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

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

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About Ray

Ray hasn’t stopped since his first Ironman in Kona, 1984. He has since run 14 more Ironman races, authored 5 Triathlon books, and is now bringing together a passionate community of triathletes. Contact Ray at

4 thoughts on “Four common Ironman Triathlon swim obstacles

  1. I have always had the anxiety before my triathlons but before Ironman I wrote a post about visualization. I literally wrote out what the race would be like for me. I included that I was not nervous before heading into the water and guess what? I was not nervous. This is huge because normally I am so nervous I cry. I had an incredible swim. Best swim of my life 57 minutes. I definitely am a firm believer in writing down your visualization now.

    • Thanks for your comment Ann. And what a great swim time! It’s amazing what visualizing something positive can do when the big day arrives. It’s the highest form of positive affirmation. When you think about it, people who dread their upcoming Ironman swim and just know it is going to be an experience from Hell, are doing just the opposite. They are visualizing failure, and in the end, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  2. I found this visualization very useful in the lead-up to the swim in my first ironman last weekend. It was the first time I have been calm before a triathlon!! Thanks so much.

    • There are many world class athletes who make visualization a key part of their training and competition. I really believe it has huge benefits for athletes of all abilities, especially for triathletes who need something to focus on and keep them calm in the heat of battle. Glad to hear that it helped you out and thank you for your comment. IronStruck Ray

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