Winter swim fitness

Signed up for the early Hurly Burly next year? Shoulders slouching rather than taut? Don't worry, Mike Porteous has a catch-up plan

Photo: Finisterre

Is anyone feeling confident about their swim fitness at the moment? The end of summer usually means a body attuned to a few months of regular swimming outdoors, perhaps supplemented by pool training and one or more distance events. Instead, many of us will be feeling apprehensive about training for events early next year. With the Hurly Burly scheduled for the 26th June 2021 – it’s earliest ever date – resident OSS Swim Coach Mike Porteous suggests the way forward.

For me, of all the wonderful OSS swims, the Hurly Burly has its own very special, if somewhat daunting, features: a chop and swell as you start from the sandy beach to add to any nerves; passing under a mile-long railway bridge and starting to feel exhilarated, if still a little overawed; glimpses of stunning mountains on each side as you turn to breathe; a big tidal flow pushing you up river faster than you’ve ever been; patches of shallower water to navigate toward the end as the river narrows and bends; and all the time the pressure to finish inside around two and a half hours before the tide turns (you will!).

Add to that, in June the water will be a bit chilly, touching on bracing. And it may be that you’ve also opted to start with the 11km run down the side of the river to add to the adventure.  I loved the craziness of running away from the swim finish, the river to one side and knowing I’ll soon be swimming back up it.

But, how do we prepare when the world around us remains so mixed up, uncertain and unsettling? This guide aims to help you map out a path to get you started. There’s some important stuff about priorities, mindsets and wellbeing – please don’t skate over those bits – along with some practical ideas and suggestions to start your training, so come June you are ready for whatever the Hurly Burly will throw at you.

And it’s worth saying at the outset that there is no one-size-fits-all plan. Each of our starting points and circumstances will be different. Some of you may have been able to maintain your swim fitness through the summer; others need to start anew after a long lockdown. You may have access to re-opened pools or safe open water sites; or still be constrained by where and when you can swim.  So, where to begin?

Different priorities and mindsets

If you have had the virus and were badly laid up with it, for now I strongly urge you to focus any exercise solely on wellbeing and avoid anything that looks, feels or smells like training. The limited evidence available suggests that even the fittest of athletes’ ability to recover from harder exercise is compromised long after they feel well enough to restart.

And for all of us, pay special attention to eating and sleeping for recovery. Scale back on high intensity training that might leave your immune system at a low ebb. Increase the amount of training you do gradually. And of course maintain a safe and responsible way of being with those around you.

If you’re all good to go, I’d suggest subtly shifting the way you think of the challenge ahead:

  • look beyond any single event and broaden your perspective to all the exciting swim adventures you can enjoy
  • seek out and nurture the deeper connections that enrich and ground us in our active lifestyles
  • and be kind to yourself, not judging harshly when it feels like circumstances conspire against us or the ‘uncontrollables’ get in the way.

Hold on to these principles – they’ll enrich your preparations for the Hurly Burly and help you respond when the unexpected happens.


Image: Leo Gundle #thestoics

Ideally establish a routine of two then three swims a week through the winter, none of them hard or long. It’s all about finding and fixing on a pattern of swimming regularly and consistently that fits with everything else in your life.

Getting going

If, like many, your swimming has been more off than on through the long months of lockdown, I’d suggest seizing the moment. Right now! Reclaim your identity as a Real Live Swimmer.

Let’s start with technique.  If this is an area you know you need to work on I’d suggest dedicating around four to six weeks on mastering three key elements:

  • bilateral breathing so you feel relaxed and in control
  • a strong, effective arm action to sleekly surge through the water
  • an in-rhythm body roll to slice through a narrow pocket of water ahead of you, everything balanced and in sync.

If you can get some expert help from a coach that’s great. From the outset, though, I’d encourage you to make the key criteria how you feel, rather than what anyone tells you how they think you look.

On to the training. Ideally establish a routine of two then three swims a week through the winter, none of them hard or long.  It’s all about finding and fixing on a pattern of swimming regularly and consistently that fits with everything else in your life.

Once settled into your routine, a typical ideal week would include:

  • one ‘over-distance’ swim that feels a little further than you’d normally go, adding on no more than ten minutes a week, at a steady, within yourself pace
  • two ‘standard’ swims of around an hour at a strong, steady pace so you get out feeling you could do more but are happy to stop
  • one or more short open water dips, seizing the moment of warmer seas, lakes and rivers to start acclimatising.  Keep it going and the kudos and camaraderie of Zeno’s Stoic Club Membership awaits
  • regular yoga, Pilates and stretching to be mobile and strong in all the right places
  • at least one rest day (stressful long days at work or travel don’t count).

I’d also suggest following a three week pattern where weeks one and two are gradually building up the distances and total volume; week three is a lighter, recovery week.

Swimmers at the 2018 Hurly Burly. Photo: Jess Rose.

When some things just can’t be done

The big unanswered question as yet is what to do in these coming months and into winter in a less than ideal world?

As the temperatures drop we’ll need to seek out available pools – most of which are now restricting numbers and limiting swimmers to one hour maximum.  So use a pull buoy, paddles and a band to get the most out of your steady swims.  Keep going as long as you can bear it with the open water dips.  Switch what was your over-distance swim to long runs and mountain bike rides to build up endurance.  Maybe plan the odd journey of discovery to the few  lidos open throughout the year.

Should we find ourselves back in full lockdown, with no access to pools and the sea and lakes at their most Baltic, what other alternatives are there?

The number one priority remains staying safe and well.  To be ready around March-April for when open water swimming for distance becomes possible again:

  • switch to easy paced running, mountain biking or other aerobic exercise
  • maintain the cold water dipping
  • practise regular yoga, Pilates and/or stretching and use of cords

This would still give around two to three months to prepare – a challenge but doable off the back of a solid endurance base and fluent technique.

Let’s regroup in the New Year when we will have a better idea of the shape of the world around us. All being well we can then hone our final push, all focused on those special features of the Hurly Burly.

In the meantime, there’s more on the Lost & Found session and other ideas for surviving pools in Zen & The Art of Pool Swimming, the essentials of technique in The Swim Guide for the Petrified and using cords in Land-Based Training for Swimmers.

Drop me a line at to let me know how you get on.  I’m keen to know how you and others make the most of swim training in these times so I can have these in mind for the next piece. And I look forward to seeing you at the Hurly Burly.

  • Tickets are still available for the 2021 Hurly Burly – sign up here!
Photo: Jess Rose
Photo: Pau Casals
Photo: Jess Rose