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4 Biggest Challenges In Triathlon Swim – And How To Tackle Them!

With three disciplines packed into one event, triathletes have plenty to think about and prepare for. Many athletes find triathlon through their background in swimming, cycling or running, but even if swimming is their “gateway” sport, a triathlon swim is much different than a traditional race in a competition pool. Now throw in a bike and run leg afterwards, and whew, it can be overwhelming.

Luckily, there are plenty of resources to help overcome specific triathlon training and racing hurdles (this very blog being one such resource), but especially coach insight is invaluable for many triathletes’ success. They have an outside perspective rounded by interactions through their stable of clients, and have a true pulse for many of the challenges triathletes face — especially in the swim.

Sandy Ziya is one such coach — she’s not only a USA Triathlon Certified Coach and USA Swimming Coach, but she’s a functional physician, acupuncture physician and certified personal trainer and yoga instructor. We can’t speak for all triathletes, but she’s noticed a few stand-out challenges when training for (and racing) a triathlon swim, and provides solutions for each.

Triathlon Swim Challenge #1: Not Enough Pool Access


“Honestly the biggest challenge for triathletes training for the swim is access to said training. The biggest gripe I get from my athletes is not even my prescribed workouts per se, but access to pools with all of their limitations,” Ziya says.

The result is limited swims for athletes, and fewer overall sessions.

Some markets are just terrible and offer minimal access to swim. Many, if not most, of these venues are challenged by water aerobics, cleaning and maintenance time, meets, camps and practices, and limited hours of operation.


“The best advice honestly is the same I give my patients, which is build a tribe of like-minded triathletes around you,” says Ziya. “The tribe will have various swim venues with different hours and limitations to balance. Plan your weekly workouts in accordance with swim access — your coach will appreciate you planning ahead and strategizing!”  

Don’t be shy don’t overthink things, just smile and introduce yourself.

Building a tribe is easy — look at bulletin boards and be friendly!

“I meet a new swimmer every time I get to the pool,” Ziya grins.

You can also ask the lifeguards on deck or the desk staff for already established groups and meeting times.

You can also find something useful on social media — many local interest and meetup groups are out there, swimming included.



The second biggest challenge facing a triathlete training for a triathlon swim is often their lack meaningful open water swim sessions.

“Triathletes are simply ill-prepared for triathlon if they only familiarize themselves with a black line ending at a wall,” Ziya says. “They need to get used to the current in open water, marine life and the occasional blinding sunrise through specified training sessions. These simply are the essence of open water swims and must be relentlessly practiced — not only for success but for your safety and the safety of those around you.”


“The same tribe you swim with at the pool needs to train together in open water. This will acclimate you to swimming in a group while staying safe,” Ziya explains. “From here, swimming drills are really secondary but to be sure include sighting, swimming in draft formation, and unilateral and bilateral breathing.”

Sandy Ziya’s open water swim workout tip

This workout involves using a deep pool (you can use a shallower one as well, just be careful and jump – don’t dive!) and starting your swim right from the jump.

Swim the lanes back and forth without wall pushes or flip turns, and you can also swim under lane lines to swim to the next available lane (to make it more challenging and better simulating) and continue this back and forth. With no push and no flip, it’s exhausting, challenging and requires a lot of the same physical “feel” as early on in a triathlon open water start.

TRIATHLON SWIM CHALLENGE #3: Not Paying Enough Attention to Logistics


One of the swim challenges that actually applies to both cycling and running as well is how an athlete deals with logistics surrounding the race course.

“We have so many things to concern ourselves with — pacing, bowels, nutrition, hydration, safety, etc. — that we often ignore what I refer to as “launch awareness.” For example, this is the awareness of where you started from and where you must return to for a split. We focus our gaze on where we are going, buoys to swim around and the distance to cover, but rarely do we spend much time thinking about the swim exit,” Ziya says.

What does the exit look like from different angles?
Can I see it amongst crashing waves?
What are the other landmarks (buildings, towers, signage, etc.) nearby?

Look again and burn it in your memory so you can expend as little energy on it once the race commences. If you turn your body to focus for two to three minutes on the view exiting the swim, you will be one of a very small collective and have an advantage over your competitors.


Launch awareness is ideally done prior to race day. Get to any practice swim the race director may offer.

Did you miss it, or do they not offer an official practice swim? Do your own!

“I guarantee if you go to the swim start, there will be other smart, well-coached athletes doing the same. Practice with a super short swim to just get the feel of the layout — especially all the perspectives of the swim exit. Note that all distance and technique swim workouts have already been done, so there’s no need to do so now,” Ziya advises.

TRIATHLON SWIM CHALLENGE #4: Not Keeping Your Head in the Game


If you’ve done the previously-mentioned prep, the number one thing to remember is to keep your head in the game.

Pay no mind to what others are saying, their experience level, how many races they’ve done, etc. It’s time to breathe, find your calm, and know that you belong there and that everything will come into place.


Embrace the race!

“I have athletes wear headphones to the race start to quell their nerves either with meditation, music, or their own voiced over mantra playing. This helps manage all the noise of the race start, and if you watch professional athletes, most do this! Simply hand off your headphones to your support crew before you launch,” Ziya says.

Deep breathing is fantastic as well, as it will cause a de-stress response in the body. It’s simple — take a deep breath in for four seconds, hold for seven, and breathe out for eight seconds. A series of these will slow the heart rate and quiet the mind before you start the race.

If you liked this post, don’t forget to share so that others can find it, too.

Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.

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