How to Excel at the Ironman Swim

It's 6:59 a.m. There's music blasting, kayakers herding swimmers, and nearly 2500 Ironman athletes treading water or standing on the beach waiting anxiously to start a very big, very long day.

At 7:00 a.m. the canon goes off: BOOM! And so begins perhaps the most unique spectacle in all of endurance sports—the Ironman swim start. Nearly 2500 bodies and 5000 arms and legs churn the water to kick off a 140.6-mile day.

Here are our tips for surviving, and excelling at, the infamous Ironman swim.

Line Up in the Right Spot

A lot of fast people position themselves right on the buoy line. Many more people position themselves as far away as possible from these fast people—as far from the buoy line as they can get. As a consequence, the middle of the start line is often less crowded than you would expect.

Therefore we usually recommend you position yourself near the middle of the start line and then seed yourself front to back about 2 to 4 minutes faster than you expect to swim. For example, if you expect to swim a 1:10, find those 1:05 to 1:08 people. In our experience it is better to be swum around by slightly faster swimmers than to be timid about your starting position, seed yourself around much slower swimmers, and then have to swim through many swimmers for 2.4 miles.

Only Swim as Fast as Your Ability to Maintain Form

The net difference between swimming "hard" and swimming "easy" is usually only about 2 to 4 minutes in an 11- to 17-hour day. It's just not worth expending the energy to swim harder. Instead, focus on swimming as smoothly and efficiently as you know how. Swim with your best possible form and only swim fast enough as your ability to maintain your form allows.

It's helpful to have some individual cues for what good form is for you, or indicators of poor form. For some folks, breathing count (3-count or 4-count strokes per breath) is a good metric. Others prefer to focus on perceived exertion. Whatever you choose, know that it's time to slow down if you start to feel your form slip.

Keep Your Head Inside the Box

With 2500 plus bodies trashing around in a small space, all trying to go the same direction, Ironman swim starts could be the very definition of chaos. Maintain your focus by keeping your head inside "the box" of what you can control:

  • In the Box: Head position; breathing; body rotation; catch; pull; all of your form cues. These are things you can control. Focus on these.
  • Out of the Box: Any contact you experience; the pacing of other athletes. Basically anything that takes your focus away your form.

The simple tool you can use to keep your heads in the box is to count your strokes: Left, right, left, right, 1, 2, 3, 4. Keep counting until you lose count then start over again. The simple act of counting arm strokes will bring your head back into the box of what you can control, helping you let go of the stuff outside of your box. Try it, it works.

Keep Head-Lift to a Minimum

You typically lift your head to keep feet in sight (if you're drafting) or to sight on navigation buoys. Every time you lift your head, however, you drop your feet and hips compromising your form.

Here's what to do:

  • Drafting: Don't think so much about drafting during an Ironman swim that you forget to keep your head in the box and focused on form.
  • Navigation: With 2500 people all swimming the same direction, there are a lot of people to follow. Keep other swimmers at your side and you can decrease how frequently you need to compromise your from by lifting your head to sight for buoys.

Learn more with a free Swim Clinic eBook from Endurance Nation.

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