The Top 3 Points to Consider in Your Triathlon Race Strategy: Swim Strategy

Part 2 in a 3-part series.

In the first entry of this blog series, we introduced the topic of pacing. While pacing, especially on the bike and run in long course triathlon, is hugely important, its application is minimized if your day is already over in the swim.

You need a solid swim strategy to complement your overall triathlon race performance.

While the swim is always the shortest portion of a triathlon, its importance is well warranted. You can’t win in the swim alone, but you can certainly lose in it. How you train for and execute in the swim leg can affect the rest of your race. By utilizing the best swim strategy for YOU, exiting the lake ramp will send you off on the bike with confidence.

Swim tactics for the greater majority can be boiled down to three key topics: 1) start position, 2) drafting, and 3) perceived effort stages.

1) Start Position

Triathlon race strategy depends on the acknowledgment of your own strengths and, more importantly, your own weaknesses. The start of the swim might exasperate any weaknesses you have in the water if you’re too ambitious with your start location before the gun sounds. On the other hand, your true potential could be nullified by selecting a position too humble.

Proper acquisition of your best start position largely depends on what type of swimmer you are. This requires being aware of how strong you are in the open water, not just the pool.

If you’re experienced and feel comfortable in open water pack swimming, it wouldn’t make much sense to place yourself in the middle of the crowd. Get up front and carpe diem! Likewise, if you’re a newbie, perhaps reconsider wading at the front of your wave unless you enjoy being trampled in a vicious arena where everyone struggles to see one another.

Do you primarily breathe to the right or the left? If to the right, place yourself closer to the left of the wave so that you’ll have a better view of your competitors. Vice versa for left-side breathers.

If you know a few competitors in the race you’d like to draft behind, start near them. Above all, don’t be afraid to put yourself in the position that will guarantee you the most success.

2) Drafting

Part of your triathlon race strategy might depend on who your competition is. Have a friend who’s a little bit faster than you in the swim? As stated in the previous paragraph, positioning yourself near him or her is a smart move. But once the race starts, you still need to know how to draft to take advantage of your friend’s speed.

There are a couple of strategies to drafting. You can draft directly behind the swimmer – on his/her feet. Or you can draft slightly to the side – between the ankles and hips. In Key Principles of Open Water Drafting, an article on Active.com by esteemed USA swimming competitor and coach Steven Munatones, we learn that the perfect position is taking the latter strategy.

Obviously if you’re not a bilateral breather you’ll want to be on the side of the leader where you can see him or her upon each breath. Stay as close as possible without unnecessary contact in order to obtain the maximum portion of the bow wave.

It’s best to practice drafting with a friend in a lake well in advance of race day. Work on sighting and riding the leader’s wave in conjunction with each other. You’ll discover whether directly behind or slightly to the side works with the type of swimmer you are. You’ll also learn how drafting requires much attention to the leader’s feet, sudden changes in direction, and sudden changes in speed.

As always, practice makes perfect.

3) Perceived Effort Stages

We’re labeling this section of swim strategy as perceived effort stages because knowing your true pace in the open water swim is incredibly difficult. How you handle the intensity of your swim effort will take a lot of practice and, quite frankly, simple triathlon race experience.

Much like the run, one could divide the swim leg into three stages: beginning, middle, and end. For some athletes, it might be best to keep a perceived effort constant for all three. For others, though, attacking each portion of the swim at different intensities will produce greater results.

Again, this is going to depend on the strength of your swim and how competitive you want to be. Stronger swimmers will want to start fast, hold the pace strong but conservative through the middle, and then close hard.

Newcomers may want to hold back at the beginning, especially to avoid panic and a spiked heart rate. The weaker swimmer can then build in intensity throughout the duration of the swim, finishing strong and confident.

Not to sound like a broken record, but again, practice and training will be your best friend. One great exercise for judging how to handle perceived effort is by doing a long swim in the pool, preferably with the ability to see a digital clock of your elapsed time. This way you can take note of your split every 500 yards/meters. Does your pace slow significantly? If so, you might not want to sprint at the start of your triathlon race. If your pace only diminishes marginally, however, it’s probably best to take out fast at the beginning and try to hold on.

By acknowledging these swim tactics and incorporating them into your training you greatly improve your chances of entering T1 fresh and hungry. In part three of this triathlon race strategy series, we’ll discuss the final and equally important topic: nutrition.

TRIDOT TAKEAWAY: Triathlon race strategy starts with a proper send off in the swim. By selecting the start position best suited for you, taking advantage of drafting, and knowing the best perceived effort to hold during each stage of the swim you encourage the overall success of your triathlon race right from the beginning!

TALK WITH TRIDOT: Do you agree with the swim strategies discussed in this post? Do you think swim strategy is an important point to consider in triathlon race strategy at all?

JARED MILAM is a professional triathlete, TriDot coach, and member of the Tri4Him Pro Team. He has 16 years of competitive running experience and 11 years of competitive triathlon experience with a half Iron PR of 3:59 and a full Iron PR of 8:30. Coaching under the TriDot system since 2011, Jared loves working with aspiring triathletes of all ages and performance levels.


Munatones, Steve. Key Principles of Open Water Drafting. Active. Active, n.d.

Web. 3 Nov. 2015.

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