Coach’s Note By Lance Watson: The Ironman Swim

The swim may be the shortest of all three legs of Ironman triathlon, but it's important to be as prepared as possible.

Photo: Rocky Arroyo

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The swim in Ironman: you stand on the beach behind hundreds of other wetsuit-clad athletes, nervously adjusting your cap and goggles for the 100th time. You focus intently on the string of buoys that represent the first hour (or two) of your race day. Or, maybe you tread water surrounded by your peers and competitors, mind and muscles ready for the start horn and the subsequent chaos.

Swimming 2.4 miles across open water is a defining part of the Ironman. For some athletes, it represents the sum of their greatest challenges in learning how to swim or in conquering a fear of open-water swimming. For others, their swim position will set them up for the day of racing ahead. The swim may be the shortest duration of all three legs of Ironman triathlon, but athletes still need to be as prepared as possible for it.

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Addressing Your Fears

The swim matters for different reasons depending on the skill level and experience of the athlete. A beginner Ironman athlete or a less proficient swimmer has to focus on swimming fast enough to make the swim time cutoff, and training should be geared toward being able to make the distance comfortably and safely. Athletes who are nervous about open-water swimming spend valuable energy being tight while in the water. To swim efficiently and well, the body needs to be relaxed and the mind needs to be focused on technique and the process, not on whether there are sea monsters lurking below the surface.

There are various things that create fear in the minds of novice swimmers. Below I have listed some of the more common concerns, plus some tips for workouts and drills that should allay these fears and allow athlete to focus on success.

For most of these issues, an ability to mentally see yourself being successful is a huge part of overcoming nervousness. Work out what makes you nervous and decide to become a stronger athlete by changing your thought process and behaviors. Practice focusing on the process of swimming and thinking positive to turn strong fearless swimming into a reality on race day.

Fear of swimming in close proximity to others:
The best way to get used to swimming with others is to get out and practice it. Swim with buddies side by side in the lane in a pool to start. You know nothing can happen in a pool, so there is an element of safety there to allow you to relax and focus on your stroke. Practice being bumped and having your arms and torso hit by other swimmers, as it commonly occurs in Ironman. When you can, move to open-water swimming and get as many people as you can to swim around you. Practice starts as well, even if you are a conservative starter.

Fear of losing goggles and the ability to see:
It’s no use wasting mental energy on what might or might not happen. The best thing is to plan for success. Make sure your goggles fit, are on tight, and even under your swim cap to ensure the straps don’t get jostled or pulled. If you do lose your goggles, keep your cool and practice strong distraction control. Put them back on as quickly as you can and don’t worry about getting mad at whoever might have done it.

Fear of not being able to see the buoys and the course (thereby swimming off course and going longer than necessary):
Being able to follow the course is an important part of the swim and learning how to sight while maintaining efficiency is a unique aspect to Ironman. Again, the best thing is to practice. You can sight practice in a pool and while doing any open-water workout. Before a race, get as much information about the course as you can, from both the land and the water. Most Ironman courses are set up for a week before the race and even offer open-water swim races or sessions over the course. Do the course and learn to look for larger markers on land, which will help if you lose sight of the buoys.

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Optimizing Your Swim Performance

If you are an advanced swimmer and are very comfortable with your open water swim skills, there are still things you can consider and work on to optimize your racing performance.

While swimming in open water or rough water, pay attention to efficient swimming, saving energy for forward momentum. Staying streamlined, reducing sighting to as few ‘glances’ as needed and moving with the water will optimize your swim fitness.

Learn to draft well and to look for the draft. Drafting economizes your effort out there and can result in superior swim times. Again being able to draft while maintaining efficiency is crucial to swimming economy and speed.

There are a couple of other good reasons to work on your swimming and improve your swim times:

– Having good start speed will get you a good draft with faster swimmers. Being on the ball and able to maintain good rhythm to get a good draft early could save you five minutes on the swim.

– Having the ability to get out of the water in under an hour will put you into the competitive zone and you will come out of the water with fewer athletes. Your transition will be less congested and smoother and you will have clear air at the start of the bike, and a clear head as you won’t be worrying about draft marshals. As the main pack starts to arrive at T1 after about an hour, the bike start gets busy and it’s harder to stay out of the draft zone.

If you’re already an efficient swimmer you can do a mini-focus block of swim training early in the season, or during the Ironman build. Pick 2-3 x 7-10 day blocks of training where you top up your swim fitness. During the training block focus on increasing your swim frequency (swim 5-7 times in 7 days) and include a few key workouts.

While you won’t want to neglect your bike or run training to prepare for Ironman, being strong, confident and fast in the water should be a part of your goals.

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Sample Sets

  1. Sighting: swim 15-30 x 50 (20”).
    Alternate as:
    #1: 25 head up and sighting, 25 head down long stroke.
    #2: Head up and sight every 3rd stroke.
    #3: Head up and sight every 5th to 7th stroke. Note finish time and energy expenditure for each. Practice swimming quick and relaxed and being alert with changing head and body position. Try not to drop legs when lifting head.
  2. Swimming in a crowd: swim 10-20 x 50m (20”), 3 athletes side by side in one swim lane. Swim in close proximity. Are you relaxed? Can you swim your own stroke? Can you alter your timing occasionally to avoid arm contact? Make sure and swim in the middle, left, and right side. Swim slightly (a half body-length) ahead or behind as well.
  3. Swimming in a crowd: swim 20-30 x 25m (30”’) with 5 in a lane. 3 athletes side by side in the 1st row, and a 2nd row of 2-3 athletes depart a half body length behind. Sprint, trying to move quickly, yet relaxed. Make sure and try all different positions in the first and 2nd row of swimmers.
  4. Swimming in a draft: swim 4-8 x 400m (1’) with 3 swim partners of similar abilities. Lead for 100m, peel off to the side at the wall, and then jump on the back of the train. Draft head to toe behind the next swimmer. How close can you swim without touching toes? Notice the difference in energy output from 1st in line to last. Purposely bump each others feet. Try and swim relaxed with contact at your feet.
  5. Start Speed: swim 10 x 150m (1’) as 50m sprint, and 100m at your goal Ironman pace. Teach you body how to tolerate a little lactic acid at the start and then settle into rhythm.

LifeSport head coach Lance Watson has coached a number of Ironman, Olympic and age-group Champions over the past 25 years. He enjoys coaching athletes of all levels. Join Lance to tackle your first triathlon or perform at a higher level. 

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