3 keys to a great triathlon swim: how to swim right through common challenges

There are many keys to a great triathlon swim, of course, not just three. But here, let’s focus on the three points in the swim leg of a triathlon where I consistently see athletes run into issues that keep them from racing their best.

MARTY MUNSON - Swim and triathlon coach

There are many keys to a great triathlon swim, of course, not just three. But here, let’s focus on the three points in the swim leg of a triathlon where I consistently see athletes run into issues that keep them from racing their best. It’s good to run into these issues before race day—so get out there in open water and experiment—because there are strategies that can help you get past them. And the more you get to practice the strategy, the better off you’ll be on race day.


There’s a lot happening at the race start. There’s whatever the water is doing (being choppy, hot, cold, salty, and so on). There’s everyone else all around you, even if you have a time-trial start. And then there’s The First Buoy. The one that doesn’t look like it’s getting any closer.

So you start to swim faster, because surely, that will get you there. And then you start getting out of breath (what the heck? You trained!), and you feel like you need more air. So you’re taking more gulps of air, moving your arms even faster and all of a sudden it’s like you’ve never swum before. You can’t get enough air, you’re out of breath, people are passing you, and how the heck are you ever going to make it to Swim Out?

YOUR STRATEGY: Exhale! When’s the last time you did that? Longer ago than you think. All those little sips of air are adding up and giving you a panicky feeling (don’t belive it? Try taking 5 little sips of air on land without exhaling and see how you feel…and then exhale and see how that feels).

So the first thing you need to do is exhale more air than you thought possible. Some athletes like to say a nice big, long “haaaaaa.” Yes, out loud. Under the water or above. Then say it every time you put your head underwater so you keep that exhale strong. Paul Newsome, founder of Swim Smooth, recommends that swimmers say the word “bubble” underwater, as it really gets you to exhale and keeps you breathing effectively. (It works. Really well.) Bonus: Focusing on breathing helps you stay in the moment, which breaks the “how long till I get there?/I gotta swim faster/I am out of breath” cycle.


Some athletes pass the first few buoys just fine. But their minds kick in when they’re about halfway through, especially if the field has stretched out and it feels like there’s nobody around. They get a Wile E. Coyote moment where all of a sudden they look around and notice they’re off the cliff—or, in this case, out in the middle of the ocean. The “whoa, I’m really out here and I’m a vulnerable person in this big ocean” thoughts start kicking in, which activates people’s nerves and self-doubt.

YOUR STRATEGY: Focus on your swim cues. Meaning focus on what makes your swim better. What makes you swim well will get you to the finish. And putting your attention on it takes you out of “how did I get here/how will I ever finish” thinking and brings you back to the moment. So if thinking about your hand entry makes you swim better, really think about it hard. If rolling your hips or keeping your kick even does it, then really put your energy into that.


Of course you want to out-swim the person you’ve been chasing the whole way. But beware shortening your stroke in order to try to swim faster. Turning into T-Rex and windmilling your arms will only get you to T1 tired.

YOUR STRATEGY: Be the calmest one in the water at the finish. Use your power to swim long and strong and you’ll swim right past all the people who are T-Rexing and windmilling. Plus: You’ll have a little more energy for the bike and the run, too.


Marty Munson is a USMS-certified swim coach and a USAT-certified Triathlon coach. She's been a health and fitness editor at numerous publications; her work has appeared in Men's Health, Esquire, Triathlete, Shape, Marie Claire, O, the Oprah Magazine, USMS Swimmer magazine and many others. As a swim coach, her specialty is working with triathletes in open water. She's also an adventure swimmer, a recent explorer of winter swimming, and loves to swim around things, including the Statue of Liberty, Key West, and the island of Manhattan.  

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