“I’ve always wanted to do a triathlon, but I can’t swim.” I’ve heard this said on several occasions, and never quite understood it. If you’ve always wanted to do a triathlon but cannot swim well (or at all), this article is for you. First, let me reassure you by saying that many recreational triathletes are mediocre swimmers at best – in fact, the unofficial motto of triathlon is “just get me on the bike.” Secondly, it actually doesn’t take that much swim prowess to finish a triathlon, especially a sprint triathlon, whose swims are generally about 400 yards long and can be completed in less than 10 minutes.
A 10-minute swim. Do you think you can do that? Virtually anyone can swim that distance after just a few pool workouts, even starting from the very common position of I’ve-never-swum-laps-but-I-can-paddle-just-enough-to-avoid-drowning. Fear not, most of us started out that way.
A bit of bad news here is that you cannot completely fake it. You must put in at least a few hours in the pool even if you think you “can swim.”
The first triathlon I ever did was a sprint tri with a 400-meter swim in an Olympic pool – 8 lengths. One poor girl apparently attempted to tough her way through the swim without training. I’m sure she thought to herself “Oh, it’s only 400 meters, I can swim,” while not honestly assessing the fact that “knowing how to avoid drowning” is not the same as “knowing how to swim.” Everyone watched this girl hold onto the floating pool lanes while slowly sidestroking each length. In the end it took her over 23 minutes to complete what should’ve been an 8 minute swim, and by the end she appeared totally exhausted.
I’ve been around lakes and pools my whole life, but when I first started swim training I could barely make it 25 yards before stopping to gasp for air. It was a humbling experience. Progression will come quickly, but you must do some sort of swim training, even if you think you know how to swim.
I hired a triathlon coach when I first started, and while I’d highly recommend it, I must admit that it’s not strictly necessary. You can teach yourself how to swim. YouTube videos in particular come in handy, as they will generally show the right way and the wrong way to do something. Most of us are visual learners, and seeing an activity in practice is much more helpful than just reading about it in a book.
So, get started! Don’t let this one little think hold you back from getting involved in triathlon. I’ve written an article on the best swimming workout for beginner triathletes, which should be a good starting point. Good luck!