Specificity of swimming technique in triathlon


The greatest and most obvious difference between competitive swimming and swimming in the triathlon is found as a result of the conditions in which the triathlon race is held. The swimming part of the triathlon takes place in the lake, in the sea/ocean/river. In open water in natural conditions, where waves, wind, rain, high or low temperatures are common factors that influence the race itself. Another important difference, which only those who are involved in triathlon as a sport fully understand, is the group swimming. 70 or 80 competitors (or hundreds if a long triathlon of age-groupe are in question) who swim to the buoy with the same goal as soon as possible get to it, what creates conditions that are closer to waterpolo than to swimming. Due to all this, the swimming pool technique itself can not be sustainable.



A great number of competitors in the triathlon race affects the swimming technique


Triathlon swimming is much harder and much more energy is invested in moves that are not fully utilized for the forward movement of the competitor. The main factors are the battle for the position, the best place in the group, the waves struggle where extra energy is consumed and the technique is changed by raising the head high and shortening the strokes. Triathlon breathing for positioning requires looking forward for every 5-8 strokes (depending on the visibility of the buoy). Then the draft or drafting of the contestant, which is the most important factor of economy, because an experienced triathlete who is drafting efficiently can save large amounts of energy for the next stages of the race. The drafting takes place “in the legs” behind the competitors, and it can also take place on the side where the competitor who is in the draft is swimming “on the hips” of the competitor behind / beside who he is drafting. Drafting benefits are described by reducing resistance forces, and it is stated that swimming up to 24 inches (about 60 cm) behind the competitors reduces resistance forces by up to 44% and the subjective sense of fatigue is 20% lower, while swimming at about 19 feet (5.8 m) resistance forces by 16% (Antonio Silva for Mens Health). The competitor in an efficient draft can swim 2-4 seconds faster at every 100 meters with the same functional parameters (same pulse or the same levels of lactate in the blood), those are empirical indications for most competitors. It only shows that drafting is of immense importance as a factor of economy.


Among the world’s top triathlon competitors, the opinion is that two types of triathlon swimming are related to the technique, and are applied from the tendency of the situation. The first refers to swimming in the draft when the focus is on the second part of the stroke, or pulling the arm backward, while the first part of the stroke is shortened and a smaller amount of water is catched. The reason for this is the closeness between the competitor in front and the draft competitor. If the stroke is full and the hand is fully stretched the head and the whole body of the triathlete in the draft would be further away from the competitor in front and thus the resistance would increase, or a smaller percentage of the draft would be realized. The second type of swimming is for competitors who are at the front of a particular group, regardless of whether it is the first, second or third group, when the focus is placed on the front of the stroke (opposite to the first type), where the hand is extended and where it is effective “Full” procedure, while the second part of the stroke is shortened. The reason for the shortening of the second part of the stroke is the physical presence of the competitor who is drafting on the hips and thus avoiding contact. These types of techniques are not described in the literature and there are no studies, but practice for now shows very effective application. Triathlon is a young sport, and for this reason there is still noticeable progress from all aspects, and it is the science to examine and show what progress and changes are valid and which are not. There are many topics for various studies.


Neoprene factor


A large number of World Cup Series and World Cups races are held in waters where the temperature is lower than 20 ° C, which according to the rules of ITU (International Triathlon Union) allows swimming in neoprene suits.



Swimming in neoprene (photo: Janos Schmidt, ITU)


Auxiliary factor (besides the main one is the protection from cold water), it is not necessary to improve the position of the body of the competitors, as both the hands, the body and the legs rises, resulting in improved buoyancy. That’s why swimming in neoprene suits favors competitors who are poor swimmers and naturally have poorer buoyancy or poor footwork. Often great differences are seen in the case of individuals as well as the course of the race between the triathlons in which triathlete swimming in suits and triathlons in which suits are forbidden (when the temperature is higher than 20 ° C). The reason for this is the fact that the neoprene has different effects on different types of swimmers, usually more favorable to the bad swimmers. A neoprene suit at a certain percentage reduces the angle of rotation of the shoulder due to resistance, so that less flexible competitors can have problems because they need to consume more energy for each stroke.


The impact of cycling and running


After the swimming segment, competitors expect intense cycling and intense running. This is another factor that not only affects the tactics of the swimming segment, but also on the technique. The greatest difference comes to light in the work of the legs, which is variable during the entire swimming segment in the triathlon race. It is very high in the beginning because competitors are moving with submaximal intensity to win a good position in the group, because this is crucial for the further course of the race, then the work of the legs is reduced to conserve energy for cycling and running, while in the last stage of swimming again strengthens work and intensity of a legkicks to bring more blood to the muscles of the leg because after swimming is running in transition and then riding a bicycle. The variability of the work of the legs has an influence on the body’s position and on the work of the hands, therefore the complete rhythm and timing of the strokes change, as well as the position of the body in the water – with the reduced work of the legs the hips and legs sink slightly.


Swimming tactics in triathlon race


The Olympic triathlon lasts on average around one hour and 45 minutes for the best male competitors, and around 1:55 h for the best female competitors. That’s over 80% of the time of marathon fastest runners. Considering the fact that the best marathon runners “only” run 2 or 3 marathons annually, and that the triathletes competing in the World Series and World Cups 10 or more times, then it is clear that it is crucial to preserve every atom of energy which does not have to be spent. The stress factor on the organism and the CNS (central nervous system) of the Olympic triathlon is much smaller compared to the marathon, due to the fact that competitors in triathlon also cycle and swim, but this does not diminish the importance of the tactical element in the triathlon race, where it is possible to distribute energy on swimming and bicycle to reduce the complete stress that accumulates during the entire race.


