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Should you sign up for a long-distance open water swim this summer?

Event companies have started opening entries for this summer. I’ve seen some chat on social media from swimmers wondering if they will be physically capable of taking on longer swims, given the lack of training options at the moment. I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the subject.

The first step, I suggest, is to reframe the question. Instead of “will I be fit enough?” how about “what should I do now to put myself in the best possible position to have an enjoyable long-distance swim this summer?”

This changes your thinking away from what we might normally do but can’t (such as training in the pool in winter) to what you can do. Here’s what I suggest, loosely in priority order.

Protect your shoulders

Good shoulder health is vital for swimming. I try to do 10 to 15 minutes of shoulder exercises every day. It’s usually the first thing I do after I get up in the morning, while I’m still too tired to think. I use a light Theraband and do a routine of shoulder blade retractions and internal and external shoulder rotations.

Maintain overall functional strength

With gyms closed, you can’t lift iron (unless you have a home gym) but there is plenty you can do with your body weight. Press-ups, chin-ups and air squats (i.e. squats with no weights) are my go-to but there are plenty of others. I try to do two 20-minute sessions a week of this, which isn’t a lot but it feels sustainable as it isn’t too onerous.

Keep your core

Does anyone actually enjoy core strength exercises? I can’t imagine they do, but I do know they are important. You probably know the drills: plank (and side and reverse planks), V-sits, mountain climbers, crunches etc. Twenty minutes once per week is all I can stomach of this. You should probably do more. I know I should.

Improve aerobic fitness

Unlike core exercises, I enjoy running, which is lucky, but I know it’s not for everyone and it’s not a substitute for swimming. Still, it is a good way to maintain and improve aerobic fitness. Cycling and walking are also good. Unless you are preparing for a specific running or cycling event, I don’t think you need to do any structured training. Just get outside, take it steady, enjoy the fresh air and move. I’ve been trying to run three times per week in lockdown.

Stretch regularly

We all know we should but it’s easy to forget, especially when we can’t go swimming. I try to stretch for 10 to 15 minutes about three times each week before I go to bed. It’s not enough but it’s better than nothing.

Do some air swimming with stretch cords

I put this last because I don’t like it. Pretending to swim with elastic bands on my landing doesn’t bring me any joy, unlike being in water, which brings me lots. Still, I get the point. If you want your swimming muscles to be in reasonable working order when you can eventually get in the water again, you ought to use them every now and then. Triathlon coach Joel Enoch has a good selection of stretch cord training videos on his YouTube channelthat might help with motivation.

Whether or not you can do a long swim this summer will depend on a range of factors, many of which are beyond your control. Focus on what you can do, to at least give yourself the best possible chance of being physically capable of doing the swims you want to do when we are able. Remember, that for most swims you don’t need to be at peak fitness. You just need to be fit enough to keep moving your arms and to look up sometimes to enjoy the scenery. Reset (or abandon) any expectations you might have about how fast you might be. Be in it to swim it, not to win it.

I’m optimistic we’ll have the opportunity to do some long swims this summer. Maybe it’s time to put in an entry. Long swims worth looking into include (in no particular order): length of Windermere, Tal-y-Llyn, Go Swim Loch Lomond, Big Brutal Swim, LGSA Classic (Lake Geneva), Vidösternsimmet, Thames Marathon, Jubilee River, Hever Long Distance Swim and anything on the Oceanman Series. Details for these events can be found on our listings pages.

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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.