Five time Ironman Lake Placid Finisher Kev – aka FitOldDog has written this guide to the IMLP swim – though many of the tips are true for other triathlon and Ironman swims. The key points are – don’t just focus on your stroke and endurance in training. Also prepare for race day conditions as you can lose lots of time from open water nerves, stress with the maelstrom and most of all poor sighting. Enjoy. You can read more from his blog athletewithstent.com
Having completed the Lake Placid Ironman (LPIM) race five times over the last five years, my thoughts on the swim leg might be of interest to those undertaking such a race for the first time. My real concern for first-timers is the issue of safety, because the start can be pretty hairy. With foresight, planning, and appropriate training you should have a great time. I always do!
I’m signed up again for LPIM this year, and even though I am looking forward to it I know that during the first couple of hundred yards I’ll be thinking, “What the hell am I doing?” But in a few minutes I settle in and have a great time every year. Here are my thoughts on how to approach an Ironman swim based on my experiences in Mirror Lake:
Clearly you need to be an adequately trained and competent swimmer. There are two key aspects to swim training, technique and conditioning. I have tended over the years to focus excessively on swim technique. Recent work with a new swim coach, Rick Fee, which complements my regular Ironman coaching from Chris Hauth, has led to dramatic improvements in my times in the pool due to an emphasis on conditioning. In fact, going off of the wall with Rick, a truly competent swimmer and patient coach, has pushed my swim to a point that I haven’t seen in over 30 years. So, even with 60 years of swimming under my belt, including 10 years as a water polo player as a young man, there are still new tricks for this old dog to learn. We’ll see if this pool improvement will be reflected in my Ironman Lake Placid 2012 swim time, but I bet that it will.
A few specific points about key skills to practice during your base training:
(a) Fast out for a couple of hundred yards followed by long cruise, to get away from the pack and then settle back down.
(b) Lots of long pulls with pull buoy to simulate wet suit swimming.
(c) Plenty of head up drills to help you negotiate tight packs around turns.
(d) A sighting pattern, such as every tenth stroke, that does not interfere with your rhythm or induce a head bob.
(e) Handling violent interactions with other swimmers, who can treat you pretty badly, for which the absolutely best training is water polo in my opinion. If you can handle this great game you can handle anything in the water and you will always be safe because you will know your limitations and be able to stay calm, even when in pain. Furthermore, you won’t panic, this being the general cause of triathlon swim deaths in my opinion.
Pre-Race Training (4 weeks to go)
It is critical to familiarize yourself with open-water swimming, which is NOT like the pool. Being out in a lake or the sea comes with a number issues, including the absence of wall push-offs, a continuous unbroken rhythm, an absence of guidelines on the bottom or lane markers, and the potential for fear of big creatures in the water, such as water snakes, snapping turtles, or sharks. Do not underestimate the latter issue, as it can play tricks with your mind during training. [Ed. I'm afraid of sharks when night swimming in a pool at the top of a 30 storey building!]
Finally, DO NOT DO OPEN WATER SWIMMING ON YOUR OWN! Prior to the race, complete at least 3-5 open water swims to render this environment familiar, and especially to practice your sighting pattern. If you arrive at the race site a few days before the race, swim one loop or half the distance, but go easy as you are now as trained as you are going to be! This is also a great time to set up your sighting points for each segment, which must be visible above the spray and craziness of the first half mile.
Race Day Morning
I am assuming that you have nutrition and hydration down pat, but don’t forget to get to the bathroom within 30 minutes of the start to deal with ‘colonic nerves’ BEFORE you zip up your wet suit. I always do a fifteen-minute pre-race meditation practice to calm my mind, become focused, and pre-run the entire race in my head. OK! About five minutes to go! If the water is cold, dump some down your suit about 3 minutes before the gun to avoid having cold shock derail your focus during the actual start. Don’t do this too soon or you will become chilled. Once in the water, jockey politely for your pre-chosen position in the pack. Don’t forget, the density of heads in the water around your spot will provide a gross underestimation of the swimmer density once they go horizontal, so allow for this.
When the Gun Goes Off
When the gun goes off pull away fast, as you practiced in the pool, then settle down to strong and steady. Don’t let impolite swimmers throw you off of your stroke, stay nice and high in the water, and PULL. Settle calmly into your swim, working towards quiet water or a good draft, whichever you find most peaceful – the swim is not the make or break point of the race for most of us, but it does set up your psychology for the rest of the day. Remember that you do this because you enjoy it, and strange as it may seem, smile from time to time because it really helps you to loosen up your mind and your body. If someone swims aggressively into or over you, don’t get mad, just politely indicate with heel or elbow that this is not a good course of action on their part (this is where water polo training really helps). But beware, even a gentle message can trigger a violent response – been there, felt that, but I swam on, resisting the almost overwhelming temptation to counter-attack even more violently.
Help People Drowning!
If you see someone in trouble, stop and help them – I’ve done this twice in the LPIM, both times during the first few hundred yards of the swim. You may add a minute to your race time (though I doubt it), but you could save a life. I have already published my thoughts on Ironman safety in the swim, and I think that it is up to us, the athletes, to work with race staff to maximize safety during the race.
Head for the Swim Exit
Then do what you trained for, pulling strongly forward, slowly increasing your pace, as you will be doing most of the day.
Final race day tip
I received this valuable advice from Chris Hauth – “If you ever feel comfortable during the race, you are going too slow.”
I hope this helps someone to have a great Ironman swim.