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Help! I’ve entered an open water swimming event and I haven’t done any training.

How to get through your swim, even if your preparation is less than ideal

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Firstly, don’t panic! Clearly, it’s less than ideal to have an upcoming outdoor swim that you haven’t trained for but it doesn’t mean you can’t do the event and have a great time. Remember, however unprepared you are, there will almost always be someone who’s done even less than you. For a start, you’ll have the advantage of having read this!

In a perfect world, you’ll have booked your swim six months in advance and followed a progressive, structured training programme under the guidance of a sympathetic and motivational coach. In reality, this almost never happens.

Your exact approach to an event will depend on your own unique circumstances, how far you have to swim and swimming experience and fitness but let’s look at some scenarios from which you can put together your personal “event rescue programme”.

As a general piece of advice, avoid a sudden increase in training or intensity. You can’t cram for a swim like it’s a history exam and if you try, there’s a good chance you will exhaust or injure yourself. It’s better to arrive at the start line unfit but fresh and uninjured rather than broken from panicked over-training.


Scenario 1: The event is eight to 10 weeks away. You’ve done a few pool swims but no proper training and you haven’t yet swum outside.

Good news. You’ve still got time to make at least some modest improvements to your swimming fitness. You should also use your time to get used to swimming in a wetsuit (if you’re going to use one), acclimatise to outdoor water temperatures (whether you’re using a wetsuit or not) and to learn some basic open water skills.

We recommend:

  • Aim to swim three (or more) times per week.
  • Do one of those weekly swims in a safe, supervised open water venue.
  • If your event is 5km or longer, aim to build up to around 75% of the full distance about a week before the challenge as a continuous swim.
  • For shorter events, up to 3km or so, you may reach or exceed the full distance in your later training sessions.
  • In the pool, aim to do a weekly threshold pace swim – see “Set the Pace” in our September 2018 issue for full details.
  • Dedicate one pool session each week to improving your swimming technique. Do your research (e.g. Front Crawl Basics in our Beginners’ Guide Pt 1, available for download through our app) or take some advice from a coach and then practise.
  • Check out our articles on “Training Outside” (June 2019) and “Close Contact” (July 2019) for advice on sighting, swimming straight outside and coping with swimming close to other swimmers.
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Scenario 2: Your event is just four weeks away. You’d forgotten all about it until your mate reminded you.

You’re not going to make much difference to your fitness in four weeks but you’ve still got plenty of time to acclimatise to open water, get used to swimming outside and boost your confidence. The other thing you need to do is to figure out your sustainable swimming speed. You need to find a pace that doesn’t leave you gasping after 200m.

We recommend you:

  • Swim twice to three times per week until your event but don’t do more than that unless you have a strong swimming background.
  • Aim to do at least three open water swims before your event. On the first, just get used to being in the water and swimming in a wetsuit if applicable. On your second, aim to swim 30 to 50% of your event distance and on your third, try for 50 to 70%. Find a speed you think you could sustain for longer.
  • In the pool, swim in blocks of 200 to 400m at a time with a short rest after each. Try to swim as efficiently as possible and work on finding your comfortable sustainable swim speed.

Scenario 3: OMG! I’ve got a swimming race tomorrow. I’ve done nothing.

Breathe in. Breathe out slowly. Relax. You can still do this. You might not be physically prepared but you can still prepare mentally.

We recommend:

  • Unpacking your wetsuit and making sure you know which way round it goes. Try it on.
  • Visualise getting into the water. It may be colder than you expect. Remember that you will get used to it in a couple of minutes. Imagine yourself breathing out gently and relaxing into gentle swim.
  • Now imagine yourself half way through, relaxed, swimming steadily and making progress. You might be slow, but you’re going to get there.
  • See yourself finishing and feel that sense of accomplishment.

Further reading

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