Backstroke During a Triathlon

Triathlon Event  I read your reply to a question about using the backstroke in a triathalon. Your suggestion was to not use this stroke, but to learn to crawl for the event. I would think any stroke that you were facing forward (crawl, breast, side, etc.) would be acceptable, although not necessarily as fast. True?

Brian from South Carolina

Triathlon Event  Hi Brian,
Thank you for contacting!

Yes, you are correct. Excluding backstroke, any recognized strokes (not doggie paddle and the like) are acceptable for the swim portion of a triathlon.  Here at TriathaNewbie, we just want to see people train for, try, and complete a triathlon.  That means to use whatever stroke works for you!

With that said, however, The preferred stroke is crawl or freestyle for a number of reasons:

  • It shows respect. Triathlon competitors normally swim freestyle and it is sort of an unwritten rule that all participants plan on swimming freestyle when competing.

  • You are facing the in the direction you are moving. Backstroke and sidestroke have you facing in the wrong direction and you can injure yourself or another person.

  • Freestyle is the fastest stroke a human can do (if done properly).
  • Freestyle limits the amount of pain you can inflict on an adjacent racer. Sidestroke and breast stroke can knock the wind out of an unsuspected fellow swimmer or injure them pretty badly if they are kicked in the head. It is understood that you may need to an occasional breast stroke or side stroke to re-position, re-align or catch your breath, but you should be doing freestyle for the majority of the race.

As an aside, when I was a lifeguard way back in the day, we were taught that when a swimmer flips over on his back in a competition, they are considered distressed and in need of assistance. So two things to keep in mind:

  • If you become disabled or realize you did not properly train for the swim portion, signal a lifeguard before you become distressed. A bit of embarrassment is better than getting in over your head (literally).

  • If you are in a race where this happens to someone else, keep out of arms reach and ask the person if they are OK. If they are OK, they will tell you. If they do not answer you, sink or try and grab you, get away from them and signal for a lifeguard immediately. Do not try and save the swimmer or you could also become a victim yourself. Leave it to the professionals

That brings us back to why freestyle is the best route to go.

  • You can’t injure anyone.
  • You won’t look like a drowning victim.
  • You will look like the real triathlete that you are aiming to be!

Other resources that are VERY helpful to beginner triathletes in learning how to swim proper freestyle in open water are the Terry Laughlin books:

  1. Triathlon Swimming Made Easy: The Total Immersion Way for Anyone to Master Open-Water Swimming.
  2. Outside The Box: A Total Immersion Swimming Program For Success In Open Water with Terry Laughlin (read an excerpt here)

We hope that helps. Please email with any other questions.

Be well,
~Jack Recommended Resources:


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