Preparing for an Ironman swim

ytriguy Feb 23, 2009 Sports
There is more to the Ironman Triathlon swim than first meets the eye. It pays to be prepared and to know what to expect in order to have a safe, successful swim.

If you are determined to attempt your first ironman, but a bit nervous about the swim, this may make you feel better.

Historically, more first time Ironman starters are more experienced in the run and/or the bike as opposed to the swim. You are not alone!

Trust me, I survived my first Ironman swim and so will you. When I watched those crazy people back in 1982 and they were swimming 2.4 miles in the ocean, my first thought was---"well I guess that rules me out". Considering I couldn't swim a stroke at the time and had a healthy fear of the water, my chances looked pretty slim.

Something happened though. The more I watched the race, the more I wanted to do it. By the time the T.V. version of Hawaii Ironman 1982 was done, I was determined to learn how to swim. I wanted to cross that finish line.

Two years later I was in Kona, the cannon went off, and I was on my way. THIS WAS MY FIRST OPEN WATER SWIM! And what a swim it was! I had a really crappy stoke. I know that now. I didn't care at the time. I was swimming in Kona--in the Ironman!

I got hit and kicked and run over, but luckily for me there were only around 900 starters that day. It would get much worse in coming years as fields have grown to 2000 plus!

Back to Kona! It was surreal. Swimming out to the boat with the big orange sails that marked the turn. Watching tropical fish as I swam. Scuba divers sitting on the ocean floor waving as we swam by. Making the turn at half-way and an under-water photographer taking my picture as I rounded the boat and headed back. The amazing rush as I felt the current lift me and push me towards shore.

I can't even put into words what it felt like when I stood up after one hour and 38 minutes and realized I had finished the Hawaii Ironman swim. It was a defining moment in my life. I knew right then that before the day was done, I would be an Ironman.

I will never forget that transition tent. It was electric! It was like everyone was talking at once. You could "feel" the sense of accomplishment and relief in the air. Thinking back, I truly believe a lot of people in the race that year were dreading the swim.

I told you this story for a reason. It sure isn't to brag. It's to inspire you. It's to make you realize that if you want this bad enough, its there for the taking. POWER! WISDOM! STRENGTH! You have that inside you. Now--let it out. Get in the water!

Don't make the same mistakes I did though. I pretty well did everything wrong when I tried to make myself a faster swimmer.

I read books. I swam thousands of lengths, Reinforcing all my bad habits. I swam miles and miles with pull buoys, because my feet sank. I blasted my way through the water. It took me 10 years to take 15 minutes off my original Hawaii swim. The gun would go off and I would move my arms as fast I could for 2.4 miles.

It took years, but I soon discovered that I had to SLOW DOWN in order to swim faster. I learned that swimming relaxed and using the natural buoyancy that we all have was the answer. It wasn't really how FAST I got to the other end of the pool, it was HOW! I finally learned that 16 relaxed strokes every 25 meters is a ton better then 25 "move your arms as fast as you can strokes."

Learn to press the upper half or your body (your chest) into the water as you swim. Your lungs will act as a natural buoy and when you master the technique you will feel your legs rise to the surface behind you. Its simple physics and you will see a difference in one training day. "Press your buoy" every time you swim and soon it will become natural. Also count your strokes and reduce the number of strokes it takes to reach the end of the pool. When you get the smooth gliding stroke down and understand the buoyancy, slowly begin to add speed. Soon your swimming will improve by leaps and bounds.

I worked on that for the whole training season and found myself back at the Ironman swim start. I stayed calm and relaxed. I used my new loooooong, smoooooth, stroke. Kept nice even balance on top of the water, and was very relaxed when I finished the swim. I thought, "well, I don't feel like I worked very hard or swam very fast, but if my time's slower that's ok, at least I feel great!

MY TIME WAS A PERSONAL BEST SWIM BY JUST OVER FIVE MINUTES! In one training season, by learning to relax, and swim with proper technique and use loooong, smooooth strokes and proper body balance I made a huge improvement in my swimming.

Remember: Its not how many miles you swim in training---its how you swim. That's the key.

A few other things..

If you don't manage to swim in the open water during your training, don't worry about it. Save it for race day like I did. The right swim technique will work anywhere. You should however, do some swimming in your wetsuit even if its just in the pool. Just to get used to how it feels.

I highly recommend you do away with all those swimming aids. Kick boards and pull buoys shouldn't really be part of your ironman swim training. There's no need to learn how to be a great kicker. Swim with proper technique and kicking is not a big issue and you can save your legs for later in the day. If you learn proper balance in the water, your legs won't sink and you won't need to use pull buoys.

Don't feel you 'have' to join a swim club to improve your swimming. If you enjoy the club atmosphere, by all means, go for it. I always found I did better on my own.

Just remember this: The Ironman is an individual event. Much of it is done in solitude as you fight your own demons. Even if you have company in the marathon--they cannot carry you. It is what is inside you that will determine how your day ends.

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