathletes that uses a ladder structure for your intervals.

  • Warm Up: 200 yards at a moderate effort, then 100 yards with paddles and a pull buoy, and 100 yards with a kickboard.
  • 4 x 25 yards with 15 seconds rest in between. Progress each interval faster and faster, building in intensity.
  • The main set ladder workout will be 50 yards, 100 yards, 150 yards, 200 yards, 250 yards, and then 300 yards at the peak before working your way back down the ladder.

For the first part of the ladder, as you increase the distance, swim at a moderately hard pace, somewhere around a 7 on an RPE scale out of 10. Once you start working your way down the ladder, increase the intensity to an 8 to 9. In between each interval, take 15 to 30 seconds of rest, depending on your ability level.

  • 4 x 25 yards with 15 seconds rest in between. Progress each interval faster and faster, building in intensity.
  • Cool Down: 200 yards at a moderate effort, then 100 yards with paddles and a pull buoy, and 100 yards with a kickboard

Ironman triathletes can increase the ladder up to 400 yards, adding intervals of 350 yards and 400 yards before coming back down. This will bring the total swim distance of the workout to 3200 yards.

A person swimming in a lap pool.

#5: HIIT Triathlon Swimming Workout 

High-intensity interval training has many benefits, and triathletes of all race distances can benefit from HIIT triathlon swim workouts. 

However, this type of intensity is particularly important for sprint triathlons and short-course racing, where your swim speed is crucial. This short HIIT swim workout for triathletes is great for those of any level because it is effort-based.

  • Warm Up: 100 yards at a moderate effort, then 50 yards with paddles and a pull buoy, and 50 yards with a kickboard.
  • 10-20 x 25 yards as fast as you can with 15 seconds of rest in between each length.
  • Cool Down: 50 yards with paddles and a pull buoy and 50 yards with a kickboard, and then 100 yards at a moderate effort.

Each week, try to add a few more intervals as your fitness improves. However, the primary focus should be on speed and intensity. 

Try to get your heart rate up to about 85% of your age-predicted maximum heart rate during the hard intervals. This can be a little challenging in the pool because the water will depress your heart rate somewhat, but your effort should be maximum.

There you have it, 5 swim workouts for triathletes to get you started on your swimming journey right away! If you are looking for a complete triathlon training plan including all three disciplines, check out our Triathlon Training Plan Database here.

A person swimming in a lap pool.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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