Training for a Marathon Swim

By Evan Morrison, SBCSA board member and the ninth person to swim from Santa Cruz Island to the mainland.


A channel swim is a profound physical and mental undertaking. Proper training is essential to a swimmer's chances of success -- and the SBCSA will not approve a sanction application from a swimmer whose background in cold-water marathon swimming is not commensurate to the proposed swim attempt.

We believe there are five elements of successful training for a Santa Barbara Channel swim: distance, ocean conditions, water temperature, nutrition, and mental preparation. Failure to properly train for any of these five elements may lead to failure of your swim.

Distance

In preparing to swim a certain distance, it's important to consider both base training and long swims.

Base Training

How far do you swim each week, in total? For how long have you maintained that volume of swimming?

A reasonable rule of thumb is to swim at least the distance of your target swim each week, for at least six months before the attempt.

A swim from Anacapa Island to the mainland is about 20 kilometers. If you are swimming 4,000 meters, five times per week, that gets you to 20km -- a reasonable minimum base training volume for an Anacapa swim.

Long Swims

Have you successfully completed a training swim of at least 60-70% of the distance of your target swim in the past two years?

Resources

Water Temperature

Once you're trained to swim your target distance, it's essential to ask yourself: Are you prepared to swim that same distance in... 68-degree (F) water... 65-degree water... 62-degree water?

An Anacapa Island swim averages about 65F (18.3C) in the summer peak season. Swimming 12 miles in a pool is not comparable to swimming 12 miles in the Pacific Ocean. Lack of cold-water acclimation can lead to hypothermia and a failed swim. Extreme cases of hypothermia can lead to cardiac arrest and death.

The best way to train for cold water swimming is (not surprisingly) swimming in cold water. All of the recommendations in the Distance section are relevant here: You should aim to swim one-half to two-thirds of your target distance, at your target water temperature. The Semana Nautica 6-Mile Ocean Swim is good preparation for an Anacapa Island swim. An Anacapa Island swim is good preparation for a Catalina or Santa Cruz Island swim.

Resources

Ocean Conditions

Interval training in a pool can be helpful in training for a channel swim, but it is not sufficient. To attempt a Santa Barbara Channel swim, you need to be comfortable swimming in ocean conditions -- swells, chop, currents, and salty water -- without any black line to guide you.

Swimming in choppy water is far more difficult than swimming in a calm pool or lake. Surface chop and currents can slow down even the strongest swimmers, and may be quite discouraging to the inexperienced. Lack of experience with ocean conditions can lead to seasickness, disorientation, and failure of your swim.

neitz Five-time Anacapa swimmer Jim Neitz, braving the chop in 2011.

Nutrition

To complete any swim longer than about two hours, you will need to replenish your fluids and energy stores, typically via maltodextrin-based carbohydrate drinks. Individuals vary in their biology and tolerance for different substances, so it is important to develop a nutrition plan that works for you.

The ideal marathon swim nutrition plan:

A basic "starter plan" might consist of:

Some swimmers vary their feeding cycle with occasional protein-based feeds, gel packs, plain water, or even solid food (e.g., oatmeal, bananas).

Once you've developed a nutrition plan, you should practice it on at least a couple long training swims before you target event. You should also practice the method of delivery -- will you be feeding from a kayak, or from the escort boat? Your target swim should not be the first time you are trying these techniques.

Resources

Mental Preparation

The "mental aspect" of marathon swimming is somewhat more ineffable and difficult to describe, but basically boils down to:

Are you willing to persevere in the face of pain and fatigue -- both mental and physical? Are you willing to keep swimming, even when you'd rather not?

Mental preparation is very personal and unique to each individual. You can get most of the way through proper training for distance, ocean conditions, and nutrition -- but that last part can only happen through hard-earned experience. Challenge yourself on long training swims: You will learn something valuable about how you respond to adversity and discouragement -- about how to keep going, even when you'd rather not.

You're probably capable of swimming further than you'd imagine. Training for a channel swim is as much about preparing your body, as it is about developing confidence that you're capable of completing the swim.

Visualize success. Visualize yourself jumping off the boat to begin your swim... and several or many hours later, walking up the beach on the other side.

Night Swimming

The night and morning generally offer the friendliest swimming conditions in the Santa Barbara Channel, due to frequent afternoon winds. So, unless you're attempting one of the short inter-island routes, or you're a faster swimmer attempting Anacapa, you will probably be doing at least part of your swim in the dark.

Swimming in the ocean at night can be disorienting and even frightening if you haven't experienced it before. But, like anything else (distance, water temperature, nutrition, and mental perseverance), it can be practiced and mastered. Your target swim should not be the first time you're trying this: Plan at least a couple of your training swims for nighttime.


Distance, water temperature, ocean conditions, nutrition, and mental fortitude. These are all things you can practice -- and ultimately master.

When you have prepared yourself adequately in these five categories, then you are properly trained for a marathon swim. Everything else is out of your control. All that remains between you and the opposite shore is the execution of your well-honed plan, and the grace of the ocean.


This article has benefited from feedback from Dave van Mouwerik, Theo Schmeeckle, and Rob Dumouchel.


©2017 Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association