How to train for a long distance swim event or tri

Nine tips for building endurance in swimming.

Are you planning a big swim event or three this summer? Maybe a triathlon? 

Triathlons come in a few distances: 

  • Sprint = 750m swim + 20km bike + 5km run 
  • Olympic = 1.5km swim + 40km bike + 10km run 
  • Long Course = 3km swim + 80km bike + 20km run 
  • Half iron = 1.9km swim + 90.1km bike + 21.1km run 
  • Ironman = 3.9km swim + 180.2km bike + 42.2km run 

Open water swim events also have fairly standard distances: 

  • 1.2km (like Pier to Pub or WOW Challenge 1.2) 
  • 2.5km (plenty of these around) 
  • 5.0km This is a FINA junior official distance 
  • 10km FINA official swimming marathon 
  • 25km FINA ultra-marathon (don’t even think about it) 
  • Channel swim (like the English Channel) = over 33km 

Depending on your starting level of fitness, for any event over about 1000m, you need to put in a significant amount of work to build swimming endurance.  

Here are some tips to follow to build your endurance for open water and triathlons: 

  1. Learn to swim straight and sight effectively in the open water. Swimming off-course can add hundreds of metres to your swim event. Both sides of your body have to be balanced. Strokes have to be long and straight. To sight effectively, look before you breathe in by lifting your head only as high as your goggles out of the water. Your nose should still be in the water – blowing out bubbles. Make it a natural part of your stroke. Never inhale then left your head to look around. 
  2. Swim three times per week minimum – in addition to your other fitness activities. To build swimming endurance, you should be doing two hard pool sessions and one long open water swim (minimum) every week. It doesn’t matter whether you run a lot, cycle a lot or go to the gym. You still need to swim three times per week to maintain your skills and feel for the water. There are plenty of fit people who fall apart in the swim leg. 
  3. Going for a long slow swim does not make you a long-distance swimmer or eligible to enter long distance events. An event is always tougher than training, even if only in your mind. So, you need to raise your heart rate during training to build your fitness and endurance. Your heart rate while swimming needs to be at least double (minimum) your resting heart rate to get any fitness benefit from the activity. Swim fast and train smart. 
  4. Complete 2.0 km each swim: Swimming 500m – 1000m per swim session doesn’t cut it. Yes, start small but quickly build up to two or more kilometres. Really if you are not swimming 2km total pre session, your progress and improvement is going to be very slow. You are not pushing yourself. 
  5. Swim intervals on a timed cycle. Yes you want to swim a long distance but the best way to build up to that is to swim short distances repeatedly on a limited time cycle. So, 10 x 100m @ 2.0 minutes is better for you than 1km @ 20 mins. 
  6. Stretching: Yes. Do stretching. Lots of stretching.  Stretch your calves, your thighs and do a full range of stretches every day. Do the swimmer’s stretch – elbow behind head. Firstly, stretching helps you avoid cramping, strains and muscle injuries. Secondly stretching helps you be flexible and fluid and swim properly in the water.  
  7. As you get close to the event, swim at least half the distance of your event a couple of times. So, if you are training for a 5.0km event, swim 2.5km or more at least twice in the month leading up to it. 
  8. Experiment with feeds and drinks you will use before and during the event. Don’t leave it to the event to try that new energy goo. Personally, I like bananas and apples for food and sweet black tea for a drink, with hydralite for a few days beforehand. Don’t forget to take your vitamins and eat sensibly. 
  9. Taper – Yes ease off in the last week before the event. So that means no heavy weights, hard gym sessions or extreme workouts of any kind. But still go for your three swims and do some exercise every day. 

Photo by sergio souza on

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