How to Break the 1 Hour IRONMAN Swim Barrier

Here we break down what that formidable 1-hour IRONMAN swim looks like to help make the impossible become seemingly possible. For many people dipping below the hour is a fantastic accolade and will help you get out on the bike ahead of the madness that is the large group of athlete swimming just over one hour. Is it all to do with being a great swimmer, or is there more to it than that?

A great IRONMAN Swim can set you up for the day ahead

A great IRONMAN Swim can set you up for the day ahead

Firstly, let's break this down into more meaningful chunks: What does a 1 hour swim mean in terms of pace?

60 mins divided by 38 'hundreds' (3,800m) means you have to swim at about 1:34 pace for an hour (divide by 40 instead to allow for the open water, traffic, sighting, surf, wind etc gives us a  4 seconds per 100m buffer - therefore, let's focus on hitting 1:30's). 

What About My Swimming Pace In Terms Of Critical Swimming Speed (CSS)?

Usually you can estimate a CSS pace being about 5% faster than your IRONMAN swim time. This means a 1 hour swim would require a CSS pace of about 1:25-1:26/100m. In normal testing protocol (a 400m Time Trial and then a 200m Time Trial), this gives us guidelines for a 400m time of about 5:30 and a 200m time of about 2:40. i.e. holding 1:22.5 for 400m and 1:20 for 200m. This begins to get slightly harder and isn't something that technique or drills alone can get you to, it definitely requires hard, consistent work in the pool! 

Is It That Straight Forward?

With an IRONMAN swim, there are many more variables than just “swim like you do in the pool”. Clearly some people get the advantage of a wetsuit, so they swim faster, some people don't like the environment and tense up and swim slower, others can draft really well and so swim faster than ever! However, the environment and your ability to deal with the environment can have a huge impact on your time, as can your ability to draft and swim around other people. Just because you can clock out 5:30 for a 400m swim, does not mean you can necessarily do a sub 1-hour swim at IRONMAN.  You need to ensure your training is suitable, specific and consistent. It’s not an easy task swimming strong for a whole hour – 400m can seem almost easy compared with 3800m! When you look at it that way, if you don’t pull out some of those bigger swim sets (75-90min sessions) then there is no chance for you to be able to swim non-stop for an hour; let alone complete the IRONMAN distance in a manner to set you up for the rest of the race and not collapse at the end of the swim timing mat, leaving you needing an extended T1 to recover before heading out on the bike!

The IRONMAN swim is more complex than swimming in a pool, even without the tumble turns!

The IRONMAN swim is more complex than swimming in a pool, even without the tumble turns!

You need to race tactically; currents, waves and sighting issues can all have an effect. If you swim further by inefficient sighting you will struggle to dip below the hour for the event's course, though your speed may well be good enough! However, you can also save a lot of energy or swim faster for the same effort by drafting. If you can’t swim fast, draft well!  It may be you swim 1:05 but you draft all the way – you have just saved a lot of energy for the rest of your day.  These open water skills must all be practiced both in the pool and also the open water. It is not just about smashing out fast times, there is a skill to open water racing and you need to practice it too!

Finally, to give yourself the best possible chance of swimming fast, get the basics right! Get yourself there on time, warm up properly, ensure your wetsuit fits correctly, and start in a good position after observing the water and weather conditions. You would be amazed by how poorly people approach the start of the race – it is a long day, but that doesn't mean you go into it unprepared. If you opt to go into it in such a manner, than you do need to be capable of some very fast swim times to offset your poor race day preparation. We've seen people without a wetsuit on, racing down to get to the start line as the gun has gone – hardly the best way to set yourself up for a good swim! Nor is queuing for the portaloo! The key is to get yourself ready before the start of the race, not for the start of the race!

Focus on the basics, work in a consistent manner both in the pool and open water, and practice those open water skills and you will end up a faster swimmer. If you take all of this on board then you'll find it may well be time to start thinking about dipping below the 60-minute mark!

Good luck!