Open Water or Triathlon Swimming Training Workouts

Important Swimming Sets for Open Water Swimming or Triathlons

Important or key open water swimming or triathlon swim workouts involve race simulation, open water swimming skill proficiency, sustainable swimming speed, and time to recover after a swim. These factors, along with the athletes experience and goal open water swimming or triathlon race distance, will help a swimmer balance the types of swimming workouts done in the swimming pool (or in open water, like lakes, rivers, or oceans) among emphases of technique sets, endurance sets, strength sets, and speed sets.

For more on how fast and how often to do these workouts, review the About Swimming article How Often and How Fast.

Only working on technique will not make an open water swimmer or a triathlon swimmer much faster. Some swimming must be done at swim speeds and efforts that could cause swimming technique to deteriorate. Improvement comes through stress and recovery.

Work on technique, work on going faster, work on holding good technique while going faster, but don't work on only one of these elements. They are all important. The triathlon novice may need more technique work, but will have greater overall swimming gains from mixing workout set emphases between technique sets, fitness sets, and combined sets.

One of the key triathlon workouts for a triathlete is swimming the race distance at a steady, sustainable, non-stop effort at least once, essentially a simulated race. If possible, it should be done in the same clothing that will be used while in the race.

Completing this set helps mentally, since the athlete will know he/she can cover the triathlon swim distance; it can also help to find any problems with triathlon clothing choices. Alternately, this swim can be done with mixed efforts, mimicking the race effort pattern (but not necessarily mimicking race intensity level) to simulate the different parts of the swim leg.

Increasing swimming ability is not all about speed and effort - increasing swimming efficiency pays huge benefits. Swimming is the most technical portion of a triathlon (not counting the intricacies of a bicycle or of race nutrition). Good swimming looks almost relaxed and effortless. This becomes even more apparent when highly skilled swimmers are compared with less proficient ones. How do swimmers move towards that effortless looking performance? By increasing their skill level - but how is this done?

There are at least two ways that could be considered an improvement in skill level (not necessarily fitness, but the ability to maintain technique is related to fitness):

  • Swim a distance in a lower number of strokes in the same time; this is increased efficiency, getting more distance from each stroke:
    • Day 1: 25m swim in 25 strokes with a time of 45s
    • Day 14: 25m swim in 23 strokes with a time of 45s
  • Swim a distance in the same number of strokes in a lower time; this is increased tempo, taking each stroke more frequently:
    • Day 1: 25m swim in 25 strokes with a time of 45s
    • Day 14: 25m swim in 25 strokes with a time of 42s

Both are good. Increased efficiency will probably yield lower energy expenditure, helping a triathlete perform better in the bike and run, leading to a better overall time.

Increased tempo will probably yield a faster swim time, again leading to a better overall time, but only if that increased tempo does not result in excess fatigue, which would lead to a slower bike and run.

I have found that increased efficiency is important, while increased tempo is good to learn but not as vital to a successful triathlon swim. Tempo changes become a tactical tool, often used early or late in a race, or to latch on to a swimmer ahead for drafting purposes, with long-term energy-savings as a result.

While the peak velocity of a swimmer will influence the range of velocity a swimmer can achieve, that peak velocity is much less important than the peak sustainable velocity. What speed can a triathlon swimmer maintain over the distance of the race? The swimming speed that can be held for the duration of the race (that still allows the athlete to bike and run effectively!) is the triathlete's race pace.

Going very fast early in a race, then slowing down as the race goes on is not a great strategy in most instances. Starting a race slightly faster than goal pace to clear out of the crowd, then dropping into a sustainable race pace or rhythm is often successful. The key is that sustainable pace, the highest speed can you maintain for the duration of the race that still allows you a good bike and run performance.

On the following pages are 7 basic swimming workouts for a triathlete. How you mix them into your routine depends upon your needs. The workouts will help you become stronger physically and mentally, help improve your technique and speed, and should get you ready for a great swim in almost any triathlon - sprint, Olympic, half-ironman, or Ironman distance.

