How to guide – Swimrun training [checklist]

Estimated reading time: 18 minutes

Swimrun is a great adventure. But how do you train for it? In this article we will help you to take your swimrun experience to the next level.

In swimrun, you often find yourself in places you never thought of going before – totally surrounded by nature. And even if the swimrun event course is set, you have to find your best way through the terrain.

Consequently, most swimrunners we know got into the sport because of the adventure it brings.

So, how do you prepare yourself for a swimrun event?

In this article, we will,

  • Answer common questions about swimrun.
  • Discuss the training components of swimrun.
  • Show you a way to take your training to the next level.

Here we go…

How do I train for a swimrun event?

Most swimrunners got into the sport because of the adventure it brings. Compared to, for example, triathlon, with its “clinical setting”, swimrun is more “it depends”.

You often find yourself in places you never thought of going before – totally surrounded by nature. And even if the course is set, you have to find your best way through the terrain.

So, how do you train swimrun?

Two athletes run in the forest competing in a swimrun event. They are totally surrounded by nature, heading for the next swim.
In swimrun you are in for a real adventure. Most often totally surrounded by nature.

Tackling the unknown

Obviously, you have to put some time into swimming and running. For practical reasons (i.e. weather and water temperature), you need to do most preseason swim training in the pool.

But as soon as the climate admits, you have to practice open water swimming and navigation. As well as the run-swim-run transitions.

Running, however, is a year-round combination of trail and road running – usually perceived as the less intimidating part of swimrun training.

  • In essence, to become a good swimrunner, you need to be skilled at tackling the unknown – the “it depends” that nature ultimately brings.
Two women prepare for a open water swimming section during a race.
Yes, you run in your wetsuit and swim with your shoes on. That is swimrun in a nutshell!
  • Below we will discuss the components of swimrun and how you can take the next step on your adventure.

A starting point

If you are a total beginner, do not get scared off. There is no need of being a former combat diver to become a swimrunner. On the contrary, we believe that swimrun is a sport for everyone. It is much easier to do than the common conception.

So, suppose you want to get into swimrun training and build base level fitness and confidence in swimming and running.

  • In that case, we suggest our 4-week training program designed for you who are starting up from scratch. You need no previous experience to get going.

Set your training zones

But before you dive into the swimrun training, you might consider figuring out (test for) your training zones. Those are the individual intensity zones that will help you to determine how hard you should train at any given moment.

Unfortunately, there is no magical test that will define your zones for all sports.

So you need to do sports specific tests.

  1. Download and use the free test protocols we include in all our training programs.
  2. Then set your zones with the help of our training zones calculator.
As soon as the climate admits, you have to practice swimming and navigation.
As soon as the climate admits, you have to practice open water swimming and navigation.

Open water swimming

Well, here we go. And we start with open water swimming.

The swimming technique does not differ much between swimming in the pool and out in the lakes or ocean.

The most significant differences are,

  • You can not follow the line at the bottom of the pool. Instead – most of the time, you are looking down into the dark abyss of the ocean.
  • You need to navigate to swim straight. Sounds scary? Do not worry! In the beginning, it might seem complicated, but you will get the hang of it quickly.

Get into the water and relax

The first step in your learning process towards mastering open water swimming is to get into the water. Well, depending on where you are situated, getting a wetsuit is maybe the first step. But immersing yourself is the first step.

  • Just float on your back at first to get comfortable and calm. After that, roll over and start to look down. Again – find your calm.

When you are comfortable being in the water, start to do some swim strokes to get the feeling of it. Keep close to your bathing jetty, beach, or boat.

Find your calm when open water swimming.
Find your calm when open water swimming.

Open water vs pool swimming

Swimming, however, is best practised at the pool. Even the world’s top open water swimmers do most of their training in the pool.

Therefore, our base training programs are primarily on pool swimming. So even if we all long for the open water, training is best done in a controlled environment.

Swim drills and endurance session

So, here is an example swim session from one swim boost program. Try it out next time you are training.

  • As you can see, this workout assumes that you are swimming in a 25-meter (yard) pool. If you have access to a 50-meter pool, then adjust accordingly.
Swim drills and endurance session for swimrun.

The warmup is meant to get you into the correct swim pattern.

  • Split up the 75 by first swimming freestyle (crawl) for 25. Then you continue with two drills – zipper and catch up – for 25 each. Iterate this four times.
  • Rest between each 25 for 20 seconds.
  • Then do the upside down paddle drill 2 times 75. Again, catch your breath for 20 seconds between each 75.
The warmup of swim drills and endurance session

Next up is a series of endurance and tempo intervals. And you repeat all of it four times. Between each interval, rest for 20 seconds.

