Do You Have To Swim Freestyle In Triathlons? Better Alternatives!

The freestyle swimming technique is known to be the most common swimming stroke, competitive swimmers train with. The freestyle swimming stroke is so popular that most swimming commercials show swimmers swimming in freestyle.

Most swimmers consider the Freestyle swimming technique the best because of its ability to provide greater speed while swimming. It is normal to advise swimmers to swim freestyle considering its amazing benefits.

But do you have to swim freestyle as a triathlete?

In triathlons, it is not required to use freestyle stroke. Triathlon rules allow every triathlete to use whatever swimming technique that allows them to propel well through the water. However, freestyle swim stroke is the most commonly adopted because of its speed and efficiency benefits if used correctly.

The freestyle stroke propels a swimmer faster without the use of an enormous amount of energy since the head is always kept in a neutral position. Apart from providing great speed, it works on almost all muscles of the body which can be equated to doing a full-body workout.

Although the increased speed might be beneficial to every swimmer sprinting through the water, it could still be a disadvantage to you in a long run during the triathlon event for beginner triathletes if not practiced correctly.

It’s important to know the pros as well as the cons of swimming freestyle during a triathlon, so you could decide which swimming stroke works best for you. The truth is this, just because a thing is popularly known for being good doesn’t mean there are no pitfalls.

Also, do you know why swimming is the first leg in triathlons? Check our post on Why Does Triathlon Start With Swimming? How Risky Is It!

Can a Swimmer Be Disadvantaged While Swimming Freestyle During a Triathlon?

The freestyle stroke involves kicking the legs in small fast movements also known as the flutter kick.

Although this helps to propel you faster while sprinting through the water, when you have a really poor freestyle swim technique and you are not able to control your kicks, it becomes a disadvantage.

This might cause an energy drain on your legs. Since the swim leg is the first leg in a triathlon event and is considered the shortest, it’s quite a disadvantage to have an energy drain on your legs before having to partake in the other legs of the triathlon.

Speaking of which, make sure to check out our post titled: Can You Rest During A Triathlon Swim? Why It May Save Your Life!

For this disadvantage, it is advisable to develop your kicks. Because when there is no proper kick, there is no proper freestyle.

Because when there is no proper kick, there is no proper freestyle.

How can a swimmer improve their freestyle kicks?

While swimming freestyle, you should have your head faced down with your eyes on the front end. With that, you will have your legs straightened to make flutter kicks properly. Also, you should practice widening your stroke as this helps keep the body balanced and in a straight line. (Source)

What is the best alternative to a freestyle stroke in a triathlon?

The breaststroke is a better alternative to the freestyle swimming stroke especially for a beginner triathlete who has a weak freestyle technique.

 The breaststroke vs the freestyle stroke in a triathlon?

Although the breast swimming stroke is the slowest competitive swimming stroke, it is considered the best alternative to freestyle. This is very important if you are a beginner with a very weak freestyle. The breaststroke is very beginner-friendly and, easier to learn. A breaststroke is a fallback option for triathletes who lose their breath during the swim leg since the breaststroke involves the head being above water.

Many beginner triathletes opt to alternate between the breaststroke and the freestyle to conserve energy

It has been said that swimmers using the breaststroke swimming technique are able to reach a speed of 1.75m/s when properly coordinated and timed. But then, this will still be 25% slower than swimming freestyle due to the increased surface drag. (Source)

For more on this, check out our post “Can You Breaststroke In a Wetsuit? Why You Shouldn’t Anyways !

What are other swimming strokes apart from the breaststroke and freestyle?

Apart from the Breaststroke and freestyle stroke, there are other swimming strokes which include:

  • Backstroke – This is very similar to the freestyle but it is done on the back.
  • Butterfly stroke – This stroke is considered the toughest swimming stroke. it is very difficult to learn but it is the second-fastest competitive swimming stroke
  • Sidestroke – This is usually not used in competitive events but can come in handy for lifeguards when there is a drowning scenario.

What are the swim violations to avoid?

Every triathlete should be aware of the rules guiding the swim leg and adhere to each of them strictly to prevent any form of disqualification. Such rules include:

  • The inappropriate use of a wetsuit – According to the ITU competition rules, the wearing of a wetsuit is governed by a range of temperature. When this is violated it leads to disqualification.
  • For the Elite and junior triathlete, wearing a wet suit is mandatory when the water temperature is between 14-16 degrees celsius and forbidden when the water temperature is between 20-22 degrees celsius.
  • While for the Age group triathletes, wearing a wet suit is mandatory when the water temperature is between 14-16 degrees celsius and forbidden when the water temperature is between 22-24 degrees celsius.

Get detailed information on an article we wrote about your wetsuit choices and what to wear for a triathlon

  • Inability to maintain the prescribed swim course – Each triathlete swimmer should avoid going against the swim course set for each triathlon event.  
  • The use of any foul language on other participants – Participants should avoid any form of abusive or argumentative conversation with other participants.

Violation of these rules leads to disqualification of the offending participant. (Source)

Also check out: Big Head Swim Caps: Should you Use One? Everything You Need To Know!

What Is the Toughest Part of The Swim Leg?

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The swim leg is the first and shortest leg in a triathlon compared to other legs. Although it is seen as the least significant, it seems daunting due to the intimidating sight and thought of the water. The toughest part of the swim leg is adjusting to the cold temperature of the water. Also, there is a major difficulty with seeing and breathing while in water.

Tips to make the swim leg easier

Despite the swim leg seeming daunting, it is possible to make your swim leg easy by:

  • Drafting during the swim leg: This helps to save up some time and energy since it is not prohibited.
  • Using the right swimming goggles: There is a chance of bumping to one another due to the limitation in vision caused by the water which may eventually result in a misunderstanding. Avoid this by using the right swimming goggles. If you wear glasses, then check out our article about How Much Does Prescription Swimming Goggle Cost? Types and how to pick one
  • Testing the water before diving in: Splash some of the water on you to avoid any form of shock to the body when you dive into it.
  • Practicing frequently in open water: This will get you prepared for the unexpected that might occur during the swim leg.
  • Alternating between strokes
  • Trying Alternate Breathing
  • Consider installing an endless pool in your home if you have the cash for it. Check out our article on if endless pools are Worth It ?! Pros, Cons, Sizes, Speeds, Cost & Alternatives!

What are the benefits of alternate breathing?

Alternate breathing means being able to breathe on both sides. That is, breathing on the left side and right side alternatively. This helps maintain symmetrical balance while swimming and keeps you alert of other participants as you swim.

It also makes swimming easier as you can maneuver the waves that you might encounter in the water. (Source)

The Swim leg vs the bike leg and run leg

The swim leg compared to other disciplines is considered the first, shortest, and least significant of all legs.

It consists of less than 10 percent of the triathlon (timing-wise).

While there has been an argument between the bike leg and the run leg being the most important.

Drafting is Legal during the swim leg compared to the bike leg. Check the article we wrote about Why is bike drafting illegal in triathlons? And how you can still draft

During the swim leg and the bike leg, it is advisable to conserve your leg energy to avoid muscle weakness during the run leg.


As a triathlete, you don’t have to swim freestyle, especially as a beginner. There are alternatives like breaststroke which is much simpler and beginner-friendly.

It is also advisable to have an appropriate kick while swimming freestyle because of the disadvantage of having a leg drain which can be avoided by either improving on your kicks or using the best alternative swimming stroke, breaststroke.


An extreme triathlete who have competed in dozens of triathlons including IronMans and Extreme triathlons.

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