I’ve been asking myself a question since August 2021; how far can I swim in open water? I’d like to know the answer—safely of course—how far can I go? I’m registered for three marathon swims this summer and fall with plans to share what I learn from each.    

Marathon swimming takes place in rivers, lakes, and oceans at distances greater than 10 kilometers, or 6 miles. The rules are straightforward, no special equipment, including wetsuits, just your regular swimsuit, cap, and goggles. Based on distances, you’re assigned to a kayaker or boat that holds your nutrition along with monitoring your safety. Your swim may begin at night or early in the morning based on tides, boat traffic, and other logistics.

Here are several things I’ve learned the past two and half years as my distances and training have expanded.    

First, stroke integrity is everything. Swimming is a very technical sport with repetitive movements. The key is to stay healthy and find a rhythm that works for you. Adjustments in hand position, arm recovery, catching the water, breathing, kicking, getting all these movements to work together. It’s easy to lose your balance in the water and overcompensate with your arms and legs. This was difficult for me to understand until I began working with a stroke coach. 

A stroke coach films your swimming in an endless pool (small pool with propulsion) so you can gather all kinds of feedback on your swimming style. As a former sprinter, I found my body was too high in the water swimming uphill, had an aggressive kick and shoulders and arms that were not aligned. My left sided catch in the water really didn’t exist, I’m not quite sure how I was swimming! I felt so much better than what the video shared. This was a humbling experience.    

Over six months I’ve completely rebuilt how I swim by making size adjustments to my stroke, body position, and kick. This was tough! Changing how your body moves through the water is not easy. Drills, exercises, and staying mentally focused on what you’re doing at every moment adds up. Now my non-traditional straight arm recovery keeps my arms lower to the water with more energy moving forward. This keeps me streamlined setting up a stronger catch of water.   

The key to starting and finishing a marathon swim is preparation, luck, and consistency in your stroke. The best way to work on your stroke is spending time in the water. Originally, I thought swimming was all about more time and laps. It is to some degree, but I discovered last season too much can overdo it. I was overtrained and exhausted without a recovery plan before my swimming season began.

Swimming hundreds of thousands of yards in 2022, and a million plus in 2023, led to burn out. Swimming was losing its fun as I was completely hitting a wall due to lack of structure. So, I lowered my pool distances last fall to keep it fresh as I refined my technique. Focusing on drills and shorter distances provided time and necessary practice. As February arrived, distances began to stretch, now a 10k workout doesn’t seem so daunting. Coupled with a better stroke I’m more present, mentally focused, and having more fun!  

Another crucial element is feeding and finding the right nutrition that works with your body when you are burning a ton of calories. Practicing in the pool with gels, liquids, and solids to decide what works best with your stomach is ideal. A controlled environment offers repetition in customizing the right mix of food before venturing into open water. What works for one swimmer may not for another, so testing is critical.

My nutrition combination was causing a sloshy stomach after four hours of swimming—not good. I switched things up and am having more success now as I feed every 30 minutes as opposed to every 20. Changing nutrition brands but keeping things liquid allows for faster feeds from a chug bottle. Efficiency is your friend to minimize feed times so you can just keep swimming from point A to B.

Open water swimming requires you to leave the confines of the pool at some point and get outside and test your skills. Wind, currents, and temperatures all play a factor in adjusting your body and keeping yourself in a relaxed mood while navigating through the elements. I was fortunate to be introduced to some great open water swimmers who practice in Annapolis, Maryland, year-round. Each swimmer is training for different distances with unique goals and stories to share. The open water swimming community is a very welcoming group regardless of your ability.  Everyone is encouraging; I like this approach.  

This spring, I’ve been able to acclimate my body to swimming in mid-50-degree water. Temperatures will warm up eventually so low to mid 60s should feel great. At least that’s the meditation I repeat to myself as I get in and keep swimming regards of the temps! No wetsuit, just earplugs for protection, a regular swim cap, and a safety buoy for visibility. 

All this practice will pay off as I’ve done the work before showing up. In July, I’ll be attempting to swim across Lake Tahoe which is 12 miles. The challenge here will be water temperatures in the 60s and elevation as the lake is 6,000 feet above sea level. Two weeks later I’ll be back on the east coast in Vermont, swimming into Canada and back for a total of 15 miles. Then rest and active recovery, and more swimming, before October’s swim around the island of Manhattan. The 20 Bridges Swim as it’s called has you circumnavigate the island swimming under the twenty bridges connected to Manhattan. This is a current assisted swim as the tides are constantly changing for a total of 28.5 miles. Good times ahead!

Stay tuned for more adventures and reports on training and what I learn. In the meantime, here’s more that I’ve written on open water swimming, here, here, and here

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