  • Start with 200 in your zone 2 speed. It should be a comfortable swim, where you allow yourself to think about your technique.
  • If you have a hard time swimming the distance, add a pull buoy. To add more of the strength component, use your paddles.
  • Then we want you to alter your swim pace. Visualise each 75 as 3 parts (well, 25 each!) that you swim in a sequence without interruption. The first part swims in zone 2, and then escalate each 25 to zone 3 and 4. Iterate this three times.
The series of swim drills and endurance session

Finish up the session with 200, where you glide as far as you can on each stroke. Swimming should not become a stroke-glide-sink situation. So adjust your swim cadence to make it work for you. However, this part is about cooling down – so stay relaxed.

The cooldown of swim drills and endurance session

Open water navigation

The next step is navigating. Since you can not see where you are going while swimming freestyle, you need to look up to know that you are travelling in the right direction.

Looking up, just lift your head enough for your eyes to be above the surface. However, when you raise your head above the surface, your legs start to sink, creating lots of drag that will stop you from propelling forward. So, you should still breathe to the sides of your body.

  • Watch the short clip about “alligator eyes” below to see how Ville does it.

When looking up to navigate, do it with your lead arm stretched out in front of you, and do not start your next stroke until you have your head in its natural position looking down.

Navigating short swims is easier. It is more point-and-shoot. But the longer the swims get, the harder it gets. And during some swims, you need to look up multiple navigational points to swim towards.

  • If you are doing a swimrun with lots of swims, it can be beneficial to go in advance and check for reference points.
  • When choosing a reference point, it should be easy to spot since you only raise your head for a short amount of time.

Therefore, consider tall reference points that stand out from the surface of the water. Or colour changes in nature so that you have an easy target to swim towards.

  • Speaking of navigation. During a race, it is, of course, vital to know where you are. So when you prepare for your next event, make sure that you get all the swim and run splits right.
Use your paddle to remember all swim and run splits during your next swimrun event.
Pro tip: Use your paddle to remember all swim and run splits during your next swimrun event.

Triangulate

While swimming in open water, safety should be your top priority. And one way to stay safe is to know where you are in the body of water. So that you can adapt to your surroundings. Maybe there is a current, or the wind pushes you off course.

To better understand where you are in the water, triangulation is a crucial skill you should learn.

  • You can not reach your goal if you do not know where you start.

So, triangulation is a technique where you look for reference points on land and try to line up to stay between them. Creating a triangle between your reference points and yourself.

  • The goal which you navigate towards needs to lie inside of the triangle.

After the first step of finding your reference points, you need to memorise how they sit in relation to each other. Since you do not swim and look up all the time, you need to have a clear picture (in your mind) of where you want to be when you raise your head to navigate.

A helping hand can speed up your swimrun transition.
A helping hand can speed up your swimrun transitions.

Swimrun transitions

Swimming and running are great, but the buttery essence of swimrun lies in the amphibious element.

You are constantly in motion, going seamlessly through nature, from land to sea, and back up again.

  • There is a lot of energy and time saved in being efficient in your transitions.

We all train our swimming and our running, and occasionally, doing some swimrun. But it is vital to master the transitions.

  • Our experience is that it is often overlooked. Therefore, in our more advanced swimrun race training programs, we dedicate time and energy to prepare you for the transitions.

When is the time to go from swimming to running?

We teach that you should stand up and begin to move on foot when you start to hit the seafloor with your paddle. Up to that point, in most cases, you are travelling faster by swimming than wading.

Trail running as a swimrunner

One of the joys of running is that it is a straightforward and portable sport. However, it is well worth investing time and money in a competent running shop and getting them to fit you with the right shoes for off-road running.

Ville is holding two pair of swimrun shoes. Showing the sole of the shoes.
Get a better grip with the right shoes for swimrun.

Your training is year-round and combines trail and road running. Before we go on, it is worth mentioning…

  • Trail running is more demanding than road running because of the hills and uneven terrain – making it necessary to run slower.
  • Sometimes the trails are technical, slippery, rocky, loose. So it is best to stay alert and keep your eye on the ground (and not your watch!).
  • Speaking of…seeing your pace on a GPS watch is handy. However, if the path you are running is demanding, you are better off training with your heart rate training zones.
Two men trail running when training for a swimrun event. The trails are technical, slippery and rocky.
Sometimes the trails are technical, slippery, rocky, loose. So stay alert!

Transition your running to any trail surface

At the beginning of your preseason, start by building a solid foundation of short and easy sessions before adding distance and pacing in the trails.

  • We advise you to do all of your interval workouts on the road or track and your easy runs off-road.
  • To increase your running ability, consider our 4-week run training program.
As you get more confident, transition your running to any trail surface.

When you develop as a swimrunner, you are better off just doing the “real thing”. However, let your body adjust by escalating the complexity of your run sessions, going from dirt roads to buffed-out trails to animal paths.

