Triathlon Training: Swimming for the “Offseason” Triathlete

By Natalie Bojko, CTS Senior Coach

For most triathletes, swimming is the sport that is first to get cut out when time gets short for training. Since it is the shortest part of a triathlon, triathletes can often justify spending less time in the pool during racing season since they can get more bang for their buck by spending their time working on improving the bike or run. But it is important to realize that while swimming may be the shortest leg of a triathlon, it sets the stage for the rest of the race to come. So when time does become available in the offseason it is best to spend some quality time focusing on your form and technique in the water, and also to building the biggest swim base possible so that when something has to give during racing season, you have something to fall back on.

The winter months may be cold and dark, but when you train in an indoor pool it’s the one sport that doesn’t really get affected much by the weather. Since it’s a controlled environment, the pool is the perfect place to focus on improving your swim technique and working on hitting specific paces. Once you can master these two things, it will not take much work to transfer it to the open water come springtime. The best way to improve your technique and get more consistent at hitting your goal paces is by spending more time at the pool. If you typically swim two times per week during racing season, bump that up to three to four times per week during the winter. Then you can focus one to two workouts per week on technique and two to three workouts per week on pace work.

When focusing on technique it can be overwhelming to try to think about all the details of refining your stroke. I encourage my athletes to think about the three most important parts of swimming that affect your efficiency. “The Big Three” are your body position, hip rotation, and underwater propulsion (or high elbows underwater). These things should be mastered in the order listed, so focus on one thing at a time before moving on to the next. Here are the best drills to work on each of these skills:

For body position:

Dead man’s float – To do this drill, simply float face down in the water and press through your chest and down with your head until the entire back side of your body is out of the water.

Kick-On-Side – Extend your right arm overhead toward the end of the pool and rotate completely onto your side. Your left shoulder and hip should be out of the water, but your head should be against your right shoulder with your face pointed down to the bottom of the pool. Breathe as necessary by rotating your head while keeping the rest of your body in line. With your body in this position, kick to the other end of the pool with your toes pointed and knees relaxed. The kick should originate from the hips and should be small and fast. When you get to the wall switch sides and come back with your left arm extended.

For hip rotation:

6-Count – Start by kicking on your right side with your right arm extended overhead and your left arm on your hip (like the Kick-On-Side above). Take 6 kicks then switch sides. Begin your rotation with your hips and then pull once with your right arm as you extend your left arm overhead. Repeat on the left side and continue switching every 6 kicks until you reach the wall.

Triple Switch – Same drill as above, but take three complete strokes between 6-count kicks. Focus on a high elbow underwater and rotating with your hips.

For underwater propulsion:

Catch up – For this drill you will fully extend your right arm overhead while concentrating on the underwater phase with your left arm. Focus on starting your stroke with your hand entering the water at a steep angle (like you’re reaching over a barrel) so your hand and forearm are perpendicular to the surface of the water through your pull phase, keeping your elbow as close to the surface of the water as possible. Recover your left arm out of the water and fully extend it out front before starting your stroke with your right arm.

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One Arm Drill – For this drill swim with one arm only. Your other arm should be at your side. Be sure to do a full rotation with your body with each arm cycle.

Distance Per Stroke – For this drill count the number of strokes per length of the pool and try to take one less stroke each time. Concentrate on gliding and kicking and getting the most power out of each arm pull.

The best way to get more consistent at hitting your goal pace on race day next season is by first being realistic about your goal pace. Take your best swim time from last season’s races and for next season aim for a goal time (in the same distance) that is about 10-15% faster. Break down that new goal time into its pace-per-100 yards/meters (depending on what type of pool you swim in). This is the pace that you will be trying to maintain for your race-specific workouts during race season. Between now and then, what you need to do is focus on hitting a pace that is even faster than that, but for even shorter intervals. You may need to start with 50- and 75-yard/meter repeats.

Here is an example of an off season workout:

500 Warm up
4×50 Build :10 RBI
10×50 at sub-new-race pace, 1:00 RBI
100 Easy
10×100 Distance per stroke :15 RBI
200 Cool down
Total: 2500 yards/meters

Now when you go back to swimming at race pace for longer intervals it will feel easy (sort of)! Remember to have fun at the pool and just think how good it will feel during racing season knowing how much swim fitness you will have built up.

Natalie Bojko is a Senior Coach for Carmichael Training Systems, the Official Coaching and Camps Partner of Ironman. In 2011 Natalie’s athletes had a perfect Ironman record: every one of her 20 Ironman athletes successfully finished their Ironman races, including three Ironman Kona finishers. 


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