Masters Swimming versus Triathlon Masters Swimming

I am a triathlon swimmer. Although I grew up in the water, I did not swim competitively. When I started swimming for triathlon, I realized how bad my swim actually was. I tried many things to catch up to speed and some worked better than others. In the end, what worked best was simply “time spent in the water”, complimented by a coach’s eye from time to time to push me past a plateau. Time spent in the water must be consistent in order to reap the benefits. Time spent in the water can be very productive when it is also spent in a Masters swim group. In Dallas, I have swum with two groups, DAM (Dallas Aquatic Masters) and the DFW Tri Club and they are both effective, but have their differences. DAM is what you typically think of when you think of a swim Masters program, made up of swimmers with some triathletes sprinkled in. Triathlon Masters Swimming is made up of triathletes with some swimmers sprinkled in. This article talks about the differences between the two.


In Masters swimming, it is rare to see a snorkel. Experienced swimmers who have been swimming competitively for much of their lives likely did not use a snorkel when growing up so do not bring one to Masters now. In a ten lane pool, when you have the area’s top swimmers in lane 1, lane 5 can be daunting for the triathlete new to swimming. Swimmers in lane 5 don’t use snorkels, because the lane 1 & 2 swimmers don’t. And if lane 5 people aren’t using a snorkel, well it certainly trickles down from there. Maybe you’ll find one in lane 9 or 10? In Triathlon Masters Swimming, we celebrate the snorkel. It isolates the mechanics of your stroke by taking the breathing out of the equation. You can focus on your stroke, you can isolate your kick, work on your balance, use it for active recovery… and even work on your breathing with a snorkel. But you don’t see them at Masters. Tri Masters: 1 – Masters: 0. I recommend this snorkel: snorkel


You see them all the time at Masters. But kickboards cause your hips to drop. Purposefully practicing with sinking hips reinforces this bad habit. Since swimming places so much emphasis on proper form, it is counter productive to practice kicking with a kickboard. The more you practice movements with your body in the correct position, the quicker your body will learn to be there when you are in full swim mode. But they’re great for your ankles! Yep, don’t even put the kickboard in the pool, just keep them on deck and kneel with the top of your feet and shins laying on it. You want to go faster with the same effort? Stretch your ankles to get a better rudder. This is particularly important if you are a big runner, who likely has a hard time with plantar flexion (the ability to flatten your ankle as it becomes a straight line with your leg). Tri Masters: 2 – Masters: 0.


Regular masters has their participants swim with the other three strokes much more often than Tri Masters. Although it pays to be specific and triathletes mainly need to focus on freestyle, using the other strokes engages your other muscles and helps keep you more balanced. Triathletes can always use more balance. Tri Masters: 2 – Masters: 1.

Flip Turns

Although flip turns are not specific to one masters or another, it is safe to say that swimmers at Masters are much more comfortable with consistently doing them than their Triathlon Masters swimming counterparts. Not to mention, there is a small debate in the Triathlon community with some triathletes questioning the use of them, since there are no walls in the open water. However, the ability to do them consistently is important. Walls in a pool interrupt your swim. The shorter the pool, the more interruptions you get. In open water swimming, there are no interruptions, so the ability to do a flip turn more closely resembles open water swimming. Plus, flip turns force you to improve your breathing. They help develop the ability to control your breathing better and they force you to deal with the discomfort of hold your breathe longer. Finally, the fast swimmers flip turn. If you want to swim with the fast swimmers, you need to be able to come off the wall with them. If you’re not flipping, they’ll lose you after the first lap with zero extra effort. I am not an advocate of beginners worrying about doing flip turns. They have other more important things to worry about than the flip turn. The wall is your friend until you build a bigger swim fitness base. You get to rest at the walls! But there comes a point when you need to learn them and start incorporating them into your workouts. When you think you are ready to start flip turning, don’t be shy to try them! Start by doing it once every 100 meters and then increasing their frequency. Since this is more of a Masters thing, Tri Masters: 2 – Masters: 2.

Open Water Simulation

The best way to practice for open water swimming events is in the open water with other swimmers; however, that is not always practical. In Triathlon Masters swimming, it is not uncommon to work on drills that simulate the open water. For example, you may do sets with crowded lanes to practice drafting or sets where you sight to the front. I have never seen a Masters swim coach ask us to do a “Tarzan swim”. Masters swimming typically prepares you for swimming competitions in the pool, so these other drills may not be necessary. Our local Masters did have a special OWS simulation once in a while though, where they took the lane lines down at the 50 meter pool and swam as a group across it. It looked like a lot of fun, but it was not incorporated in their regular daily practices. In a nutshell, open water swimming is an important skill and Triathlon Masters Swimming wins, Tri Masters: 4 – Masters: 2. DTC masters 2

Triathlon Coach on Pool Deck

A swim coach without the experience of having completed a triathlon may not fully understand the demands of the bike and the run, as well as how you might be able to compensate for that on the swim. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for swim coaches to teach adults the same way you would a youth swim team. Most triathletes are adult onset swimmers; it’s an entirely different ballgame. Most of the time, a Masters swim will have a swim coach on deck; but every time, a Triathlon Masters swim will have a triathlon swim coach on deck. Not a total loss, but specificity can go a long way for a final score of Tri Masters: 4 – Masters: 2. 


If you are a triathlete, you are better off in a Triathlon Masters swim program, but you are not far behind in a Masters swim program. Although variety is important, including triathlon specific workouts that you often find in Triathlon Masters swimming each week will translate to better racing. If there is a Triathlon Masters swimming program in your area, definitely check it out, but don’t think you are missing too much if it doesn’t work for you. You will still get the the benefits mentioned above with Masters swimming, in addition to building confidence and swim fitness.

Happy swimming!
Tri Coach Mark
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