Simply getting into natural water does us good. There is no
need for a training programme or a fitness regime. You don’t need audacious
goals to enjoy a sunrise from the ocean and get an endorphin boost. On the
other hand, if you want to push yourself, outdoor swimming offers a rich
diversity of challenges. This also presents swimmers with a conundrum: where do
they want outdoor swimming to take them? Do they want to race, complete long-distance
challenges or test their tolerance for the cold? Or some combination of the
three? Whichever you choose, the physical challenges essentially boil down to
three things: how to swim further, how to swim faster and how to tolerate cool
water for longer.
Before diving into these, it’s worth noting that these aren’t the only helpful attributes for outdoor swimmers. Skills such as being organised, able to plan, build a team or raise funds can all come in useful, depending on what you want to do. Your long-term diet and event-day nutrition are important. Being able to cope with different water conditions is useful, as is being able to swim straight and navigate effectively. But let’s focus on the core swimming attributes of distance, speed and cold tolerance for now.
Firstly, consider swimming further, which has multiple components. The first, and most essential, is that you have to learn to swim without getting out of breath. Most people who can swim can already do this on breaststroke, but it’s not uncommon to see inexperienced swimmers flailing at the water while trying to swim front crawl and getting exhausted and breathless in moments. However fit you are, you will never swim long distances on front crawl until your swimming technique and confidence have developed sufficiently for you to relax and swim aerobically. But once you’ve mastered this, the distance you can swim will increase many times over – until you run into other limiters.
One of these is muscular endurance. Your shoulders ache and your arms feel heavy. You can fight it for a while with willpower but eventually it's too much effort. The best way to deal with this is through training. Swim often and gradually increase the distance. The more you swim and train (within reason), the further your arms and shoulders will take you. A second limiter is some sort of bio-mechanical weakness, which could lead to injury. For example, rotator cuff damage in your shoulders or tendonitis in your forearms. Sometimes these issues are exacerbated by your swimming technique or by specific weaknesses or muscle imbalances. It could be worth consulting with a coach on the former and a physiotherapist for the latter. A third factor is your mind. Swimming long distances can be both meditative and extremely mentally gruelling. The good news is, you can train your mind as you can your body. As a first step, doing long swims in training will help prepare you mentally as well as physically, but this is a broad topic and there is much you could do that’s beyond the scope of this piece.
The other major limiter for long-distance swims, especially those done without a wetsuit, is cold, which we’ll return to later. But first, let’s talk about speed.
If you’ve been working on your swimming technique to enable you to swim more efficiently and further, you will also have been working on your swimming speed. One of the wonders of swimming is that good swimming technique helps you swim further, faster and with a lower injury risk. You don’t have to make a trade-off. Improving your swimming technique is the surest and most long-lasting means to swim faster, so ensure you devote sufficient attention to it. Other key factors are pacing awareness, fitness and strength, which come through training.
If you want to swim faster for longer distances, you have to start at the right speed – neither too fast nor too slow, although the latter is less harmful than the former. You develop pacing awareness by watching the clock while you swim and learning how the right pace feels at the start, middle and end of swim. If you’re racing, it’s something like: suspiciously easy at the start, hard in the middle and close to breaking point at the end.
Fitness and strength to improve your swimming speed come through focused training. Doing long steady swims will help, but there are often more effective ways to use your time in the water that will improve your speed faster. Learn how to train effectively.
Adapting to cold water is a complex process, and there is a wide range between people in how quickly their core body temperature drops in the same water conditions. The first step is simply being able to get into cold water. This looks difficult but it’s something we adapt to relatively quickly. Our cold water shock response reduces dramatically after a handful of immersions. The bigger challenge for most people is how long they can stay in cool water. Fitness and adaptation will increase the time you can safely swim in cool water to an extent but current thinking is that the biggest factor is body size and shape. A large body takes longer to cool down than a small one. You lose a lot of heat through your limbs. If you have long, slender limbs, you will cool down faster than if you have shorter and thicker ones. Body fat acts as an insulator. If you have very little, you will lose heat fast.
This isn’t to say that if you have a light build you should aim to bulk up. But you may want to consider what challenges you take on. Putting on weight is not without risks, and may decrease your swimming speed, so think carefully before going down this path. Work on fitness and adaptation first, monitor what happens to you personally, and ensure any cold water challenges you take on are done safely and only after proper preparation.
Given the above, how should you go about chasing your swimming goals? A good start would be something like:
1: Define what you want to do.
2: Identify what you should improve to help you achieve your swimming goal.
3: Create a plan to work on. This might include:
· Writing a training plan
· Identifying exercises to improve your swimming technique
· Practising specific swimming skills
· Regular acclimatisation swims
· Improving your overall health and fitness
4: Follow the plan
5: Monitor progress and refine the plan as necessary
6: Tackle your swimming challenge
Conceptually, this is easy. Implementation is harder. Working with a coach or swim mentor can make the process more achievable and enjoyable.
Let me know if you think I could help you achieve your swimming goals.