How to swim faster in an Olympic Triathlon?

How to swim faster in an Olympic Triathlon?
Are you preparing for an Olympic Triathlon, but are unsure what to look for in your swim training? Or do you just want to enhance your speed and learn to swim faster? This article will help you get the most out of your swim training and improve the swim time in your next triathlon over the Olympic distance.

Training Fundamentals

In swimming and sports in general, it makes sense to distinguish between three basic intensity zones. Depending on the intensity, the body uses different metabolic pathways to provide the necessary energy.

Aerobic Zone (Endurance Zone)

In this zone, the body primarily uses oxygen to convert the energy stored as carbohydrates, fat or protein into the fuel ATP (adenosine triphosphate) required by the muscles. Subjectively, training in the aerobic zone feels like a light to moderate effort. However, the intensity is only so high that one could theoretically train for several hours without being exhausted.

Threshold Zone

If you increase the training intensity more and more, you will eventually reach the point where the available oxygen is no longer sufficient to supply the muscles with enough fuel. If this is the case, the body additionally falls back on the lactate metabolism. This mechanism can be used to produce additional ATP for the muscles. The problem, however, is that in addition to the ATP for the muscles, the “waste product” lactate (lactic acid) is produced, too. If too much lactate accumulates in the body, we feel it as a burning sensation in the arms or legs. You get out of breath and every movement becomes difficult until at some point you have to stop to recover.

The threshold zone is defined as the area where lactate slowly begins to accumulate. The intensity is already quite high, but still low enough so that you could swim in this zone for about an hour without exhausting yourself.

Anaerobic Zone (Sprint Zone)

If you increase the swimming intensity even further, you will enter a zone where lactate accumulates so quickly that you have to stop after a few seconds to a maximum of 2 minutes to recover. This zone is called the anaerobic zone because most of the energy is provided via the lactate metabolism and not via the oxygen pathway (anaerobic).

Swim Training Based on Intensity Zones

Depending on the distance of the swim competition, the aerobic and anaerobic metabolisms are used with varying degrees: While in a 50 meter sprint swimmers almost exclusively swim in the anaerobic zone - you can tell by the fact that swimmers only breathe a few times and therefore swim with virtually no oxygen - at swimming distances of 400 meters and more it is mainly the aerobic metabolism that is active.

So, how do you know in which zone you are swimming? The so-called Critical Swim Speed ​​(CSS) has established itself for this problem. This number is calculated from the difference between the fastest 400 meter and the fastest 200 meter swimming time and approximately corresponds to the threshold zone.

For example, if you have calculated a CSS of 1:30 min / 100 m and want to train in the threshold zone, the swim speed should be in the range of about 1:26 - 1:34 min / 100m. If you swim faster, you train in the anaerobic zone (sprint zone). If you swim more slowly, you train in the aerobic zone (endurance zone).

The Swim Coach App automatically takes care of the calculation of the CSS and also provides all necessary training zones.

Polarized Training

If you dive into endurance training theory, you will certainly come across the concept of polarized training. There are studies that show that polarized training is superior to other training concepts.

In contrast to “conventional” training where you try to train most of the sessions with a relatively high intensity and thus spend a lot of time in the threshold zone, polarized training is based on a different approach: You try to avoid the threshold zone as much as possible.

One of the reasons for this is that in conventional training the moderate sessions are too strenuous and tiring and then you lack the necessary energy to really go to the limit in the hard sessions. However, especially these training sessions with maximum intensity are very important to give the skeletal and heart muscles the necessary training impulse.

With polarized training instead, you train about 80 - 90 percent of the total training time with moderate intensity in the aerobic zone and the remaining 10 - 20 percent with very high intensity in the anaerobic zone. To achieve this distribution, you can plan a sprint interval training with 50 meter sprints for every third training session. As the warm up and cool down is not in the anaerobic zone, the distribution is about 80 : 20. In the remaining training sessions the focus should be on endurance and technique in the aerobic zone.

