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What’s the motivation behind your open water swimming goal?

When you set your open water swimming goals, what really matters is your underlying reasons, says Simon Griffiths. Don’t stop at deciding on your goal – dive deeper

We have a process for making progress in swimming that goes something like this:

  • Choose a goal (e.g. a challenge swim or an open water swimming race).
  • Work out what you need to achieve that goal (e.g. swimming speed, cold water tolerance etc.).
  • Compare your current capabilities with what you need to achieve your goal.
  • Draw up a plan to take you from where you are now to where you need to be.
  • Do the training, achieve your goal, repeat.

Goal setting is something we’re encouraged to do from a young age. It is frequently part of professional performance reviews. It’s not surprising we bring the habit into our recreational activities. Setting swimming-related goals can be useful – but there’s a dark side too.

Working towards goals can distract us from the real reasons we swim. If the goal becomes the reason why we swim, there’s a danger we lose the joy in swimming.

I’m not saying we should stop setting swimming goals but that we should put them into the greater context of our lives.

Motivation to swim

Even though you enjoy swimming and know you’ll come back from a swim feeling better, there’s always a barrier to getting there. It takes a lot more effort to get to the pool or a lake than it does to slump on the sofa and turn on the television. Setting a goal creates a commitment that can help you overcome that inertia.

An excuse to swim

Alternatively, you may be super motivated to swim. You’d rather swim than watch a movie or go to the pub. Your friends and family (bizarrely) find this odd. They find it easier to accept that you have to swim to prepare for an event rather than you want to. It’s kinder to say: “I’d love to join you down the pub but I need to get my swim training done as I’m racing in six weeks,” than, “I’d rather go swimming, thanks.” It also gives the impression that your desire to swim is temporary.

Dealing with life

Voluntarily doing hard things is good for us. It gives us a sense of agency and competence. Hard things are going to happen to us in life whether we want them or not. Doing challenging swims is training and preparation for the tough things that happen to us in life. It doesn’t make the hard stuff less painful, but it can help us cope better in difficult situations.

Personal validation

Completing swimming challenges can give your self-confidence a boost. It teaches you that you can set goals and achieve them. It gives you a sense of control. Swimming achievements can therefore be stepping stones to professional goals.


Completing tough challenges can earn you respect. Achieving swimming goals demonstrates (and helps develop) sought-after character traits such as grit, focus and commitment. It can therefore help your career prospects in any field (as long as you don’t appear too obsessed with swimming!). Achieving a big goal is something to impress your friends and family with too.

Fitness and quantifying fitness

We know that being fit is good for us. Regular swimming keeps us fit, which is great. However, following a structured and progressive training programme to achieve a big swimming goal will get you even fitter. You could do this without having a specific challenge in mind – but lining up a challenge will help define the structure and timeline of your training. You are likely to achieve a higher level of fitness when you aim towards a specific challenge. Finally, completing the challenge gives you a measure of your fitness.

Health, wellbeing and longevity

Staying fit is good for our health, it makes us feel good and increases our chances of a long and active life. These, for many of us, are probably the fundamental reasons why we swim (in addition to the intrinsic pleasure of doing it, the adventures we have and the connections we make). However, they are difficult to measure. It’s hard to set a specific and measurable health or wellbeing goal. The other goals we set – the events we want to complete, the challenges we want to do – are proxy goals for these more fundamental difficult-to-measure ones. When we train to complete a swimming challenge, we’re really training to be fit for life.

Be wary of the over-ambitious goal

Finally, some people will encourage you to set big goals. They have a point: the more ambitious the goal, the harder you will have to work. Harder work equals fitter, stronger and better. But, harder training may mean a higher risk of illness or injury. A goal that’s too big may have a negative impact on your family and relationships. And if you end up swimming solely to achieve your goal, you may lose sight of what drew you to it in the first place. The goal achieved, you may now resent swimming and no longer want to do it, and lose its life-long benefits. Instead, set yourself sensible but challenging goals that align with the bigger vision for your life and personal development.

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.