  • 500 to 1,000 yard / meter Open Water Swimming or Sprint Tri Swim Workouts
  • 1,000 to 1,500 yard / meter Open Water Swimming or Olympic Tri Swim Workouts
  • 1,500 to 2,500 yard / meter Open Water Swimming or Half-ironman Swim Workouts
  • 2,500 to 5,000 yard / meter Open Water Swimming or Ironman Swim Workouts

Swim On!

 

Updated by Dr. John Mullen on April 27, 2016

These sample swim workout sets for open water swimming or for a triathlon could be done as part of a swimming workout that also includes a warm-up and cool-down. The total distance of swimming sets within a workout should be built-up over time. The first workout of the season would not be the full race distance; that may be a goal distance for 4 to 6 weeks away from the first race of the season. Depending upon the ability level of the swimmer, some initial goals should be to swim at least three times per week and to swim at least 30-minutes per workout.

Increase the time spent swimming by 10% to 20% each week.

Some long-term goals might be to swim up to 5 times per week, with some workout sessions as long as 90-minutes for ironman-distance triathletes (an ironman-distance triathlete might do a 2-hour workout, but not very frequently, or only if they are at the elite level). In a general sense, frequent shorter sessions are more productive than a few long sessions each week since maintaining technique becomes more difficult as the length of the workout increases, and a triathlete wants to balance becoming faster and stronger with good technique. For more on how fast and how often to do these workouts, review the article How Often and How Fast.

  • Sprint-distance Swim = 750m
    • Brain Work: 750m swim as a steady, sustainable, non-stop effort. Your total time should go down as you get fitter; you might also find your time stays the same but you feel stronger at the end of the swim, an indicator of increased technique proficiency. Over time, add 100m to 300m to these swims until the full distance is covered.
    • Race Simulation: 750m swim with varied efforts to simulate the early, mid, and late portions of the race. The first 50 strokes at a moderate to high level, the mid-portion at a moderate, sustainable level, and the closing section at a moderate to moderately higher level (not as fast as the first 50 strokes). At the end of this swim, check your heart rate; check it again at 30, 60, and 90 seconds. As you get fitter, heart rate should go down faster and/or your total swim time will get faster.
    • Technique Golf: Swim 10x 25m (or 50m) with: 15s-30s rest, count strokes for each length. Add stroke count and time n seconds. Aim to decrease total for each 25 (or 50) within a workout and over the weeks.
    • Sustainable Pace: The 50-50 workout. Divide the race distance into two parts (2x 375m). Swim segment at an easy to moderate effort, an effort that results in a time slower than segment two. Rest for 60s and check your heart rate at 0s, 20s, and 40s. If it is not going down, continue resting and re-checking every 20s until it starts to go down, then wait an additional 20s. Swim segment two at a moderate effort that results in a time faster than segment one. The pace for segment one should be consistent throughout that segment; the pace for segment two should be consistent throughout that segment. As you gain fitness, attempt to make the time (and pace) for each segment equal without slowing down the time for the second segment, then attempt to decrease the rest between segments. Don't try to do both at the same time, focus on increasing the pace for segment one first. Once the speed for segment one is about the same as segment two, you should be able to decrease rest between segments. Remember to use the heart rate check every 20s.
    • Hold a Pace: 10x 50m (or 10x 25m, 10x 75m, 10x 100m, 10x 150m, or 10x 200m; looking for a total time of about 20m), with 10s rest, at the fastest possible even pace. These should all be the same speed, with the goal of feeling like you might be able to do one or two more once you finish the set, but you could not do more. At the end of this swim, check your heart rate; check it again at 30s, 60s, and 90s. As you get fitter, heart rate should go down faster and/or your total swim time will get faster.
    • Count-down: swim 750 m as a 350, 250, 100, 50; rest 10s to 20s between each segment. Aim to go faster as the segments get shorter. Over time, aim to decrease total swim time.
    • Hard-Easy-Hard: All of the repeats in this set should be the same distance. Swim 4x 25m at a fast, almost un-sustainable speed (or 4x 50, 4x 75, 4x 100, 4x 125, or 4x 150; looking for a total time of about 9-10 minutes for the 4 swims including rest), 2x 25m very easy focusing on technique (or 4x 50, 4x 75, 4x 100, 4x 125, or 4x 150; looking for a total time of about 6 minutes), and 4x 25m at a fast, almost un-sustainable speed (or 4x 50, 4x 75, 4x 100, 4x 125, or 4x 150; again looking for a total time of about 9-10 minutes) all on 20s-30s rest. At the end of this set, check your heart rate; check it again at 30s, 60s, and 90s. As you get fitter, your fast times should get faster, your speed fall-off between repeats will decrease, and your heart rate should go down faster.

