Best Swim Workout for Triathlon

Whether you are a sprint triathlete or an Ironman, these swim workouts for triathlon will help you improve your swim leg. Many triathletes work solely on their upper body for the swim leg so they can save their legs for the bike and run, however, it is still important to maintain some form of kick during the swim as this can give you a serious advantage over your competitors.

From short distance races like the sprint triathlon to longer events like the Olympic-distance triathlon, half-Ironman, or full Ironman, having an efficient kick will not only make you faster in the water and gain you a good lead for the bike and run legs, but it can reduce the amount of energy you use in the water, leaving you with more for the second and third legs.


Many triathletes work solely on their upper body for the swim leg so they can save their legs for the bike and run.

How Many Times a Week Should I Swim for a Triathlon?

According to Level 1 USAT- and Training Peaks Level II-certified coach, four-time Olympic-distance age-group national qualifier and multiple Ironman and 70.3-distance finisher, Alison Freeman, triathletes should swim two or three times a week is enough.

For short course and Half-Ironman triathletes, she recommends a ratio of around 1:2:1.5 for swim/bike/run, which is usually two swims a week. For long-course athletes, Alison recommends a ratio in the range of 1:2.5 / 3:1.75 / 2. This can also correlate into two swims a week, however, for newer or weaker swimmers, and Ironman distance triathletes, who are training for a 3.8km swim, it’s beneficial to add a third swim into the week.

Triathletes tend to swim freestyle for the bulk of their workouts as this is the stroke they swim in a race, however, it’s a good idea to mix up your workouts with other strokes as this is a form of cross-training and strengthens other muscles in the body.

Beginner Swimmers and Triathletes

Beginner swimmers and triathletes should focus the bulk of their time in the pool on improving their technique with swimming drills. Focus on the essential basics for swimming – body position, comfortable and efficient breathing, and good forward reach, catch, and extension.

Ideally, a workout for beginner swimmers and triathletes should consist of plenty of repetitive drills, kicking sets (with fins if necessary), and endurance swimming in a ratio of 75 percent drills, and kicking to 25 percent endurance swimming.

Example workout for Beginner Swimmers and Triathletes

  • Warm-up: 300 yards easy freestyle
  • 12 x 50 drills – working on specific technique (right arm, left arm / catch-up / long dog-paddle)
  • 4 x 50 kicking with a kickboard (fins if necessary)
  • 6 x 100 freestyle with a 30-second rest interval
  • Cooldown: 200 easy freestyle

Intermediate Swimmers and Triathletes

Intermediate swimmers and triathletes can do more advanced drills and will spend much of the workout working on improving strength and endurance. The ratio will now be 30 percent technique-focused and 70 percent endurance swimming.

Example workout for Intermediate Swimmers and Triathletes

  • Warm-up: 500 yards easy freestyle
  • 8 x 50 drills – working on specific technique (right arm, left arm / catch-up / long dog-paddle)
  • 6 x 50 kicking with a kickboard (fins if necessary)
  • 4 x 200 freestyle with a 30-second rest interval
  • 4 x 100 freestyle with a 30-second rest interval
  • Cooldown: 200 easy freestyle

Advanced Swimmers and Triathletes

Advanced swimmers have perfected their technique, and although they will still spend at 10 percent of the workout doing technique drills, the rest of the workout will be training to improve speed, strength, and endurance. The ratio will now be 10 percent technique-focused and 90 percent endurance swimming.

Example workout for Advanced Swimmers and Triathletes

  • Warm-up: 500 yards easy freestyle
  • 8 x 50 drills – working on specific technique (right arm, left arm / catch-up / long dog-paddle)
  • 8 x 50 kicking with a kickboard (fins if necessary)
  • 2 x 400 freestyle with 30-second rest interval (moderate, steady pace)
  • 4 x 200 freestyle with 30-second rest interval (even lengths moderate pace, odd lengths fast)
  • 6 x 100 freestyle with 30-second rest interval (even lengths moderate pace, odd lengths fast)
  • 8 x 50 freestyle sprints with a 30-second rest interval
  • Cooldown: 200 easy freestyle


Two or three swims a week is enough pool time for triathletes. 

Why such a Relatively Light Emphasis on Swimming Compared to the Other Legs?

