8 Tips For Your Ironman Swim.

Taking on the challenge of an Ironman distance race is a thrilling adventure. When it’s your first, the build up to race day leaves so many unknowns.

There is no doubt that during your training you have covered the distances and you have built your physical strength to its peak.  Your mental strength will be the strongest it has ever been.  But that still leaves room for nerves as race day approaches. You may still be asking yourself that question? How will I string together the Ironman swim, bike and run.

My first Ironman was Ironman Frankfurt in 2015. A race that takes place in early July. Whilst it is a mid-summer race, temperatures are rarely as brutal as they were on this particular race day. With northern Europe basking in a heatwave and temperatures hitting 38 degrees Celsius the atmosphere was more suited for a day at the beach instead of an Ironman Triathlon.

On the day before the race, I bumped into a fellow Belgian and somewhat faster and more experienced  athlete Frederik Van Lierde. When I asked if he had any tips for a race in this weather his only advice was ‘take on all the food and drink you can’ and a sarcastic  ‘you got lucky with the weather for your first race’. Something that was clearly also on the minds of the pro athletes. 

The Frankfurt Ironman race is the European Championship race, this means all the big names are there. The course is known to be fast, but in this weather anything is possible.

In this 3 part series I will break down how I approached and managed the Ironman swim, bike and run on race day giving you tips from my race day experience.

The Ironman Swim

The setting for this swim is in the Langener Waldsee,  a short distance from Frankfurt. The lake is manmade and starts on a beach which is more frequently used by the locals as a summer escape from the city.

The race start was a beach start and this was before the ‘filtered’ start so an all-in sprint for the water. Once in the water the course was a two loop swim with an Australian exit connecting the 2 loops in the 2 sides of the lake. The water is calm which makes for an enjoyable swim. With a sandy bottom, the visibility is low.

My Tips for your Ironman Swim

1.Study Online Race Start Footage and Pick Your Route

The internet is a powerful resource. In many cases the race route does not change too much from year to year meaning that you will most likely find footage whether amateur or professional of the race start from previous years.

This is a good way to see how people approach the swim, where the bulk of people swim. where the busy and less buys lines are. In some cases you may have room to move pretty wide one or even both sides as you head to the first turn. Logically,  the inside and shortest line is the most chosen route and therefor also the busiest. 

This will give you some indicators as to where you enter the water, the line you swim and how you will approach the first turning point. The first turn will also be a squeeze so consider how you approach it. I have previously been stuck in ‘traffic’ almost treading water as we circled the buoy. 

In Frankfurt the start is wide, as you can  see from the impressive drone footage of the 2015 start allowing you to go quite wide on either side in order to find space. The main consideration is the first buoy which was a left turn.  I opted to stay centre right and kept my focus on the turn with the aim of staying a few meters from the buoy avoiding all the swimmers cutting across into the bottle neck which effectively became a ‘traffic jam’. Whilst I swam a few meters further, I kept my rhythm with less obstacles.

Once past the first turns the field spreads out somewhat allowing for some additional space and a more peaceful swim.

2. Be Prepared For Last Minute Changes

In the build up to Frankfurt it was clear that the weather conditions were hot, and going to stay that way. This also meant that the likelihood of the swim being declared as a non-wetsuit swim was big. And indeed it was.

If you are a strong confident swimmer this may not make a difference to you or you may even prefer it. If, like me you enjoy the extra buoyancy a wetsuit offers for a long swim this is an important piece to consider.

I got online and picked up a swim skin for this eventuality. And it was amazing. Not having the restrictive feel that a wetsuit can have but providing the same benefits of buoyancy and pace in the water.

Another important thing to consider. The Sun. You will be starting shortly after sunrise so the sun will be low in the sky. This could mean that you have the sun in your face for at least a part of your Ironman Swim.  You have two main options. Come prepared with tinted goggles or be confident in breathing on both sides. If you have not practiced breathing on both sides, I recommend the goggles! Getting the sun in your eyes every time you breath not pleasant and worst case will lead you to a headache by the time you exit the water.

3. Study the Route

Once you have done your bike check and you are relaxed. Head out for a swim. This will give you a first indication of water conditions and visibility and you will get a sense for what the course looks like. Understand the course from land so you know the direction of your turns and pick out the buoys that are turning points and those that are direction indicators (usually smaller).

