Four Secrets of the Long Course Swim Revealed

150 150 Rich Strauss

photo credit: Sonic Fitness

6:59am — music blasting, kayakers herding swimmers, and nearly 2500 Ironman® athletes treading water or standing on the beach of the Ironman® swim start, waiting pensively to start a very, very big and long day.

7:00am — BOOM! And so begins perhaps the most unique spectacle in all of endurance sports — the Ironman® swim start. Nearly 2500 bodies and 5000 arms and legs churning the water to start a 140.6 mile day. Below are our tips for surviving, and excelling at, the Ironman® swim.

Where to Line Up
Endurance Nation had over 1000 Ironman® finishes in 2011. Rich and Patrick have nearly 30 Ironman® finishes between them and have been to 4-6 Ironmans every year since 2002.  We’ve learned that a lot of fast people position themselves right on the buoy line. Many more people position themselves as far as possible away from these people, as far from the buoy line as they can get. As a consequence, the middle of the start line is often less crowded than you would expect.

Therefore we usually recommend you position yourself near the middle of the start line and then seed yourself front to back about 2-4 minutes faster than you expect to swim. For example, if you expect to swim a 1:10, find those 1:05-08 people. In our experience it is better to be swum (politely) around by slightly faster swimmers than to be timid about your starting position, seed yourself around much slower swimmers, and then have to swim through many swimmers for 2.4 miles.

Only Swim as Fast as Your Ability to Maintain Form
The net difference between you swimming “hard” and swimming “easy” is usually only about 2-4 minutes in an 11-17 hour day. It’s just not worth it to try to make something happen. Instead, focus on swimming as smoothly and efficiently as you know how. Swim with your best possible form and only swim fast enough as your ability to maintain your form.

It’s helpful to have some individual cues for what good/not good form is for you. For some folks your breathing count (3-count or 4-count strokes per breath) is a good metric. Others prefer to focus on perceived exertion. Whatever you choose, know that it’s time to slow down if you start to feel your form slip!

Keep Your Head Inside the Box
2500+ bodies trashing around in a small space, all trying to go the same direction. It’s the very definition of chaos! Maintain your focus by keeping your head inside The Box of what you can control:

  • In the Box: Head position, breathing, body rotation, catch, pull, etc. All of your form cues. These are things you CAN control, focus on these.
  • Out of the Box: Any contact you experience, the pacing of other athletes, etc. Basically anything that takes your focus away your form.

The simple tool we use to keep our heads in the Box is to count our strokes. Left, right, left, right, 1, 2, 3, 4, keep counting until you lose count then start over again. The simple act of counting arm strokes will bring your head back into the Box of what you can control, helping you let go of the stuff outside of your Box. Try it, it works!

Keep Head-Lift to a Minimum
We typically lift our heads to keep feet in sight as we draft (a little), or to sight on navigation buoys (a lot!). Every time you lift your head…you drop your feet/hips…and you compromise your form a bit. Here’s what to do.

  • Drafting: Don’t think so much about drafting, and looking for feet, that you forget to keep your head in the Box and focused on form. 2500 people all swimming the same direction…relax, it’s gonna happen. 
  • Navigation: 2500 people all swimming the same direction…that’s a lot of people to follow, put on your right or left side, and in general decrease how frequently you need to compromise your from by lifting your head to sight for buoys.




  • Hanthony

    Louisville is a Time Trial start. In the 1st up stream section the water will be very choppy and turbulent. The channel between the river bank & the island is relatively narrow. Expect to be swim over, be kicked, and to swallow water.
    This doesn't last too long. The water & people begin to calm down shortly befor the end of the island.
    As you approach the turn bouy, go wide and let the hot heads take the inside.
    You now have the longest open section of the swim in front of you.
    It is a straight shot down stream, with the small current to the swim exit & T1.

  • Guest

    I found the portion after the island turn around the most difficult because there wasn't that mass of humanity moving toward the same place. It was quite easy to stray following only a handful of people

  • Kscycler

    With 5 IM finishes, I have followed your positioning technique, usually. Last year at IMLP, I decided to line up on the far right, and my thoughts were to aim for the far buoy. My rationale was that it would be less crowded and the additional distance (50 or so yards) would be offset by cleaner water. Well, I was on the far right, but there were 50-75 people outside of my position. I wrongly assumed that they were aiming for the far buoy as well. Not so, I discovered. Each of them, almost in turn, decided to edge closer to the cable, and they cut across my swim line. Lesson learned: if you want to get to the far right (or left) get all the way outside. Otherwise, you're better off in the middle of the start line where everyone is essentially swimming straight ahead.

  • SA_mako

    Does anyone have experience with IMTX swim start? I am a fast swimmer (sub-55 min) and need to be close to all the fast swimmers. Do you expect them to line up close to the shoreline, farthest from the shoreline, or somewhere in the middle? Thx

    • ali

      IMTX swim start for 2011 was a wet start. I got in as soon as they let us in the water and started somewhat to the front…it only took a few minutes to get a decent position.(slightly to the right of the middle)..and not too much aggression..I’d definitely go for starting out in front.

  • Rich Strauss

    @SA_Mako, I'm a sub 55' guy also but don't know the IMTX swim. Generally, the fast-fast guys always line up right on the buoy line. However, in my next IM swim, I'm going to line up in the middle, at the front: fewer fast guys to break away from, find some clean water, get my head and stroke about me for about 400m, then move my over to the line of fast guys on the buoy. If you line up too far away from the line, as I did at CDA'08, you'll find yourself with clear water right away, but by the time you make it over to the line you'll be behind slower swimmers = a PITA to swim through them.

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