Best way to survive the Ironman Triathlon swim

Many people who are bitten by the Ironman bug find the 2.4-mile open water swim their biggest obstacle and want to know the best way to survive the Ironman Triathlon swim.

It can be especially daunting if a novice Ironman has had to learn how to swim just so they could take on the Ironman Triathlon challenge for the first time.

Invariably they find themselves at the start line on race morning wondering what the Hell they have gotten themselves into.

Just minutes away from the start gun they are trying to get their head around the moment as they find themselves surrounded by a few thousand wetsuit clad triathletes all anticipating the mass swim start and the ensuing mayhem.


Swimming lap after lap, week after week during training is just a small part of preparing for the Ironman Triathlon swim.

What you are experiencing in the pool as you swim back and forth in your own private lane is a world away from what you will experience when the gun sounds race morning.


It is not possible for everyone, but if you get the opportunity, you should try and do a few open water swim training sessions with a large group of a few dozen or more people if possible. Although a few dozen is a far cry from a couple of thousand, it will give you some idea what it’s like swimming in close proximity to others.

Best way to survive the Ironman Triathlon swim

Have a plan in place long before race-day arrives.

You might also enter a half-ironman for the open water swim experience, however there are those who really just focus on doing just one Ironman Triathlon and that’s all. Shorter races are not part of their plan.

Getting out into the open water just once will also enable you to get used to the fact that there is no line to follow(and perhaps no visible bottom at all) and this can be a bit unsettling if your very first open water swim is on Ironman race day as mine was.


Some people choose to rent a wetsuit for race-day and if at all possible you should try and wear it at least once in the open water so it’s not completely foreign to you on race morning.

They can fit pretty tight and can take some getting used to, and if you can get to the Ironman venue a few days early and get a few swims in wearing your wetsuit, it will help considerably.


What begins as a 2.4-mile swim often turns into a 3-mile swim for people relatively new to swimming in the open water.

What usually happens is that novice swimmers will lose track of where they are on the swim course and will zig and zag until eventually they run into a canoe and hear a volunteer trying to steer them back in the right direction.

Many triathletes new to the open water are just trying to survive the swim. They might have a really inefficient stroke that is stronger on their dominant side or perhaps they are getting pushed off course every time they run into, or try and avoid, other swimmers.

Life-guards learn what is called a “head-up front crawl.” This is so they can continue swimming while looking up and getting their bearings.

It’s very easy to learn and you can practice it in the pool during swim training.

Normally every time you stroke you keep your head down close to the water to maintain a stream-lined body position, but turn it to one side or the other in order to catch a breath.

Best way to survive the Ironman Triathlon swim

Don’t let yourself get trapped on the inside.

Instead of turning your head, lift your head and shoulders right out of the water and look straight ahead. At the same time, keep up your usual swim stroke. By lifting your head and shoulders up you will be about eighteen inches above the surface of the water and this will give you a very good sight-line.

It will seem a bit awkward and unorthodox, but you will be sighting and maintaining your forward momentum at the same time. It’s much better than stopping dead in the water. Besides, you only have to do this for three or four strokes every 8-10 minutes or so to get a sighting of the next turn-marker and at the same time ensure you are not veering off course.


You would be surprised how many triathletes wait until a few seconds before the gun sounds before deciding what their swim strategy will be.

“Maybe I’ll follow the course marker buoys, maybe I’ll wait for a minute after the gun goes off, or maybe I’ll just jump in with the pack and hope for the best.”

Wondering what you are going to do as the start gun gets closer and closer can cause quite a lot of needless anxiety, and that often leads to a high heart-rate that computes into losing energy needlessly before the gun even sounds.

Formulate a plan long months before you ever get to the race and stick with it. It will be a huge benefit on race-day.

For about my first 8 Ironman Triathlons I just winged it at the start and had no idea what was going to happen from one race to the next and it was usually a disaster and I always dreaded the swim.

A really good plan is to stay right on the edge of the mass of swimmers and have basically open water to one side. In other words, on a clock-wise course the mass of swimmers will be to your right, and on a counter-clockwise swim they will be on your left.

Either way, it is far easier to keep yourself out of trouble and at the same time maintain a long, smooth, steady swim-stroke without constantly getting blind-sided or running into other swimmers.

Better still, it will help you stay on course because eventually everyone will gravitate toward the turn markers and you can follow their lead. It’s still a good idea to sight for yourself just to make sure you are not drifting too far into the open water.

If you decide to stay inside and follow right along the course markers, you risk getting yourself boxed in. Once you get trapped on the inside you will have to stay there as you won’t be able to swim your way out. Even stopping to adjust your swim goggles can be risky because of all the people swimming up behind you.

If you are on the outside you always have a way out and you can always find open water if you run into a problem.

When I first adopted this swim strategy I was amazed at how well the swim went and from then on I stopped fearing the Ironman swim and actually enjoyed it.

Best way to survive the Ironman Triathlon swim

Controlling your heart-rate in the swim will help you conserve energy for the bike and run.

Even though you would assume you are swimming further because you are on the outside, you actually finish the swim quicker because you are maintaining a steady, uninterrupted stroke. Your rhythm is not constantly being throw off from running into other swimmers.


One of the biggest benefits of following this strategy is that you will much more emotionally stable just before and during the swim and that means you will be much more relaxed.

By emotionally stable I mean you will not be feeling as much anxiety, fear, doubt, frustration, and even anger that sometimes erupts during the mayhem of flying arms and legs. All of these emotions will cause your heart-rate to rise.

If you combine staying calm and collected with a long, smooth, relaxed(Total-Immersion type)swim-stroke, and you will be conserving tons of energy for the bike and run.


The swim is also where the Ironman Bubble comes into play. This is a term I came up with when I wrote my very first book “Ironstruck…the Ironman Triathlon Journey” and it’s right up there among the most important pages in the book.

Say you are doing everything right and someone does run into you out on the swim course.

Just let them bounce off and keep your composure. Edge a bit more out into the open water and do whatever you have to to maintain your easy, relaxed, swim-stroke.

It won’t happen all that much if you follow the swim strategy I mentioned but if it does it’s crucial that you do not let it break your concentration.

The Ironman Bubble….it’s your space. Take charge of your destiny and your race and stay in that bubble despite anything that might happen around you.


One thought on “Best way to survive the Ironman Triathlon swim

  1. Thanks for the great post, and I remember when I did Ironman St. George and when I was doing the swim portion of the race, and all I could think of was my past swimming lessons and remember everything my coach told me to do when you start to panic. And I have to say that they worked, and I’m glad that I don’t have to go back to that swim again.

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