Signed up for a long swim and not sure where to start? Swim coach Mike Porteous on how to prepare for a long distance swim

Mike Porteous, Swoosh 2018, by Vivienne Rickman Poole

A few months to go before an event and not sure if you can do it or where to start? Swim coach Mike Porteous introduces the basic principles of planning your training.

So you’ve entered a fabulous swim, maybe taking you further than you’ve ever been before – and you’re wondering how on earth to get ready?

This short guide on planning event training sets out the basic principles I use myself and with first time, adventurous wild swimmers who come to me to get ready for a long swim. 

1. Put the Distance in a Box

If you’re making a big step up in the distance you are going for it’s very easy to get fixated with the number of kilometres or miles: “but I’ve never swum anything like that far!”  Some people feel they have to prove themselves over that particular distance in the build up – so for example throwing in a mammoth swim covering the whole distance some weeks before, then feeling disheartened when (inevitably) it proves to be a struggle.

We certainly need to build up endurance fitness and little by little the distances but it doesn’t help to approach an event by setting yourself a series of trials.

For a long swim like the Swoosh, Dart 10k or Hurly Burly, which for most of us are significantly longer than our regular swims, I think it is more helpful to start from a rough idea of how long you expect to be in the water on the big day.  Then plan out the training to build up gradually through the weeks to get to the point where your longest training swim, around two or three weeks before, is about 75-80% of that time. No more.

For the Swim Collective events (supported by the OSS), exact time in the water will depend on swimming speed, tidal push on the day (which varies year to year), and conditions. But as rough averages the Swoosh is a 75-165 minute swim, the Dart10k is a 120-240 minute swim, and the Hurly Burly (which has a big tidal push) has to happen in less than 150 minutes before the tide turns.

2. Regularity

Fitness is all about regular, consistent exercise – not one-off, isolated attempts to test yourself over a distance.  A bit like quietly putting savings into a bank account, day by day, week by week, building up your reserves.

So get into a habit of frequent, regular swimming.  It helps to keep a log – doesn’t have to be anything fancy – to record each swim and count them up at the end of each training week.

My ideal is to consistently put in three swims a week initially, adding in more later.  So that longest swim, a few weeks out, comes in a week in which you have already done other sessions and is followed the next day or two days later with another swim.

3. Rest and Recovery

Next key principle: give the body a chance to adapt to the new demands being put on it.  This means:

  • planning in rests, such as a minimum of one rest day a week
  • eating and drinking for recovery, such as always having a protein rich recovery drink or food within 30 minutes of any session that has taken it out of you
  • paying extra attention to sleeping well.

It also means planning in lighter weeks.  For most of the people I coach for triathlons, swims, runs… I suggest a three week pattern where weeks 1 and 2 are heavier, building up the distance or intensity, and week 3 is a lighter, recovery week.  A lighter, recovery week might have an extra rest day, the longest swim will be shorter and the total volume a little lower – all aimed at feeling ready for another two harder weeks. Each three week block progressively builds up so that fairly soon your lighter week is as much as you could do earlier in a harder week.

4. Phases of training

There are three key elements to performance for any long swim:

You want to make sure each element is covered, giving a higher priority to some at certain stages or phases in your build up to the event.

For example, if you’re starting pretty much from scratch its good to have a phase dedicated to technique – mastering the feel of swimming smoothly and in control.  During this phase don’t worry about distances or times – keep everything light while you find the routine that is going to work for getting in those three or more swims and focus on the feel.  If you’re unsure of your technique, best to get some expert help early on. 

Then in the next phase start gradually adding in some endurance sessions to work on your ability to keep going… and going.  Here’s where getting into a nice long lido, a lake or the sea comes into its own so you can settle into a steady, unbroken rhythm and get away from the monotony of counting lengths in a small pool.

And then as the event starts to loom up ahead, maybe around 8-9 weeks out, give greater priority to open water practice, getting used to swimming in the wet suit and acclimatising.  In this event specific phase your key sessions need to connect to what you’ll be doing on the day – so doing the final, longest swims; getting used to take on gels or your preferred choice of energy booster; seeking out conditions that are likely to be similar to what you’ll encounter, such as swimming with or against a current, in open seas or still lakes; being close up to others; getting used to colder water; settling on what kit to use… everything thought through and tested.