Swim Training for the Olympic Triathlon

So how do you specifically train for an Olympic Triathlon? To answer this question, we have put together a list of various tips for a faster swim time over the 1500m course:

Aerobic Capacity

An Olympic Triathlon takes place mainly in the aerobic zone, therefore this zone should be specifically trained. To train your aerobic metabolism, intervals of 100 - 400m are particularly suitable. Swim the intervals at a speed close to or slightly below your CSS (polarized training) and keep the breaks in between as short as possible (if possible under 20 seconds).

High Intensity Intervals (HIT)

In order to become a faster swimmer, you should train 10 - 20 percent of your total training time in the anaerobic zone. Short sprints between 25 and 50m (interval training) are especially suitable for this. It is important that the intensity is kept very high during all intervals so that the muscles are stimulated to the maximum. In the breaks in between, you should take enough time for recovery so that the energy stores in the muscles can refill. However, to keep the intensity at a high level, the breaks should not be too long, e.g. 20 - 60 seconds after each 50m sprint.

We recommend to plan a sprint training for every third or fourth swim training session. For a maximum training effect you should spend about 12 - 20 minutes in the anaerobic zone. Intensive sprint training on two consecutive days should be avoided, as otherwise muscle building is hindered.


Training sessions with paddles are excellent for increasing strength. Outside the swimming pool, strength can be additionally increased with push-ups, pull-ups and other strength exercises. Here, too, you should make sure to allow sufficient time for regeneration and build-up of a muscle section.

Long Distance Swimming

In order for your muscles to adapt to longer swimming distances, you should plan a long-distance training session every now and then. In these trainings, you swim a few intervals of 500 - 1000m (e.g. 3 x 500m or 2 x 800m). These trainings are not about setting a new best time, but rather about swimming the course without a break and getting a feel for the distance. Therefore the pace can be a bit lower than your CSS. Ideally, you swim these training sessions in open water and with the same equipment as during the competition.


As with all swimming distances, a good water position and arm technique is crucial for a fast swim time. It is worthwhile to include some technical exercises into every training session to improve your swimming technique. Our favorite exercises are: Superman Drill, Towfloat Drill and swimming with one arm. But also training with a snorkel can help to focus on perfect arm and leg movements as well as good body rotation.

If you train with the Swim Coach App, the virtual trainer makes sure that your technique is not neglected.


It is worthwhile to practice bilateral breathing (on both sides) during training to practice a balanced swimming style with good body position. In competitions, two or three stroke breathing has proven to be effective.

Since most triathlon competitions take place in open water, you should also occasionally practice looking forward for orientation in order to swim directly to the next buoy.


Since a strong kick consumes a lot of oxygen, it should be used with caution when swimming longer distances. Especially during competitions in a wetsuit, you already have a good water position due to the buoyancy. An intensive leg stroke can lead to unnecessary energy consumption. Energy that is missing later on the bike or run course.

During swimming training you will often experience the situation that your legs are tired from the run and cycling training. Instead of training with heavy legs and suboptimal water position and acquiring a bad swimming style, it can help to use the pull buoy and focus the training on the arms.

Creating a Swim Training Plan for an Olympic Triathlon with the Swim Coach App

The Swim Coach App helps you with setting up an effective training plan to enhance your swim speed in the Olympic Triathlon. When creating a new training plan you can define various parameters to get a plan tailored to your individual needs.

To see improvements we recommend to swim at least 2 times per week with a total distance of 6 km or more per week, e.g. 2 trainings with 3000 m per week. The training focus should be a mix of Endurance, Speed, Strength, Long Distance and Technique. Instead of Technique you can also add an Allround session to add even more variety to your swimming training. For each workout focus, the Swim Coach algorithm adds a dedicated training session to your plan and then cycles through them.

Instead of setting up your own training plan, you can also choose the Competition Training option. Just select the Olympic Triathlon option and app will take care of the rest and create a balanced swim training plan for your next Olympic Triathlon.

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The Swim Coach App is available for Android and iOS.