Four common Ironman Triathlon swim obstacles

Taking on the Ironman Triathlon challenge can be pretty daunting and here are four common Ironman Triathlon swim obstacles triathletes often encounter.

There are many people who want nothing more than to reach the finish line of an Ironman Triathlon, but swimming is something that is not their strong suit. As a matter of fact, they might find the thought of swimming 2.4 miles in the open water extremely daunting.

For some, it is so scary that they deny themselves the opportunity of attempting to become an Ironman simply because of the swim.

However, with proper preparation and some insight as to what to expect, the Ironman Triathlon swim and the obstacles that are normally encountered(especially by the novice Ironman)can be overcome.

Four common Ironman triathlon swim obstacles

Ironman Canada swim start. A lot of out of control heart-rates here.


On the surface many triathletes may appear to be calm and collected as they wait for the Ironman swim start gun, but often their heart is racing and they are filled with a special kind of dread.

Failure to relax has a way of starting your entire Ironman off on the wrong foot. Apprehension, excitement, and fear all tend to lead to an escalating heart-rate. This in turn starts to drain valuable energy that you are really going to need–and the race hasn’t even started yet.

Preparation for your Ironman swim goes far beyond doing endless laps in the pool month after month.

Having the proper mind-set will help you deal with pre-race jitters, and it’s something you have to work at.

Most likely you have done everything possible to physically prepare in those weeks and months that you swim train and it’s just as important to continually remind yourself that no matter what unfolds on race morning, you will stay calm.

Visualization is a great mental training tool and just laying down and relaxing and imagining yourself at the swim start on race morning being calm and cool and breathing deeply and keeping your heart-rate in check will reinforce that exact behavior in your mind.

If you do it often enough, you will eventually be pre-conditioned for exactly what will transpire on race morning. Visualization is a powerful training tool that is often over-looked.


No matter how many hours of pool-time you have put in or how many open water swims you have done with training buddies back home, the moment your head goes under that water after the Ironman start gun sounds you will feel like you are in some strange, new dimension.

It’s almost like an out-of-body experience and it’s very difficult to explain, but anyone who has experienced it will understand what I mean.

I believe it’s because that one singular moment in time is a culmination of months, and often years, of preparing for this very moment.

I’m pretty certain it’s all the adrenaline and energy being exerted all around you and the realization that the time has finally come that makes it far different from anything you have ever experienced.

Four common Ironman triathlon swim obstacles

It’s like a strange, new world when the Ironman start gun sounds.

It’s also important to note that we are out of our element in the water and there is a certain lack of control. It’s not like biking or running where you can simply stop and lay down in the grass on the side of the road if you feel like it.

Part of what you might experience once the swim begins is anxiety caused by feeling there is no turning back and you are totally committed. But truthfully, did you not make the commitment long before race day to give it your best shot?

Managing the swim is part of the package and for people who are new to the concept of swimming 2.4 miles in the open water, it will stand as one of your most thrilling accomplishments ever once the dust has settled and you are an Ironman.

The important thing to remember is that these reactions are quite normal and as you settle into a rhythm you will begin to feel more comfortable and more in control of your destiny.

In your weeks and months of preparation when you are visualizing relaxing before the swim start, also visualize the challenge that is often presented in those first furious moments in the water and how you will remain calm and swim through it and it will help you immensely.


It very likely that triathletes new to open water swimming and especially those new to the Ironman will end up swimming about 2.5 or 2.7 miles instead of 2.2 miles.

Four common Ironman triathlon swim obstacles

Learning how to get your bearings in the Ironman swim will help you maintain a straighter line.

As if it’s not a big enough challenge, people are adding a ton of distance onto their swim by not swimming in a straight line.

The best way to overcome this is to practice sighting on markers far in front of you when you are swim training.

I believe the very best method is to work on a head-up front crawl. This is something a lifeguard at a beach would be well-versed in.

If they are swimming toward someone who is in trouble and they want to keep them in sight and at the same time keep swimming toward them, they use the head-up front crawl. Your head and shoulders should actually be lifted out of the water so you can look above waves, swells, and splash from other swimmers.

It’s quite simple to learn and just takes a bit of practice and you will have it figured out. You can practice it in a pool or in the open water.

Normally when you breathe to the right for example, most of your head except for your mouth and nose stay in the water on every stroke.

Maintain your same stroke, but instead of turning your head to breathe, lift your head and shoulders right out of the water and look straight ahead. It will seem strange at first but it only has to be done for long enough for you to get your bearings and then you settle back into your normal breathing pattern.

Your feet may actually sink into the water as opposed to being in a stream-lined position, because it is best if you can raise your head and shoulders up out of the water while you maintain your swim stroke. By doing this, you will be able to see above swells, waves, and other swimmers.

This is a far better option than just stopping dead in the water and treading. For one thing, other swimmers might just swim right into you, but more importantly you will lose your forward momentum and that’s the whole reason for using this method of sighting.

If you take sightings every three or four hundred meters your are far less likely to wander far off course. Swimming in a straighter line will not only improve your swim time, it will also get you on dry land a lot sooner.


So the gun sounds and your Ironman swim is underway and there are bodies and flailing arms and legs all around you.

It’s impossible to even complete a proper stroke because of the press of the traffic-jam of swimmers and the arms crashing down on your head, back and legs.

