© Hokey Cokey Swimrun
Swimrun isn’t a new sport (it originated in Sweden more than a decade ago via ÖTILLÖ), but recently it’s exploded out of its niche sector, becoming popular in more mainstream endurance sport circles. Since I first wrote about swimrun in 2017 a lot has changed, with more events and brands on the scene in the UK and even a ‘solo’ option for competitors (historically it’s been raced in pairs).
According to Breca Swimrun, the brand that brought the sport to the UK, 45 percent of its field at the 2019 Breca Bay of Islands swimrun was female. So if you’re considering a swimrun, what do you need to know? Jude Palmer, experienced swimrunner and swimrun coach, fields my questions on the ins and outs of swimrun and shares her own experiences of racing and training.
Let’s talk about the concept of swimrun – how does it work?
Swimrun is a sport where you swim, run, swim, run, swim, run and so forth until you cross the finish line. There are no transitions, no stopping to change clothes; you run in your wetsuit and swim in your shoes. Any equipment you use like hand paddles, pull buoy, tow line (you can tow your team mate on both the swim and run) and fins have to start and finish with you.
Both long course (around 40k in total) and short course swimruns are growing in popularity around the world and whilst it originated in Sweden for single gender or mixed teams of two, more events now often include a solo category.
You’re an avid swimrunner as well as a swimrun coach – which was your first event?
Breca Buttermere in the Lake District, UK was my first swimrun and one which remains a firm favourite for many reasons. It was tough and I had some really bleak moments over the course but the feeling of being out in such a stunning landscape, pretty much fending for ourselves, was amazing. I’ll never forget 6 hours in at the top of the highest peak being bombarded with enormous hailstones and laughing out loud at the craziness of it all.
Since then I’ve competed in long course events in Scotland, Germany, Isles of Scilly, the UK, Switzerland and, most recently, Croatia where the total swimrun distance was 42km with the longest swim being 2.7km and longest run 10km. I have four swimruns planned for this year – and more if I can sneak them past my husband and 3 daughters. Swimrun is all the things I love: wild swimming, trail running in some amazing places, and great people. And a whole heap of fun.
What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give someone considering a swimrun?
Go for it, and if it doesn’t make you think ‘yikes’ then you’re probably not dreaming big enough! Watch event footage, look at blogs, follow swimrunners on social media, ask people for tips – get in touch with me. And work on the basics – make sure your trail running and open water swimming are good and that you’re acclimatised to cold water. And if not, work on this. For me, the most important thing is to find a teammate to share the banter with.
How important is it to have a partner whose abilities are similar to yours?
Super-important when it comes to mindset. The fitness you can work on, but if you team up with someone who wants to race until they’re sick and you’re someone who’s interested in getting round for the experience, there’ll be tears before the finish line. The first thing I always check out with a new partner is what we’re in it for. Over the years, I have raced with different partners and a good teammate is worth their weight in gold and stories.
Swimruns are hard. How fit do you need to be?
You need to be pretty fit, especially for the long courses which can be 40-50km in length. Whilst it is an endurance event, the regular switch from run to swim and back again means the stages are faster than if you were continuously running or swimming, so you need to train for this.
But it’s not just about fitness, you have to be comfortable with being in big, open countryside, deep open water and all the fun that comes with that. That’s the bit I love; adapting to whatever comes our way be it spaghetti-like seaweed pulling at our legs or blazing hot sunshine when you’re wearing neoprene.
What kind of run training do you recommend to your swimrun clients?
Get out and run trail. Not only will it make you stronger and more confident for events, it will get you used to fending for yourself, plus it’s not as embarrassing running in your wetsuit in the woods as it is running around your block! You need to be running regularly a minimum of 3 times a week and include sessions where you focus on endurance, speed, hill work etc. Running the same route, at the same pace, 3 times a week is not going to cut it. Swimrun is all about variety and so that’s how you need to train.
What swimming ability do you need in order to take on a sprint swimrun?
You need to be a confident swimmer in cold, open water. Up until 8 years ago, a length of 25m crawl was my limit and I well remember sobbing into my googles on my first lake swim but I was hooked on the freedom of open water swimming and so I kept going. I’m never going to be the fastest (ask my teammates) but it’s where swimming takes me that matters. So if you can swim for 20 minutes happily in the lake or sea you are likely to be OK.
What type of swim training sessions do you recommend to your coaching clients?
How long you need to be able to swim for depends on the event you’re doing but I would like to see people swimming 2-3 times a week, mixing up the sessions with steady effort and speed work. If you can swim with your team mate, even better. That way you get to know who the stronger swimmer is and you can push each other on. The most important thing is to take every opportunity to train in your kit and in open water.
How important is it to practice swimrun transitions and complete brick sessions in training?
Very! Transitions need to be second nature on the actual day as you will have a load more things to think about than faffing with your equipment. In the last few weeks before your race make sure you do some longer sessions with multiple swims and runs to test your fitness, technique, nutrition, transitions etc.
What might a typical weekly swimrun training plan for a beginner look like?
It very much depends on your starting point and what distance you’re aiming for. I would suggest a minimum of two swims and three runs a week plus some strength work to keep you strong and avoid injury. The more you can run off-road and swim in open water the better, as it’s not just fitness you are training.
What kit do you recommend for beginners?
Before swimrun-specific wetsuits came out we were all running in cut-down swim wetsuits but now there’s a lot more choice. Short-legged wetsuits with changeable sleeve length and back zips to help cabbing down (taking down the wetsuit when you get too hot) are popular now but they still won’t make you the Missy Franklin of swimrun so go with what suits your budget.
In terms of shoes, there is no perfect shoe so start with what you’re happy running in. Things to look out for are how well they drain, will they stay secure for the swims, and what the grip is like in relation to the event you are doing. I’ve just come back from the World of Swimrun’s kit test for 2019, so take a look at that for independent reviews. (http://worldofswimrun.com/category/guides-reviews/equipment/)
Any wetsuit tips?
You will wee in it so get used to that! Make sure it fits well and there is good space around the shoulders to swim in and it’s not too tight around the legs. I get hot really quickly, so I always look at the course and plan out which runs I’m likely to take my wetsuit down on and do it straightaway.
Any dos and don’ts for swimming in trainers?
Make sure they’re done up well! Beyond that, make sure they’re comfortable first and foremost and are suitable for the terrain you’ll be running on. How lightweight they are, and how well they drain are the things I would look at next. Get someone to look at you swimming and see if your pullbuoy or floaty socks are enough to get your feet well up to the surface. No one needs a pair of size 9s like a sea anchor behind them.
What about using a tow-rope – do you recommend using one?
Personally I use a tow line on the swim and quite often on the run, as it can help keep the team together and push each other on. I am usually the slowest swimmer, so being in my partner’s draft is brilliant. Practise, practise and practise some more with it. But if you don’t like swimming on tow or if you swim at similar speeds, don’t worry about it.
What’s your opinion on using paddles and other equipment?
Go for it but like anything train, train and train with it. I love the fact that swimrun is still developing as a sport and it’s not unusual to see people trying out new kit that they have made.
Any other tips, advice or dos and don’ts for someone considering their first swimrun?
Get online find an event and go for it!
Also, look out for Jude’s latest venture, We Run Trail. An online community aimed at anyone who loves the fresh air, open spaces, and muddy adventures of running off-road. The website (coming soon!) will enable people to find trail experts (coaches, guides, shops, clubs and trail holidays) around the world, and will be packed with stories, photos, and top tips from fellow runners and trail experts ‘to support and inspire you’.