How Do I Start Swimming Long-Distance? (Explained)


swimmer preparing to swim a long distance

Swimming long distances can be a daunting challenge when you start out. Many very fit athletes can be exhausted after a couple of laps of their local swimming pool, making a long-distance swim seem impossible.

To start swimming long distances, focus on improving your swimming technique, which includes; having a balanced and flat body position in the water which will reduce drag from your legs, relaxed and efficient breathing and a two-beat kick to conserve energy.

Swimming long distances can be a great way to improve your health and fitness. But it’s important to start slowly, especially if you’re not used to swimming regularly.

When you start out, focus on swimming “one-length-at-a-time” carefully working on your swim technique. With this approach, you will quickly realise that long-distance swimming is accessible to everyone.

The secret to long-distance swimming is technique and practice.

In this article I will cover:

  • What is Considered Long-Distance swimming?
  • What is The Best Stroke For Long Distance Swimming?
  • How Do You Start Swimming Long-Distance?
  • Strength Training to Improve Endurance For Long-Distance Swims
  • What Should I Eat Before Swimming Long-Distance?
  • How to Stay Motivated When Training to Swim Long-Distance
  • What Should I Wear When Swimming Long-Distance?

What Is Considered Long Distance Swimming?

Swimming long-distance is swimming for an extended period, usually covering a distance of more than a kilometre.

Here is a list of the different types of swimming and what is considered long-distance for each discipline:

Swimming TypeLong Distance
Competitive Pool Swimming800m plus
Recreational Swimming1000m plus [1km]
Open Water Swimming1000m plus [1km]
Triathlon Swimming1500m plus [1.5km]
Marathon Swimming10,000m [10km]

Here are the different swim types and places where long-distance swimming is found:

1. Open Water Swimming

The most common type of long-distance swimming is open water swimming, which is swimming in a lake, river or ocean. This type of swimming can be challenging because you have to deal with different conditions, like waves and currents.

2. Swimming Pool

In the swimming pool, they consider competitive long-distance anything further than 800m.

3. Marathon Swimming

This is swimming long distances of typically 10km.

4. Triathlon Swimming

This is the same as marathon swimming, but it’s done as part of a triathlon race. Triathletes typically swim 1.5km as part of a standard Olympic triathlon distance.

What Is The Best Stroke For Long-Distance Swimming?

Before discussing technique and how to swim long-distance, it is important to establish which swim stroke you will be using.

As a general rule, the front crawl, also known as the freestyle, is the best stroke for long-distance swimming as it is efficient and fast, allowing you to cover a vast distance in the shortest time with little energy exertion compared to other strokes.

The backstroke is also a good choice and is useful when you need to breathe more, as your face is out of the water, but for this article, I will focus on the front crawl (aka freestyle) as it is the most common stroke used when swimming freestyle.

How Do You Start Swimming Long-Distance?

To begin swimming long-distance, you should work on your swim technique while gradually increasing the distance as you go.

If you have poor swim technique, swimming long distances will be extremely difficult, even if you have a very high fitness level.

If you pay attention to the following aspects of your swim stroke, you will dramatically increase your swimming distance, as swimming will become easier.

With time, you can then extend your distance as your technique will allow this.

There are many approaches you can take to improving your swim stroke, but I have found that working on the following areas yield the fastest results:

1. Balanced Body Position

Swimming in a flat and horizontal position that feels balanced will allow your body to move effortlessly through the water.

One of the main reasons people find swimming long distances so difficult is that their legs sink as they swim, which creates drag.

If you try to maintain a flat and horizontal position in the water, your legs should remain high in the water, which will remove any leg drag.

If you are struggling to achieve this, the next time you swim, imagine that you are pressing your chest down into the water.

By pressing your chest into the water, your legs will automatically pop up.

As you press your upper body into the water, you will feel resistance. Your upper body will not sink, as your lungs will keep you afloat.

This will help you maintain a balanced and flat position in the water. You will no longer be dragging your legs and, as a result, can swim for longer with greater ease.

2. Neutral Head Position

Having a good head position is tied in with having a balanced body position.

Your head is heavy, and how you position it will affect your balance and flatness in the water.

Many swimmers will look ahead as they swim. By looking up, you are raising your chest region and as a result, your legs will sink, creating drag.

Although there is a lot of debate on how to position your head, you can start by looking down as you swim. This will push your head and chest down into the water and, as a result, your legs will pop up and reduce drag.

