Be the Smartest Swimmer out of the Water


Posted by Coach John Murray

In triathlon, pacing and race execution usually outshine ambitiousness. This is especially true in the swim. In my experience of working with hundreds of triathletes to improve swim performances, I have spent much of the lesson time focused on getting smarter vs. getting faster. Here are a few pointers to make your swim a smarter swim.

Warm-up prior to the start of the race

In a perfect world, triathletes can warm-up on the race course. Although, for safety reasons, many race directors do not allow swimmers on the course without safety personnel present. If you are lucky enough to warm up at the race site, use your time wisely. Check out the entry and exit. Some courses have challenging sighting issues that may confuse athletes once in “the heat of battle.” Look for landmarks or other ways to help you swim the shortest course possible. Also, knowledge of currents and wave conditions can assist you in your strategies. Of course, the warm-up can also help us perform better by elevating HR and getting blood flow to those muscles that will take us to the swim finish. However, if there is not the opportunity to swim, think of using stretch cords or arm swings to take the place of swimming. Going for a short run or some calisthenics can work, too.


Have a swim strategy

There are many triathletes that will just “gut out” the swim and hope for the best. I am more of the mindset to develop a plan that suits your particular ability in the water. If you are a triathlete that did not come from an extensive swimming background then the plan would be to “stay in your lane,” that is, start off controlled. There is no prize for being the fastest to the first buoy. Instead, lean more towards starting off easy and building as your ability allows. Generally, the more strategic and controlled a swimmer is, the faster their overall performance will be. This tactic can be, and should be, rehearsed several times prior to a race. As always, trust your plan.

There is no prize for being the fastest to the first buoy


Know your swimming pace

Being savvy about your swimming pace is a little trickier than knowing your running pace. For the run, athletes can get instant feedback from a wristwatch that measures HR and pace. We don't have that luxury on the swim. Instead, we can spend some of our pool training time learning our swimming pace and how swimming easy feels compared to swimming a bit too hard. Swimming sets that have you swimming at different effort levels can help. Occasionally, swim some descend sets. For example, 10 x 50 on 1:15, descending 1-5. Swim each 50 just a little bit faster and on number six start that over again. Many athletes that try this set for the first time find that they start out too hard and are unable to descend throughout the set. Keep practicing so that you know what it feels like to swim easy compared to a more difficult effort level.

Remember, on race day we are pumped up to perform and we may have the tendency to let the plan take a backseat and forget our strategy. Consider talking with a coach about a dialed-in plan for your swim and make that next race even better!


Coach John Murray is a USA Triathlon Level II certified Coach, An ASCA Level II certified Coach and a USAT certified Race Director. John has over 25 years of coaching competitive swimmers and Masters Clubs and has completed over 70 triathlons including 2 Ironmans. John has produced the Portofino Tri Series since 2011 - a super sprint triathlon race series that has been the first triathlon for hundreds of athletes from all over the country. John is also a US Veteran having served in the US Navy as a Hospital Corpsman (FMF) and is also a Registered Nurse. He is a current Board Member for Pensacola Sports and co-founder and President of Team MPI. Reach Coach John at

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