Tips for first-time distance swimmers

How to master mindset during your first-time long-distance swim

Graham Wynne

You hear people say that long-distance swimming is “all in the mind”. But what does that mean?

Of course, good fitness and a solid pre-training programme is a prerequisite, but it’s the mind that will get you over the line. Swimming is simply about creating strokes; one after the other, again and again. Repeat. And repeat again. You will get there; you just need to keep churning and turning. However, the mind will play tricks, so thoughts need to be monitored, checked and re-balanced.

I completed a 12km swim on the Thames recently; the famous Thames Marathon organised by Henley Swim. Before this I had achieved 5km around Dorney Lake at Eton College Rowing Centre, so this was a step up and required some deep thinking. An average swimmer will have around four or five hours alone for a swim of this length – with no-one to chat to – so the mind needs to be in a good place! Organised events bring many benefits and are a great starting point for a first-time, long-distance swim. These are my tips based on my experiences.


TIP 1: Listen

At an event there is plenty to listen to during the pre-swim. You will have time to nose into conversations, ask questions, claim ignorance. Begin to pick up on the vibe and the expectations from those around you. This will begin to settle you into a pattern; you can then collate this information and form ideas of your own. Edit out the crazy stuff and hang on to the good stuff. This is the fun part and gives you a chance to explore and think about the task ahead. On the bus from the end point to the start point at the Thames Marathon, I met someone who had done the swim before – he looked no fitter than me by the way – and simply said; “just keeping moving forward until you can’t move anymore.”


TIP 2: Pace

I used to get very focussed on my pace, and annoyed that people kept swimming passed. Forget that. Use your own pace and ignore those around you. I swim at Salford Quays near Manchester when away on business. From the water you can see people strolling along the path that surrounds the quay. I got into the practice of trying to match their pace. I find it fun to keep up with a walker and sometimes get ahead of them. It’s a great game and creates a mini challenge to try a different rhythm, but importantly it offers the mind a diversion from the relentless motion of swimming. During the Thames Marathon I spied a couple of early morning dog walkers along the river path and played this game; it kept my spirits up for the next kilometre or so.


TIP 3: Technique

Long-distance swimming gives time to work on technique and try new ideas. This will pass the time and get you through another kilometre or two. During the start of the Thames Marathon, like any event, it is chaotic. People jumping in, pushing and shoving, the water getting gets churned up, you’re under pressure to get going and join a group. You may feel the onset of panic. As humans we feel safe in a pack, even though the pack might not be right for us. Forget that. Do it your way. Get into your own pack of one and begin as carefully as you need, to find your rhythm and space. Find time to control nerves. From here you can develop your ideas and experiment with technique. I find if I swim slow and focus on power, I go faster. Sometimes, I turn my arms quickly and make good progress (which is a great feeling) but overall travel less distance because I am burning too much energy. If you alter from slow to fast, or lose consistency, you will become frustrated. Work on the right technique for the moment you are in and allow the mind to enjoy thinking about new ideas along the way.


TIP 4: Breathing

We don’t think about breathing when stuck at a computer hitting the next deadline; the mind is elsewhere consumed by the need to please a client or boss, and not concerned about inhaling / exhaling. During a swim, like any activity, breathing is the beat we use to keep us moving onwards. You will learn to love the beat of your breathing. But it needs controlling, and it needs to be efficient. The mind will let you know if you are taking in enough air or taking in too much air. Focus on the feeling of breathing in beautiful fresh air and expelling it under the water. I used to blow out my retained air quite hard into the water and the noise annoyed me. Now I exhale very gently into the water. Again, this motion, albeit very simple, gives my mind something to work on, something to think about – a suck of air gently released into the water also creates a few pleasing water bubbles. This will keep you entertained for a while during your big swim.


TIP 5: Navigation

Directions are one of the greatest distractions of any journey. We are always trying to find the best route, avoiding traffic or road works. Or finding a rat run to shave 10 seconds off your journey. Swimming long-distance is no different. During the Thames Marathon I was constantly lifting my head to see where my fellow swimmers were. I wanted to keep on the right path and assumed they knew the way. I also wanted to avoid crashing into the back of someone. I tried to maintain an equal distance to the river back. I knew this may not be the most direct route, but I liked the challenge, and it kept my mind occupied and allowed a few more kilometres to go by without thinking about stroke after stroke. I was even comfortable when my googles fogged up, and although it put me off my stride, it gave me something to ponder of how to solve the problem.


The above ideas are just some of the areas I think about to overcome the physical challenges of long-distance swimming, but you will create your own. After the swim I was thinking about the next challenge, this is key to maintain momentum. I felt good at the end, the mind was put to work which took away from the body’s exertions and removed any perceived fears. I did a gentle 2000 metre swim in my local pool two days later. It felt good to be around familiar faces in a familiar place with my own thoughts. However, it was my little secret. I told no-one. This works for me because the best recognition of your achievements are the ones people accidentality find out about, not because you told them. It’s all in the mind!

Ben Lane