With three disciplines to train for and limited hours to devote to training, spending more time in the pool to shave off just a few seconds on race day is counter-productive. Rather focus on high-quality, high-intensity swim workouts than long, endurance-pace swims and spend any extra hours you have on the bike and the road, where there is more to gain in both your bike and run split.

There are exceptions to how much swimming triathletes should do. Athletes are looking for a vast improvement in their swim pace and overall swim time, those dealing with injuries that are preventing them from cycling or running, or newer or weaker swimmers can benefit from swimming up to five times a week.

Increasing your training time in the pool will not only increase your cardiovascular and respiratory fitness and build lean muscle but will also improve your feel for the water and swim technique and increase your swim-specific endurance.


Two or three swims a week. Triathlete coming out of the swim.

Best Swim Workouts for Triathlon

Here is a range of general workouts for triathletes that’ll help you improve your breathing, pacing, kicking, and speed.

Workout 1: Focus – Breathing (2,400 m/yds)

By learning to effectively time your breath and kick, you will conserve energy and gain power and speed. When doing hypoxic sets (breathing patterns), it’s important to complete each breath normally – exhale completely into the water and inhale full lungs of oxygen). Make sure you have a strong respiratory base before attempting advanced hypoxic drills.

Warm-up

300 freestyle

200 freestyle closed-fist freestyle (see below for drill explanation)

Main Set

200 freestyle – 50 breathe every three strokes, 100 breathe every five, 50 breathe every three strokes

60-second rest

200 freestyle, breathe every five strokes

60-second rest

200 drill – three strokes right arm (left arm at side), three strokes left arm (right arm at side)

60-second rest

400 freestyle – moderate pace with a focus on syncing breath and kick

2 minutes rest

10 x 50s freestyle – sprint with fins (freestyle, butterfly, or backstroke) –60 second intervals

Cool-down

300 freestyle

Closed-Fist Freestyle Drill 

Closed-fist freestyle is one of the most simple and effective freestyle drills to increase the feel for the water with your forearm and encourage a high elbow recovery. It is as easy as it sounds – simply ball your hands into fists and swim freestyle as you normally would.

When your hand is in a fist there is less surface area to catch the water, and this leads to you becoming more aware of the placement of your forearm in the water and catching the water correctly with an early vertical forearm.

This drill reminds you that you should be catching the water with both your forearm and hand, encourages high elbow recovery, and an increase of stroke rate due to less catch area. 

Best for: Increasing a feel for the water with your forearm, encouraging an early vertical catch position with the forearm, and a high elbow recovery.

Workout 2: Focus – Pace (2,400 m/yds)

Warm-up

300 freestyle easy

300 fingertip recovery drill for the odd 50s swim the even 50s (see below for drill explanation)

200 kicking with a kickboard

Main Set

5 x 50 freestyle: maintain a moderate pace for each 50 – 10 seconds rest in between each 50

5 x 50 freestyle: sprint – 10 seconds rest in between each 50

5 x 50 kick in a streamlined position – 10 seconds rest in between each 50

5 x 50 freestyle: concentrate on technique – 15 seconds rest in between each 50

300 freestyle with pull buoy and paddles – building on each 25 with the last being at race pace

Cool-down

300 freestyle

Fingertip Recovery Drill

The Fingertip Recovery Drill is another classic freestyle drill for swimmers who want to maintain a high elbow recovery and begin the pulling motion with a higher hand entry. To execute this drill correctly, swim freestyle normally, but during the recovery phase, drag or skim your fingertips across the surface of the water.

This drill is also designed to create looser, more relaxed shoulders during the recovery and it’s a great exercise for swimmers who want to learn to relax unnecessary muscles during the recovery.

Best for: High-elbow recovery, starting the pull with a higher hand entry, and loosening the shoulders during the recovery.