    How often, and how fast, should you swim these workouts? Click here to read the the specifics on swimming speeds and the frequncy of doing these swim workout sets.

    • 500 to 1,000 yard / meter Open Water Swimming or Sprint Tri Swim Workouts
    • 1,000 to 1,500 yard / meter Open Water Swimming or Olympic Tri Swim Workouts
    • 1,500 to 2,500 yard / meter Open Water Swimming or Half-ironman Swim Workouts
    • 2,500 to 5,000 yard / meter Open Water Swimming or Ironman Swim Workouts

    Swim On!

    Mat

    These sample swim workout sets for an open water swimming triathlete could be done as part of a swimming workout that also includes a warm-up and cool-down. The total distance of swimming sets within a workout should be built-up over time. The first workout of the season would not be the full race distance; that may be a goal distance for 4 to 6 weeks away from the first race of the season. Depending upon the ability level of the swimmer, some initial goals should be to swim at least three times per week and to swim at least 30-minutes per workout.

    Increase the time spent swimming by 10% to 20% each week.

    Some long-term goals might be to swim up to 5 times per week, with some workout sessions as long as 90-minutes for ironman-distance triathletes (an ironman-distance triathlete might do a 2-hour workout, but not very frequently, or only if they are at the elite level). In a general sense, frequent shorter sessions are more productive than a few long sessions each week since maintaining technique becomes more difficult as the length of the workout increases, and a triathlete wants to balance becoming faster and stronger with good technique. For more on how fast and how often to do these workouts, review the article How Often and How Fast.

    • Olympic-Distance Swim = 1500m
      • Brain Work: 1500m swim as a steady, sustainable, non-stop effort. Your total time should go down as you get fitter; you might also find your time stays the same but you feel stronger at the end of the swim, an indicator of increased technique proficiency. Over time, add 100m to 300m to these swims until the full distance is covered.
      • Race Simulation: 1500m swim with varied efforts to simulate the early, mid, and late portions of the race. The first 50 strokes at a moderate to high level, the mid-portion at a moderate, sustainable level, and the closing section at a moderate to moderately higher level (not as fast as the first 50 strokes). At the end of this swim, check your heart rate; check it again at 30, 60, and 90 seconds. As you get fitter, heart rate should go down faster and/or your total swim time will get faster.
      • Technique Golf: Swim 10x 25m (or 50m) with: 15s-30s rest, count strokes for each length. Add stroke count and time n seconds. Aim to decrease total for each 25 (or 50) within a workout and over the weeks.
      • Sustainable Pace: The 50-50 workout. Divide the race distance into two parts (2x 750m). Swim segment at an easy to moderate effort, an effort that results in a time slower than segment two. Rest for 60s and check your heart rate at 0s, 20s, and 40s. If it is not going down, continue resting and re-checking every 20s until it starts to go down, then wait an additional 20s. Swim segment two at a moderate effort that results in a time faster than segment one. The pace for segment one should be consistent throughout that segment; the pace for segment two should be consistent throughout that segment. As you gain fitness, attempt to make the time (and pace) for each segment equal without slowing down the time for the second segment, then attempt to decrease the rest between segments. Don't try to do both at the same time, focus on increasing the pace for segment one first. Once the speed for segment one is about the same as segment two, you should be able to decrease rest between segments. Remember to use the heart rate check every 20s.
      • Hold a Pace: 10x 50m (or 10x 25m, 10x 75m, 10x 100m, 10x 150m, or 10x 200m; looking for a total time of about 20m), with 10s rest, at the fastest possible even pace. These should all be the same speed, with the goal of feeling like you might be able to do one or two more once you finish the set, but you could not do more. At the end of this swim, check your heart rate; check it again at 30s, 60s, and 90s. As you get fitter, heart rate should go down faster and/or your total swim time will get faster.
      • Count-down: swim 1500m as a 500, 400, 300, 200, 100; rest 10s to 20s between each segment. Aim to go faster as the segments get shorter. Over time, aim to decrease total swim time.
      • Hard-Easy-Hard: All of the repeats in this set should be the same distance. Swim 4x 25m at a fast, almost un-sustainable speed (or 4x 50, 4x 75, 4x 100, 4x 125, or 4x 150; looking for a total time of about 9-10 minutes for the 4 swims including rest), 2x 25m very easy focusing on technique (or 4x 50, 4x 75, 4x 100, 4x 125, or 4x 150; looking for a total time of about 6 minutes), and 4x 25m at a fast, almost un-sustainable speed (or 4x 50, 4x 75, 4x 100, 4x 125, or 4x 150; again looking for a total time of about 9-10 minutes) all on 20s-30s rest. At the end of this set, check your heart rate; check it again at 30s, 60s, and 90s. As you get fitter, your fast times should get faster, your speed fall-off between repeats will decrease, and your heart rate should go down faster.

