These workouts will help you improve your swim leg, whether you’re doing a sprint triathlon or an Ironman
Many triathletes view the swim leg of a triathlon as an opportunity to work their upper body and save their legs for the bike and run.
Although it’s important to rely heavily on your upper body during the swim leg, you can still race using your kick and be prepared for the remainder of the competition, whether you’re doing a sprint triathlon, an Olympic-distance triathlon, a half-Ironman, or an Ironman. When kicking properly, your legs will experience minimal fatigue, your swim leg will be faster, and you’ll reduce how much energy you expend.
Here are five workouts for triathletes from U.S. Masters Swimming’s Workout Library, written by USMS coaches, that’ll help you improve your kick, breathing, pacing, and sprinting. These can each be completed in about an hour and will help you better your swim leg.
Take about two minutes rest between the warm-up and the main set and then between the main set and the cool-down. You can reduce or increase the intervals below as needed.
Workout 1: Breathing Patterns
This workout is helpful for synchronizing your kicking and breathing tempos and minimizing fatigue. If you can effectively time your kick and breath, you’ll conserve energy and gain power and speed. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Perform knuckle drill by bringing your fingertips to the base of your fingers. This reduces the surface area you’re pulling with. Because it’s different from how you normally swim, it makes you more aware of your pulling motion.
- When working on breathing patterns, it’s important to complete each breath (inhale out of the water and exhale in the water) normally. Before reducing how often you breath, be sure you’ve built a strong swimming background.
300 freestyle knuckle drill on 30 seconds rest
200 freestyle, 50 breathe every three strokes, 100 breathe every five, 50 breathe every three, on 1 minute rest
200 freestyle, breathe every five strokes, on 1 minute rest
200 drill, three strokes with your right arm (with your left arm at your side), three strokes with your left arm (with your right arm at your side), on 1 minute rest
400 freestyle, swim strong (not quite race pace) with a focus on syncing your breath and kick, on 2 minutes rest
10 x 50s freestyle, sprint with fins, on 1 minute rest between each100 choice, backstroke or breaststroke
Workout 2: Working on Pace
Now that you’ve worked on your kick and breath timing, it’s time to work on your pacing. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Don’t be surprised if you feel weird or “off” in the water at first. Faster and better can feel that way. Stick with the positive changes you’ve made and know that they’ll pay off in the long run. You may need to do the set a few times before it feels natural. This is normal. Be patient. The speed will come.
- Fingertip drag is done by dragging your fingers across the surface of the water during your recovery.
- The first two groups of 5 x 50s can be very different from one swimmer to the next. Practice pace and sprints based on what’s appropriate for you. Be as consistent as possible on both of these. Try to keep your times on the 50s in each group consistent—within two or so seconds is ideal.
- The 300 at the end of the main set is your big test. Focus on great technique early, and then maintain that technique as you build your speed.
300 freestyle, fingertip drag for the odd 50s, swim the even 50s, 30 seconds rest
5 x 50s freestyle, maintain a moderate pace each 50, on 10 seconds rest
5 x 50s freestyle sprint, on 10 seconds rest
5 x 50s kick in a streamlined position, on 10 seconds rest
5 x 50s freestyle, perfect technique, on 15 seconds rest
300 freestyle, build each 25 with the last being an all-out sprint
Workout 3: Kick to Tri
This workout is great as you progress with your kicking technique and leg strength in the water. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Catch-up drill is done by leaving one arm extended in front of your shoulder while the other arm goes through the stroke cycle. Once that arm catches up to the extended arm when it enters the water, it stays there while the other arm goes through a stroke.
- Superman kick is done on your stomach with your face in the water and your hands apart, just outside of your shoulders. (This is different from doing your kick in a streamlined position.) The point here is to kick with your hands in a position that’s close to your catch position, from which you start your pull. Using a center-mount snorkel is helpful, as is kicking with fins if you’re struggling to master this. Feel free to do a small sculling motion with your hands to help with your body position and balance.
