How to train for a middle-distance open water swim

Hundreds of swimmers get ready for a swim in the tropical waters of St. Croix  Credit: Alex Kostich/
This past weekend I had the pleasure of competing in the fifth annual five-mile ocean race in St. Croix. Put on by the Victor Swimwear company, the event is beginning to attract more swimmers than its 200-swimmer limit, and there is a good chance it will be opened up to more participants next year.

It is a spectacular, beautiful course, and if you have any intentions of competing in open water at all, you may want to consider this event as a complement to a Caribbean vacation next year.

Be it Hawaii, St. Croix, or the less glamorous Hudson River or West Coast, many ocean swimmers and triathletes hesitate to venture into races more challenging than the usual one- to two-mile distances. Granted, it's hard to find official races that are longer; the prestige events tend to be in the two- to three-mile range, and the most common summer circuit races are usually only a mile.

But regardless of your swimming level, the rewards of training and completing a long-distance open-water swim are many. And, because you have a full year to prepare for the sixth Annual St. Croix race, and nearly as long to pick any other marathon open-water event, this article will outline the basic training and preparation you need to do in order to successfully complete a swim over three miles.

For starters, the right mental approach is critical. So many swimmers I know are intimidated by open-water swims for the most unfounded reasons, ranging from a lack of confidence in their endurance ability, their fear of open water conditions, and their inability to forget about sharks, poisonous jellyfish, and other forces of nature and acts of God.

So let's break this down one by one:

Lack of confidence in endurance ability

If you are a masters swimmer who can complete a 3,000-yard workout, you can easily finish a three-mile (4,500 yard) race with no additional training. Swimming in the ocean is easier than swimming in a pool because of the saltwater buoyancy factor; so if you can complete a 3,000-yard workout you can assume that your endurance level in the ocean is substantially more than that.

Factor in the adrenaline surge of competition, and your body is capable of rising to the occasion even if your mind initially is not. And if you are really worried about your endurance ability, increase your weekly yardage intake so you feel better about yourself !

Fear of open-water conditions

If your experience in the ocean is limited and you hesitate to enter races for this reason, expose yourself to open-water conditions in the summer months by swimming with friends who train with you in the pool; take a group trip to an open body of water and work out there. You will enjoy the change of scenery and realize, in a group, how much fun it is without being intimidating.

Sharks, jellyfish, forces of nature and acts of God

While I can't promise a lack of random acts of God, I can assure you that there has never been a documented shark attack during an open-water race in the world. Over the years, I personally have seen many sharks but have never been approached, much less followed or eaten !

Getting stung by a jellyfish can be unpleasant, but it is extremely rare and usually barely noticeable in the excitement of a race. Besides, in the event of a box jellyfish- or Portuguese-man-o-war influx, the race directors will usually cancel, or postpone, the event anyway.

Now that you have cast your fears aside and realized your open-water capabilities, there are a few training suggestions you can follow throughout the year to better prepare you.

Workout tips

Attempt to increase your yardage and the actual length of your workout "sets." If your masters program or team favors short, aggressive, fast sets such as 50's and 100's, begin to incorporate 200's, 500's, and ladder sets into your workout.

A good ladder set is swimming 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 yards with 10 seconds rest in between each distance (this ladder set adds up to about a mile). Once you are comfortable with this challenge, double the set's distance by going back down the ladder: 500, 400, 300, 200,100, with only five seconds' rest on the way down (between each distance).

When you are doing a warmup or pulling set, opt to go longer distances than your usual 500-yard warmup or 800-yard pull. Challenge yourself by completing a 1,500 pull set, for instance. By continuously keeping your heart rate at a constant level without rest or recovery, you will develop endurance and condition your body to maintain faster speeds for longer distances.

Push yourself to swim the length of your goal-distance race, or longer, in one nonstop "workout." When I train for the Victor's Annual Swim Around Key West (a 13-mile distance), I make sure to complete a 15,000-meter straight swim at least once in the pool before I consider myself "ready." This is just as important to do for your mental confidence as it is for your physical "dress rehearsal."

Remember also that if you can do the race length without stopping in the pool, it will be easier in the ocean when you factor in buoyancy and adrenaline.

Accomplishing a (really) long-distance swim is a great way to boost your confidence. Pushing your body to do something it has never done before leaves you feeling great, and the physical health benefits of developing your endurance level will be apparent.

With winter upon us and motivation lacking, it's a great time to set a goal for next spring or summer and stay motivated during the holiday season. Besides, what a great excuse to visit St. Croix next year!

Find and register for an open-water swim in your area!

Alex Kostich was an All-American swimmer at Stanford and is an open-water masters swimming champion.

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