Swimming Events Guide 2024
CHALLENGE,  Event reviews,  Top Tips

How to complete the Great North Swim and Swimrun

Pick the right distance, plan your nutrition, be confident in your kit and pace yourself. Simon Griffiths shares insight from last year’s events and top tips for completing two of the UK’s best open water swimming events: the Arla Great North Swim and Great North Swimrun

Event review: The Great North Swimrun 2023

Wow! That was hot. I’ve been at the Great North Swim in previous years where it rained for most of the day and the water in Windermere was 13 degrees Celsius. Not in 2023. The Lake District, like most of the UK that weekend, enjoyed non-stop sunshine and water at 20 degrees.

I was there early on Saturday morning for the middle distance swimrun, which combines the joys of swimming in England’s largest lake – and one of its most scenic – with trail running along the shoreline and into the fells on its western side.

My favourite feature of this event is that it starts with a swim directly across the lake from Brockhole to Wray Castle. In rough conditions, this is challenging. In fact, one year, to my disappointment, the organisers cancelled the first swim on safety grounds and took us across the water by boat. In 2023, the only ripples on the lake’s surface were created by swimmers and the safety kayaks. We were able to cruise across comfortably, conserving energy for the running challenges ahead.

After exiting the water, there’s a sharp but short climb to the castle followed by a descent back to the river path. Don’t hammer this ascent as there is plenty of running ahead – around 18km of it – along with some tougher climbs. The first run section continues along the lakeside on an easy path. It is tempting to push the pace on this first 5km as running in such amazing scenery inspires you to go fast. Hold back if you can.

The heat was already building by the time we reached the second swim, even though it was only around 9:30 in the morning. The 300m splash was a welcome relief – but too short! The first feed station is shortly after the exit and we drank some much-needed water before setting off on what, for me, is the toughest section of this event. It’s almost 12km long and includes nearly all the climbs. Out in the open on the fells, we were exposed to the full heat of the sun. At this point, I was relieved we hadn’t signed up to the full distance event, which has an additional 11km or so of running (but also some regrets too as the full distance event includes swims in Grasmere and Rydal Water). Returning to the lake for swim number three was a massive relief as I knew most of the hard work was done.

The final portion of the middle event favours swimmers with three swim sections totalling just over 2km and only two short and mostly flat runs. If you discount the 10m run up the finishing ramp, this event also ends with a swim, which is another point in favour of you stronger swimmers out there. There is ample scope to claw back time and overhaul some of the fleet-footed runners, and we made the most of it.

On the penultimate swim, you need to take care with navigation as the route takes you through the boats moored around Waterhead. It’s hard to see the exit but there are safety kayakers to guide you if you are unsure. It’s worth taking a moment to double-check your route. On the final swim and coming under the finishing arch, you will merge with people doing the Great Swim. Do take care and be considerate as it’s likely you will cross paths with swimmers both faster and slower than you, including some who will be experiencing open water swimming for the first time. Help them to want to come back as much as you will.

Tips for completing The Great North Swimrun 

  • For the middle and endurance events, you need to race with a partner. Choose wisely. This is a team event and if you work as a team rather than two individuals side-by-side you will have a much better experience. The short event can be tackled solo.
  • Make sure you have everything on the compulsory kit list and read the event briefing pack in plenty of time.
  • Leave plenty of time to get to the start, especially if you haven’t booked parking at the event village.
  • Be prepared to race under a range of weather conditions and check the weather forecast frequently.
  • Pace yourself! The first 8km or so in the middle distance and endurance events are deceptively easy. Don’t get carried away. (Short distance participants launch straight into the hills).
  • Plan your nutrition and make use of the feed stations. Carry more than you need, just in case.
  • Smile at the cameras and be polite to the marshals and volunteers – they are there to help you stay safe and have fun. 

The Great North Swimrun distances

  • Short: 12.6km total with 2.09km of swimming (16.6%)
  • Middle: 23.9km total with 3.59km of swimming (15%)
  • Endurance: 38.8km total with 4.31km of swimming (11.1%)

Event review: The Great North Swim

Brilliant as they are, the swimruns are little more than a side-show at the Great North Swim, which takes place over three days each year on Windermere at the beginning of June. It’s a full-on festival of outdoor swimming starting with the longer distance 5km and 10km swims on the Friday, followed by ½-mile and 1-mile swims on Saturday. On Sunday, there’s another chance to try any of the swim distances before the weekend rounds off with a “Rookie Splash” swim session and an open water masterclass. On both Saturday and Sunday there are 250m swims for novices and children as young as 8.

The course is clearly marked and wonderfully supported by a willing team of volunteers. Their aim is to keep you safe and help you complete your swim, not to enforce any rules. I spoke with one swimmer who had decided to start the swim wearing neoprene shoes and then decided they didn’t need them. They took them off and gave them to a support kayaker, who returned them at the end. Another swimmer was having trouble with their goggles. A kayaker helped them dry their eyes and refit the goggles. Then, realising the swimmer was still nervous, accompanied them around the course.

That said, if you want to race, you can. More experienced swimmers gravitate towards the longer events. The largest loop on the course is 1-mile long (the original Great Swim distance), which means you need to do three laps for 5km, and six for 10km.

All swims start and finish at Brockhole where there is an event village with exhibitors and food concessions and plenty of space to relax after your swim. Be warned, however, that if you bring supporters with you, they will not be able to get close enough to watch you swim. On the other hand, there is plenty to keep them entertained while you’re in the water, and they’ll be able to watch you finish on the big screen in the event village.

Note also that there is limited parking on site, which must be booked in advance. You therefore need to plan how you get to Brockhole. If you intend to use a ferry or bus you are advised to book in advance. Alternatively, you can park in Ambleside and walk for around 40 minutes, which is what I did and it was a great pre-race warm up.

Tips for completing the Great North Swim

  • Pick the right distance: It’s OK to pick a distance that’s challenging for you and a little beyond what you have done before, but don’t go for 10km if you currently struggle with a few hundred metres in the pool.
  • Do the training: Work on your swimming technique until you can swim comfortably continuously for 10 to 15 minutes (get a coach if necessary) and then start increasing the distance.
  • Give yourself enough time to train: This will depend on your starting point and how much time you have but if you haven’t swum for a while, try to give yourself 3 to 4 months and swim at least twice per week.
  • Be confident in your kit: The last thing you want is to be undone by leaky goggles or an ill-fitting wetsuit. Test everything in advance and make sure your kit supports your swim rather than hinder it.
    Plan your nutrition
  • For all distances, try to eat a carbohydrate-based breakfast or snack about 2 to 3 hours before the swim. For the 5 and 10km swims, you may need to eat something during the swim.

Simon was swimming for WaterAid, one of the official charity partners for The Great North Swim. WaterAid is committed to bringing clean water, safe sanitation and good hygiene to communities around the world. You can swim for WaterAid by taking part in their Swim Marathon, which runs from August through to October, join them at Swim Serpentine or sign up for Great North Swim 2024.

Arla has signed up as the title sponsor for the Great North Swim and Swimrun for three years starting in 2023 to support participants in the build up to the event and enhance their experience on the day. Arla is owned by the dairy farmers who supply its milk and is committed to providing natural, nutritious dairy that is made in the best possible way.

The Great North Swim is back 7- 9 June 2024: greatswim.org/great-north-swim

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.