Strategic Race Planning: The Swim

a swimmer getting ready to dive into the water
May 22, 2019

Simon Butterworth


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I have been accused often of being a bit overly obsessive about race planning, but my obsession is your gain.  This article addresses the swim portion of a race, as the swim is something I always plan out carefully for races of all distances.   There are more variables in the swim than any of the other two sports of triathlon; water temperature, the very close proximity of the competition, currents, wind and waves (frequency, type, height).  Plus, navigation.  There is no lane line, at least in most open water events in lakes or oceans (Lake Placid IM is the only exception I know of with its underwater wire used by the local rowing club to attach buoys).  

It is always best to get a general plan together before you travel to the race venue.  However, at least in the swim portion you may have to make final decisions after you get to the race site and can look at the swim course and ask questions about it, especially currents on race morning.  At a minimum I hope this will help you make up a list of questions for the race organizers a day or two before the race and arrive there with all the gear you need for every eventuality.  

Following are four things that I consider as I build out my strategic plan for the swim portion of any race.

Water Temperature:  You should know what the water temperature is likely to be before departure but don’t rely on the race website.  Google the race swim venue with the words water temperature.  The fastest way to swim is in a full sleeve wetsuit so if there is any possibility that at the last minute the water will be cool enough to allow a wet suit, bring it.  Booties and Neoprene hats are not specifically banned in the swim but may be by the race director, bring them if you think you will need them and ask the day before (the water temps need to be in the 60’s or lower to allow these).  Be sure to practice with them as well (as you should also do that with a wetsuit) no new things race day.  

Close Proximity of Other Athletes:  There is always a way to avoid the crush at the start.  For starts in the water, start at the back or off to one side.  If you are in a rolling start, going down a ramp or narrow cones on a beach, you can still start at the back.  AKA near last in the water, or immediately swim off to one side so you don’t get run over.  Don’t start at the back or side if you are a strong swimmer who is trying to place well, get used to mixing swimming and contact sports.  You can work on that with friends even in the pool. I will come back to start position topic when talking about currents.

Navigation:  If the race is in a lake, with no rivers flowing through it like our Boulder Res., the planning comes down to navigation and can be done in the days before the race at the race venue.   You should have done some testing in your pool and or open water to determine if you usually swim straight, or off to the left or right (you are most likely to do only one of these).  How much you drift determines how often you site (more about that below).  Race directors I think are starting to use more buoys at their events.  If this is the case navigation gets easier.  If they are close together you can get away with just sighting on the next buoy.  If they are spread out there is one skill to learn and use from the world of sailing, following a range.  

A range in the world of sailing are two big buoys and/or land-based poles that when lined up mean you are in the middle of a channel.  The rear pole is higher than the closer pole.  If you drift off to the right the closer pole is off to the left and visa versa.  If the seas are calm and you can see the next two buoys you have a range in front of you.  Or when you check out the venue if you see a hill, tower or anything tall on land away from the shore that lines up with the buoys, or a landmark on the shoreline you can use, you have a range to work with.  In Boulder, in early morning the sun often lines up with the first leg of the swim (not for Ironman Boulder) so it becomes your 'range marker' (the sun is so far away that the light hitting you is a bit like a laser and you can tell if you are right or left of the direct line to the sun).  

See the photo for more detail on this tip.  

Boulder Reservoir

Currents and water surprises:  A lot more planning is needed to avoid any nasty surprises in oceans and rivers or a lake with a big river flowing through it.  Figuring out where to start is step one in all cases.  Some race directors provide a real map of the swim venue, so you can look at the precise layout of the land and water near the start.   Google Earth can help if the race venue is not shown in a real map.  Things to look for is how wide is the start, meaning if you want to stay out of the traffic jam can you do that and what’s the best side. Google Earth in the Satellite view will even show you if there are rocks near the start that would limit how wide you can start.   If there is a current crossing the first leg there may be a big advantage starting on the upstream side of the course and with a bit of luck not too many people will have figured that out.  

If the race is in the ocean or river mouth getting your hands on a current chart for the area is very helpful, available on the NOAA web site.  Don’t forget that even some distance up river you will have changing currents (anyone who did the NY City Ironman will know about that), when close to the ocean can have tidal currents, meaning the river current changes direction when the tide is rising and falling.   If you don’t want to dig into the weeds of reading a chart ask the race director or visit a local dive or fishing shop for advice.    

You may think you can’t do anything about currents but that is not true.  For example, currents in rivers are typically strongest mid-channel. But the current close to shore may be reversed in what is called an eddy.  If a bit of land sticks out into the river there is a very good chance of an eddy downstream.  If there is a sandbar out somewhere in the middle of a river, the current will be slower on top of it and close to it.  

Oceans have currents as well without the presence of nearby rivers, Kona is a good example.  Kona is an example of where there is not much you can or should do about the current as it typically either is pushing you on the first long leg and slowing you down on the return.  There is one point where a small change in tactics could save you a minute or two.  As you approach the pier coming back there is sometimes a strong cross current.  Staying on the buoy line as it bends right to get you around the corner of the pier is important.  The currents in Kona vary with the strength of the wind and direction of waves.   But knowing it exists can be helpful for your mental health when you climb up the steps to the pier and discover it was a slow swim, for you.  

