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The (Long) Long Swim: Tackling An Ultra-Endurance Event

Should you build your swim fitness with an ultra-distance event?

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Should you build your swim fitness with an ultra-distance event?

Ultra swim races are blowing up, thanks in no small part to the 10K marathon swim’s debut at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Some Ironman triathletes, including pro triathlete and lightning-fast swimmer Haley Chura, are incorporating open-water swims as long as 10 miles in training. The idea is an over-distance swim will make 2.4 miles seem like a breeze, much in the way an over-distance training ride might take the anxiety out of riding 112. But swimming doesn’t always work that way, coaches say.

“The time commitment for an ultra swim would only detract from the necessary time needed for cycling and running,” says Mary Eggers, head coach at Valor Triathlon Project. “The best way to prepare for an Ironman swim is through consistent swimming, not mega-miles. If one wants to test their fitness, try Masters meets and shorter open-water swim opportunities.”

That said, an ultra swim can be an excellent pursuit for the off-season, as a block of swim-focused training can build physical and mental strength in the water. Injured athletes restricted from cycling or running might also enjoy channeling their fitness into an aquatic adventure. For those pursuing the long, long swim, a few tips from Eggers:

Form first

Even small weaknesses like imbalanced body rotation or poor posture, for example, can become big injuries when ramping up to an ultra-distance swim. Work with a coach on technique and strength specific to swimming.

Build up slowly

“We start with where the athlete is currently with swimming, then build much like we do cycling and running—gradually and slowly,” Eggers advises.

Get a crew

In other disciplines, we can carry nutrition with us. In swims, that’s not so easy. “In long open-water swims, a support boat or paddleboard is really necessary.”

Nail your nutrition

Caloric replacement during an ultra swim can be tricky, as what works for athletes on land may not work as well in the water. Most ultra swimmers take in nutrition mostly through liquid to minimize stomach distress. Experiment with various sport drinks, aiming for 200 to 230 calories and 25 ounces of fluid per hour.

Your Next Swim-Cation

These epic swim races are worth a spot on your bucket list.

La Jolla Roughwater Swim Gatorman
September
La Jolla, Calif.

More than 2,000 swimmers take to La Jolla Cove near San Diego for the 3-mile Gatorman Swim, where the competition is as big a draw as the crystal-clear waters and abundant marine life.

Manhattan Island Marathon Swim
June/July
New York City, N.Y.

Starting from Battery Park, solo swimmers and relay teams navigate the 28.5-mile course around Manhattan Island. The Statue of Liberty makes for a sweet finish line.

St. Croix Coral Reef Swim
October
St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

A popular fundraiser for The Nature Conservancy, this 5-mile swim takes athletes through blue water, over an underwater coral reef park, and alongside sea turtles.

Pennock Island Challenge
September
Ketchikan, Alaska

Lifetime bragging rights for athletes who take on this 8.2-mile swim in Alaskan waters, where temperatures usually hover in the mid-50s.