Swimming Safety 2023

Photo of an triathlete swimming
August 28, 2023

Simon Butterworth


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Recently,  two athletes died at the Ironman 70.3 Ireland, which was run concurrently with the full Ironman. I participated in the latter. It is premature to be making what might be considered critical comments about participants and race organizers.  I don’t want to do that.  However, from what I have read about their obituaries I don’t think either of them would want us to not learn from their experience as soon as possible. I don’t know much about either athlete but from all indications they have been putting in the training and I hope that you won’t take from this that I am guessing at what caused their deaths.

Swimming is statistically the most dangerous part of a triathlon. This is well documented. Think about the risks involved. You are going out into the water where help might be slow to get to you and slow to get you somewhere where you could be helped. If you are unconscious or can’t wave for help the wait will be longer  if it’s rough water, there will be even more waiting.  You don’t know, even if you have visited your doctor religiously like I do, if you are harboring a problem that could be fatal. A condition might only just have reached the breaking point.  So if you decide to do a race that could have conditions like Ireland and don’t have the experience in shorter races, you may want to get that experience first. Honestly, if you don’t have the experience, you are really rolling the dice.

Some advice on the last point first. I have never coached an athlete preparing for an Ironman who has not done shorter races, and I will now not coach a 70.3 athlete who has not done several shorter races in similar waters to the 70.3 race they plan to do.  There is another good reason for this.  It’s better to get fast first before you try to swim long.  If you take 2 hours to finish the swim in an Ironman, you are doubling your risk compared to someone who can do it in 1 hour.

Being fit does not mean being healthy.  How many people do you know who visited their doctor about a rather minor problem and the examination produced some unexpected results. My brother-in-law, TP, was a farmer in Ireland, tough on his feet all day and athletic in his younger days. He beat me in my first 10k race in our 40’s, and my mother was horrified. He visited his GP for a minor problem about 10 years ago.  As they chatted after the examination which took a while, his friend/Dr asked “any other problems TP”, and he said he had a minor tummy ache.  “Let me take a look”, said Dr. Mac.  TP was told he should go to the hospital NOW, as he had a dangerous aneurysm.  He wanted to go home to do some work on the farm but finally got the message from Dr Mac.  If he had gone swimming with that condition he would have died.  Sadly that health scare was the beginning of related problems and he died last October. TP’s story is far from unique in my circle of friends.

So let’s assume you have been religious about your health and your check ups have been very positive. You have finished several shorter races and can hold a 2:30 pace in smooth conditions, pool or open water. You still do have that slight chance that something might be lurking inside you and you want to make sure you stack the odds in your favor in your first longer open water swim, a 70.3 or longer distance.

First pick a venue that you feel comfortable in.  Lakes, smaller ones like Lake Placid, Arizona, Boulder are nothing with a couple of miles or more in a straight line.  Waves get bigger the longer the wind is blowing in the same direction.  They will get choppy in a shallow lake.  In the deep ocean they become giants, mountain-like when you swim in those conditions.  They can get big in lakes like the Great Lakes between the US and Canada.

How do you deal with big rolling and breaking waves?  First don’t be first in the water, and don’t go in before you have watched at least half of the participants get well under way. I did that in Youghal and it was quickly obvious that the strong wind from the west was creating a current flowing east and we had to swim across that current.  It is hard to judge how fast a current is flowing, and it is impossible to compensate for that, by just looking up at the next buoy. You need what is called a range marker in the world of boating.  Range markers can be man-made specifically for a river, but you can make your own by using landmarks behind the buoys, or the next buoy on the course.  If you are lined up so that the buoy furthest from you is blocked by the first one and you are right on course have you drift to the left you need to turn right to get back on course and vice versa. In Cork, I made a SWAG (engineering terminology for a ‘scientific wild ass guess’) and pointed myself about 45° from the street line to the buoy when I launched into the surf. It worked as I can see on my Garmin tracking It was me going straight out to the buoy the shortest way possible. I think you can learn that trick if you practice it wherever you do your open water swimming.

Next problem in Youghal was dealing with the waves.  That is easily explained. If you go under a wave that is close to breaking or breaking, attempt to get under the turbulence. Practice helps and there’s no better place for that when you go on vacation to the beach when you’re not racing. When you encounter big rolling waves, you do have to swim over them. The other thing to get a good at in ocean swimming is body surfing. It can compensate quite a bit for the struggle getting out through the waves.

Last thing to learn, and I started this too late in life to get good at it, but learn to breathe comfortably on both sides. If it had been much rougher, when we started swimming parallel to the waves in Youghal, I would’ve been in trouble.  Obviously have your breathing on the side that the waves are hitting you. If one of them breaks on your mouth while it’s open it can be a little uncomfortable. Fortunately, that only happened once to me last weekend. And I have learned another trick that seemed instinctive: I was able to close my throat before my mouth full of water got further down my windpipe. It was a close call, but those are the kinds of problems you face in any open water swim when the wind is up

I hope the take-home message you’re getting through this is to be thorough in your preparation. Never leave the proverbial stone unturned. Those who rock climb up El Capitan have a serious background in the sport and lots of practice on much lesser challenges. Just because some friend survives doing their first triathlon at an Ironman event does not make it a good idea. Besides, if you do get fast at the shorter events first, when you do your first Ironman you’ll be much better prepared to have, hopefully, an uneventful swim. Be safe out there!

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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