Open water swimmers have to lift their heads as they swim so they can ensure they are going the right way, but watch how other great swimmers position their heads.

The vast majority will look down, or “slightly” ahead. Either way, their head position is neutral and helps them to maintain a flat profile in the water.

3. Extend Your Body Line

To swim long-distance, it helps to get the most out of your arm extensions and lengthen your body into a streamlined position.

As you swim, stretch your arm out in front of you. Extend it to its maximum length and imagine reaching for the far wall of the pool.

By extending your arms, you will glide through the water and will feel yourself moving through the water with little exertion.

This has the added benefit of causing your hips to rotate. By rolling your hips, you can get excellent propulsion from your body movements, which is very energy efficient. This can allow you to swim long distances and not be out of breath.

I learnt this principle from the Total Immersion Swimming Method, which is worth checking out if you feel you cannot swim long distances.

Here is a video showing how to use your arms to effortlessly swim long-distance. It is worth taking a few moments to watch this video as incorrect arm extension and placement can cause your legs to drop, creating drag:

4. Two-Beat Kick

When swimming long-distance, you will want to conserve as much energy as possible and one way to do this is to reduce how much you kick and use a two-beat kick.

A two-beat kick is kicking twice over one stroke cycle.

Do Long Distance Swimmers Kick?

There is a common belief that long-distance swimmers do not kick at all, which is not true.

In reality, long-distance swimmers do kick, but they will keep their kicking to a minimum.

Sprint swimmers who are trying to get as much power and speed from their stroke, and are less concerned about conserving energy as their races are short, will use a 6-beat kick, which is 6 kicks per swim stroke.

In comparison, long-distance will kick just twice per swim stroke, saving a lot of energy.

On average, only 15% or less of our power is generated from our kicking, so there is little return in kicking too much when swimming long-distance. [source]

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5. Rhythmic Breathing

How well you manage your breathing pattern will greatly influence how long you can swim.

Some swimmers tend to hold their breath as they swim. Although this might be fine for sprint swimming when your aim is to get from one side of the pool to the other in the shortest time possible, for long-distance swimming, this is a very bad idea.

Imagine trying to run any distance while holding your breath. Regardless of your aerobic fitness level, you will not get very far. The same is true with swimming.

By relaxing, exhaling into the water and breathing regularly, you will feel that breathing as you swim becomes natural.

How Often Do Long Distance Swimmers Breathe?

There is some debate about how often long-distance swimmers breathe.

Some swimmers will breathe once per swim stroke cycle, which results in breathing on the same side every time, while others will breathe every third stroke, which means breathing on alternative sides.

Breathing more regularly is very useful to keep your blood oxygenated when swimming long-distance and this is often chosen by the pros. However, whatever breathing pattern you choose, ensure that you are able to breathe on both sides if you are open water swimming.

Therefore, practice inhaling with your head turned to the left or right.

In open water, lots of unforeseen events can happen. A very common irritant while swimming in open water is waves hitting your face.

If you are in a position where you can only breathe on your right side, yet all the waves are hitting you on your right-hand side, you will not be able to swim as you won’t be able to take a breath.

You need to be able to adjust your stoke to breathe on the side where there is no wind or waves hitting your face.

To learn more about how to swim for longer without getting tired, check out this article that covers these points in much greater depth, How To Swim For Longer Without Getting Tired? (Explained)

Strength Training to Improve Endurance For Long Distance Swims

Having a great swim technique can take you a long way in swimming. However, if you add some strength training to your fitness routine, you can get more power from your strokes.

Over a longer distance, this increase in strength, power and endurance will greatly help you swim long distances.

There are many ways to increase strength outside of the pool. My personal favourite is using resistance bands as stretch cords with paddles as I can specifically target my swimming muscles.

To learn more about stretch cords and how to increase your swim strength on dry land, I have covered this in more detail in this article; “Stretch Cord Exercises For Swimmers – Improve On Dry land”

Flexibility is very important to swimming, and as well as directly working on your muscles, you can focus on your flexibility through alternative exercises such as Pilates or Yoga.

  • Pilates: Pilates is a great way to improve your strength and flexibility. It can also help you maintain good posture while swimming.
  • Yoga: Yoga is another great way to improve your strength, flexibility, and balance. It can also help you stay focused while swimming through breathing meditation.

What Should I Eat Before Swimming Long-Distance?