      How often, and how fast, should you swim these workouts? Click here to read the the specifics on swimming speeds and the frequncy of doing these swim workout sets.

      • 500 to 1,000 yard / meter Open Water Swimming or Sprint Tri Swim Workouts
      • 1,000 to 1,500 yard / meter Open Water Swimming or Olympic Tri Swim Workouts
      • 1,500 to 2,500 yard / meter Open Water Swimming or Half-ironman Swim Workouts
      • 2,500 to 5,000 yard / meter Open Water Swimming or Ironman Swim Workouts

      Swim On!

      Mat

      These sample open water swimming workouts for an open water swim or for a triathlete could be done as part of a swimming workout that also includes a warm-up and cool-down. The total distance of swimming sets within a workout should be built-up over time. The first workout of the season would not be the full race distance; that may be a goal distance for 4 to 6 weeks away from the first race of the season.

      Depending upon the ability level of the swimmer, some initial goals should be to swim at least three times per week and to swim at least 30-minutes per workout. Increase the time spent swimming by 10% to 20% each week. Some long-term goals might be to swim up to 5 times per week, with some workout sessions as long as 90-minutes for ironman-distance triathletes (an ironman-distance triathlete might do a 2-hour workout, but not very frequently, or only if they are at the elite level). In a general sense, frequent shorter sessions are more productive than a few long sessions each week since maintaining technique becomes more difficult as the length of the workout increases, and a triathlete wants to balance becoming faster and stronger with good technique. For more on how fast and how often to do these workouts, review the article How Often and How Fast.

