by Tim Floyd & Thorsten Radde | photo by Donald Miralle

The old wisdom within the triathlon community is the investment in the swim is not worth the return.  Total training time is better spent focusing on improving the bike and run.  As a swim coach of triathletes, I hear this repeated frequently from professional triathletes and triathlon coaches I’ve encountered or worked with. If you are a coach that wants your athletes to win, you can’t take any wisdom as gospel.  You need to challenge yourself and your athletes to find where there are opportunities to improve in every aspect of the race.  Everything needs to be challenged, especially “wisdom” within a community.  As triathlon and Ironman has matured, the competition and the dynamics of the race have changed.  The old wisdom is failing.  With that in mind, I enlisted the help of Thorsten Radde of TriRating.com to sort through the data.

The first question we asked was what is the impact of the swim on the overall race?  The swim is traditionally only 10% of the total time of an Ironman competition so does it have any real influence on the overall result.  Thorsten analyzed the top 10 best swim times and compared them to the swim time of the winner.  The trend is that the overall winner was within 2 minutes of the average top 10 best swim times.  

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Sebastian Kienle in 2014 was the exception to this rule with his phenomenal bike split, but he has not been able to replicate that success since his 2014 win.  If we look at placing on the podium (top 3 overall) for men, again, there has only been one athlete in the last ten years that has made the podium and was more than 2 minutes down on the swim – Sebastian Kienle.  If you are looking to make the top 10, then on the men’s side don’t lose more than 4 to 5 minutes on the swim.  There have been a few exceptions, Stein and Aernouts, but they also had the fastest land times in either the bike or run.

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For the women, the data paints a similar picture.  If you are more than 10 minutes off the pace in the swim, you can forget about the top 10 in Kona.  There are exceptions, the most recent was Sarah Piampiano in 2015, but like the men there needs to be an exceptional performance on the land – think fastest overall bike or run.

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A casual look at the results for age groupers and my own experience with a handful of athletes is telling a similar story.  As Ironman offers less slots at races to qualify for Kona, many athletes are losing out on Kona qualifications due to poor swim times.

The second question was why is the “old wisdom” failing?  The depth of competition has increased.  If you need to be within two minutes on a 2.4 mile swim to make the podium regardless of your performance on the bike and run, the depth of competition has increased.  The athletes competing at the highest levels of the sport are triathletes.  They aren’t great in just one leg of the race.  They are exceptionally competitive in all three legs and are in the race from the start.  The current World Champion, Jan Frodeno, has not put up the fastest split in any of the disciplines in either of his wins.  He has been the top 4 or better in each leg.  The come from behind wins are fewer with each passing year.  ITU athletes and former swimmers are changing the dynamics of the race.  In 2016, half of the top 10 athletes started out as ITU athletes or were  former NCAA D1 swimmers.  In 2015, 7 of the top 10 athletes competed in ITU or were former NCAA D1 swimmers.

The final question was, what is holding back the competitive cyclist/runner from winning or podium-ing at Kona?  When strongly held beliefs are challenged, people find creative ways to continue to justify their original position.  This “cognitive dissonance” is the biggest obstacle to most of these cyclist and runners achieving their full potential in a three sport event as a triathlete.  Change is tough.  Also, in my experience, there is a large misunderstanding within the triathlon community about the training necessary to swim within 2 minutes of the front for the men and within 6 minutes for the women.  Many of the front pack swimmers trained 10+ years in the swim, twice a day, four hours a day and upwards of 75,000 yards/meters a week.  They also started training in the swim at a very young age.  This does not mean that all is lost for the adult onset swimmer pro or age grouper.  But 5-6 hours a week of swim training will not cut it.  I’ve heard from some professional triathletes who feel that 3 months of 50k a week is a serious commitment to the swim.  They found they made gains but weren’t able to keep them over the long run.  Their conclusion was the investment isn’t worth it. In my experience, that isn’t a big enough commitment to the swim to make the gains necessary to compete at the highest levels of the sport.

While the wisdom holds true that you cannot win a triathlon in the swim, an athlete can very easily lose it in the swim.  For the strong cyclist/runner with a weaker swim, the questions is no longer if the investment in the swim is worth it, but can you afford not to make it.


Tim Floyd, swim coach and former NCAA Div I swimmer, founded Magnolia Masters in 2010 to specifically help triathletes improve in pool competitions and open water swimming. He is also the recent founder of the podcast Coffee, Beer, Coaching and Dogs. You can find more information about Magnolia Masters and the podcast here and here.

Thorsten Radde is fascinated by Professional long-distance Triathlon and runs TriRating.com. Before each IM-distance race he posts projections based on athlete’s previous results, and after the race he analyzes the athlete’s performances in addition to in-depth analysis and opinion pieces on Ironman racing. He also follows Kona Pro Qualifying and profiles professional athletes. Before Kona and at the end of the year he publishes “Rating Reports” with lots of data and analysis. Follow @ThRadde on Twitter.