CHALLENGE,  EXTRA,  FEATURES,  July 2024,  Top Tips

How to swim a marathon (in 12 weeks)

In the run up to this summer’s WaterAid Swim Marathon, Gear Editor Jo Tinsley took on the challenge of swimming 26 miles (42.2km) in 12 weeks

Each summer, the WaterAid Swim Marathon invites people to swim a half (13 miles) or full marathon (26 miles) over 12 weeks to raise money for the one in 10 people who don’t have clean water close to home. In 2023, 750 people took part swimming a combined total of 7,207 miles and raising just over £51,000 for WaterAid. This year’s event takes place 1 August-24 October 2024, and during the challenge you can swim whenever and wherever you like, with previous participants totting up the distance in lidos, lakes and the sea. 

Find your motivation 

I was drawn to the WaterAid Swim Marathon because of its flexibility. With a career and a young family, I find carving out time to swim a real struggle. To commit to swimming 26 miles, I knew that I needed a clear motivation to prioritise the time and the accountability of logging my distances. 

I chose the 26-mile (42.2km) distance as I wanted to stretch myself. I’m not really into mass participation events so I liked how this virtual event allows you to choose where and when to swim. It allows space for off days but I’d also need to keep up the pace so I didn’t fall behind on my 12-week target.

How to break down a swim marathon distance

There are two main ways you can break a 42.2km swim into manageable, bite-size chunks. The first option, if you’re already swimming regularly, is to set a weekly target of the same distance each week and each session and space the distance out evenly. The second option is to build up your distances as your fitness improves.

Jo planned out her swims on her family calendar, but WaterAid also has an online tracking system and a new printable paper tracker you can use. 

Starting my challenge earlier in the year, I knew that I’d find new motivation in being able to take my swimming outdoors as the weather warmed up so I decided to break the event into two halves. For the first six weeks, I would swim 1km three to four times per week in my local pool. Once more open water venues opened up (or warmed up), I would add in a weekly loop of my local supervised venue, Vobster Quay, and swim two or three times a week at my local lido.

I loved the first few weeks, and it didn’t take long to notice the difference in my fitness. Interestingly, I found that I got into my flow around the 30-length mark, my stroke feeling less laboured, my mind quietening. It was a great feeling, which helped me push through when I felt sluggish. 

A tricky middle stretch

I entered the second half of my Swim Marathon behind on my target. I needed new motivation to pick up the pace. The first part came with news that for the first time my local open air pool, Shepton Mallet Lido (left), was opening four weeks early for cold water swimming. Being able to swim within walking distance of my home was a boost I needed.

Her local lido opening early and trips to the sea were the boost in motivation Jo needed to tackle a tricky middle stretch.

As the weather warmed, I also got back into the routine of swimming at Vobster Quay. Swimming outdoors with friends felt wonderful and every 550m loop counted towards my total. Throughout my life, I’ve recognised how necessary swimming is for my mental health. Now I’m in my 40s, working and bringing up a lively three-year-old, it’s one of my few opportunities to have time to myself. Swimming outdoors three times a week felt like a real gift to myself. 

Taking on the Swim Marathon also gave me an incentive to visit other open water destinations and I totted up distances in the sea, at local marine lakes and a rather lovely mile in a fancy hotel pool for my birthday. 

Taking on the Swim Marathon gave Jo an incentive to visit other open water destinations (like Greenbank Pool, left) and a rather lovely mile in a fancy hotel pool (right).

I did hit a few hurdles; it was hard to put in the time when I was under the weather and I often felt dizzy around 50 lengths, so I shied away from longer swims. But, as most people will tell you, you never regret a swim, and I always came away glad that I’d made the effort and grateful for the accountability. 

Finding the ‘why’ 

Around the midway point, I also decided to read more about WaterAid’s projects to remind me why I was doing this. I read about Sabita and her nine-year-old daughter Joyeeta in Kolbari, Bangladesh, where extreme flooding and drought, caused by climate change, is making life even harder. Until WaterAid helped to install a rainwater harvesting system, Sabita and her daughter would spend three hours per day collecting water, meaning Sabita had less time to work as a tailor or to get her children to school.

Sabita and her nine-year-old daughter Joyeeta in Kolbari, Bangladesh
Spending less time collecting water means Sabita can work as a tailor

I often think about what I would do if only I had a few extra hours each day: to swim in the open air or to spend more time playing with my daughter. So when I think of the millions of mothers and daughters who spend hours every day collecting water for their families, and what else they could be doing with that time, this really struck home. 

I finished my Swim Marathon with a loop of my local lake, chatting with friends and feeling grateful for the time I do have – and for the work WaterAid does to give this time back to communities around the world. 

Supervised swimming venues such as Vobster Quay, Somerset, are fantastic places to tot up distances towards your swim marathon

Top tips for taking part in a swim marathon

Our top tips for making WaterAid’s Swim Marathon fun and achievable

1. Go on an adventure

Open water swimming isn’t just about exercise, it can be a way to see new places, meet new people and explore your local area. When your swim is an adventure, the distances will easily disappear. Why not challenge yourself to swim a mile in 26 different places? With a different person for each swim? Or swim a mile a day in the same place and note how the landscape changes. 

2. Be realistic with your goals

The general rule of thumb is that you can increase distance by 10 per cent per week from what you’ve previously been comfortable swimming. Be kind to yourself and don’t try to do too much too soon. Start where you can, and finish where you do.

3. Make a plan, write it down

Despite best intentions, it can be easy to miss a session. Try to plan which days and times you will swim and book them in advance. WaterAid have an online tracking system and a new printable paper tracker you can use. 

4. Tell other people and get sponsored

Raising money for the one in 10 people around the world who don’t have access to clean water is a clear motivation, but telling people what you’re doing also helps because they can help keep you accountable. Why not also invite your sponsors to swim a session or two with you too and make it a social occasion?

Register now for the 2024 WaterAid Swim Marathon (1 Aug-24 Oct 2024).

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Jo is the Gear Editor for Outdoor Swimmer and also writes news and features for the website. A keen open water swimmer and long-distance walker, she loves seeking out lakes and lidos close to her home in the Mendip Hills, Somerset. She is the author of The Slow Traveller, editor and founder of independent magazine, Ernest, and has previously tested outdoor clothing and kit for BBC Countryfile Magazine, BBC Focus and Ernest Journal.