Ironman swim: 3 preparation tips
Updated: Aug 11, 2021
Over the years I have frequently heard people insist that because the IM swim accounts for ~10% of total race time, it only deserves a commensurate amount of training attention. While the swim indeed represents a small fraction of your overall finish time, it still matters - a lot. You cannot (or most likely will not) win the IM on the swim but you sure can lose your day if it detrimentally impacts your bike performance and subsequent run.
Here are three simple suggestions to help prepare your swim to have a positive impact on the rest of your race day.
Technique – The Recovery
Ultimately your swim preparation should aim to improve your ability to cover the race distance at (your) speed comfortably so you have energy in the tank to bike and run effectively. It all starts with a sustainable technique. This means one that you can replicate sustainably for~4000 strokes over 3.8k (factoring some navigational deviations along the way). The Recovery phase is key to this end.
The recovery is undervalued. Often it is only viewed as that phase that somehow links the end of the “Push” phase with the “Place” of the hand phase. When it is a point of attention discussion revolves around “proper” – dare I say esthetic - form. I would argue that aside from being an inevitable biomechanical link in the stroke cycle it has a functional purpose.
Recovery means exactly that – recovery! Yet so many AG from a non-swim background (lacking the flexibility and coordination of fellow early-start pure bred swimmers) still work the recovery, contriving that high “chicken-wingie” finger-drag type procedure from the shoulder complex – because that is considered proper swim form. I see the energy tax in their body language.
Indeed the recovery phase is short lived. Passes in the blink of an eye at race effort. But it is still an opportunity to recuperate. Think of the upstroke phase when pedalling. How exhausting will it be to actively “pull up” every stroke over the course of 180k? So relax the elbow angle. Open it up. Is there an optimal angle? No. It can be completely straight. Whatever feels comfortable and provides your arm and shoulder with a momentary sense of respite (without of course compromising the placement of the hand on entry). The tension, pressure and power come under water where it matters. Over top - chill. Multiply that 4000x and there is some energy savings to be had. Remember - recovery means exactly that. Make it so.
Training – Race Pace Grooving (RPG)
In my Fundamentals article I stressed the importance of rehearsing race pace (RP). An effective trial set to groove your swim RP while developing and gauging progress in your stamina is to complete 4000m of 100m pull holding RP on a RP +7-10sec send-off time – I.e 40 x 100p (1.50) @ 2.00. Of course one needs to work up to this possibly starting with 10 x 100, 20 x or 30 x, depending on experience. The goal is to hold RP from start to finish and see if and at one point in the set you start to fall off the pace. The seasonal objective is to make each trial feel better than the last (which means your efficiency and stamina are improving).
Naturally we want to see pace times come down as part of anticipated progression. What is most important is that you are able to sustain the effort 40x, consistently. If after 2-3 consecutive trials you are now coming in consistently with 12-15sec rest, then you are likely ready to re-set your RP (in this example to 1.45 leaving on 1.55).
This trial set also helps potentially identify aspects that need further training attention. For example, if after 28-30reps your pace tends to fall off to 1.58-2.02 and becomes a struggle to hold, then addressing stamina and holding TUF (technique under fatigue) at the back end of training sets might be a point of attention. If the pace falls off mid-way and then consistently comes back on track or better for the back end, this may be indicative of distraction that may require more attention on sustained mental focus and cue development.
Try this trial set every 6-8weeks to measure your progress from both a pace and energetic standpoint while concurrently grooving your RP effort. And remember to do this with NO WATER BOTTLE stops!
Race Preparation – Simulation Prep Sets
While it is never really possible to recon an actual IM swim course (as the full course is never set up until race morning – Kona being perhaps the closest exception) you can still get a sense of the course rhythm at home. By studying the actual course map found in the Athletes Guide you can design sets that follow the course pattern and allow you to develop your personal race approach/strategy with more specificity.
Using a fictitious IM race that has a 2-loop triangular course: 800m x 300m x 800m with an exit run around a buoy on the beach. You will quickly deduce that this course has 3x turns >90degrees/points of convergence, and a tight inter-section between turn 1 and 2. This means there will be at least 3 points along the course, excluding the mayhem of the start, where some intensity will be inevitably injected into the mix causing HR to jack up momentarily requiring you to control it and settle back into your game quickly.
A specific pool prep session might be:
[p = pull buoy, pp = pull + paddles, sri = sec rest interval, mri = min rest interval, RP = race pace]
5min warm up choice/1-2mri full rest (waiting for the horn)
4 x 50p desc 1-4/5sri (start)
Then 2 times through:
7-8 x 100 (RP)/10sri (leg 1)
4 x 25 fast/5sri (turn 1, simulate convergence melee and its short and choppy nature, get HR up)
3 x (75 fast+25 mod-med) continuous (simulate the “bumper car” effect as people come out of the turn trying to re-sight and catching up/passing waves ahead)
4 x 25 fast/5sri (simulate turn 2 as above)
4 x 200 (RP)/15sri (leg 2)
4 x 25 sprint/5sri (turn 3, simulate HR rise from standing up and running. Round 2 do as 100 build by 25 to finish).
(Set 1- p, Set 2 - pp)
Incorporate these three tips into your IM swim preparation. They will help you conserve energy, develop your capacity to cover the distance at speed and build your confidence to tackle the nuances of the given course. Exiting the swim with resilience can only help your day on the bike and run.