Why your Ironman swim time won’t improve

Ever wonder why your Ironman swim time never improves?

Maybe we should take a lesson from one of the most revealing sayings ever.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”.

Well there it is.

There are people who claim it was Albert Enstein who first coined this phrase. I don’t really care who coined it, but for now lets give Albert the credit. All I know is that in a nutshell it defines why some Ironman triathletes will never get faster in the swim.


Our muscles have memory. If you have a crappy, inefficient, energy-sapping swim stroke it won’t matter if you swim 5000 miles in training. It won’t make one iota of difference to your Ironman swim time.

I know because I lived the experience for about six Ironman races before I figured it out. I was so determined one year that I was going to get faster that I joined a masters swim class.

They swam three times a week and I trained on my own two more times a week. This was the year I was going to ace that swim and finally get under 1:22 which at the time was my personal best.

triathlon swim times

It would take me forever to reach the other end of the pool. Sometimes I went backwards with a kick board.

The coach had us doing breast stroke, backstroke, and a bunch of other things that had no bearing on the Ironman swim. We would do laps and laps of kicking with those paddle boards that I grew to despise.

I should say that everyone else did laps and laps. For the most part I could hardly propel myself forward and at times went backwards. I would end up frustrated and exhausted.

When we did do front crawl there was no mention from the coach that my stroke really needed work. He had this program and we all just followed it. I just had it in my head that if I stuck it out all that winter that I just had to get faster.

I went to those master swim classes in the dead of winter. The nearest parking was four blocks from the pool and it got as cold as -30 that year. By the time I got back to the car I felt like a freaking Popsicle. I was sure that my ass was going to freeze to the seat and I would never be able to get out of the car.

Still, I hung in there.


Finally when the gun went off to start Ironman Canada the next year in Penticton I was full of hope that this would be the year that I would take ten or fifteen minutes off my Ironman swim time.

When I finally staggered out of the water at the swim finish I heard Steve King the race announcer calling out swim times. I was devastated that I was two minutes slower than the year before. What a waste of time and energy all that swim training was! I felt like an idiot. I could’ve skipped the masters swim class and swam two days a week and had the very same result.

During the entire swim training season all I was doing was reinforcing my bad swimming technique. In hindsight, how in the name of all that’s holy could I expect anything but the results I got?

Over the years I discovered the three keys to finally achieve a better Ironman swim time.

  • Go into the swim with the right mental attitude.
  • Have a swim plan in place.
  • Learn an efficient swim technique.

    So many triathletes stand at the swim start of the Ironman full of trepidation. In many cases the fear and anxiety has been building up for weeks and even months.

    benefits of visualization for Ironman Triathlon training

    The Ironman triathlon is about much more than swimming, biking, and running. it may not be 90% mental, but it plays a huge roll.

    For most people the swim is a necessary evil if they want to realize their dream of crossing the Ironman finish line. How can you possibly get the most out of the Ironman swim if you are gripped by out of control negative emotions?

    It’s crucial to have a firm grasp on your emotions as you wait for the gun to sound. Your attitude should be one of confidence and anticipation of having a great swim. This is what comes from having a plan in place long before race day.


    For years I would stand at the Ironman swim start as the sun was just rising over the distance turn marker with 3000 of my newest friends. Well, sort of. In a few minutes we would be bashing the Hell out of each other.

    As the anthem played I still had no Ironman swim plan in mind. As the last ten seconds ticked down I still had no swim plan figured out. When the gun sounded I just started swimming in the middle of the pack near the marker buoys and hoped for the best.

    It was usually about 20 minutes of bashing, smashing, heart racing, nearly drowning Hell. Barely thirty minutes into the swim and I was exhausted. I went into the race in great shape, but just the same I was emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausted. I still had most of the swim, a 112 mile bike and a marathon to go.

    Somewhere in about the middle of the bike course I would almost always be devoid of energy. I would hit the wall and I had the Ironman swim to thank for that. Year after year the marathon was the Ironman Death March.

    Ironman swim time

    Back in the day at Ironman Canada in Penticton. Mass swim starts with 3000 triathletes.

    I absolutely should’ve had a swim plan in place long before race day.

    One day I was looking at an image of the Ironman swim taken from a helicopter and I realized what I was doing wrong all those years. It just suddenly dawned on me.

    The majority of the swimmers were staying in close contact with the marker buoys. Unless you were a very fast swimmer you were caught up in a swirling mass of swimmers and going nowhere fast.

    I realized the key was to take an outside line and stay out of trouble and keep everyone to my inside. I go into great detail on this in a chapter I wrote for my book Ironstruck…The Ironman Triathlon Journey. You can support my website by buying a book or if you would rather not I will share my Ironman Triathlon swim strategy here.


    One day I was at the pool getting ready for another of my getting nowhere fast swim training sessions.

    A guy I knew who had gone under ten hours for Ironman Canada handed me a book and said those magic works, “you should read this.” He knew I was struggling with the swim. That night I took the book home and read it from cover to cover.

    It was a copy of Terry Laughlin’s book Total Immersion. His swim technique worked on the principle of using your own natural buoyancy(your lungs) to streamline your body position in the water.

    ironman swim time

    The Ironman Canada swim course in Penticton. I used to hug the buoy course markers. So did just about everyone else.

    Basically the principle was much like trying to force a balloon full of air submerged in water with one hand. It will do everything it can to get around your hand and up to the surface. When you get in the pool the idea is to press your chest down toward the bottom of the pool.

    Your lungs will try and press you back up and they can’t because you’re pressing down so something has to give.

    It’s simple physics. Something has to give so your legs rise out of the water. I was so excited about this that I could hardly wait to get to the pool the next day. When I got into the pool and pressed down on my chest as he said to, I actually felt my heels come out of the water for the first time. I hadn’t even gone ten meters.

    Wow! So basically I had to rebuild my stroke from scratch and retrain my muscle memory. I used the drills he had in the book. Because I was more streamlined in the water I was able to develop a long, smooth swim stroke. It was something I never had before.

    Within a few weeks I was taking about 7 less strokes to get to the other end of the pool.

    I took that swim stroke, my swim strategy, and new mental attitude to Ironman Coeur d’Alene and had the most enjoyable swim of my career. Not only that, my time was eight minutes faster than my personal best.

    There were much bigger positives at play than my Iroman swim time improvement. Because I had a swim plan in place and great new swim stroke there was no anxiety to sky-rocket my heart rate.

    There was no huge loss in energy. There was no banging and crashing and struggling to survive because I was outside of the traffic.

    It changed the outcome of the entire race.

    I would highly recommend getting Terry’s book Total Immersion or visiting his website. I’m sure he has his books and DVD’s that will help you develop the best triathlete open water swim stroke ever. Total Immersion will even give you a discount if you use my ironstruck code.


    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!

    So there you have it. If the Ironman swim is a struggle for you or if you are preparing for your first Ironman I hope these suggestions help. I strongly feel that if you really want to have a fasterIronman swim time and more enjoyable race experience you should consider adopting some of these ideas.

    It’s important to break bad habits and embrace good ones. It might mean breaking down your entire swim stroke, but it’s really, really worth it.

    If you go into the race with a swim plan in place and have a long, smooth, relaxed stroke the anxiety will disappear and you will stand at the Ironman swim start with a whole new and improved mental attitude.

    The day will come when you will be looking forward to the Ironman swim. Believe me, when that happens it’s a whole new ballgame.


    Visit Ironman.com for information on upcoming Ironman Triathlon events.

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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 ray@ironstruck.com

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