Your First Triathlon


Are you thinking about taking part in a triathlon but put off by the swim leg?

If so, you are not alone!

Every week I hear from people who are frustrated by swim leg. Cycling 20 km and running 5 km are 100% achievable but surviving 400 m in the ocean seems like an impossibility.

“I know I’m fit from my riding and running but when I swim I get exhausted after 50 meters and have to stop to get my breath back. I don’t understand why it feels so difficult. I’m annoyed because the 12 year old girl in the next lane makes it look effortless as she glides past… Can you help?”

Well the answer is YES!

If you have experienced frustration and a part of you knows that there must be a better way then you are ready to take your next step.

This article will help you to understand WHY your swimming feels like a struggle and show you WHAT you need to do to build your skill and confidence in the water. You can also leave a comment below to say HOW you are going…

The reasons why you get exhausted so quickly…

On a bicycle your legs apply power to turn the cranks, the chain turns the rear wheel and you go forwards. To go faster you turn your legs faster or use a higher gear to supply more power. There is a direct relationship between power and speed. More power means more speed!

Swimming is not the same. Sometimes the most ‘powerful’ swimmers waste 90% of their energy thrashing and splashing their way through the pool. The most skilful swimmers apply their effort more deliberately and make it look easy. Less bubbles, less noise, more glide and more forward speed.

You don’t have to be an Olympic swimming coach to see and hear the difference.

Reason 1: Arm speed is not the same as speed through the water. Slow Down so you can feel what is going on!

Most people can walk a long way. You might only have time for 30 minutes along the beach or you might get hungry after 4 hours of bush walking but you certainly don’t get exhausted after 2 minutes! So what is so different?

Unless you spent your childhood in and around the water chances are you aren’t as comfortable in the water as you are on land. Water is an enigma to your body. Water is a dense medium so resists your forward movement but it slips through your fingers as you pull back so it is hard to generate propulsion. In our walking analogy it would be like walking up a muddy hill in bare feet! Physically not so easy…

As a human being you also have thoughts and feelings. You may not be aware of them but you still have them! If you had a traumatic experience with water or learning to swim as a child this may be more obvious but the truth is that all of us have an important safety mechanism which is there to prevent us from drowning. Water is dangerous. As you lose contact with the ground your unconscious mind switches into survival mode. You might feel tension in your body or you might feel outright panic set it. Unless you super relaxed and love the sensations of being super relaxed then you are probably somewhere in between those two extremes. ‘Fright or Flight’ mode is activated a lot or a little. You feel like you need to keep your head above water, you work hard to counteract the sensation of sinking and swim faster to ‘get to the other end’. Phew! Made it! Is it still a mystery why you feel spent after a single length? In our walking analogy this would be like trying to outsprint a pack of hungry wolves!

Reason 2: You are fighting the water. Take away the hill & stop running from the wolves. Stop Fighting!

… and besides, there is a lot of water in the ocean so you are unlikely to win anyway! Save your energy for moving forwards.

Your first step is to learn how to be more relaxed in the water. What you need to do is to build a better relationship with the water so you can develop the skills you need to be a more effective swimmer.

DO try this at home…

Here are some simple steps you can take right away.

1. Allocate some regular time to work on your swimming. 3 x 30min sessions per week is a great starting point for learning new skills. Schedule them into your diary to strengthen your commitment.

2. Embrace the challenge. You may feel nervous or frustrated. That is fine. It is just a sign that you are working on something that challenges you. There is no such thing as ‘getting it wrong’ and you are either working on your swimming regularly or not. Your Choice!

3. Keep track of your progress by writing in a journal or note book each week. This will help you to see your improvements when you look back.

4. Start to feel what is happening in your stroke. Are your arms moving too fast? Where is your energy going? Are you fighting the water? Can you feel how your body moves through the water? What does it sound like?

5. Try something a bit different. There are plenty of different swimming drills that will change the way you swim. Can you feel a difference after the drill? A favourite of ours is ‘Jellyfish’. Breathe in and float in the water. Allow your arms and legs to dangle down like the tentacles of a jellyfish. Let your head hang heavy and nod it to check that your neck muscles are relaxed. If you are in the ocean then allow the swell to move your limbs around. Feel the support of the water. Don’t resist anything. Allow yourself to sink as you exhale if you do. If you don’t then that is fine too!

6. After any drill go back to your swimming and see what difference you notice. Are you more relaxed? Can you feel the support of the water? Are you flowing more easily in your stroke? Are you less out of breath?

7. Let me know how you are doing. What differences do you notice in your swimming? Do these ideas make sense? Leave a comment to say how you are going and ask any questions.

In the meantime swim well and live well.


PS The next article in the series will teach you how to get balanced in the water. You will learn how to glide further and lengthen your stroke.

4 Responses to “Your First Triathlon”

  1. Peter Stork Says:

    heloo Dunstan,

    I’m from Australia living in Nha Trang, Vietnam, where I swim part of the beautiful bay in its calm season. Wondering if you have any videos posted that I can have squizzy. I’m a self trained 55-old always looking to improve my long distance swimming passion. Cheers, Peter Stork

  2. Dunstan Bertschinger Says:

    Hi Peter,

    The most popular TI video by far is Shinji’s –

    Terry Laughlin’s demo is at

    There is also a great talk from Terry at

    You can find lots more my searching YouTube.

    If you would like something more instructive I can recommend the Easy Freestyle DVD – available from

    All the best,


  3. Jay Bergers III Says:

    Hello Dunstan,
    Great tips and suggestions! I may need to pick another Open Water Challenge
    and tackle the SAR Swim Around the Rock in 2012. I am inspired by your comments! Look forward to feeling more comfortable in the water! I had bought
    the TI dvd but never really did much about learning a new approach to swimming!
    Thanks very Much! Respectfully, Jay

    • Dunstan Bertschinger Says:

      Thanks Jay,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article.
      Let me know if you have any specific Qs with your swimming.


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