      • Half Ironman-distance Swim = 1900m
        • Brain Work: 1900m swim as a steady, sustainable, non-stop effort. Your total time should go down as you get fitter; you might also find your time stays the same but you feel stronger at the end of the swim, an indicator of increased technique proficiency. Over time, add 100m to 300m to these swims until the full distance is covered.
        • Race Simulation: 1900m swim with varied efforts to simulate the early, mid, and late portions of the race. The first 50 strokes at a moderate to high level, the mid-portion at a moderate, sustainable level, and the closing section at a moderate to moderately higher level (not as fast as the first 50 strokes). At the end of this swim, check your heart rate; check it again at 30, 60, and 90 seconds. As you get fitter, heart rate should go down faster and/or your total swim time will get faster.
        • Technique Golf: Swim 10x 25m (or 50m) with: 15s-30s rest, count strokes for each length. Add stroke count and time n seconds. Aim to decrease total for each 25 (or 50) within a workout and over the weeks.
        • Sustainable Pace: The 50-50 workout. Divide the race distance into two parts (2x 950m). Swim segment at an easy to moderate effort, an effort that results in a time slower than segment two. Rest for 60s and check your heart rate at 0s, 20s, and 40s. If it is not going down, continue resting and re-checking every 20s until it starts to go down, then wait an additional 20s. Swim segment two at a moderate effort that results in a time faster than segment one. The pace for segment one should be consistent throughout that segment; the pace for segment two should be consistent throughout that segment. As you gain fitness, attempt to make the time (and pace) for each segment equal without slowing down the time for the second segment, then attempt to decrease the rest between segments. Don't try to do both at the same time, focus on increasing the pace for segment one first. Once the speed for segment one is about the same as segment two, you should be able to decrease rest between segments. Remember to use the heart rate check every 20s.
        • Hold a Pace: 10x 50m (or 10x 25m, 10x 75m, 10x 100m, 10x 150m, or 10x 200m; looking for a total time of about 20m), with 10s rest, at the fastest possible even pace. These should all be the same speed, with the goal of feeling like you might be able to do one or two more once you finish the set, but you could not do more. At the end of this swim, check your heart rate; check it again at 30s, 60s, and 90s. As you get fitter, heart rate should go down faster and/or your total swim time will get faster.
        • Count-down: swim 1900m as a 550, 450, 350, 250, 150, 100, 50; rest 10s to 20s between each segment. Aim to go faster as the segments get shorter. Over time, aim to decrease total swim time.
        • Hard-Easy-Hard: All of the repeats in this set should be the same distance. Swim 4x 25m at a fast, almost un-sustainable speed (or 4x 50, 4x 75, 4x 100, 4x 125, or 4x 150; looking for a total time of about 9-10 minutes for the 4 swims including rest), 2x 25m very easy focusing on technique (or 4x 50, 4x 75, 4x 100, 4x 125, or 4x 150; looking for a total time of about 6 minutes), and 4x 25m at a fast, almost un-sustainable speed (or 4x 50, 4x 75, 4x 100, 4x 125, or 4x 150; again looking for a total time of about 9-10 minutes) all on 20s-30s rest. At the end of this set, check your heart rate; check it again at 30s, 60s, and 90s. As you get fitter, your fast times should get faster, your speed fall-off between repeats will decrease, and your heart rate should go down faster.

        How often, and how fast, should you swim these workouts? Click here to read the the specifics on swimming speeds and the frequncy of doing these swim workout sets.

        • 500 to 1,000 yard / meter Open Water Swimming or Sprint Tri Swim Workouts
        • 1,000 to 1,500 yard / meter Open Water Swimming or Olympic Tri Swim Workouts
        • 1,500 to 2,500 yard / meter Open Water Swimming or Half-ironman Swim Workouts
        • 2,500 to 5,000 yard / meter Open Water Swimming or Ironman Swim Workouts

        Swim On!

        Mat

        These open water swimming workouts for open water swimmers or for triathletes could be part of a swimming workout that also includes a warm-up and cool-down. The total distance of swimming within a workout should be built-up over time. The first workout of the season would not be the full race distance; that may be a goal distance for 4-6 weeks away from the first race of the season.

        Depending upon the ability of the swimmer, some initial goals should be to swim at least three times/week and to swim at least 30-minutes per workout.

        Increase the time spent swimming by 10% - 20% each week. Some long-term goals might be to swim up to 5 times/week, with some workout sessions as long as 90-minutes for ironman-distance triathletes (an ironman-distance triathlete might do a 2-hour workout, but not very frequently, or only if they are at the elite level). In a general sense, frequent short sessions are more productive than a few long sessions each week, since maintaining technique becomes more difficult as the length of the workout increases, and a triathlete wants to balance becoming faster and stronger with good technique. For more on how fast and how often to do these workouts, review the article How Often and How Fast.

