Why you should commit to an annual distance target

And a free spreadsheet to help you track progress

To improve at swimming, you should swim frequently and regularly. A consistent swimming habit isn’t the only thing you need to become better at swimming, but it’s a baseline requirement. There’s a rule of thumb that says you need to swim at least three times a week to get faster. As far as I know, this isn’t backed up by any scientific studies, but as a lifelong swimmer it feels about right to me, although it will vary between swimmers. Beginners will be able to improve with one or two sessions a week while elite swimmers will lose form if they only got in the water three times a week.

One way to help motivate yourself to swim consistently is to set yourself an annual distance target. For example, at Outdoor Swimmer we’ve set up a Facebook Group called the Million Metre Challenge, which asks people to clock up 1,000,000m of swimming over the year. This works out at just under 20km each week. Even if you swam four times each week, you’d still need to cover nearly 5km each session to hit the target. It’s a big ask, but a good number of people sign up and do it each year.

A million metres in the year is the type of distance you might want to aim for if you’re planning events of 10km or more. Someone aiming for a Channel crossing may go even higher. However, if you’re relatively new to swimming or have been away from it for a while, you may be better off with a more modest target. For example, three swims of 2.5km each per week add up to a little under 400,000m over a year, which would put you in a good place to tackle swims of half a mile to 5km.

Once you’ve set your annual target, work out what you need to cover each month, week and swim session to get there. Remember to build in some slack to allow for holidays and sessions missed for illness or emergencies. Then create a means to track your swims. I like to use a spreadsheet that I’ve set up to show me how I’m doing against target. If you want to use the same one, you can download it here:

Download spreadsheet from Outdoor Swimmer

Mostly, I don’t need much motivation to swim as I enjoy it so much. However, I do sometimes need a push to get myself out of bed for an early morning session or to unpeel myself from the sofa for a late evening swim, especially in the depths of winter. The thought of having to log a plump zero on my spreadsheet, and having to make up the distance another time, is usually enough to get me moving. I also find I swim for longer once I’m in the water if I have an annual target. Keeping on track and seeing the distance mount up is surprisingly satisfying.

Another underappreciated benefit is the confidence boost you get from seeing the accumulated distance you’ve swum. The numbers and charts in the spreadsheet are lovely visual reminder of what you’ve achieved. If you’ve got an event coming up, it’s worth looking back at what you’ve done. It sounds trivial, but it works. I even think about the training I’ve done if I hit a low point during a race and turn it into a mantra. Something like: “You’ve got this. You’ve done the distance. You’ve got the proof.”

Just one word of caution: mindlessly logging miles is not the optimum way to improve at swimming. You should also think about technique, vary your speed, include drills and, ideally, use all four swimming strokes. The annual distance challenge is just another tool in your box, and not the total solution to becoming a better swimmer.

I took on the Million Metre Challenge in 2019 and used the spreadsheet above to track my progress through the year.

MMC 2019jpg
I was consistently above the target distance each month until May but as I'd built a 'cushion' I was able to stay ahead (just) throughout the year.

MMC 2019 by monthjpg