Can I Rest During A Triathlon Swim?

After being in triathlon for several years, I wish I would have learned some of its swimming rules sooner. It would have definitely helped me stress less about the swim portion and convince more of my friends to start triathlon.

Resting in a triathlon swim is allowed as long as triathletes don’t make forward progress. Athletes can rest by standing on the bottom or holding to an inanimate object (ex: buoys, stationary boats, floating objects). If a triathlete is requesting assistance, he will need to retire from the race.

Let’s check in more details what you can and cannot do during the swim.


Let’s have a look at the official rule for the Ironman events:

Any assistance during the swim will result in disqualification if forward progress was made. Athletes are permitted to use the on course kayaks and boats as aid, as long as no forward progress is made. Race Officials and medical personnel reserve the right to remove athletes from the course if such removal is determined medically necessary.

Section 4.01 (h) – 2020 Ironman Competition rules

I find it interesting that kayaks and boats are explicitly mentioned. If another triathlete would have told me that, I doubt I would have believed it!

As written in the article, The Most Important Swim Rules In Triathlon, I have also checked the rules of the ITU and three of the biggest national federations (USA, France, and Great Britain), they all authorize you to rest by standing on the bottom or by holding to an inanimate object (ex: buoys, stationary boats, floating objects) as long as no forward progress is made.
However, if you request assistance (by raising an arm overhead), you will need to retire from the race.


Swimming breaststroke is allowed in all triathlons. I used this stroke entirely for my first two triathlons and then started to alternate it with freestyle. As soon as I needed a rest, I switched to breaststroke.

Just be aware that you will need more space around you. Speaking from experience, receiving a kick from someone doing breaststroke can be really painful! 🙂 As long as you are not voluntarily or repeatedly touching other triathletes, you should not worry too much about it. Otherwise, it may lead to disqualification.

I have rarely seen anyone swim backstroke in a triathlon, but if you want to use this stroke, double-check the specific race rules as they are not the same everywhere. Based on the official rules, it is:

  • Allowed by the ITU and the USA Triathlon.
  • Not explicitly mentioned by the French federation nor Ironman.
  • Forbidden in Great Britain for pool swim. For open water triathlon, athletes must inform race organizers before the race that they wish to use backstroke.


In all triathlon races, the race organizers will define some cut off times. If you exceed them, you will be disqualified. Those times can be set specifically per sport and/or cumulative, for example, swim + transition 1 + bike. There is no standard time per distance. Simply check the athlete’s guide of the race you want to register.

For really competitive events, those times can be challenging to reach for beginner triathletes. However, in most cases, they are manageable.

As an example, the Ironman races often set a 2h20min cut-off time for their swim portion (2.4 mi or 3,8km). You would need to swim slower than 3:41 min/100m to exceed this time. If that seems way too slow for you, you can always check my article: “What Are Good And Average Swim Times For An Ironman?” so you know where you could potentially be in a race.


It is easy to panic during the swim portion of a triathlon, especially if it is a mass start. There are several steps you can follow to survive your first triathlon swim and maybe even enjoy it. My wife and I wrote our 15 favorites in this article. The most important one is to stay relaxed no matter what happens.

You can’t avoid receiving kicks in your legs or having someone inadvertently touch your goggles. The question is not if it will happen to you, but when! And when it does happen, remember to stay calm. Switch to a slower breaststroke cadence until your breath and your heart rate are back to a more normal level 🙂

If you have friends who are afraid to take part in a triathlon because of the swim portion, make sure to mention everything you learned in this article. I’m convinced more people would start the sport if they knew what we know now.