Posted On:
Wednesday, March 16, 2022
Updated On:
Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Coach Tip Tuesday: Reaching Your Potential in an IRONMAN: The Swim

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A photo taken during the swim portion of IRONMAN Louisville; my brother Joe took this photo as I swam under a pedestrian bridge crossing the Ohio River.

Last week, I wrote the first in a series of Coach Tip Tuesday posts that will explore some tips that are relevant for specific sports.  It is my hope that these posts continue to propose some food for thought and will potentially give you some tips that can enhance your experience training for and racing in this specific type of event.

This week, I’m going to specifically talk about IRONMAN.  I’ve been coaching athletes competing in IRONMAN races for many years and I am currently the IRONMAN U Partner Coach for IRONMAN Lake Placid.  I have definitely observed what it takes to be successful at this distance of racing.  Many of you likely know what an IRONMAN triathlon is, but some of you may not.  The total distance covered in an IRONMAN triathlon is 140.6 miles: 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking, and 26.2 miles of running.  

In a triathlon, an athlete must aim to do all three sports well; being great at any one of the three sports isn’t enough to achieve success in triathlon, and that’s especially true for a long-course triathlon such as an IRONMAN.  This post is the beginning of a series in and of it itself, as I’m going to break down each component of an IRONMAN triathlon.  This week, we’ll talk about the swim.

The average finish time for an IRONMAN is 12 hours and 49 minutes.  This is an average of the average finish times for each gender; males average 12 hours and 38 minutes and females average 13 hours and 35 minutes.  The swim comes first, and on average, accounts for approximately 10% of the total time of the race, even though the distance covered is only 1.7% of the entire race distance.

The swim is misleading for most athletes.  Athletes generally fall into one of two buckets when it comes to this component of an IRONMAN: 

  • They are far too concerned about the swim
  • They are not concerned enough about the swim

Listen closely, my friends.  The trick to completing a strong IRONMAN is to train and execute each component - the swim, the bike, and the run - well.  The bike and the run in an IRONMAN can only be successfully executed if the element(s) that precede them are trained and executed properly.

What does this all mean?  In short, it means that the swim is important, but the fact that it is important shouldn’t cause anxiety.  Rather, I would suggest that it inspire a desire for preparedness.

Many athletes overthink the swim and/or avoid it because it is intimidating.  The swim can feel especially intimidating if the athlete is an adult on-set swimmer, meaning that they didn’t have any formal background in swimming during their younger years.

Swimming is an unnatural movement for humans.  Though water is critical for our survival (most of us would die within three days of not ingesting any), we evolved to be biologically designed to live on land; we breathe air (not water).  We are asking ourselves to use the medium in play (water) to help us propel through that same medium.  Unlike biking or running, where we are pushing off of or leveraging the ground to help us move through the air, in swimming, we need to manipulate the element (water) itself to create forward motion.

As such, it can take a little while for a given human to be comfortable with swimming.  Many athletes experience fear when first trying it, and then that perpetuates the cycle of them thinking too much about the swim in a triathlon, which causes it to be a very high stress load mentally.  It may also manifest in avoidance; people do tend to shy away from things that scare them, and if the swim feels scary, an athlete is less likely to want to include it in their training (especially if they do truly enjoy cycling or running).

If either of these situations plays out - either the swim isn’t trained enough or it’s renting enough space in the athlete’s head that it’s a mental burden - this will pop up on race day and the swim will be far more taxing than is desired.  This will snowball into having a rough race in total, as the high stress load or inadequate training will cause the athlete to be physiologically more fatigued heading into the bike, and then heading into the run.

For other athletes, swimming may come more naturally and may not cause anxiety.  It is these athletes who are at risk for not caring enough about the swim, as they may fall into the trap of feeling overconfident about their swimming ability and then not training for the swim as they should.  Not training sufficiently for the swim (in volume, frequency, and intensity) can create a situation on race day that starts the athlete off at a disadvantage and sets the tone for a race that is not indicative of the athlete's true potential.  

What we do in training comes into play on race day; if the athlete hasn't trained swimming properly, it will cause the athlete’s body to have a higher fatigue load at the start of the bike leg than is useful.  This then snowballs into a harder bike leg than is necessary, which will ultimately snowball into the run being harder on the athlete than is necessary.  Even if the athlete is a strong cyclist or a strong runner, they will never reach their potential in either of those components of an IRONMAN if their swim doesn’t start the race off well from a physiological standpoint.

To race well at IRONMAN means that one must swim well.  Without this, the other elements will never fall into place in the way they could or should.  So, it is in the best interests of athletes training for an IRONMAN race to swim at least twice per week in training, and possibly more frequently than that if they have a performance-based (time-based) goal for their race.

One of those swims should be a longer endurance swim.  If swimming only twice per week, the other swim can be either a speed or a tempo swim session to help the athlete stimulate the body appropriately to make speed gains (i.e. help the athlete get faster over time).  Specificity matters; IRONMAN triathlons all include open water swims, so open water practice is excellent to get in - either as an extra swim in a given training week or as a substitute for the long endurance swim.

All training swims (yes, even open water swims!) should include drill work to reinforce good form; in addition to being the most unnatural motion in a triathlon, the swim is also the most technical.  Form plays a huge role in how fatiguing a swim is (more drag in the water will not only cause slower paces, but also higher fatigue loads).  Here are some of my favorite drills that I include in training swims for athletes training for IRONMAN:

In short, respect the swim.  Don’t overthink it.  Don’t be overconfident about it.  Train appropriately throughout your entire build to your IRONMAN race, and you will be starting off the race from a strong place that will set up the rest of your race to go well.

Next week, we’ll be exploring the next component of an IRONMAN triathlon: the bike!

About

Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at laura@fullcircleendurance.com.

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