I thought I was done with the So You Wanna Do a Triathlon series, but I realized there was another very important topic to address –> the issue of a pool v. lake swim.

In case you missed the rest of the posts in the series, here they are:



When browsing triathlons, you’ll notice that there are two types of swim courses:  pool swims or lake swims.  I’ll admit – when I first started to do triathlons, I thought that pool swims somehow made the triathlon seem less badass and real.  This is probably because I was terrified of open water swims but very comfortable in the pool, so lake swims seemed like the ‘true’ version of a triathlon.  As a result, I didn’t do a pool triathlon until my seventh triathlon.


When I finally did a pool triathlon, I was very surprised to discover that, in many ways, it was HARDER than a lake triathlon.  I never expected this!  I believed a pool tri would be easier simply because the pool was the safe and familiar environment.  But not so!  Not at all.


Here’s how the pool triathlon that I did worked.  When I signed up for the race, I had to choose a “wave” for the swim – how fast I thought I could swim.  The race directors provided the following chart; I seeded myself in Wave 8.

The organizers set us up by wave, and then we walked in, single-file, across a bulkhead the separated the pool into two sets of ten 25-yard lanes.  When it was your turn, you ran across the timing mat, jumped in the pool (no diving), and began to swim.  They waited 10 seconds between each swimmer.  When you got to the end of the first lane, you had to duck underneath the buoys and swim up the other  lane. 

One of the reasons that I found the pool triathlon challenging was this wave system.  Despite the fact that I swam slower than anticipated (I finished in 5:24 instead of 5:00, which would’ve put me in Wave 7, not 8), I had to crawl over two women who were even slower than I was.  This was, obviously, very distracting for both me and the other women.  The swim was also compounded by the fact that I had to stop at the end of each lane, duck under the buoys, and pop out on the other side.  This interrupted my breathing and prevented me from getting into a stroke rhythm since I was essentially stopping every 25 yards.  I was already sprinting because 250 yards was a short distance to me at the time, and the combination of swimming as fast as I possibly could AND passing people AND messing up my stroke AND messing up my breathing was absolutely exhausting.


In contrast, in a lake swim, you either stand on the beach, stand in the water, or tread water waiting to start – and the entire age and sex group starts at one time.  You kind of ‘seed’ yourself by standing in the front if you’re fast, standing to the side if you’re nervous, or standing to the back if you’re slow. 

An advantage to the lake swim is that once you get started, you don’t have to stop.  It’s much easier to get into a rhythm with your stroke and breathing.  This, of course, can also be a disadvantage, but you can always float on your back or tread water if you need a break.  And, yes, you may have to crawl over other swimmers or get crawled on, but this usually only occurs at the start of the race (unless it’s a very large event).  You can ‘get away’ from other swimmers if you want to.


Of course, lakes seem a lot scarier than pools.  As I said, they are unfamiliar.  Creepy things live in them (and your imagination can go absolutely crazy when you’re staring down into murky brown lake water!).  There are no walls to hang onto.  There are lifeguards nearby, but it feels less secure.  And if you’re already nervous about the swim, this can feel totally overwhelming.

Another advantage of a pool over a lake swim?  Man – you feel SO MUCH cleaner coming out of the pool.  One of the worst parts of a triathlon is doing the bike and run dripping in lake water.  This may just be a personal thing – and I guess reeking of chlorine isn’t very nice, either.

In conclusion, are pool triathlons ‘real triathlons?’ Um – YOU BET.  I was so wrong when I thought it was inherently less challenging!  In some ways, pool triathlons feel easier than a lake triathlon, but in other ways, they are even harder.  It really depends on how you feel emotionally about the swim and what your concerns are specifically (this post has tons of tips on getting over open water fear –> So You Wanna Do a Triathlon: Swimming). 


Have you done a pool and a lake triathlon?  Which did you think was more challenging? 



  • Katie @ Peace Love & Oats May 31, 2012, 1:38 pm

    I think I’d prefer lake, I’d just have to get over my fear of what’s in there! One downside to lakes though is there can be waves if it’s windy!

