In many ways it’s a question of perspective. As Emma France, an experienced long distance swimmer who runs training at Dover beach, points out: “For most pool swimmers 1500m is long distance, and in open water, there don’t tend to be shorter races (unless you are participating in really cold swims), so again, it depends on your perspective, but I’d say 3k upwards. I once heard a definition of marathon swimming and ultra marathon. A marathon was defined as 10k. Anything above that was an ultra marathon.”

To get started in long distance swimming, the first thing is to “make sure you are comfortable in deep and cool water”, says Emma. You can find local swim groups based around seas and lakes and a variety of training venues where safety cover is provided.


“Despite very often being viewed as a solitary undertaking, long distance swimming really is a team sport,” says Mark, the president of the British Long Distance Swimming Association.

That team is the long distance swimming community that promotes an ethos of giving back as experienced swimmers pass on their knowledge and practical advice to newcomers.

On longer swims, a swimmer will be supported by a kayak or boat. And whether you’re swimming solo or in a relay, you’ll need support crew.

It’s important to have a clear feed plan and it helps if those involved know the swimmer, and are aware of the risks and be prepared to respond and adapt to any changes in the swimmer or conditions.

It’s also important to think about communication. “When you stop for a feed, make sure that only one person speaks to you. It can be very confusing in the water to have lots of people talking to you at once.” says Emma.


It’s very much about working out what suits you. Mark offers to experiment and don’t be afraid to change. A lot of swimmers use carbohydrate powder based water and juice mixes and on longer swims, people also appreciate having some solid food, like pieces of banana and jelly babies or tinned peaches. Whilst rehydration is critical, “the use of electrolytes depends on the swim. If you are in salt water then you really don’t need them, and if you do use them, then make it sparingly,” says Emma.

Overall it’s all about finding the right mix for you. Rehearse feeds in training – not all products digest the same way and you don’t want to discover that on the day of your big swim.

Also bear in mind that the food needs to be “quick and easy to eat. Speed is very important with feeds, especially on a tidal swim as when you stop for a feed you are actually still moving, but sideways and away from the course you want to be on,” explains Emma.


There are many opinions about how best to prepare for a big swim and people work out what’s best for them. Swimming for hours at a time is not just physically tough, but can be mentally daunting too. The big thing is to do the training.

Emma suggests some key things to consider are getting your technique right in winter and upping your distance in spring. It can be tough and things that can help include:

  1. Training with others who are training for the same thing

  2. Be honest – If you’re struggling, talk about it

  3. Recognise that mental implosions are temporary, you can get through them

  4. Ask yourself (and answer honestly): can I swim for another 5 minutes? If the answer is yes – do it. Keep doing that and eventually you will finish your swim

  5. If you don’t know if you can, act as if you are someone who can. In time you won’t be able to tell the difference.


Emma’s overview of some of the key considerations and how to deal with them:

Build up your endurance to the cold and always err on the side of caution. It’s normal to shiver after a cold swim, it’s your body’s way of warming up.  

Post swim, wrap up warm (lots of layers and a hat is very important) and have a warm drink. Warm up naturally and slowly.  

Things to avoid: foil blankets (they’ll just keep you cool); hot showers (this risks opening up your blood vessels again and pumping cold blood to your heart, people have been known to pass out in the shower); heaters in the car – just warm up naturally.

If someone does get too cold, remove all swimwear, dry off, put on as many layers as possible, keep them out of the breeze, lying down if necessary and give them a warm drink. Stay with them and if you become concerned, call an ambulance. 

In the UK the biggest risk is jellyfish in the sea. Unless you’re swimming somewhere that has lion’s mane jellies, they are generally harmless. Some hurt, some you won’t feel and some feel like nettle stings. The best remedy is cold water and if they still hurt after you come out of the water then an antihistamine is a good idea.

Any sport carries the risk of injury. The best prevention is good technique and regular shoulder strengthening exercises.

Unlike running or cycling where you are very aware of losing fluid via sweat, you don’t feel it with swimming, but it still can be happening. If you’re swimming in cold water, a warm drink is the way to go.

Sunburn / sunstroke
When you’re swimming outdoors you are at great risk of very severe sunburn for any skin that is exposed. Even on an overcast day you can burn due to the reflection on the water.

Other water users
If you are in water where others are using it then make yourself as visible as you can and learn how to sight.

For more outdoor swimming inspiration and training advice, please visit


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