Workout 3: Focus – Kicking (2,700 m / yds)

Warm-up

200 freestyle easy

200 freestyle – 25 catch-up drill / 25 free (see below for drill explanation)

8 x 25 Six-Kick Switch Drill – 10 seconds rest in between each 25 (see below for drill explanation)

8 x 25 freestyle fingertip recovery drill

Main Set

8 x 25 six-beat kick with a kickboard – 10 seconds rest in between each 25

4 x 50s freestyle sprint with a six-beat kick – 10 seconds rest in between each 50

8 x 25 kick – kicking with fins – odds on the left side, evens on the right side – 10 seconds rest in between each 25

4 x 50 freestyle sprint with a six-beat kick – 10 seconds rest in between each 50

8 x 25 freestyle drill – gliding for a count of two when your arm enters the water – 10 seconds rest in between each 25

4 x 50 freestyle sprint with a six-beat kick – 10 seconds rest in between each 50

8 x 25 freestyle drill – catch-up – 10 seconds rest in between each 25

4 x 50 freestyle sprint with a six-beat kick – 10 seconds rest in between each 50

Cool-down

300 easy freestyle

Catchup Drill

The Catchup Drill is another classic freestyle drill that aims to improve stroke timing and patience in the water. Catchup involves delaying your next stroke until your recovering arm finishes – so one arm literally “catches up” with the other.

This drill can be done by holding a kickboard with your body and arms in a streamlined position and holding the board with one hand until the other arm completes the full stroke. When done without the kickboard, the streamlined arm is simply held in front until the other arm completes the stroke and the hands touch each other.

The focus areas of this drill are to keep your body position high, a strong early vertical forearm catch in the water, and a high elbow recovery.

Best for: High-elbow recovery, a strong early vertical forearm catch, high streamlined body position.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNfBRkjCXrg

Six-Kick Switch Drill

The Six-Kick Switch Drill is a fundamental freestyle swimming drill that focuses on balance, body position, and rotation. It is a simple drill but needs to be done slowly to gain the most benefit.

Take six kicks while swimming on your side with your head down and your body in a streamlined position. Then take a single stroke, concentrating on a strong early vertical catch and a high elbow recovery, and balance on your opposite side for another six kicks.

This drill can be done with or without fins – adding fins helps keep your body position high in the water.

Best for: A balanced body position, good rotation, a strong early vertical forearm, and high elbow recovery.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqN3D7YCbZg

Workout 4: Focus – Speed (2,350 m/yds)

Warm-up

300 easy swim freestyle

200 kicking with a kickboard

Main Set

4 x 250 alternating breathing pattern: 25 yards breathing every 6th stroke, 50 every 5th stroke bilateral breathing, 75 every 4th stroke, 100 every 3rd stroke (bilateral breathing)

4 x 100 choice of strokes – any stroke except freestyle – 30 seconds rest between each set

8 x 50 freestyle – fast/easy – 15 seconds rest in between each set

8 x 25 freestyle – fast/easy – 15 seconds rest in between each set

4 x 100 IM – going every 1:45 minutes seconds on the clock

Cool-down

300 easy swim freestyle

Workout 5: Focus – Upper Body / Arms (2,700 m/yds)

Warm-up

300 easy swim freestyle

200 kicking with a kickboard

Main Set

8 x 75 freestyle with pull buoy and paddles – 20 seconds rest in between each set

200 kicking – any stroke

4 x 100 freestyle / another stroke alternating – 20 seconds rest in between each set

300 easy freestyle recovery set

20 x 25 IM order with fins – going every 40 seconds on the clock

Cool-down

200 easy swim freestyle

Workout 6: Focus – Endurance and Speed (2,800 m/yds)

Warm-up

300 easy swim freestyle

8 x 25 IM order with fins

Main Set

1 x 400 freestyle – every 3rd length moderate pace

2 x 200 freestyle – first 100 moderate, second 100 race pace – 30-second rest interval

4 x 100 freestyle – first 50 race pace, second 50 moderate – 30-second rest interval

8 x 50 freestyle – first 25 moderate, second 25 race pace – 30-second rest interval

12 x 25 freestyle – easy/hard – 15-second rest interval

200 freestyle easy with paddles and pull buoy

Cool-down

200 easy swim freestyle

Workout 7: Focus – Endurance and Speed (2,950m/yds)

Warm-up

300 easy swim freestyle

200 kicking with a kickboard

Main Set

10 x 75 freestyle with pull buoy – 50 arms only / 25 kicking – 15 or 30-second rest interval