  • As you get more confident, transition your running to any trail surface. And soon, you will find yourself comfortable running fast on technical terrain.
  • To integrate your running and swimming, we offer a 12-week swimrun training program that is fully individualized. Check it out!

Trail run hill repeats

Hill repeats are an excellent way to build run strength, improve speed, and develop confidence off the road. So try this workout next time you are heading out.

Trail run hill repeats session for swimrun

As always, start your workout with a careful warmup. First, begin by jogging in an easy tempo and escalate the intensity so that you end in zone 4.

To activate your lower body and core muscles, switch over to some dynamic exercises.

Finish the warmup with 10 minutes in zone 2. During that time, include four 15-seconds sprints.

Trail run hill repeats warmup for swimrun

The whole idea with the hill repeats is to maintain the same effort at the end of the set as you do at the beginning – so plan accordingly.

  • For 20 minutes, you continuously run uphill in a hard and steady-state tempo. And recovery jog on your way down.
  • If this is too demanding, do not stress it. Start with 10 minutes and add another 2 minutes every second week.
  • As you improve, aim for running uphill for the whole 20 minutes (no downhill recovery).
Trail run hill repeats for swimrun

By now, you should feel leg fatigue. Therefore end the workout with an endurance run in zone 2. Do not overachieve – stay in flat terrain.

  • Again, when you get stronger, feel free to extend the session. But stay in zone 2.
Trail run hill repeats endurance part for swimrun

Diversify your training with rowing

As much as you love running and swimming, your body and mind are not always up for it. For that reason, we always add rowing to the swimrun training – for example, in our preseason program for swimrun.

  • Rowing ultimately gets you off your feet – think about it, you get to sit down during your workouts – with zero impact training.
  • The work is spread throughout your body in a rowing stroke, engaging most muscles and muscle groups.
  • The diversity will help smooth imbalances, build core strength, and develop upper body strength.

Sounding like a rowing advertisement, in a way, you will improve your running and swimming abilities with rowing.

Woman exercising on a rowing machine at the gym. Rowing is a great way to diversify your swimrun training.
Diversify your swimrun training with rowing.

A team rowing workout

In the spirit of swimrun, one great rowing workout that you should invite your swimrun partner to is this one.

This challenging ladder will improve your muscular endurance and anaerobic capacity. And at the same time, build team morale.

  • During each set – one team member rows as hard as possible while the other one recovers and cheers on.
A swimrun team rowing workout to challenge your team partner.
  • After 10 minutes of warming up, start by rowing 500 meters in a demanding and steady-state tempo.
  • Then get off the rower quickly and have your team member row the same distance.
  • Immediately get back on the rowing machine and go 400 meters, then have your partner row 400 meters.
  • Follow that by each rowing a 300, then a 200, then a 100, in the same steady-state tempo.
  • Cooldown and compare notes!

Mobility and strength for swimrunners

Even if swimrun is a sport with constant change, you more or less move in the same pattern to propel yourself forward.

With that in mind, you want to train your muscles in different positions so that you can move more freely and with greater variation. By creating more options, you lower the risk of injury and improve how well you perform.

When it comes to swimming, you want to maintain the ability to move well through your shoulders. In running, your lower limbs and knees absorb the impact. Therefore you want to add mobility and strength to your lower body.

  • Single side exercises should be a top priority since running requires you always to be on one leg. And in swimming, you work on your “diagonals” (asymmetrical).

SWIM MOBILITY. In the mobility routine shown in the video above, we walk you through 5 exercises that can be used during the warmup to open up your shoulder.

These 5 mobility exercises for swimmers are,

  • Sleeper stretch
  • Prone shoulder external rotation
  • Flexion PAILs/RAILs
  • Swimmer hovers
  • Scapula retraction lift-offs

SWIM STRENGTH. To further help you increase your strength, flexibility, and overall physical mobility as a swimmer, we have put together 15 dryland strength exercises. In the video below, Ville shows you an example of how you can combine some of them with our core workouts.

RUN MOBILITY. We have previously presented a run mobility routine to prepare your lower limbs for upcoming efforts. Perfect during warmup or as part of your training to improve your performance and increase capacity.

We walk you through,

  • Knee rotation PAILs/RAILs
  • Adduction knee hinges
  • Straight leg hip flexion
  • Knee flexion lift-offs
  • Knee CARs

RUN STRENGTH. In the video above, I engage myself in a combination of burpees, pushups and running. The workout will develop your endurance and economy in the running, as well as build overall strength.

  • Also, to help you maintain stride length and speed late in the run, we have put together 14 strength exercises in a 4-week run strength program.

Race training for swimrunners

Most of the athletes we know are training with a purpose, with a goal in mind. A swimrun event.

Whether you aim for a super-sprint or full-distance event or are willing to train 6 or 12 hours per week, you benefit from a structured approach.

  • So, to help you periodize your training season and define how much, how often, and how hard you should train, sign up for a free individual plan.
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