Looking to improve your swimming but not sure where to start? Whether you’re a triathlete looking to get on the feet of the front pack, or introducing swimming into your routine as a form of cycling cross training. Dive in to these top swim tips from triathlete, Tom Epton. With some seriously speedy swim times behind him (he recently swam 4 minutes 29 seconds for 400m!) you’re definitely going to want to keep reading…

Five Tips for Improving Your Swim 

The swim only takes up between 1.5 and 3 percent of a triathlon’s distance. Yet for many athletes, it’s the part of the race which concerns them the most. Swimming has a technical aspect which is not present in cycling and running, which causes a lot of athletes a bit of difficulty. On top of this, swimming is often coupled with negative thoughts. Whether it’s a general dislike of swimming, a bad experience in a race or memories of freezing cold pools and a mean swimming teacher from childhood. Some triathletes just don’t seem to love swimming.

Most swimming pools come with a big clock on the wall. This clock can be your best friend or your worst enemy. There’s nothing worse than seeing splits slower than you want repeatedly, but when your fitness is building and the times are dropping – the clock is a blessing! Whether it’s your enemy or friend on a given day, the clock will keep you accountable and it’s a perfect tool to track your improvements.

Keep reading for five tips to help you improve your swim…

Practice swimming drills – sometimes!

Drills are a contentious issue amongst coaches. Some think they’re great and others think they’re pointless. The truth lies somewhere in the middle with specific drills sprinkled into sessions making the biggest difference. Big ‘drill sets’ and ‘technique sessions’ are best left to pure swimmers. Triathletes do not have time for this. In any sense, technique is less important when swimming in a wetsuit. Focus on drills that train a good body position, high arm cadence and increasing stroke length.

Increase your cadence

Swim cadence refers to how many strokes per minute you complete. By increasing your stroke length and cadence you will get faster (as speed is a product of these two numbers). Especially when swimming in a wetsuit, simply moving your arms faster will result in an increased pace. Learning to swim at a high cadence is difficult but it’s something elite athletes work on a lot. It is a more effective way to swim when your race has a mass start or you’re swimming in slightly rougher waters, as ‘missed strokes’ become less of an issue. In triathlon, especially in the UK, our wetsuit does a lot of the heavy lifting for us so with the right conditioning we can swim very fast with a traditional ‘triathlete windmill’ swimming stroke.

Volume: more is better

Swim more. I know nobody wants to hear this, but it’s true. The best part about this advice is it’s much less likely to cause an injury than the advice of ‘run more’. Long course triathlon legend Chris ‘Macca’ McCormack once reportedly said: ‘If you swim 50k a week for a few months, you’ll never worry about making front pack again’.

I’m not suggesting you should swim this much, but increasing the amount of swimming you’re doing is an uncomplicated solution to getting faster. Increasing the frequency at which you swim is also a wise move. It means you’re likely to remain consistent by building habits (such as visiting the pool on the way to work). Stringing many high-volume weeks together will make a bigger difference than any exotic collection of technique drills and sprint sessions.

Swim in your wetsuit. Pro triathletes will regularly don their wetsuits in the pool during winter. Swimming in a wetsuit is something that triathletes need to get used to doing and swimming in your wetsuit during winter will make it feel less alien by the time those late spring races come around. Swim lots and swim in your wetsuit lots – a simple, but effective way of getting faster.

CSS sessions: bump up your threshold pace

‘CSS’ stands for ‘Critical Swim Speed’. CSS sessions work on what swimmers call ‘threshold’. This is different to what runners call threshold and different still to what cyclists call threshold. To keep it simple – CSS is roughly your 1500m pace. Completing a CSS test is quite easy and you do this to find your ‘CSS pace’.  To complete the test, you do a 400m ‘time trial’ swim, have a rest until you feel recovered and then do a 200m time trial. After this you go here and calculate your CSS. Repetitions at CSS pace are difficult but rewarding. They’re excellent for conditioning to ‘race pace’ efforts and working at an important intensity.

Enter a swimming race, if you’re feeling brave…

Nothing will focus your training like the thought of getting smashed in a swimming race. Stepping out of your comfort zone will focus your training. Entering a 400m race in a master’s swimming event will bring a purpose to your training and preparing for this event during winter is quite specific to triathlon so will not be ‘wasted’ training time. Generally speaking, swimming races are fun and inclusive events to be a part of. For information on how to race these, your best bet is getting in touch with your local swimming club.

Slogging up and down the pool isn’t fun but doing so through winter will have you getting onto the bike further up the field, fresher and will set you up for a better race. By making time-efficient use of swimming drills, increasing your swimming cadence, upping the volume, swimming at your CSS and focussing your training by entering a swimming race – your race pace will be higher next year. As the saying goes – you can’t win a triathlon in the swim but you can definitely lose it there. Better get training!


Ready to get swimming? Check out Tom’s pool sessions to seriously up your swim speed.


About the author
Tom Epton is a 23-year-old early career pro triathlete, based in the South East of England. He graduated from the University of Southampton with a first-class BSc in Physics, spent a year working as a computational physicist at the Optoelectronics Research Centre and is now completing a master’s degree in Data Science. He’s also a cofounder and co-inventor of training plan building software ‘The Running Algorithm’ and can be reached on Instagram.  More information on Tom’s racing, training and writing can be found on his website.