300 freestyle – every 3rd length moderate pace

5 x 100 freestyle with fins – 25 front kick / 25 left sidekick / 25 right side kick normally the / 25 kick on the back – 15 or 30-second rest interval

300 freestyle – every 3rd length moderate pace

8 x 50 freestyle – first 25 moderate, second 25 race pace – 30-second rest interval

Cool-down

200 easy swim freestyle

Workout 8: Focus – Kicking and Speed (2,200m/yds)

Warm-up

300 easy swim freestyle

Main Set

200 IM drill with fins – right arm, left arm, double arm, full swim through all four strokes

200 kicking – any stroke with a kickboard

Ladder swim: 25, 50, 75, 100, 125, 150, 125, 100, 75, 50, 25 freestyle – odd lengths moderate pace, even lengths – easy – 15 seconds rest in between each set

8 x 50 freestyle – pull / kick – 15 seconds rest in between each set

Cool-down

200 easy swim freestyle

Workout 9: Focus – Breathing / Hypoxic (2,300m/yds)

Warm-up

400 easy swim freestyle

Main Set

12 x 50 fly-free / back-free / breast-free / free-free – 30 seconds rest in between each set

400 freestyle with pull buoy and paddles – counting strokes on each length

6 x 100 freestyle – easy/hard – going every 2:00 minutes seconds on the clock

200 easy kicking recovery set

8 x 25 freestyle – hypoxic – breathing every 3,5,7,9 and repeat – going every 40 seconds on the clock

Cool-down

200 easy swim freestyle

Workout 10: Focus – Endurance and Speed (2,600m/yds)

Warm-up

300 easy swim freestyle

Main Set

4 x 75 freestyle with paddles and pull buoy – easy, moderate, fast – 20 seconds rest in between each set

8 x 50 kicking alternating freestyle and other strokes – 15 seconds rest in between each set

2 x 200 freestyle – counting strokes – 20 seconds rest in between each set

8 x 25 freestyle – going every 40 seconds on the clock

2 x 200 freestyle – counting strokes – 20 seconds rest in between each set

4 x 50 freestyle/breaststroke kicking – 20 seconds rest in between each set

8 x 25 freestyle – going every 40 seconds on the clock

 

Cool-down

200 easy swim freestyle

More Freestyle Drills for Technique Work

Here are some more freestyle drills for triathletes to improve various parts of their stroke, as well as increase their efficiency and speed in the water.

1. Single-Arm Freestyle Drill

The Single-Arm Freestyle Drill is an excellent exercise for improving the power of the stroke from the core and trunk of the body, maintaining the correct body and head position, encouraging a strong early vertical forearm catch, and keeping a constant kick.

Hold one arm in a streamlined position while slowly swimming freestyle with the other arm. Concentrate on catching the water early and using your lats to create a powerful pull through the water. This will create good rotation in the hips and a good extension at the end of the stroke. Maintain a high body position and high elbow recovery before beginning the next stroke.

Best for – body and head position in the water, a strong early vertical forearm catch, a constant kick, and improving the power of the stroke from the core and trunk of the body.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMUMs8SrRcY

2. Long Dog Paddle Drill

The Long Dog Paddle Drill works on your catch under the water. The drill involves swimming freestyle without the overarm recovery – so you are just concentrating on the extension, a strong early vertical forearm catch, and pull-through.

Begin in a streamlined position with both arms in front, then pull with one arm as you would in regular freestyle. Instead of the regular overarm recovery, simply push the arm back through the water until you are in a streamlined position and then use the other arm.

Best for – a strong early vertical forearm catch and extension.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZhCL2XsQNI

3. The Singapore Freestyle Drill

The Singapore Drill is a freestyle drill named after a drill that was seen while preparing in Singapore for the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai. It involves swimming freestyle with one arm normallythe other as dog paddle.

Fairly difficult to master, this drill is designed to encourage a strong early vertical forearm catch and to focus on correct body positioning in the water.

Best for – a strong early vertical forearm catch, body positioning.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXxo6en260E&t=14s

4. Head-up Freestyle Drill / Tarzan Drill

The Head-up Freestyle Drill is a great exercise for overcoming an over-glide at the front of your stroke. Swimming freestyle with your head out of the water doesn’t allow you the time to over-glide as you will sink, so it counteracts the over-glide by forcing you to maintain a continuous rhythm with your stroke. This also encourages a high elbow recovery.