  • Angela @ Eat Spin Run Repeat May 31, 2012, 1:41 pm

    Interesting post! Lake swims make me nervous because of all the slimy lake-dwelling creatures that could potentially be in there swimming along with me, but I didn’t know the things you said about the pool swim. I used to swim competitively and warm-ups at competitions were often pretty rough. I was kicked in the face a few times and that isn’t fun! In a triathlon, Having to swim overtop of others (or being the one that gets swum-over) does not sound appealing! Now that I think about it, maybe an open water swim wouldn’t be so bad… 😉

  • Victoria (District Chocoholic) May 31, 2012, 1:43 pm

    Mmmmmmmmm lake zombies…

  • Laine May 31, 2012, 1:48 pm

    Don’t forget the ocean! All the tris around here (south shore of Boston) are ocean. I’m doing my first one in a month.

    • Erin May 31, 2012, 7:50 pm

      Ditto! I live in Malaysia and am doing my first tri in July, with an ocean swim! I’m a little bit nervous because I can’t practice here due to the risk of jellyfish. I do lap swimming, but I’m not sure how to prepare/psych myself up for the ocean!

      • Jen June 1, 2012, 12:04 am

        I went to Malaysia a few years ago (that is my brother-in-law’s home) & I saw those crrrrazy jellyfish…holy cow – they were like something from outer space!!! YIKES! 🙂

        Best of luck with your tri!!!

        • Jen June 1, 2012, 12:35 am

          By the way, as freaky as those creatures were, I never heard of them bothering anyone in the water…we just kept seeing them washed up on the beach (despite the resort’s daily effort to remove them). Don’t worry – with all the tri “traffic,” I cannot imagine that there will be any trouble with them!

  • Lauren @ mostlyirun May 31, 2012, 2:03 pm

    I’ve only ever done a tri in lake or bay. I would have thought the pool swim would be easier, but I guess not!

    Another option for triathlons is an ocean swim. That terrifies me and I’m not sure I’ll ever do one!

  • Angie May 31, 2012, 2:37 pm

    I’ve done both a pool swim (in the pool my masters program uses for workouts) and open water – lake, river (Potomac river through downtown DC) and Chesapeake bay. I much prefer the lake or river swims because once you get out of the scrum at the start, you can pretty much swim your swim without worrying about other people unless you start passing earlier waves. The pool swim was a gigantic pain; they ran the swim slowest to fastest, and since I am a strong swimmer, I was very close to the end of the swim. And I still had to deal with passing people in a 250 yard swim! I don’t know if I’d do a pool swim again when there are so many great open water tris near me.

  • Mari May 31, 2012, 2:40 pm

    This might be a dumb question, but what exactly do you mean about “crawling” over others in the pool? Do you literally mean what a commenter described as “having to swim overtop of others”? I mean, people don’t actually swim ON TOP OF others, right? Because that sounds crazy and dangerous! I thought that people would swim around, no?

    • caitlinhtp May 31, 2012, 7:09 pm

      Sometimes! Sometimes its just bumping into one another. The crawling is usually over just half of your body though, not over the whole thing.

  • Annette@FitnessPerks May 31, 2012, 2:54 pm

    I love this! And I agree-both have advantages and disadvantages. I hated the pool tri part of ladies being slower than me. I had to sprint over them too. Ugh. I can’t wait for my HalfIronman–it’s open water. Woot! I love getting into ‘a rhythm!’ 🙂

  • Breanne May 31, 2012, 3:02 pm

    My first (and only, well, to date anyway) triathlon was an open water ocean swim… I actually didn’t even know that there WERE pool swim triathlons. I can see how that would be a frustrating experience.

    I did my triathlon through TNT and even our practice tri was in the ocean. I guess it helps living by the beach. 🙂

  • Trainer Kjirsten May 31, 2012, 3:09 pm

    I’ve never done one but would love to in the future. I’d imagine a lake swim would be harder than a pool swim in my mind!