- Do the kicking in the main set on your side. A six-beat kick means you kick three times with each leg with one arm extended in front of you. You then take a stroke to roll over onto your other side and then do another six kicks. The two-count drill helps you mimic an actual stroke tempo.
200 free, 25 catch-up drill/25 free, on 30 seconds rest
8 x 25s Superman kick, on 10 seconds rest
8 x 25s fingertip drill
4 x 25s six-beat kick, on 10 seconds rest
4 x 50s freesyle on 10 seconds rest
4 x 25s kick, odds on left side, evens on right side, on 10 seconds rest
4 x 50s free, on 10 seconds rest
4 x 25s drill, glide for a count of two when your arm enters the water, on 10 seconds rest
4 x 50s freestyle, on 10 seconds rest
4 x 25s drill, catch-up drill, on 10 seconds rest
4 x 50s freestyle
300 swim, on 20 seconds rest
Workout 4: Tri to Speed
This workout helps you train faster than race pace (aka sprinting). Here are some things to keep in mind:
- If you can maintain your technique while sprinting, that’s a good sign that what you’re doing in pace training (and your race) is nearly ideal. The best sprinters always have an amazing kick.
- You might be wondering why you should bother sprinting during your training. After all, swim legs are 400 meters at a minimum and can extend up to 2.4 miles in an Ironman. You need to cultivate sprint speed to break away to a faster pack, prepare your legs for T1, or to beat somebody to and around a buoy.
- When you’re sprinting, as in the 12 x 25s in this workout, you don’t have time to think about technique. For better or worse, muscle memory will take over. Make sure your technique is good before sprinting too much and ingraining bad habits. Your technique will worsen over the course of your sprint. Don’t worry—it happens to everybody. The recovery between the hard sets will allow you to get your heart rate back down and reset your technique.
200 freestyle, on 20 seconds rest
200 pull, on 20 seconds rest
50 freestyle, focusing on good technique, on 10 seconds rest
10 x 50s freestyle, maintain a fast pace throughout, on 20 seconds rest
100 fingertip drill, on 20 seconds rest
12 x 25s freestyle, first six on 1 minute, second six on 45 seconds
100 freestyle recovery
8 x 25s, kick on your right side on the odds/kick on your left side on the evens, on 10 seconds rest
Workout 5: Side-Kick Kicking Sets
This workout is very good for building leg and general cardio endurance. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- When you kick on your side, your lead arm should be extended out in front of you and your other arm should be at your side, with your hands where your pockets would be on a pair of pants. If you use a center-mount snorkel, it’ll make holding your head position much easier. Use fins as you begin to build your technique and strength but remove them as you gain more confidence and skill.
- With the 200 drill as part of the cool-down, don’t overthink the drilling. With enough repetition, muscle memory will eventually take over. You can also have someone film you swimming. It’s a great teaching tool in the hands of a coach.
100 kick on right side on 20 seconds rest
100 kick on left side on 20 seconds rest
100 freestyle, focusing on your kick, on 20 seconds rest
8 x 25s kick, on right side on odds, on left side on events, 10 seconds rest after each
5 x 100s, kick on right side for first 25, swim a 50, kick on left side for last 25, 30 seconds rest after each one
500 free, swim with focus on technique and kicking from your hips
200 freestyle zip-up drill (as each arm recovers, drag your thumb from your hip to your arm pit to help with hip rotation) on 30 seconds rest
Get More Triathlon Workouts in USMS’s Workout Library
U.S. Masters Swimming has created a searchable database of online workouts, developed for seven swimming specialties and featuring all ranges of distances, strokes, and skill levels. With this members-only feature, you can:
- Subscribe to receive workouts for the week emailed to you every Monday
- Filter by course, desired distance, and type of sets you want to do
- Send workouts to your smartwatch via our Swim.com integration
- Customize a workout via Swim.com and truly make the workout yours
- Print workouts easily so you can bring them to the pool
- Technique and Training