Knowing the direction of the current for each leg can help you navigate better.  For example, if the current is directly on your nose for the first leg then you just have to put up with it, unless you can swim closer to shore.  Then let’s say the course makes a right-angle turn, now the current is sweeping you either left or right.  If you know this, you can make a guess at how much you have to swim off to one side to counteract the current.  You should be able to calculate that offset if you fly or sail or remember your HS geometry, but making guess works when you round the buoy and adjustment made as you see what happens.  

One trick, if you can, is to go for a swim the day before within 15min+/- of the race start.  Get out to a buoy, hopefully, they have put them out, or it could be anything anchored to the bottom, and take a look at what the water is doing around that object.  If there is a current of any significance you will see it and if you stop swimming for a minute you will see how fast and what direction it is flowing.  When in the race you might also be able to see the ripples around the race buoys giving you direction and some idea of speed.  

The Eagleman 70.3 is a race I have done many times.  Unless the race morning is at slack tide there is always some significant current.  Below is a picture of what will be happening race day this year.  The is almost slack tide so the current is weak.  The red line is how I would swim the course.  It is possible this year that the flow is reversed behind the point so swimming closer to shore might be an advantage.  Getting out the day before would be well worth it for this race.  

Eagleman 70.3

My best example of how I put the above to good use was in the last IM Cozumel in 2012 where the swim was not point to point as it is today.  The first leg started at the end of a long pier, 100+ yards, where the current was running against us at 1-2mph, you could clearly see it boiling around the wood pilings.  I was traveling with Endurance Sports Travel and at our pre-race meeting with Ken Glah he told us to start on the beach end of the pier.  That was already my plan, but it was nice to have it confirmed and for those that followed his advice a game changer, not many did.

Ironman Cozumel

Taking off from the rocks with about a dozen others (and the remaining 2,000+ athletes out at the end of the pier), I arrived at the first turning buoy to discover the current was so strong that the buoy anchor had dragged about 25 yards (water is crystal clear).  I flew down the second long leg, due south, with the current behind us, every buoy had dragged its anchor.  But many other athletes were flying faster past me, meaning I had beat much stronger swimmers to the first buoy.  The third leg was back into the current.  If you drew a line from the buoy to the exit, the heading was about 45 degrees Northeast.  The current was coming south at 180 degrees.  In other words, we were swimming upstream and across the current.   The current was flowing faster than I could swim.  I headed almost east (90 degrees) the current dragging me away from the finish, but I was getting closer to shore.  Almost on the rocks, I turned north to the exit.  I still was fighting a current, but it was much weaker, and I was moving.  The water is beautifully clear down in Cozumel and there was lots to watch as I slowly got to the exit.  I finished the swim about 10 min. slower than expected but over 20 min. ahead of my closest competition.  120 swimmers had to be rescued and 20-30 more did not make the cut-off.  The conditions were unusual, and IM changed the course after that year.  However, it happens especially with new events.  

It is worth noting that the new course in Cozumel, point to point finishing at the same place you see in the picture still deserves some thought.  When I did it in 2014, I stayed too close to shore at the start and had no current for the first 1/3 of the swim.  Heading out to the outside of all the swimmers would, I think, have been the better choice.  Also, the last turning buoy is now just off the end of the south side of the pier.  If you could understand dolphin speak you would probably hear some critical comments about your form as you swam down the pier to the exit.   

Sighting: I mentioned sighting before.  If you don’t swim in a straight line, most don’t, you are going to have to do some sighting.  The more you drift the more you must sight, if there is any current crossing your path you must sight more often, if it is rough you must sight more often.  So, learning to sight well is very important.  Don’t wait to practice it until race day, it can be done in the pool.  My method, a bit different from other coaches, is to start to sight as you reach the point when your head is rotated fully to take your breath.  At that point instead of rotating the head back under water, start to bring the lower goggle out of the water and keep both out as you lift your head and look straight forward.  Using this method in flat water you can often just get one eye a little bit more out of the water to confirm, or not, if you are on track.  If you are, get you head back down into a normal breathe cycle, if not, you can continue to lift your head as above.  This method also has the advantage of shedding a bit more water off the goggles as you swing your head around to look forward.  

Some of you will think I am a bit obsessive about swim race planning, but I love free speed, and with these tips, you are sure to gain some too! 


If you are looking for information about how to write a comprehensive race plan that covers all aspects of the race, review my friend and D3 Mental Skills Performance Coach Will Murray's article, How to Write a Race Plan in 7 Steps.

Coach Simon Butterworth is a USAT Certified Coach and recognizes that in the big picture attitude more than age makes the difference in many aspects of this sport. There are times in triathlon that to see improvements you need to slow down and spend some time working on your technique – which requires a great deal of discipline. So does having a coach and following the plan written for you. The best coach in the world can only be of help if you’re ready and willing to do the work.

Coach Simon Butterworth has an experienced philosophy about coaching.  The key ingredients in a good coach/athlete relationship are regular and open communication, mutual respect, and keeping it fun for the athlete and their family.  His training programs are developed with those ideas at the forefront. He works with athletes to develop both short-term and long-term objectives that work well within the context of the other things they have going on in their life.

Coach Simon is a 2X World Ironman Champion and has 16 Ironman World Championships races to his credit. He has finihsed on the podium 7x.  He is a USAT Certified Coach, USMS Swim Coach, FIST Certified Bike Fitter and Training Peaks Certified Coach.

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