This is a defining moment for triathletes who are experiencing their very first Ironman open water swim.

It is like nothing they have ever imagined and often panic, fear, and anger are the predominant emotions and there is nothing about any of those three reactions that will help your cause.

Four common Ironman triathlon swim obstacles

If you want to avoid this, you might want to read my Ironman Swim Strategy.

All of these emotions will escalate your heart-rate and burn up energy by the bucketful.

Of all the things that can go wrong in the Ironman swim, this is by far the most preventable.

Almost without fail, in any Ironman race in the world, the bulk of the swimmers will finish somewhere between 1:15 and about 2:15.

There will be the faster swimmers who don’t have to worry so much about traffic because they can get out ahead of the main pack. Then there are those who might even wait for ten minutes after the gun before they begin to swim and are quite happy to finish any time under the official swim cut-off.

For the main mass of swimmers, traffic problems are caused by not having a plan established for proper positioning before the gun sounds. This is something that you should have worked out in your mind long before race-day even arrives, yet often it becomes a last-minute decision.

I will forever be convinced that taking an outside line with as few people as possible on your outside is the ideal strategy for having a low-stress, successful, and enjoyable Ironman swim experience.

I have included a few links below to articles I wrote about Benefits of Visualization for Ironman Triathlon training and an Ironman Swim Strategy that have helped many, many people around the world make it through the Ironman swim with flying colors.

I highly recommend you read both of these.


After you have read this article on four common swim obstacles, my visualization article, and Ironman swim strategy article, you might want to consider getting yourself a copy of my book Ironstruck…The Ironman Triathlon Journey because it will move you, it will inspire you, and most of all, it will help you reach the Ironman Triathlon finish line more than any training you do or any equipment you buy.

The reason I know it will is because I remember every single moment of my first Ironman experience. From that race to all the ones that followed I learned a lot and this is what I share in my book.

I don’t write training books. I write books based on experience and virtually walk you through the Ironman and what you can expect to happen along the way and how to best deal with it on a mental, emotional, and physical level.


TOTAL IMMERSION is offering all IronStruck visitors a 10% discount on Books, DVD’s, and all other Total Immersion teaching tools.

Simply click on TOTAL IMMERSION to go to their store

page. Use the Coupon Code “ironstruck” (all small case letters) into the shopping cart coupon box

and you will automatically receive your 10% discount!

Be sure to visit my ironstruck book store for more information on this book and others I have written.

Triathlete stretching

Does triathlete stretching have a place in your first Ironman or triathlon preparation?

Stretching Is one of those gray areas that nobody seems to really understand. Sometimes I watch people go through the motions just before a race and you can just tell they are unsure exactly what it is they are supposed to be doing.

Is stretching really a good idea? A triathlete stretching improperly will most likely do more harm than good.

I tried it for a year or so and came to the conclusion that for me it was a waste of time. Actually more to the point, it did more harm than good. I injured myself twice in the process and ended up missing training time.

I think part of the problem is that people(like I did myself)just go ahead and start stretching without a full understanding of what they should be trying to accomplish. Ultimately this can result in injury from attempting too much too soon.

I truly believe there are better and safer ways to prepare your muscles, tendons, joints, and ligaments before they are stressed by training or racing.


I watch young kids in swim clubs who stretch every day for fifteen or twenty minutes before a training session and that makes sense to me. Their bodies are used to it and it is part of their everyday routine. Also, they’re being supervised by a coach.

When it comes to triathlete stretching it makes more sense to me to swim, bike or run slowly at the beginning of a training session for at least 5-10 minutes. This lets your body ease naturally into the function they will be doing in a few minutes at a faster pace.

If you stretch now and have a regular program and it works for you, then you should stick with it. Otherwise I wouldn’t even start unless you receive knowledgeable guidance and are willing to stay with it on a daily basis.


A common mistake made by many people is to just do what they see other people doing in the gym or perhaps in the moments leading up to the start of a race.

That’s not a good idea for several reasons. First of all, you have no idea what they’re stretching for as far as what they are hoping to gain or what sport they’re involved in.

Triathlete stretching

Should triathlete stretching be part of your program?

Secondly, there is no guarantee they are even doing the stretch properly themselves, and thirdly you have no idea how long stretching has been part of their routine.

For instance, they may have been stretching for several years and you may not be quite ready to stretch quite the way they are. Just possibly the triathlon stretching you should be doing is different from their program.


The best way to prepare your body for a particular training session is to ease into it. For instance, if you’re planning a two hour training run, walk at a good pace for five or ten minutes and then ease into your running rhythm. This way, you’re warming up the muscles you’ll be using beforehand without having to stretch.

If it’s a swimming workout do a few easy laps before beginning the workout you have planned. If you’re biking, sit up in the seat and spin in an easy gear until your muscles warm up. While you’re at you can also do some shoulder shrugs to loosen up shoulder and back muscles. This is especially helpful if you expect to be in the aero position for an extended time.

For more information on being a more successful triathlete or Ironman be sure to have a look at the books I have written that have helped many triathletes around the world realize their Ironman and triathlon dreams and goals.

You can visit my ironstruck book store and find the perfect book for the new or experienced triathlete doing their very first try a tri triathlon or the Ironman.