4 ways to immediately improve your Ironman swim training

Swimming is a lot like golf (stay with me…).

Just about anyone can give it a shot. Chances are, the first time you try it – you’re not going to be very good, but with a little practice, your technique can be serviceable.

You can play a round with your buddies, do a few laps without sucking down chlorine, etc.

But if you want to be good, and I mean really good, the little things start to matter.

There are countless (seriously) techniques, drills & bio-mechanical movement patterns that separate the mere mortals from the likes of Michael Phelps and Tiger Woods – but there are 4 things you can incorporate into your Ironman swim training right now, that’ll immediately improve the quality of your training.

With that, let’s get into the list :

1.) Practice pulling

Get yourself a pool buoy. They’re essentially little floaties that go between your legs to keep your lower half floating above the water.

What on earth would you want that for?

Well, simple: isolating the arms.

By using a pool buoy, you can add ‘pull’ sets to your swim. This would be something like 50m or 100m repeats, using just your arms to make your way through the water.

It’s a great way to practice an effective catch, long reach, and focus on your breathing. 3 things that can become pretty complicated when the legs get involved (especially if you’re still learning).

The other main benefit here is the ability to build arm strength and endurance. Yes – swimming is a full body activity, but what better way to strategically improve upper body strength than to isolate that very part of your body.

2.) Kick, kick, kick

It’s equally as important to isolate the legs as it is the arms and a pool buoy is to arms as a kick board is to the legs.

In a matter of seconds you’ll realize just how much more work your arms do than your legs (in terms of forward propulsion). You’ll realize this because you might actually swim faster with a pull buoy, but take your arms out of the equation and you’ll feel like you’re reduced to a snails pace.

(PS: I’ve never seen a snail swim.. but they’re probably not good at it…)

Kicking, while hard, and while it elicits some 4-letter words, is a great way to build leg strength and endurance.

Typically done with smaller intervals (25m or 50m repeats), kicking alone can be a great way to build hip & glute strength while learning to kick from your butt, and not your feet.

After you do some pull isolation and kick isolation – take the kickboard and buoy away and do some regular swim laps. You’ll be amazed how much faster you feel.

3.) Swim on intervals

When I very first started Ironman training, swimming 2.4 miles (3,862m) was absolutely terrifying.

Considering the first time I got in a pool to train I spent my first 4 laps sucking water down – I immediately became terrified about having to swim for 90 minutes.

That’s until I learned about interval training (at least how it pertains to swimming). Working with a coach, I learned that during training I’d almost never swim further than 500m at a time, and even that would be rare.

I’d be doing dozens upon dozens of 50m, 100m, and 200m repeats with varying focus. Some would be pull laps, some would be kick, some would be freestyle, and others stroke.

All of them, though, fell on an interval.

For example, freestyle, where I averaged about 1:45-1:50/100m, I often swam on a 1:55-2:00 interval. That means, the faster I swam, the more rest I got, but even if I swam an average speed, I would get 5-15 seconds of rest before my next repeat.

This kept me A.) moving, and B.) from over-resting.

All of that combined to the ability to swim much further in total set meters than I was capable of swimming at one time – and that, led to more practice reps, and more comfort in the water come race day.

4.) Vary your strokes

The most common stroke you’ll see/do is ‘freestyle’ or ‘crawl’ stroke. This is the stroke you normally associate with Ironman swimming – mainly because it’s the stroke shown in all the pictures/videos of the pros.

While most of your Ironman swim will also be done in ‘freestyle’ fashion – it’s important to work in other strokes as well. Mainly backstroke and breast stroke.

Why would you do that if you’re not going to use them (or barely going to use them) during the race?

2 reasons:

  1. Avoid overuse injuries
  2. Vary muscle engagement

When you constantly perform one stroke for hours in the pool at a time, there’s an increased risk of injury. Varying your stroke can not only help to reduce that, but it can also help to build other supplemental muscles that’ll enable you to freestyle even faster.

Using breast and back stroke still get you accustom to being in the water, but also help engage your arms and legs in different patterns. These different patterns help strengthen stabilizing muscles that will not only allow you to swim faster, but also add to your endurance.

You may even find some of these other strokes become solid back-up plans. I, for instance, swam breast stroke around every turn buoy because I could keep my head above water and see where I was going.

There you have it

4 simple ways to improve the effectiveness of your training – without training more often.

So grab a buoy and a board, and add these tactics to your next swim session and watch those seconds fall off your target times.