Now is the time to practise the art of crocodile eyes sighting.  

If you’re doing the Hurly Burly with the added joy of the run before (it’s brilliant!), if you can, get into the habit of your longer runs finishing with going straight into a short swim of just 20 minutes to get used to the feeling, focusing on getting the breathing under control and settling into a steady rhythm.  If you’re going for the Swoosh, practise lying on your back and grinning for the very final, flowing rush at the end.

5. Mixing it Up

So what might a typical heavier week of training look like, say six weeks out from your big swim?  By then I would be aiming for a minimum of four swims in the week, consisting of:

  • a long and getting longer continuous swim, for the Dart 10k and Hurly Burly aiming by that stage for around 90-105mins taking a gel on the hour, for the Swoosh around 70-75mins, possibly in a lake or reservoir where I can be guaranteed reasonable conditions whatever the weather
  • I like to do the longer swims the morning after a swim the evening before, not least to make sure I focus on a steady, relaxed rhythm without feeling I have to hit a certain pace
  • a more intensive swim of around 60-70mins, preferably in a lido, where I can put in some pace changes and higher intensity efforts, keeping to very short recoveries to push at the boundaries of the harder effort I can sustain and to help with pace judgement
  • a more technique focused session of around an hour, focusing for the first half on just one area at a time that I know I need to improve and then going into steady, relaxed, rhythmic swimming to make up the time
  • a lighter, shorter, take it as it comes swim to enjoy being in the water and feeling the stroke coming together
  • always, always, always at least one rest day (stressful days, caught up in life’s dramas or long, tiring travel do not count as rest!)

6. Taper

By around ten days out from any big event you are not going to add anything to your fitness – but you can make yourself over-tired!  So the trick is to bring the volume and intensity right down, keeping active with a few short, easy swims – finishing each one feeling like it ended too soon.  The idea is to go into the event feeling like you’re a tightly wound spring, ready to release all that brilliant training.

7. Mental Preparation

I’ve heard it said that doing any long endurance event is 90% psychological – and the rest is all in your head.  That feels about right to me. How we feel going into a big event, our confidence and sense of excitement and being prepared with strategies for when things get hard (as they will) are as important as the physical preparation.

All OSS events are chosen for their landscape, with a relaxed community feel at the start and in the water, so are easier than some to relax into. Each event also has it’s own event facebook group where swimmers discuss conditions, kit and concern prior to the event (search for “Official Dart10k” “Official Bantham Swoosh” etc). On the day you can talk to swimmers and look at route maps at the info tents at the start.

Dominick Tyler

There’s not the space here for a full discussion, so these are just a few brief pointers:

  • Take any ‘top tips of things to do’ with a pinch of sea salt.  One size fits all tips and tricks can trivialise our own all-important feelings.  They can also add to a sense of pressure and being overwhelmed. To overcome our fears and self-doubts we first have to acknowledge and understand, not dismiss them.  Only then can we start putting them in place and addressing what will help
  • Move the finish line to the start: getting to the start line, with all that consistent solid training behind you is 99% of the journey.  What happens in the space between the start and finish line is where you can create your own living masterpiece (to use a phrase from top US Sports Psychologist Michael Gervais) – being in the moment of each stroke, breath and movement; soaking in the wonderful natural environment and buzz of being with others; and it all coming together, wrapped up in the excitement of being there, totally present.  The times and positions at the end have a way of taking care of themselves
  • When things get hard: at some point they will!  So it helps to have rehearsed before some phrases or scripts.  I have my coached athletes draw up a grid, built around distinctive key moments we’ve identified, such as on the start line, when it starts to hurt and when the unexpected happens.  For each of these I ask them to think about what will help to say to themselves that deals with tactics (e.g. on the start line: “my pace, no one else’s”), motivation (e.g. when it hurts: “this is hard – and I do hard things”), technique (e.g. when something goes wrong “stay calm and solve it one step at a time”).

So!  Welcome to the wonderful world of longer open water swimmers – you’re a part of a vibrant, fast growing, fun loving community so #sharetheswimlove and tell the world what a great thing you’re doing.

  • Mike Porteous is a triathlon and endurance sports coach. He runs coaching company ZigZag Alive; is a Swim Teacher for children with disabilities through the charity Level Water


Mike Porteous