Once you are in the water, review the route again. Your visibility will much more restricted with only your head above the water, but a lot clearer than when there are thousands of others splashing about around you.

Practice your sighting so that you can pick out key landmarks at a glance and be confident on your route on race morning.

4. Know Your Ironman Swim Pace

My previous race swim had been two months earlier in Ironman 70.3 Barcelona. This was my warm up race.  I strongly encourage taking part in a 70.3 in the months leading up to the full distance race as this is a good opportunity to test your strategy but also to gauge your level.

In my case, this was a wake up call on my swim. I had a terrible swim in Barcelona. I had gone in confident based on the distances covered in training, mainly in the pool. I ran into the water placed well in the pack and rapidly realised the consequences of my recent lack of open water swimming.  I fought hard with currents and struggled with the disruption of other swimmers around me. I fought my way through, used up a lot of energy and came out of the water disorientate and dizzy.

Whilst this was disappointing for Barcelona, the practice swim had served it’s purpose.

I took step back and thought of my purpose for doing this race. I am not racing for position, not racing for qualification points. Like many this was a personal challenge. As tough as this race is I still wanted to enjoy it, and most importantly of all. Finish.

The result was that I started with a ‘leisurely’ approach to the swim, not rushing to be amongst the first in the water but instead letting many of the eager athletes chasing Kona spots rush in before I took the plunge. There is no rush, it’s a long day.

What you want to be careful for. Going in too early with the fastest swimmers may leave you with faster swimmers behind you swimming onto your heals and over the top of you (yes that does happen). If you start too far back you may find yourself swimming onto the back of other swimmers. Neither is fun.

So you will need to take on the tough challenge of assessing how good others are by how they look… or alternatively, speak to those around you to gain an understanding of their expected pace and see if it matches up with yours. Some races have pace markers as indicators which will help position yourself.

There is no perfect solution but in order to enjoy your entire days racing it is worth setting off with a confident start.

5. Accept the Challenge of the First few 100 Meters

Ultimately, no matter where you find yourself for the start, the first few hundred metres of your Ironman swim will be busy. Just know that it is going to get better and you will find your place and your pace.

Keep calm and focus on how you trained for this. Don’t allow the pressure of others on your heels to force you to accelerate. This will push you above your pace and may hit you later in your swim. Let them pass and focus on your own race.

There is also no point getting angry. Lets face it, no one can see anything and most likely your fellow competitor is not trying to swim onto your heels on purpose. By getting frustrated will only use up energy you will probably need later in the day.

Focus on your breathing and just keep moving forward, you will find your space and your own rhythm. It is worth using your training swims to practice a fast start where you use up more energy early on and then settle into your pace. Whilst there is no simple substitute to practice a race start, being aware of the challenges you may face will help you be prepared.

6. Find Some Feet

Assuming you are not in the lead, if you are this article may not be for you. Find some feet to follow. Once you are through the hustle and bustle of the start you will find your rhythm and the pace you have been training at.

You will most likely also find others around you who are swimming the same kind of pace. Tucking in behind them will help with two things. First, it will help lower your swim effort as you benefit from the drag effect. Secondly, it will help with your need for sighting (assuming they know the direction). Remember you are responsible for your own race, but it may mean that you can sight a little less often allowing you to relax and swim.

I tend also try keep some swimmers to my right (the side I mainly breathe on). By keeping a swimmer in front and trying to keep a constant distance to the swimmer to my right I felt comfortable with my overall direction. If I am closing in or distancing myself from the swimmer on the right I know I need to recheck my direction to ensure I am on course.

7. Enjoy The Tranquility

Once I  found my space and my rhythm, the swim seemed to be the most tranquil part of my race. With only a metre or so of clear visibility and the sound of water splashing it was easy to ‘switch off’ as the repetition of swim stroke carried me further. At this point I stop trying to think how far I was or how far I  had to go, I just keep swimming until I reached the exit point.

Before you know it, you will spot the exit area and water will become shallower. As you get closer and eventually lift out of the water the noise from the cheering spectators will get louder until you are back on dry land running for T1.  That’s it! The Ironman swim is over with only one thing left to do as you exit… smile.

8. Smile When You Exit The Water

You’ve done it! Race day part one is complete. That is your first reason to smile, and as a second reason. If you need another. There will be photographers catching snaps of you as you make your way to transition. These will most likely be your first race day snaps so make a good first impression.

Swimmers Starting their Triathlon

Ironman Swim

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