Smart Training Volume 2 – The importance of distance training for marathon swim success

In the last issue we discussed the importance of smart training to achieve our long distance swimming goals and in particular how doing high intensity interval and sprint training can allow a long distance swimmer to make tremendous gains by maximising the benefits of the time spent in a single training session. Rather than spending session after session plodding up and down the pool at a steady pace, the focus of the approach we covered was to spend a large percentage of the weekly sessions doing things that would push the body to its limits in the form of interval training in the water. The results are that you gain much more in so many areas from the same time spent in the water compared with simply plodding up and down session after session. The variety of session also keeps boredom away as well.

In this issue I want to look at the distance training sets which make up part of a good training program and by this I mean the less intense swim sets where the swimmer will cover much longer distances at a slower pace for a set time scale or a set distance. These low intensity distance swims are every bit as important as the high intensity work to condition the body for a successful distance swim. For my solo swim of the English Channel in 2006 I would spend 50% of my training time doing high intensity interval training and the other 50% doing low intensity distance training. This added up to about 20 hours per week of total pool time and it cemented my success as a Channel Swimmer on the first attempt.

Currently I am training to swim the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland which is taking place this August. This time round I am still doing a mixture of Interval training and distance training but as I have less hours available to train now days due to work and family commitments I tend to do 75% interval training and just 25% distance training. This allows me to compact my training into around 10 – 12 hours per week and the balance for me is perfect. I find the interval training works well with my short attention span and stops me getting bored whereas the long distance swims allow me to go into a medative state and fatigue my muscles in ways that interval training can not.

These distance swim sets are vitally important for success in any distance swimming challenge so lets explore the reasons why and how to get the most out of them.

Condition the body to go the distance

One of the biggest benefits of steady long swims as part of your regular training is to condition the body to lower intensity long stints of exercise. If your distance event is a race then the intensity will be higher but lets assume for the purposes of this that your goal is to simply complete a set distance regardless of how long it takes. Decide in advance how far you are going to swim in your training set or set yourself a time limit. This will give you a start and end point and that is very useful to track your progress along the way. Be dedicated and make sure you stay in for the duration regardless of distractions. At first you are likely to feel fresh and powerful in the water but even for the strongest of swimmers we all reach that point where the muscles start to fatigue. It is not necessarily a burn like in interval training, in fact your heart rate should still be quite low if you are swimming efficiently, but you will notice muscles starting to ache in a way that will only come for continuous repetitive use. Get used to this feeling as it will be with you on your event and that is perhaps the biggest advantage of doing your distance swim sets as it will simulate the physical feelings in the body you are likely to encounter on the day.

Your next goal is to learn to push the boundaries so that those muscle fatigue barriers come in later and later ie you need to learn to swim for as long as possible (appropriate to your event goal) whilst still in a fresh, sustainable physical state. This is where all the interval training will pay off big time as it will give you much more stamina and reserves to fall back on. Equally though practicing your distance swim sets even just once or twice a week will have massive benefits here as it will condition the body to swim continuously. The more you practice the fresher you will feel for longer and the greater your chances of success will be.

Conditioning the mind to go the distance:

The other big benefit to distance swim training is that it conditions the mind to cope with long swims and if you speak with any great open water swimmer they will always tell you that it is in the mind where the real battles occur on the day. A good rule of thumb for success on a long swim is that the challenge is just 20% physical and 80% mental. There are variations on this ratio but that is a figure I am comfortable with and can relate to in my experience as a swimmer. It is one thing to be fit enough physically to do your big swim but you need to be highly conditioned mentally as well. You need to know that you can go the distance. Being fit physically will of course help your confidence in this department greatly but you need to repeat your distance training swims often in order to condition the mind into believing this is easy. Think of this training in the same way you would with your physical training ie take small steps. Start off on shorter distances and gradually work up to the longer ones. Before you know it you will start seeing larger distances as much more achievable and this self belief is what will get you to reach your goals on the day.

It is important that you stay in a positive state when you do these sets. Channel swimmers for example will often do 6 or 7 hour training swims in very cold water and this is enough to break the strongest of swimmers down psychologically if they are in a bad state. I remember in a recent 6 hour swim I did in 13 degree water a couple of months ago in Mallorca I experienced such a massive spectrum of negative emotions as I was not in a good positive state. For 2 hours of the swim I was actually crying and feeling so sorry for myself that I wanted to stop but because I had conditioned mentally I pushed through that and came out the other side. That experience for me of being at my lowest but still completing my training set is perhaps the single most useful mental training set I have ever done as I know I can get battle my demons on the day. Give mental conditioning as much time and respect as you would physical conditioning and your chances of success will skyrocket.

Planning your swim sets:

You would not go on a long journey or holiday without planning every single detail of how you were going to get there so make sure you give your swim sets the same elements of dedication and detail for optimum success.

Plan your training in advance. Know what you are going to do at what times on which days and stick to your plan. Get into a routine and it will soon become harder for you to miss a training set than it is to do it! Be disciplined and stick to your plan 100%.

On your distance swim training days make sure you prepare every detail in advance just like you will on your swim event itself. Feeding, rest intervals, distances, times should all be taken into account and planned for. Make sure to plan appropriately for your event ie do not over do or under do your training or you could burn out or under condition. The best way to plan your training efficiently is to write it down. Give your self a weekly timetable and plan exactly what you are going to do on each day. Organise yourself effectively and you will be amazed at how efficient your training will become as well.


Undertaking any distance swim is a massive personal challenge. Give your training the time and respect that it needs and you will succeed with your endeavours. Good luck!


Ask Ed!

How do I stop getting bored when I do a distance swim?

I am blessed with a unique cocktail of psychological quirks which have the side affect of giving me the attention span of a child. This means I get a lot more bored than most a lot more quickly! Distance swimming can be incredibly dull so when I train I like to listen to music. You wont be allowed to do that on the day with your event but in training it can be very useful so invest in a good underwater mp3 player and swim away! Games, problem solving and swimming with a buddy can also help keep boredom at bay.


How far should I swim?

That is entirely dependent on your event. For a Channel solo in the final months you should regularly be doing 6 and 7 hr swims (sometimes back to back ie one day after the other!) For a one mile event you would not need to do this level of intensity of course so plan appropriately to your goal. I would not condone covering the full distance in a training swim for a marathon swim but for a shorter one like 1 or 2 miles it certainly would not hurt. The important thing is you find a point that proves to you that you can go the distance required both physically and mentally.


Should I eat or drink when I distance train?

This is also dependent on your event or goal. If your swim event is a longer one and you will be feeding on the event itself then plan your feeding in training as well. Play around with different foods and drinks to see how they make you feel and you will soon find a combination that works for you. Practice with that combination and the timings just like you practice your swimming. Personally I like 10 – 20 secs every 30 mins which is what I do on a Channel swim so I practice this when I train. For a shorter event it is less important to practice feeding but make sure you go into any training swims well hydrated and full of fuel. Loading up on carbs the night before will always be a great asset too.


Should I swim in a pool or open water when I train?

Both options have their benefits. Certainly you need to do some serious open water training before your event. Don’t leave your first taste of open water swimming until the day or you will freak out as it is very different to pool swimming! Equally don’t obsess with doing all of your training in open water. I actually do 90% of mine in a swimming pools. There is a 92m lido I use in Cambridge which works well for me but I do a lot of my interval training in a standard 25m pool and even get some good quality distance swims in there as well. I use the open water specific training more for acclimatisation in the final months and the pool training for consistency and disciplined training to suit my schedule.