How to be a triathlete when you can’t swim

Catchy title eh?! :/

Blogging has been sporadic of late as I’ve been very busy at work. Monday I began work at 9.30am and didn’t leave the office until almost 1am. Not much time for blogging or working out! Luckily that was a planned rest day anyway….

Anyway I’ve been thinking about this post for a while, for all of you out there who’ve considered doing a triathlon then have rejected the idea because of that swimming part.

Note: see end of this blog for an update since Shropshire tri and my succesful swim! And I’ve now linked up with the triathlon girls for Tri-Talk Tuesdays – You Signed up for What, Cupcake Triathlete and TriGirl Chronicles.

triathon swimDoes this send dread into your heart?!

So – how can you do a triathlon when you can’t swim / hate swimming?

Some people would immediately answer “don’t!”. There are tons of duathlons out there where you’d have all the fun of the biking and running, but none of the swimming. However, this was never an option for me because….

1) innate snobbishness tells me it’s just not as good as doing a triathlon

2) the whole point of doing a triathlon is to really push myself beyond my comfort zone – making myself swim is definitely that!

3) I am in no way good enough at biking and running to do a duathlon. I feel you need to be better at those two if there’s no swimming involved.

The next option would be to do a pool swim triathlon. Again, there are loads of these around, such as this one in Chichester on the south coast (I think this may be my first Olympic distance tri…..) They are good as the swim is generally shorter than it would be in a lake, and you have the safe feeling of being in a warm pool with clear water. Again, this wasn’t originally an option for me because I could not swim. I couldn’t swim front crawl in a lake or in a pool – therefore I decided I might as well throw myself in at the deep end, literally as well as metaphorically. At least in a lake there would be quite a lot of people breast-stroking round.

So….. you’ve decided to do a triathlon, and you’ve decided to swim in a lake. What next?

Tip no. 1: pick a sprint distance tri. Okay, you don’t have to, but that swim will be much shorter!

Tip no. 2: Do some swimming before the triathlon. Get yourself down to the pool and swim. The more the better. It’s also good to get some lessons, or to join in with a tri club for their coached swims. Swimming is so much about technique and you will find it so much easier if you approach it that way!

Or … you know… don’t. My sister did her first Olympic tri with no swimming whatsoever. She came out of the water (in wavy Chichester Harbour) smiling, having spent the swim breast-stroking and flirting with the safety volunteer who was carefully canoeing next to her.

jilli swim

Tip no. 3: Try some open-water swimming before the triathlon. Everyone says this, and it’s definitely a good idea, but it’s often hard to do. I live in south London, without a car, and it is very hard for me to get to an open water swim before or after work. I’ve now found one but it starts at 7am on a Saturday morning…… I don’t mind getting up early to train on a Saturday, but waking before 6?! Ugh. Maybe I’m not quite disciplined enough….. So if you don’t manage to do it, okay, fair enough. Not the end of the world and you can definitely still compete. My aim is to get one open-water swim session in before my tri at the end of May. (Oh god that’s now this month arrrrghhhh).

Also – check out lidos. I live a 5 min cycle from Brockwell Lido – while not quite the same as open water swimming it will allow me to practice swimming in my wetsuit. You’d be surprised how different the wetsuit feels, both in buoyancy of the legs and in making it harder to move your shoulders.

brockwell lido

Tip no. 4: Okay, you’ve decided to train for your swim. Now what do you do? If you’re like me, you get in the pool and just swim lengths of front crawl, getting increasingly disappointed and unmotivated each time as you still feel exhausted after 100m (if not before). How on earth are you going to swim 750m / 1500m?!

I would say don’t do this! Or at least, don’t do it every time. Drills are great, not only do they improve technique but they mix up the practice and make it more interesting. Plus they involve recoveries so you don’t get that sinking feeling of “oh no I can’t even swim 100m”.


Tip no. 5: when you do drills, remember you will be swimming in open water. Triathlon skills are slightly different to those you would need for pool swimming. Good drills are:

– practicing kicking

– using the pull-buoy – you place this between your ankles, it keeps your legs floating and then you swim using just your arms.

– practicing swimming with your head up for sighting

– one-armed lengths to concentrate on each stroke

– the fist drill – where you enter the water with your hand as a fist, to really feel the water pulling at your forearm.

But I never really knew what drills to do or how long to do them for. And so many training plans in blogs were waaaay beyond my beginner’s level. So I downloaded one of Tri Radar’s training plans for beginners.

training plan

I don’t follow the plan for running or cycling as I know what works for me, I can motivate myself to do it, and I do more than the plan says. However, I’ve started religiously following the swim plan.

So tomorrow morning I am going to do:

  • 4 x 100m – alternating 50m front crawl, 50m using the pull-buoy. 30 seconds rest after each 100m
  • 2 x 100m kick – alternating 50m full effort, 50m gentle effort. 30 secs recovery.
  • and then a final 4 x 100m as the first set again.

A total of 1000m – and if I have time I’ll throw in a 100m medley at the end as I am quite enjoying trying to get to grips with butterfly!

To be perfectly honest, I still don’t think I’ll be able to swim front crawl for the full 750m in three weeks time. But I will give it my best shot and, more importantly, since introducing the drills I have started to actually enjoy my swim sessions!

jilli coming out of the swimLittle sister coming out of the lake with a smile – she may have been last but getting across it without stopping was a huge achievement!

Edit: I’ve now done my first triathlon where I actually enjoyed every minute of the swim. In February, I couldn’t swim 100m front crawl of the pool, in May I swam 750m in a lake ALL front crawl, I was 4th girl out of the water and managed it in under 15 minutes. I now LIKE swimming. Wierd. What’s my secret? Firstly, swimming twice a week (not always, but most weeks) in a pool, following this training plan from TriRader (I ignored all the run and cycle training sessions, but just used their pool sessions). Secondly, going to open water training sessions (link is my blog of my first session) with RG Active – the coaching really boosted my confidence and taught me how to be streamlined in a wetsuit (answer: don’t do breaststroke) and to slow down the arms. I would REALLY, REALLY recommend this if possible. It’s great fun, it completely conquered my fear, and I met some lovely other wannabe triathletes as well.


Do you have any advice for a newbie swimmer? Or any advice for me?!!

Has the thought of swimming ever put you off a triathlon?

If you love swimming, why? Fill us with motivation…. 😀



  1. Oh man, I totally agree with you on the duathlon-triathlon thing. This sport is about pushing your limits and your comfort zones and I sometimes feel like duathlon is a bit of a cop out. Great job kicking butt at your tri!

  2. Great tips! I am doing a duathlon in a couple of weeks and loved the one I did last year, but it’s not the same. I enjoyed it for itself, but want more triathlon! Thanks for the tips on doing more drills – I know I *need* to but I don’t do it enough.

  3. […] How to be a triathlete when you can’t swim – a lot of people find my blog through googling similar things – and I know I also googled pretty much exactly this in the pre-blog, pre-triathlon days. I like re-reading the post because it shows how far I’ve come but I think it is also pretty useful for other beginners! […]

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