        • Ironman-distance Swim = 3800m
          • Brain Work: 3800m swim as a steady, sustainable, non-stop effort. Your total time should go down as you get fitter; you might also find your time stays the same but you feel stronger at the end of the swim, an indicator of increased technique proficiency. Initially, non-stop efforts of shorter distances should be preformed. Over time, add 100m to 300m to these swims until the full distance is covered.
          • Race Simulation: 3800m swim with varied efforts to simulate the early, mid, and late portions of the race. The first 50 strokes at a moderate to high level, the mid-portion at a moderate, sustainable level, and the closing section at a moderate to moderately higher level (not as fast as the first 50 strokes). At the end of this swim, check your heart rate; check it again at 30, 60, and 90 seconds. As you get fitter, heart rate should go down faster and/or your total swim time will get faster. For a longer race, add more distance to the simulation.
          • Technique Golf: Swim 10x 25m (or 50m) with: 15-30s rest, count strokes each length. Add stroke count and time in seconds. Decrease total for each 25 (or 50) within a workout and over the weeks.
          • Sustainable Pace: The 50-50 workout. Divide the race distance into two parts (2x 1900m). Swim part one at an easy to moderate effort, an effort that results in a time slower than part two. Rest for 60s and check your heart rate at 0s, 20s, and 40s. If it is not going down, continue resting and re-checking every 20s until it starts to go down, then wait an additional 20s. Swim part two at a moderate effort that results in a time faster than part one. The pace for part one should be consistent throughout that part; the pace for part two should be consistent throughout that segment. As you gain fitness, attempt to make the time (and pace) for each part equal without slowing down the time for the second segment, then attempt to decrease the rest between segments. Don't try to do both at the same time, focus on increasing the pace for segment one first. Once the speed for segment one is about the same as segment two, you should be able to decrease rest between segments. Remember to use the heart rate check every 20s.
          • Hold a Pace: 10x 50m (or 10x 25m, 10x 75m, 10x 100m, 10x 150m, or 10x 200m; looking for a total time of about 20m), with 10s rest, at the fastest possible even pace. These should all be the same speed, with the goal of feeling like you might be able to do one or two more once you finish the set, but you could not do more. At the end of this swim, check your heart rate; check it again at 30s, 60s, and 90s. As you get fitter, heart rate should go down faster and/or your total swim time will get faster.
          • Count-down: swim a 900, 800, 600, 500, 400, 300, 200, 100; rest 10s to 20s between each segment. Aim to go faster as the segments get shorter. Over time, aim to decrease total swim time. Add more to the front end of the set to add distance
          • Hard-Easy-Hard: All of the repeats in this set should be the same distance. Swim 4x 25m at a fast, almost un-sustainable speed (or 4x 50, 4x 75, 4x 100, 4x 125, or 4x 150; looking for a total time of about 9-10 minutes for the 4 swims including rest), 2x 25m very easy focusing on technique (or 4x 50, 4x 75, 4x 100, 4x 125, or 4x 150; looking for a total time of about 6 minutes), and 4x 25m at a fast, almost un-sustainable speed (or 4x 50, 4x 75, 4x 100, 4x 125, or 4x 150; again looking for a total time of about 9-10 minutes) all on 20s-30s rest. At the end of this set, check your heart rate; check it again at 30s, 60s, and 90s. As you get fitter, your fast times should get faster, your speed fall-off between repeats will decrease, and your heart rate should go down faster.

          How often, and how fast, should you swim these workouts? Click here to read the the specifics on swimming speeds and the frequncy of doing these swim workout sets.

          • 500 to 1,000 yard / meter Open Water Swimming or Sprint Tri Swim Workouts
          • 1,000 to 1,500 yard / meter Open Water Swimming or Olympic Tri Swim Workouts
          • 1,500 to 2,500 yard / meter Open Water Swimming or Half-ironman Swim Workouts
          • 2,500 to 5,000 yard / meter Open Water Swimming or Ironman Swim Workouts

          Swim On!

          Mat

           

          Updated by Dr. John Mullen on April 27, 2016

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          Your Citation
          Luebbers, Mat. "Open Water or Triathlon Swimming Training Workouts." ThoughtCo, Apr. 27, 2016, thoughtco.com/swimming-training-workouts-3170181. Luebbers, Mat. (2016, April 27). Open Water or Triathlon Swimming Training Workouts. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/swimming-training-workouts-3170181 Luebbers, Mat. "Open Water or Triathlon Swimming Training Workouts." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/swimming-training-workouts-3170181 (accessed November 18, 2017).