  • Mary May 31, 2012, 3:23 pm

    Lake! My house is actually on the lake that the Moss Park Triathlons are held on, so I’m pretty used to the iced tea colored water and overall creepiness.

  • Rae May 31, 2012, 4:09 pm

    Try doing a Lake tri with a mass start of 3000 people (Lake Placid) Talk about crazy!!!
    Lovin the series! Have you considered dong a nutrition component? I learned quite a bit about race fueling over the years-sprints to Ironmans…how to eat on the bike, etc. Interesting stuff!!

    • caitlinhtp May 31, 2012, 7:08 pm

      I talk a little bit about it in the transitions section but I don’t feel too qualified to discuss it for longer tris as I’ve only done an Olympic. My mode of attack for an Olympic is just to eat as much as I can on the bike in the form of Gu. What do you do?

      • Rae June 1, 2012, 10:58 am

        It’s different for everyone, but I have strategies for sprint-Ironman. For the longer distances, it comes down to body weight, perceived exertion, sweat rate, and training/time/effort….cool stuff. If you ever need a blog filler pot bebe, let me know and I would be happy to submit something 🙂

  • Heather May 31, 2012, 4:26 pm

    I have only done pool Tri’s and I swam competitively for years, so I was not intimiated by the swim portion. It was much more intense than any race, warm-up or practice. Our waves start fastest to slowest, but you have slower people infront of you as people tend to guess their time for placement. Having hundreds of people in the pool makes the water slosh back and forth, so you can get some serious waves. One of the best training drills I did was to practice the turns over and over(going under the lane line) and I never felt out of rythm. It is so much fun!!

  • Sarah B May 31, 2012, 4:49 pm

    I love lake and sea swimming. No black lines to follow, no smelly chlorine and with a lake swim no chemicals/salt on your body to cause chafing later in the race!! My first sea swim though I oddly felt sea sick as the waves were quite big, so I’d definitely say practise practise practise whatever type of swim your tri involves. I practise a lot in my wetsuit to get my shoulders used to a wetsuit again. I can’t wait for the tri season again:-)

  • Melissa Mollner May 31, 2012, 6:12 pm

    What about ocean swims? Most of the triathlons that I have done have been in the ocean…lot of different challenges there contending with waves and salt water.

    • caitlinhtp May 31, 2012, 7:05 pm

      I really want to do an ocean swim… one day!

  • Kelly May 31, 2012, 6:28 pm

    So far I have done an ocean swim and a pool swim. Since I had a calm day at the ocean I preferred that. I hated having to pass people and climb under at the end of every lane. However, there was more to worry about before withe ocean since it could’ve been crazy weather!

  • Courtney May 31, 2012, 7:03 pm

    Random swim question: I’m buying my first wet suit soon. Does anyone have any thoughts on sleeves vs. sleeveless?

    From what I’ve read it seems that wet suits with sleeves are faster but can feel restrictive in the shoulders. Also, I think I heard somewhere that wet suits with sleeves aren’t allowed in some races. Is that true?

    I live in Chicago, and Lake Michigan is cold! Would I freeze if I got a sleeveless suit?

    • caitlinhtp May 31, 2012, 7:05 pm

      Do you know what the lake temps will be when you race?

      I did a lake swim in 55 degrees with a sleeveless suit and I was fine… I was more concerned about freedom of motion than coldness, though.

  • Jacalyn May 31, 2012, 7:21 pm

    I have only done lake, but am doing my first pool tri in July. Now I am nervous. Eek!

  • Heidi May 31, 2012, 7:43 pm

    I haven’t done a triathlon (yet!) because I was always afraid of the swimming part. After reading all of your posts on swimming I went out, bought a cap and goggles, gathered my nerves and started swimming at my Y 3 weeks ago.Today I had my longest swim yet! So thanks for helping me overcome my fear! And as soon as I can affor my own bike I am totes doing a sprint triathlon!

