Mary Beth Ellis spent a great chunk of her triathlon career leading races out of the water, and on many occasions, all the way to the finish line. She’s here to breakdown the some of the seriously soggy swim advice she’s come across.

Text by Mary Beth Ellis | Images by Witsup


I actually started at age six on a summer club team. At that age, they had the kids do kickboard races and not swim races. But I was so shit at kicking that instead of kicking I moved up an entire age group to do swim races instead. Even swimmers who make it to the Olympic Trials are not all flexible, tall, and gifted at kicking.

I’m not an expert at swim coaching, but I swam for 16 years and followed that up with eleven years in triathlon. Over that time, I’ve watched the struggle of triathletes without a swim background floundering in the pool. And I’ve read the advice published in the triathlon magazines, on websites, as well as by coaches and pro athletes – half of it is pure garbage. Don’t believe everything you read. Just because someone’s a pro or a coach doesn’t mean they are qualified to dispense swim tips.

As an example, one of the triathlon magazines had Gary Hall, an amazing gold medal swimmer over 50 metres, doling out swim tips to triathletes. That is like Runner’s World asking Usain Bolt to give you tips on how to run your next half marathon.

In one article, it was advised that triathletes use a six beat kick. For those who aren’t swimmers, a six beat kick is very powerful and fast when you’re swimming a 50 but very inefficient and has an enormous energy cost. No triathlete would ever want to use a six beat kick for a 1500 metre, let alone a 3.8 km swim. You’d exit the water exhausted and slower than normal as you hit the wall before the first buoy; good luck finishing the bike and run!

In another article, a pro athlete, who typically exits the swim 20 minutes back in Kona, recommended that triathletes don’t worry about speed or endurance just focus on technique. Yes do that if you want to be slow.


Stop the nonsense! Here are real recommendations for triathletes just getting into the pool:

1)  Stop all the kicking. Kicking is useful as a recovery tool after a long or hard run to loosen up legs otherwise for most it is a waste of time. The only other instance in which I ever use kicking is when I’m on deck with athletes and use small fins to work on balance and timing as an aid to teach the two beat kick.


2)  Wear your wetsuit. If you’re training for a wetsuit race, train in your wetsuit at least once a week. Swimming in a wetsuit changes how your body balances in the water and you need to build up the strength through your shoulders to resist the rubber. Swimming even your warm up only in a wetsuit once a week will help you be ready to race in it.

3)  Longer sets. I see coaches recommending short choppy broken up sets with kicking and drills in between the real meat of the workout. Unless you’re swimming seven days a week and this is only one of your workouts you are wasting your time. Long main sets are key to building up the endurance necessary to swim straight for 1500 metres up to four kilometres. Your set should be at least as long as you plan to swim in the race.

4)  Swim more and longer. If you think swimming twice a week for a few kilometres is going to get you fit enough to race an iron-distance you’re fooling yourself. My long distance athletes will swim of five to six kilometres once a week in preparation. It may not improve their swim speed but it will dramatically improve their endurance. Why is that important? You exit the water and bike for 180km, then run a marathon. We want you to have the endurance so that a four kilometre swim won’t wipe you since your day doesn’t end in T1.


5)  Stop all the technique work. The only thing worse than no technique work is unsupervised technique work. You are getting no fitness and probably practicing drills poorly and improper techniques that are making you slower.  Unless you have a personal coach on deck or someone filming you and showing you the footage after each swim, the technique work is a waste of time.

6)  Cheap technique hack. If you insist on working on your stroke, throw a mirror on the bottom of the pool. It’s the easiest way to get immediate feedback while swimming and look down to check yourself during your entire session.  You may be surprised with what you see.

7)  Don’t try to swim like Michael Phelps. If you’re not over six feet tall with a freaky long torso and insane flexibility you will never swim like or look like an Olympic swimmer, so stop trying to emulate their long smooth stroke. If you insist on looking at top swimmer’s stroke and you’re 5’4”, at least find an athlete whose body type mirrors your own. But again, they are probably at a different level of flexibility than you.

8)  Faster cadence. In open water, unlike a flat smooth pool, the water is constantly moving and shifting. Fast cadence is key in those conditions and for almost all beginner swimmers increasing cadence will improve your fitness and speed. There are ways to increase cadence, swimming long sets but sets made up of short reps like 25s or 50s will allow you to get in distance but with shorter reps you are able to maintain high turnover.


9)  Use toys for strength. There are many toys that help build strength: from pull buoy and paddles, to pull buoy, paddles, with a band, to band only, and drag toys like a parachute, towel or drag suit. All are great for strength but for beginner swimmers the best tool is paddles with a pull buoy. But ensure your paddles are the proper size for your strength. Most beginners need small paddles so that you can maintain your normal turnover while swimming.  Huge paddles won’t do anything but make you a fast swimmer with huge paddles on and slow cadence that won’t translate to swimming without the paddles.

10) There is no substitute for getting wet. The vasa trainer or swim cords or lifting weights are not a substitute for swimming. Get to the pool and in the water – it is the only way you will get fitter and faster.

Finally, listen to coaches you know are knowledgeable in swim training for triathlon. I think Brett Sutton has excellent advice on swimming for age group triathletes. He has a series of articles out now that cover his recommendation.

But listen to any coach whose swimmers don’t just swim fast but race their entire triathlon fast. The true triathlon swim gurus help your swim incrementally improve but not at the expense of your entire triathlon race performance.



About The Author

Stef Hanson. Chief.

Chief and founder of WITSUP

Serious about what I do, but don’t take myself too seriously

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3 Responses

  1. Brad Minus

    This advice is truly the 180 degree turnaround from everything I have read, have been coached and coached myself. I am seriously going to take the next month and dedicate my swims using your advice and see what happens. It makes a lot of sense.

    Thank you

  2. Rob Sleamaker

    For the most part, this article does have excellent advice. However, I must take issue with her point #10. I’d like to know her reasoning for making such a statement.

    Many swimmers and triathletes are time-starved and simply cannot get to the pool or open-water with consistency. Even if they do, the quality of that swim training may be questionable for many reasons. There exists indisputable evidence that thousands of athletes and coaches of all abilities, from Olympians to beginners, have successfully relied on Vasa Trainers and Vasa SwimErgs to “get it done” with Vasa, gaining quality training and technique improvements. It is not clear if Mary Beth Ellis has ever actually trained for any length of time on a Vasa Trainer or SwimErg.


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