There are several basic tactical principles that are respected by various types of swimmers in the triathlon. So it is necessary to make a parallel between the level of fitness of the swimmer and his tactics.


Tactics for an early break away


The competitors who ends the swimming segment in almost all races in the first group and are practically always in the first group from the very beginning of the bicycle segment are those who apply this tactic. Their tactics are reduced to a strong swim from the very beginning to the very end of the swim course, in order to make as much difference as possible to the competitors behind, and to make the group more “stretched” with the aim of making several groups on a bike, which suits to the first group because it is easier to maintain early advantage. Their only goal is that first group has as fewer competitors as possible, and that behind them are several smaller groups that are trying to catch them throughout the race. Such a tactic is effective in a certain percentage of the races, because when a execution is successful, the results are successful, however competitors who apply the given situation risk a high energy consumption if a group on a bicycle is joined, which in most cases happens. But that’s their only option for success and a great result because they are naturally worse runners (on average), so it’s justifiable to apply this type of tactics to most triathlon races with top swimming opportunities.


Swimming tactics of runners


This group does not include bad swimmers, but simply those triathletes whose level of swimming, although generally high, can not reach the level of the fastest swimmers. They are in most cases super-high-speed racers. So their tactics are reduced to the strong start of swimming in order to ensure a good position in the swimming group, hoping that the draft will help them keep the pace of the leading group. This tactic also depends on the competitors behind who the mentioned contestants are drafting behind, so there is always a factor of uncertainty, and competitors who apply this tactic are aware of it. The main goal is to get out of the water with as little backlog to the leading group or groups, within a time period that is making up on the early stages of the bicycle segment. Interestingly, this type of tactics is more successful when considering all ITU races than the tactics of the fastest swimmers, although such an impression is not intuitively obtained. But the power of the group on the bike is too great, which is the main reason for the success of this tactic. But in most of the biggest race events, these are the World Series races, the first type of fastest swimmers has a much higher level of performance, so that no type of tactics can be generalized.


Common swimming tactics


It is applied by competitors who, depending on the race, can also swim with the first group, but also swim at the back of the race. Factors affecting current fitness, presence or absence of swimming in neoprene, type of open water (normal or salty, because in salt water competitors have better buoyancy), as well as the efficiency of starting and selecting a position in a particular race. The tactics that these competitors rely on also puts emphasis on position selection and a very strong start, and then, depending on the situation, they can decide to stay in the draft with the largest (main) group, or try to “merge” with the leading group or stay in it if they had a good start and if they are physically able to follow the pace of this leading group. This tactic can not be prepared in advance, but competitors rely on their own intelligence and the ability to react quickly and to effectively think during a race where different tactics are opened. In most situations this tactic comes to light because the most numerous contestants are “average”, because there are a few competitors who are ahead of others who can expect to be permanently at the helm, and a few contestants who have a problem with their swimming performance and, in most cases, swims in a smaller or larger group that is at the back.


The triathlon tactics, although crucible in the swimming segment, are mostly represented on the bicycle segment, because the drafting effect is greatest, due to the highest speed of movement from all three disciplines resulting in the greatest resistance forces that act in the opposite direction from the movement of all competitors. So drafters keep about 30% of their energy or invest 30% less power to move at the same speed. This opens up great opportunities for different tactical moves among individuals and groups. The tactic on the bike is a continuation of the swimming tactics for these types of swimmers, due to the fact that the bicycle segment does not start at the same time for all competitors, but depends on the outcome and the distribution of competitors from swimming and first transition.


In sum, the greatest impact on the successful use of tactics, in addition to the strategy of the competitors, has the conditions in which the race is taking place, because one type of tactics is more difficult to apply in the all of the races, while in other races it is easier to apply the same type of tactics in different conditions.


Technology and swimming technique


Today, it’s very easy to get some basic swimming parameters thanks to technological improvements. For many years, small devices have been used to improve the number of strokes placed behind the head into the swimming cap, and then this device releases sounds at the same intervals and thus stimulate the swimmer to have a certain number of curves, that is, the device gives a “rhythm”. Usually when it is necessary to increase in low-frequency swimmers.


The Garmin FR920xt is a great device for triathletes, because besides the functions for cycling and running, it also has a swimming function and swim in open water (for example, https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/802596726) so that it is easy to control both the speed of swimming and the frequency (the number of curves per minute).




  1. Tousejnt H., Bike P. (1992): Biomechanics of the Competitive Free Style Technique, Sports Medicine, New Zealand.
  2. http://www.swimsmooth.com “Visualization of swimming technique”
  3. http://www.svl.ch “Swimming technique: force of pull and lift force”
  4. http://sr.wikipedia.org “Bernoulli equation”
  5. http://www.usatriathlon.org “Effective Triathlon Swimming”
  6. https://www.clubassistant.com “Drafting”

* Images of the swimming technique adapted from www.swimsmooth.com


🇬🇧10 times Balkan champion, professional triathlete (representing Serbia), half-marathoner, ironman 70.3, traveler.

🇷🇸10 puta šampion Balkana, profesionalni triatlonac i reprezentativac, polumaratonac i maratonac, svetski putnik.

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