How to train and prepare for your first Ironman swim

Top triathletes Josh Amberger, Michelle Vesterby and Adam Bowden explain how to successfully train and prepare for your first Ironman swim

How to train and prepare for your first Ironman swim

Adrenalin-fuelled triathletes tread the open water, readying for the start of the famous Ironman 3.8km swim that begins their epic challenge. It’s the spectacle that draws so many of us to Ironman.


Whatever your standard, the aim is to get through the Ironman swim efficiently, but delivering your best performance takes the right mix of prep, attitude and kit. Whether it’s swimming alongside others or dealing with uncertain conditions, there’s a lot to think about (and that goes for Ironman 70.3 athletes as well).

Let’s find out from three of the world’s best, brought to us by Zone3,  on how you can conquer the Ironman swim in 2021.

Over to Aussie ace Josh Amberger who has been first out of the water at the IM Worlds for the past three years, Denmark’s Michelle Vesterby who has won four iron-distance races, including Ironman Lanzarote and former ITU star Adam Bowden is now a force in Ironman 70.3 racing, with victory at 70.3 Dubai in 2019  for their advice. 

01 Aim for consistency

Ingraining the habit of swimming regularly, either individually or as a squad, is better than doing mammoth occasional sessions. Work out where in your week you can fit in three or four swims slots, and rope others in too, making you all accountable. AB

02 Have a programme to follow

If I go to the pool without a programme, I won’t have a focused training session. If you don’t have a coach, make a plan yourself before you go to the pool, so you know what you’re doing. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but will give you much-needed structure. MV

03 Train when fresh

Swimming, cycling and running can mix like oil and water. If you’ve punched out a big bike or run day, it’s hard to feel good in the pool, so get the important swim workout done first, or at least prioritise it over your ‘hoorah’ bike and run sessions. JA

04 Use a pull buoy/fins

Particularly when you’re feeling tired and/or demotivated. The pull buoy helps you float and allows you to better focus on stroke technique. I often warm up with fins on, too. It gets the first 1km out of the way and it then feels easier to handle the rest of the set. MV

05 Practise in your neoprene wetsuit

Most iron swims require a wetsuit and neoprene provides a completely different feeling and changes your body position in the water. Choose a suit with the right amount of buoyancy for you and get used to it so it’s familiar on race day… and that includes how to take it off quickly. Ditto for a swimskin. JA

06 Learn to sight

There are no lane ropes to keep you on course in the open water, and no guarantees that by following the toes in front you’ll be heading in the right direction. Practise lifting your head every six to eight strokes to spot your chosen landmark on the horizon, i.e. a turn buoy. You might also might need to lift your head slightly higher, or sight more frequently if it’s choppy. JA

07 Incorporate strength and conditioning

To be consistent, you need to avoid injury. Even though swimming is non-impact there’s a lot of repetitive movement that places the shoulder under duress. Focus on building a strong core and consider massage to work out any tight spots. AB 

8 Seek out a coach

The best way to increase speed is to first become technically sound. This is especially true for those from a non-swimming background. This is going to typically involve a good coach and time in the water. Then increasing speed comes pretty easily with your improved fitness. JA

09 Find kit that fits

Having a good fitting wetsuit (or swimskin for warmer races) is going to be the money for getting faster on race day. The right wetsuit won’t restrict range of motion, but will give the optimal amount of buoyancy in the right places to help improve your body position in the water. I choose the Zone 3 Vanquish wetsuit and opt for the Aspire sleeveless when the water temperature allows. If it’s a non-wetsuit swim, such as Hawaii, I’ll go for the Kona short-sleeve swimskin over my tri-suit. JA

10 Swim 25m efforts at full gas

It’s always the first 400m that are the hardest, when I need extra speed to be in the front group of swimmers. Leading up to a race, I swim a session of 20 x 25m with long breaks (i.e. starting every 60secs). It doesn’t seem like much initially, but feels hard by the time you’ve completed the set. MV

11 Don the fins again

Put on the fins to do over-speed efforts and improve leg technique. It’s similar to doing moto-pacing on your bike behind a scooter. MV

12 Learn to draft

The easiest way to earn free speed in an Ironman swim – with no extra physical effort – is to learn how to draft. It’s possible to hitch a ride on an athlete’s feet for a whole Ironman, even if that athlete is a much better swimmer than you. Practise efficient and close drafting techniques with training buddies in the lead-up to a race. JA

13 Do drills

To get fast, you need to get strong in the water by activating and developing the right muscle groups. Long- and short-arm doggy-paddle drills are two of my favourites to enhance your catch. Swimming with a kickboard between your thighs and making a ‘tick tock’ motion by swaying evenly from side-to-side is also great for understanding and improving body rotation. Get them nailed and you’ll pull more water, stay straight, reduce drag and go faster. JA

14 Increase stroke rate

The graceful glide of the pool swimmer with a pause at the front won’t necessarily be the most effective technique in the open water when a wave bashes you out of rhythm. Increasing your stroke rate allows you to ‘punch’ through the water more effectively. It might not be pretty, but it will be effective. JA

15 Face your fears

If you don’t like swimming, swim. Don’t like the open water? Go to the open water (with a training partner for safety). If you’re worried about the distance, head to the pool and complete the full distance in training. The key is to look into your fears to create a stronger mindset. MV

16 Visualise the race

Play through the race in your mind. You can use training simulations to help with the feeling. What’s done in training is then easier to visualise for race day. You can repeat a positive mantra: ‘I’ve done this before, this is what it’ll be like.’ MV

17 Meditate

Mindfully slowing your breathing and concentrating on being present helps dampen the sympathetic nervous system and allows for a far calmer perspective to any challenge, be that a 3.8km swim or life itself! AB

18 Control the controllables

A common phrase in sport, but if you break down the swim into sections, from pre-race to entering the water, the start and settling into rhythm, you start to understand how much is within your gift to control. Even when the unexpected happens, you can still control your reaction to the situation, so think through potential scenarios so you’re mentally prepared. AB

19 Be ready to have an experience

Long-distance triathlon rarely unfolds as we plan or expect. If it does, that’s a perfect race. If it doesn’t, be ready to take the ups and downs on the chin and get on with the job! JA

20 Avoid social media

Well, not completely, but being sucked into a world of social media and believing everything you read will only create confusion and anxiety for what’s to come. Trust in your training and your coach’s expertise, and realise that most stuff online has a rose-tinted glow about it. JA

21 Remember tri is fun

It’s normal to put pressure on yourself to perform, but don’t let it come at the cost of enjoyment. JA 

Thanks to Zone3 for helping 220 organise time with the athletes

More swim advice

How to improve your swim speed, stamina and power

How to swim in open water for the first time and prepare for race day


Open-water swim technique: the key components