How to sight Ironman Triathlon swim buoys

Keeping track of the Ironman Triathlon swim buoys can be challenging for those new to open water swimming.

There’s no getting around it. If your bucket list includes crossing the Ironman finish line learning how to swim in the open water is part of the deal.

Many people new to the Ironman have to learn how to swim almost from scratch in order to earn the title Ironman. However training yourself to manage the 2.4 mile open water swim is just part of the process.

One of the biggest concerns of those new to the sport is figuring how to navigate out in the open water. It can be daunting when you’re surrounded by hundreds of crashing, thrashing bodies.

Here are three potential alternatives you might consider.

  • Stay as close to the buoy line as you can.

  • Learn the head-up front crawl.

  • Take an outside line.


There’s a misconception out there that you can’t go wrong if you swim as close to the string of Ironman Triathlon swim buoys as possible.

ironman triathlons swim buoys

This is what will happen if you insist on following the course markers. All forward momentum is lost. Your heart race will skyrocket. I don’t think one person in this image is swimming unimpeded.

As a matter of fact you are so close that you keep running into them. How can you possibly go wrong? It seems it would be pretty hard to get lost out there if the swim course markers are right beside you.

This is a really bad idea. Unless you are a super-fast swimmer and are well in front of the teeming masses it’s one of the worst places you can be.

Chances are your swim time will be between 1:15 and 1:45. Most Ironman triathletes will reach the swim finish line somewhere in this time frame.

Some will finish the swim faster and some will come in at around the two hour mark. It seems this 30 minute window is where most people seem to gravitate.

That means if you decide to swim right next to the Ironman Triathlon swim buoys you can expect plenty of company. There will be hundreds of others doing the same thing and it will be a harrowing swim. Chances are you will do the entire swim and never find a space all your own to swim in.

It’s a big price to pay just so you don’t swim off course.


This is really not a bad option. You can swim clear of the Ironman Triathlon swim buoys and still manage to keep track of where you are on the course.

The head up front crawl is what many lifeguards learn.

It comes in handy if they are trying to keep track of where a swimmer in distress is without loosing their forward momentum.

You can practice this stroke in your swim training. The key is to maintain your arm motion propelling yourself forward while at the same time lifting your head and shoulders right out of the water.

ironman triathlon swim buoys

Notice how the swimmers head and shoulders are raised while he maintains his stroke and forward momentum.

Of course you won’t be streamlined for a brief time, but it enables you to get clear of waves and other swimmers who might be blocking your vision.

The beauty of using the head up front crawl is that you don’t have to stop dead in the water. When you do that you lose your rhythm and forward momentum. Besides that, when you are bobbing in the water not going anywhere other swimmers will probably run into you.

The trick is to get your bearings and look for the main course marker buoys or big turn markers as soon as you rise out of the water. All it should really take is three or four head up front crawl strokes to get your bearings and adjust your course.

As soon as you do that you sink back into the water and resume your regular stroke.


This is my personal favorite. After struggling with the Ironman swim for years I realized that taking an outside line was by far the best alternative.

By outside line I mean that you keep the mass of swimmers between you and the Ironman Triathlon swim buoys. I actually had some races where I was the furthest away from the marker buoys than any other swimmer.

I know it sounds like the totally wrong place to be, but that’s not necessarily true. Using this Ironman Swim Strategy resulted in the most enjoyable Ironman swims I ever had. As a matter of fact they were the fastest swim times I ever had as well.

The reason for this is that you have open water all to yourself and have nobody to really run into. How can you if they are all swimming on your inside? I found that I could keep a long, smooth swim stroke for pretty much the entire swim. That meant I had no traffic issues to deal with.

The best part is that I could see the other swimmers on pretty much every swim stroke. Of course this works best if you breathe to the right on a clockwise course. If the course markers are opposite from your breathing side it’s a simple matter of bilateral breathing for a short time every 15 or 20 strokes.

On a clockwise course the other swimmers will be on your right and on a counter clockwise course they will be on your left. It doesn’t matter which direction the course goes, taking an outside line is still the best method I ever tried.

I would let the mass of swimmers lead me right to the turn markers. As they collapsed toward the turn so would I. However I would still take a wider berth around the turn markers because most other swimmers gravitate towards them.

As a result there’s a lot of banging and crashing and you lose all your forward momentum. You get scared, mad, agitated or whatever, but the end result is that your heart race escalates and you’re losing energy for nothing.

Take an outside line.

A combination of learning the head up front crawl and taking an outside line in the Ironman swim would be a great choice.

Ultimately, as an average swimmer, this was the best way I ever found to navigate the Ironman Triathlon swim buoys.


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This entry was posted in Swim and tagged by Ray. Bookmark the permalink.

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

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