Does this look anything like 200s in the pool following the black line?  There’s much more to the Ironman swim than getting fast in the pool.

Did Your Training Speed Fail to Show Up at your Last Ironman or 70.3 race?


If you fail to hold a decent effort (relative to what you do in training) in any of the 3 sports, your knee jerk reaction might be to want to get faster in that sport (push your training numbers higher and higher).   But instead  you probably need to improve: (a)  your race execution or (b) to focus on “getting stronger” overall as a triathlete, not faster.   

The longer the race distance, the more it becomes about strength and execution.   There’s no point in getting faster and faster if you can’t use a decent portion of that speed on race day.    The athlete with a 7 minute per mile threshold pace who runs 10 minutes per mile in her Ironman isn’t going to make big improvements by getting her threshold down to 6:40.   It will come from either executing her Ironman race plan  better or training to become “stronger,” not faster.

Let’s start by talking about your swim:


5 Reasons Why Your Swim Speed is Not Showing Up on Ironman or 70.3 Race Day

  1. Swim Technique:  Is Your Technique Good in the Pool But Bad in the Open Water?   If you are fast in the pool but your race speeds aren’t close to your practice speeds, your technique is likely to blame.   Long beautiful strokes with your head down might work in the pool, but you might find you are getting your ass kicked in the open water.   Also, a Michael Phelps stroke tends to work really well for short distances but few of us have the strength to hold it for long distances.   Get your eyes forward and use a more dynamic, slightly shorter stroke with a higher stroke rate and more clearance above the water.     My swim stroke is horrible (mediocre catch, poor hold on the water) but I swim 1 hour flat in the Ironman because my head is forward and I’m able to draft faster people around me and I can thread the needle through crowds when things are rough (e.g. at buoys).  My fast but shitty strokes work well in crowds and chop.  It’s ugly, but I can, as Brett Sutton likes to say, do 4000 of them in a row without breaking down.     This type of stroke relies more on our cardio system as opposed to our “swimming muscles,” which tends to work better for those of us who didn’t grow up swimming.  Of course, fast “good strokes” are better
  2. Open Water Skills:  do you forget to sight and add an extra few hundred because you swim crookedly?   Are you too afraid of crowds to take advantage of drafting?  Drafting is a huge advantage.   If your eyes are forward you can “slot in” and draft (while avoiding people) for first 500 or even 1000 of an Ironman you can really get “sucked out” at a super fast speed.   If you are afraid of crowds and swim wide of the group, not only are you swimming extra distance, you are also missing out on the “free ride.”  And, of course, just being used to swimming in your wetsuit and the open water in general is a key skill.  Getting in 2-3 OW swims in your wetsuit or swim skin before your big race can make a huge difference compared to barely doing anything.  And, this could be a separate bullet point, but make sure your wetsuit feels good and fits you well during your practice swims.   (FYI, here at TriForce we love wetsuits from our sponsor Roka.)
  3. Poor Pacing: since we rarely get good speed data after our open water races it’s hard to check our pacing afterwards.  But I HIGHLY SUSPECT that many, many people are swimming their fastest 400 yards of the year to start their Ironman race.   Our adrenaline is off the charts and we simply aren’t going to feel fatigue in the same way.    If your pacing feels “a little too hard” to start, chances are that you are swimming incredibly fast without realizing it.   If it feels “about right” chances are you are still going much too fast.  If it feels “a little too easy” there’s still a good chance you are going too hard, but at least it shouldn’t be off the charts.   Watch your breath pattern- that’s your clue to how fast you are actually going.  
  4. Are You Not Doing Enough Race Like Swims- Long, Hard Sets with Long Reps?   This is often the case with people who swim masters.   Your 100 and 200 times might set the world on fire, but if you don’t do enough solid, long swims (with many reps of 400-1000+) then you might find your race times are poor to mediocre relative to your training speeds.    Starting 3-4 months out from your Ironman, do one solid distance day per week.
  5. Not enough yards?   this is always worth mentioning.   If you are on a minimal swim plan your might have good speed for short distances but lack the strength for the relentless intensity of the race swim.   A decent amount of yards per week (not high but not low) is around 9000 (3×3000).   If you are hovering around 5000 or so, you might be fast but you are probably not “strong.”    If you don’t have the time to put in the yards to get strong you’ll need to keep your swim race intensity easier.    

A final note– your swim spills over to the rest of your race!   A “good swim time” doesn’t mean you had a “good swim.”   If you have a fast time but you come out of the water filled with lactate or if your heart rate is spiked for the first 45 minutes of the bike then it’s a poor swim.  (getting this information is one reason why we race with heart rate).  Remember, we don’t do a swim race + a bike race + a run race.   Triathlon is one race.  

Next up in the series…. why didn’t my bike power show up on race day?

Related posts:

How to Race A Half Ironman

6 Keys to Racing Your Half Ironman