Training for your first Ironman can often feel daunting, but as somebody who recently finished her first Ironman, I want you to know that it is abso-freaking-lutely doable if you put your head down and do the work. The minute I crossed the finish line and experienced the thrill of hearing Mike Reilly call out my name, I knew I wanted to pay it forward and share what I’ve learned with others who might be starting their Ironman journey or those who are contemplating signing up for their first.
Here’s what I learned about the SWIM...
• If you’re not a swimmer when you start your Ironman journey, you can, and will be one, if you make the commitment to put the time in in the pool.
• When you first start, you might be discouraged by how hard it feels, possibly being out of breath after just a few lengths of the pool. Don’t despair, it does get easier. Just keep at it. The more time you spend in the water, the better it will feel. REALLY.
• Celebrate each tiny victory. Some days it might just be getting to the pool. Other days it could be swimming one more lap or taking a few seconds off your 100. Or it might be that it felt a tiny bit easier or your stroke felt a little smoother. Celebrate it all. You are making progress, and that progress will eventually add up to you toeing the line of your first Ironman.
• Like all disciplines of triathlon, the key is to build up slowly and steadily so you avoid injury. The path to the starting line is long, so be patient.
• Consistency is key. I repeat, consistency is key. Don’t short-change yourself by skipping swim days.
• Watch as many swim technique videos as possible and read articles and books with tips on breathing, sighting, kicking and stroke technique.
• If you can join a master’s swim class, or take lessons from a coach, you will have more fun and perfect your stroke much faster.
• It helps to have somebody videotape you so you can see how you swim and what you can do to improve.
• The more relaxed you are, the smoother you will be and the faster you will go. It’s about alignment and gliding, not thrashing frenetically.
• Scope out more than one pool and have their schedules printed or handy on your phone. This will give you a back-up plan if your first choice is unexpectedly closed. You don’t want to give yourself any excuse for skipping your workout.
• Keep an extra suit, goggles, cap and towel in your car in case you get all the way to the pool and realize you forgot these essential items. Your mind will get fuzzy at times in the midst of intense training, and you will forget things. Again, no excuses.
• If you find it boring to swim laps, music helps A LOT. A waterproof iPod can change your outlook on pool time.
• Fins, paddles and kick boards can all help keep it fresh and also help you get stronger in the process.
• Investing in a tri watch like a Garmin 920xt or Suunto Ambit 3 can be a good motivator and also be extremely helpful in keeping track of your times and distances.
• If you loathe the first few seconds of plunging into a cold pool, you’re not alone. EVERYONE hates it–even Olympians. You just gotta suck it up Buttercup and get through it. It helps to do it as quickly as possible so you get the initial shock over with and get on with your workout.
• Your new perfume will be Eau du Chlorine no matter how hard you scrub after your swim or how much fragrance or lotion you slather on afterward. Get used to it. It will remind you of your awesomeness.
• It’s essential you find goggles that fit your sweet face so you are comfortable in the water. It may take trying several different pairs. What works for one person doesn’t work for another. Swim masks worked for me and it took trying six different pairs before I finally settled on them.
• Your hair will likely feel like straw and possibly turn a new shade of green. Getting your hair wet and putting conditioner on before you put your cap on will help.
• If you have long hair, you might want to use a cap made specifically for long hair (yes, they make them).
• Once you become a strong swimmer in the pool, practice open water swims often. It’s a completely different beast than the pool (ie: no lane lines and nothing to hold onto) and you will feel much more confident on race day knowing what to expect. Doing this with a group will give you the best practice.
• Invest in the best wetsuit you can afford. It’s all about comfort and buoyancy. While the least expensive version may be tempting (believe me, I get it), the next step up will likely last longer and make your open water swims much more comfortable.
• You will likely want to eat everything in your refrigerator after you swim, but keep in mind that swimming doesn’t burn nearly as many calories as running or cycling. No fair, I know, especially since swimming feels like it should burn triple the calories. Refuel once you get out of the pool, but do it wisely so you don’t sabotage your body with unhealthy choices.
• If you swim in an outdoor pool, don’t neglect sunscreen. While having SoCal swim tan lines might make you feel all Ironman’ish, having melanoma will take all the fun and coolness out of it. Be smart. You’re going to be in the pool for hours during this long journey to your first Ironman.
• Your shoulders will ache at times as you push beyond your previous boundaries. Stretch them, ice them, and get a massage if your resources allow for it. It’s all about recovery and being able to get in the pool again to put in another solid workout.
• The swim is a great time to get into Zen mode and focus on your mental game. Your stroke and breathing can be hypnotic if you get in the right frame of mind. Practice mantras, count strokes, sing songs…this is what will help you on race day too.
• There will be a point somewhere along the way where your dread for going to the pool suddenly turns into something else. Yep, believe it or not, you will eventually start looking forward to it, as it feels good to glide through the cool water and get into a rhythm that makes you feel strong and smooth.
• The day you suddenly swim the full 2.4 miles in training is one you will never forget. From that day forward you will carry a massive bucket of confidence with you from which to draw each time you need a boost.
• Remember the swim is the shortest portion of the race. You absolutely need to train hard and respect the distance, but keep in mind that it will be over before you know it, even if it takes you the full two hours and twenty minutes. I will share more about race strategies in another post. In the meantime, believe in yourself that you WILL be able to do this, and keep putting in the work. You’ll be be surprised at how strong you will become, both mentally and physically.
As you begin (or continue) your first Ironman journey, know that I am rooting for you all the way! When you use your doubts and fears to fuel your motivation, you will suddenly discover that you are unstoppable. Now go out there and get it!
Tri on my friends…
PS: Next up will be Ironman Bike Tips for Newbies. If you missed my first post in this series, here’s the link: Things I Know for Sure About Doing Your First Ironman: THE JOURNEY.
4 thoughts on “Ironman Swim Tips for Newbies”
AWESOME!! Thanks, Becky! Saw John Nelson doing a written down workout at the club Wednesday- he’s training for an Ironman. Talk soon, Whitney
Oh man, Whitney, I bet you could add a ton of insights to this post with all your years of experience. Yay for John!!!
I just purchased the iPod mini and was so e cited to be listening to music but I have trouble keeping the earbuds in and comfortable under my swim cap, any suggestions?
That’s so frustrating! I’m experiencing the same thing right now too. I had my swim bag stolen over the holidays with my favorite earbuds in it (can’t remember the brand–they came with my AudioFlood iPod). The replacements I got fall out. It seems to help if I pull my cap down over them a little, but I think I’ll be trying some new ones.