    • caitlinhtp May 31, 2012, 7:44 pm

      congrats and wtg!!!!!

  • Jill May 31, 2012, 7:55 pm

    I have just in the past couple days been thinking about doing my first tri for real, and not just “once of these days maybe…” The thing is I live in NYC so access to a pool is hard/expensive. I’ve not swum much in the past several years but can certainly do freestyle, no problem. So my question is, how much do you think you need to train for the swimming part of a sprint distance tri? I have a bike and I am a 15-20 mile/week runner, so those parts don’t worry me at all. But I’m worried I would exhaust myself so much with the swim that I wouldn’t be able to finish the bike/run.

    • CaitlinHTP June 1, 2012, 9:49 am

      I think it depends on how strong of a swimmer you are and if you are nervous about it. I would say at least once a week, probably twice would be better. But if you are not super scared of swimming and can physically swim the distance, once a week would be fine.

      • Jill June 1, 2012, 7:35 pm

        Thanks for the advice! I love reading your tri-related posts.

  • Katie May 31, 2012, 7:58 pm

    I grew up in northern mn, and while I haven’t participated in a triathlon yet, the idea of swimming in a pool, or even training in a pool gets me very worked up. I hate chlorine, I hate the water temp and the awkward humidity in the pool area, yuck! I’m hoping to overcome this and get more used to it, but thank you for the post describing the differences!

  • Heather June 1, 2012, 12:22 am

    i think my biggest concern would actually be SEEING – can you see in the lake at all w/ goggles? i’m so used to it in the pool it would totally freak me out to not be able to see!

    • CaitlinHTP June 1, 2012, 9:48 am

      Not very well – usually about 5 feet in front of you, max. You need to practice sighting out of the water so you can tell where you are swimming.

  • Anna June 1, 2012, 10:01 am

    The first two triathlons I did were open water swims and I’ll be honest I had panic attacks during both and back stroked almost the whole way. It was ‘awful’ but I made it through! I’ve also had similar panic type feelings in some pool triathlons though because of how close the other swimmers are and how intense it feels weaving up and down the lanes.
    (sorry that was so negative…there is hope) But last summer I did my first international tri with an open water swim and FINALLY conquered my fear of the open water and Loved every minute of it! Now I would much rather do an open swim!
    Word of advice on both: do not panic. Take deep breaths and allow yourself to slow down and calm down to make it through the swim.

  • Bree August 4, 2012, 9:43 pm

    I have only done a pool tri, doing my first lake tri tomorrow. The pool wasn’t too bad, but it does seem that there is almost always some passing involved, not always because people don’t know their speeds, but because some people go steady all the way through while others start faster and slow down as they go. Ours was in a 25m pool and was arranged so that if you needed to pass the person in front of you, you touched their foot to let them know and then stayed behind them until the turn around. If your foot got touched, you were expected to let the person pass you at the end of the lane. It works pretty well, but can be frustrating, particularly if there is a miscommunication and the person doesn’t wait for you to pass.

  • Jessica August 21, 2014, 10:37 pm

    I appreciate and find your posts useful! I did my first tri, with a pool swim, and absolutely panicked during the swim for all the challenges you listed above. I ended up swimming 1:30 slower than I anticipated. I’m eager to try a lake swim tri to see if I would like it better. Plus, I need to prove to myself I can do it without panicking next time!

  • ruey September 14, 2014, 7:53 pm

    i found your blog in my search after failing at my first sprint tri in open water. out of the 700M open water swim in a lake, i think i only did about 200-230 before having an anxiety attack and had to be pulled from the water. cycling and running was piece of cake for me.. but the swim.. OMG! i trained hard in an outdoor pool and made sure i can swim 1000M since i heard open water was that much harder. but man..

    tons of scary thoughts and doubt ran through my mind in a split second and my fail proof breaststroke left me feeling i couldn’t get anywhere and couldn’t even catch my breath or take in my usual breath of air.

    so are there any pointers or tips on how to overcome open water swim?
    bookmarked your blog as my fav link~

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