Growing up, I always feared eating before swimming, as I was told it was the wrong thing to do. This has now been proven to be untrue. [source]

If you are going to take on a long swim, particularly a marathon swim, you need to be properly fed and hydrated.

For long-distance swimming, you will burn through vast amounts of energy and will be swimming with a calorie deficit.

What you choose to eat, however, will depend on your personal preferences. Personally, I do not like solids before a swim as they just sit in my stomach, whereas others are okay with solid food.

Long-distance swimming does not happen overnight, so you will have time to adjust and find what fuel type works for you.

Although most experienced swimmers can handle a 1km swim on an empty stomach or without thinking too much about food, once you start swimming longer distances, you will feel an energy drain and it is essential to have the right nutrition.

If you are doing long pool session training, it can be a smart idea to have some light snacks on hand. However, keeping your snacks on the pool deck will not be allowed at public swimming pools. You may have to step into the changing room for a break.

Here are some healthy snack ideas for when you feel the energy drain as you swim:

  • Bananas: Easy to chew, filled with potassium and carbohydrates, as well as being waterproof with a biodegradable skin, bananas are a go to food for swimmers.
  • Power Bars, Granola Bars: Easy to eat, a few bits of a granola bar is a good source of energy.
  • Electrolyte Replacement Drinks: These drinks can help you retain fluid as you exercise. While swimming a long-distance, you will sweat a lot, and taking electrolyte drinks has been reported to help keep you better hydrated.
  • Chocolate: Although not the best nutritionally, if your goal is to pack in energy quickly, it could be an option. There is still much debate about chocolate and if it can really help your workout, [source], but since it tastes good and is easy to pack, it might be a good one to consider.

How to Stay Motivated When Training to Swim Long Distance

One of the biggest challenges you’ll face when training for long-distance swimming is maintaining your motivation.

It can be difficult to stay motivated when you’re swimming lap after lap and don’t see any significant progress.

Here are a few tips to help you stay motivated:

1. Set Realistic Goals

When starting out, it’s important to set realistic goals for yourself.

Don’t try to swim 1kms in your first session—start small and gradually increase the distance as your fitness and swim technique improve. This will help keep you motivated and make training more enjoyable.

2. Find A Swimming Partner

Swimming with a partner is a great way to stay motivated and push yourself harder.

Not only will you have a training partner to help motivate you, but you’ll also pick up valuable swimming tips from other swimmers

3. Vary Your Workouts

Varying your workouts can make them more interesting and fun.

For example, swim sprints one day and complete laps slowly another day. This way, you’ll work different muscles and challenge yourself in a variety of ways.

You could invest in some training aids, such as a pull-buoy or swim paddles, which can add some variety to your workout.

What Should I Wear When Swimming Long-Distance?

When you swim long distances, the most important thing to wear is a comfortable swimsuit that fits properly.

It is all about comfort when it comes to long-distance swimming. A slight over squeezing of your swimsuit, or goggles, may not be noticeable at a distance of 1km, but once you hit 5km, any piece of clothing that is not sitting comfortably can get painful.

1. Swimwear

Your swimwear should be comfortable and well tested. Do not buy a new swimsuit before a long swim, stick to what you know works.

2. Goggles

Your goggles should be well fitted and comfortable, with the straps sitting comfortably and flat. Ensure that the goggles you are using are suitable for your swim environment. For example, if swimming outdoors on a sunny day, you should consider having polarised goggles to reduce glare from the water.

3. Swim Cap

Your swim cap should be comfortable and sit comfortably with your ears and goggles.

4. Sunscreen

Being exposed to the sun for long periods of time during a long-distance swim can be very dangerous. Ensure you use waterproof sunscreen to protect your skin if swimming outdoors.

Final Thoughts

Swimming long distances can be a fun and rewarding experience, but it’s important to remember that you should take this slowly and only swim within your comfort zone.

When starting out, it’s important to set realistic goals for yourself. Don’t try to swim 1km in your first session—start small and gradually increase the distance as you get better at it. This will help keep you motivated and make training more enjoyable.

The secret to swimming long distances successfully and without injury is to work on your swimming technique. Great swimming technique will help you swim long distances effortlessly and leave you with an amazing sense of accomplishment.

Happy swimming!

Louise Byrne

Hi, I am Louise and I am obsessed with swimming. I spend my free time in the water or getting ready for my next water adventure.

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