Swimrun – where do I start?
Swimrun is a fairly new multisport that’s seeing a huge rise in popularity across the globe. We explain what’s involved and how you can give it a try…
Since time began, sporting events have been used (and invented) to settle disputes. So, it’s hardly surprising to learn that the long-distance multisport of Swimrun was born from a crazy, drunken bet. Back in 2002, four Swedish friends challenged each other to traverse the 75km Stockholm archipelago - swimming to and running across a string of 26 islands - with the losers picking up the tab for everyone’s hotel, drink, and food costs the following night. The two teams of two set out the next morning, both taking over 24 hours to finish the contest, and while the pals - now known as the ‘original four’ – were too exhausted to party afterwards, they took on the exact same challenge the year after.
In 2006, this challenge was turned into a commercial race called OTILLO (‘island to island’ in Swedish), and swimrun has continued to gain momentum ever since with various events companies now hosting hundreds of races each year worldwide. Yet it’s the original OTILLO race – now used for the Swimrun World Championship final every September – that’s internationally recognised as one of the toughest races in the world. Thankfully, superhuman powers aren’t necessary to give this exciting sport a go, and swimrun courses of varying distances are increasingly available for fitness fans of all abilities.
What is swimrun?
Swimrun sees participants complete multiple legs of continuous running and swimming over uneven trails and through open water. Unlike triathlon, you won’t find transitions and kit changes between disciplines: you simply turn up to the start line in one outfit and wear it throughout as you alternate between swimming and running. Not to be confused with the sport of aquathlon where participants undertake one swim and then transition into a run to finish, swimrun also demands that you compete with a partner who must stay within 10 meters of you at all times during the race.
The benefits of swimrun
Outdoor exercise: swimrun takes place outdoors in nature, with events often held in wild, beautifully scenic surroundings. Of course, swimming in the open water and running across rough terrain is far more challenging than your average pool swim or run on the flat, but you’ll push your body in new ways while enjoying all the mental health benefits of exercising outside in the fresh air.
Teamwork: You need a partner to take part in the majority of swimrun events, and your team can be all-male, all-female, or mixed. Some solo events do exist, but they really go against the whole spirit of swimrun, which is all about teamwork, having fun, supporting (and suffering with) your partner, and sharing an incredible experience together.
Minimal equipment: You won’t have to fork out on an expensive bike and all the associated maintenance and cycling kit to take part in this multisport. The two main items you’ll need are a wetsuit you can run in and running shoes you can swim in: swimrun-specific wetsuits normally have stretchy panels built in at the crotch, arms and chest for extra movement and breathability (and extra buoyancy in the legs to help you save them for running), while the shoes need to be lightweight with great drainage and grippy soles to cope with the rugged terrain.
How do I get started?
First up, you need to find a friend to train and compete with. Picking the right person is crucial for success: you want someone who can motivate and support you when the going gets tough, but not someone who’s all about smashing PB’s if you’re more of a ‘slow and steady wins the race’ kind of person. It’s wise to choose a partner of a similar fitness level to you, but it’s fine if one of you is a stronger swimmer and the other is a better runner - that way you can benefit from each other’s experience to make improvements in speed and technique.
Because swimrun races dictate you must be within 10 meters of your partner, you’ll often find yourself tethered together via a bungee cord. On the plus side, you can take it in turns to lead or tow in the water, and you’ll always have someone to help you with tricky exits out of the water. But being tethered also means you’ll need a healthy dose of patience, respect and understanding for each other – so choose carefully!
Next up, you’ll need to select a race to enter. Regular swimrun events range between 20-40km in distance, although the Swimrun World Championship final has an epic race distance of almost 75km, consisting of 23 swim sections covering 9.5km and 24 run sections covering 65km. Thankfully, there are also lots of Sprint (10-20km) and Super Sprint (under 10km) races around that are perfect for beginner and intermediate exercisers. Dedicated swimrun organisers in the UK include LoveSwimRun, Breca Swimrun and As Keen As Mustard, but you’ll find other events listed at Find A Race. Choose one that’s suited to you and your partner’s level of fitness – events often publish guidelines on the kind of distances you should already be capable of running and swimming to help you make a decision.
Swimrun requires aerobic endurance, strength, technical ability, and a sense of adventure. You’ll regularly need to clock up long runs and lengthy swims to increase your aerobic capacity, and eventually, you’ll have to practice alternating between swimming and running while wearing shoes and a wetsuit.
If you’ve never tried swimming in open water, now is the time to join an open water swimming club to build your confidence, technique and speed in the water (find your local club at the Outdoor Swimming Society). It might also be worth joining a running club to get advice on your form and receive support while you put in the miles (training for long distance events can be a lonely affair!).
You can download a free 12-week swimrun training plan by endurance coach and experienced swimrun athlete Nicolas Remires from 220 Triathlon magazine, but if you feel you need a more personalised plan, google ‘swimrun coach’ to find a local expert (a triathlon coach will also be able to help).
And finally, remember to train smart by scheduling in plenty of rests to avoid burn out and potential injury before you get to the start line. It can be easy to get carried away training for any multisport, but your goal should be to train effectively and progressively so you reach race day feeling fresh and fully prepared!