Swimming with your head up throws you off-balance and this forces you to kick harder to maintain the correct body position in the water, so it works your legs much harder than regular freestyle. Execute this drill with fins for added leg work! 

Best for – counteracting the over-glide, maintaining a continuous stroke rhythm, and high elbow recovery.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhhxeyWeh_s

5. Zipper Drill

The Zipper Drill focuses purely on the high elbow recovery phase of the freestyle stroke. This drill emulates undoing a zipper at the side of your body to work on balance, high elbows, and maintaining a consistent stroke rate.  

To do this drill, you need to slide the thumb of your recovering arm up the side of your body from your torso into your armpit. As you finish your underwater pull and your hand exits the water, keep your elbow above your hand, and before reaching forward, slide the thumb up the side of your body, keeping your elbow high. Once at your armpit, extend forward into your normal glide.

Best for – balance, high elbow recovery, and consistent stroke rate.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jBWEwihZeg4

6. Underwater Freestyle with Fins

This is an advanced freestyle drill that is designed to strengthen and increase arm speed on the recovery. This drill uses the resistance of the water to build strength and speed on the arm recovery – swimming underwater is far slower than on the surface and by increasing the speed under the water, the surface arm speed and overall stroke rate will improve.

Easier said than done – simply try to swim normal freestyle under the water with a faster arm recovery. This drill can be used with or without fins, depending on the strength of the swimmer.

Best for – improving arm speed on recovery.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjn1Q3SZkyU

7. Freestyle with Dolphin Kicks

This is a fantastic drill for adding rhythm to your freestyle stroke to achieve the smooth, kayak stroke that all freestylers aspire to. Swimming freestyle with dolphin kicks may feel awkward at first, but once you get a grasp of it, you will begin to experience the rhythm of using dolphin kicks and feel your speed increase.

Best for – improving the rhythm of the stroke, stroke rate, and high elbow recovery.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_RcP5XKTqU

8. Sculling Drills

Sculling is an age-old swimming drill that works on the weaker parts of all four strokes. There are endless varieties of sculling drills, all of which focus on getting a better feel for the water, working on catching the water, and strengthening weaker aspects of a stroke.

Sculling is also a great drill for body positioning in the water and maintaining a streamlined position while swimming. You can use a pull-buoy and ankle elastics for added arm work and better positioning.

Best for – body positioning, strengthening weaker parts of your stroke

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-l6g79sAks

9. Freestyle Retraction Drill / EVF Drill

The Freestyle Retraction Drill is an advanced freestyle drill that focuses on a strong early vertical forearm and a powerful catch. This drill requires using a hand paddle on the “catch” arm, while the opposite arm stays in a recovery position. It is also best to do this drill with a swimming snorkel so you can focus solely on the catch. 

With your catch arm, do a quick scoop-like motion to engage the core and force the hips and torso into a flattened position. Keep the recovery arm in position. Retract both arms to the original catch and recovery position, before taking a full cycle of a stroke. Then switch the paddle to the other hand and repeat the drill.

Best for – a strong early vertical forearm and early catch and high elbow recovery.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCseAbkNgqU

10. Three Strokes & Six Kicks Drill

The Three Strokes & Six Kicks Drill is an alternative to the Six-Kicks Drill that also helps balance your freestyle stroke along with body position and rotation of the hips. The added three strokes in between the six kicks help with coordination and drive the rotation from your hips and legs rather than your arms.

This drill can be done with or without fins – adding fins helps keep your body position high in the water.

Best for – a balanced body position, good rotation, a strong early vertical forearm, and high elbow recovery.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8lGaePHwUY

Final Thoughts

Your first triathlon swim can be intimidating with a start line bustling with wetsuit-clad swimmers all rearing to go and once in, all fighting to get out in front. Getting fit and strong in the pool before your first race is essential if you want to enjoy that first leg and come out feeling strong for the bike and the run.

Whether you are a first-time triathlete or an Ironman pro, working hard in the pool pays off and can make or break your race. Stick to your program, work hard, and most importantly, always have fun!

Happy Swimming!

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