U bent hier

What kind of water? How long is a meter?

Used with kind permission by Ned Denison of Sandycove/Cork open water swim Camp

As the days get longer in the Northern Hemisphere and the sun actually gives off a bit of warmth I have the annual pleasure of meeting lots of winter pool swimmers. They all seem to have questions which fit into two basic categories:

Is there much difference between swimming laps in an indoor heated pool and swimming distance in the open water?

"I am thinking about swimming (pick anyone of these: the local 1 mile race (1.6 k) across the bay swim, Dublin Harbour, the Santa Barbara Channel, English Channel, etc.) so can you tell me how many meters (or yards) I need to swim for the previous year to be guaranteed of success?"

I never really know where to start. So maybe each question in turn:

Is there much difference between swimming laps in an indoor heated pool and swimming distance in the open water?

My mind first flashes to the previously 100% dedicated indoor pool swimmers who now spend their summers in the sea. Pete M. summed it up a few years ago by saying that he wasn’t a religious man but being in the ocean was a “spiritual experience”.

Then the dark side takes over and I see the ones who came down for their first swim and:

  • Never got out of the car
  • Dipped a toe in and ran
  • Jumped in, were unable to breathe and ran

The brave lady who learned how to swim six months previous, got up to 8,000 pool meters (5 miles) a week and came out after 15 minutes in a lumpy old sea and said: “I might as well have taken 6 months of tennis lessons for all the good the pool sessions did me out there!”

All but the last of these never reappeared!

The answer is that YES there is so much difference between lap swimming and open water swimming that they can hardly be considered part of the same sport! Water is not the same when you compare a warm and protected indoor pool to the variable conditions in the ocean or river or lake.

Dedicated open water swimmers love turning up and having a different swimming experience EVERY time. It is not just as simple as water and air temperatures, suns, winds, waves and “other”. The temperature of the water will vary up to 2C (4F) over a 25 meter stretch outdoors. Swim into a “warmer” patch and you experience a little bit of heaven each time – but you always know that there is another cold patch just ahead! Cold air temperature will chill your arms and shorten your stroke. A strong sun breaking through cloud in July with warm air will give you a physical and emotional lift that end all work thoughts for the day. Even in the darkest days of winter in December when the actual heat off the sun is negligible – you think of it as your long lost friend coming along for a swim.

You feel like superman/woman swimming with wind and wave behind you until you need to turn back and can “taste” the full resistance – sometimes pushing you backwards. And finally, the “other”! We all deep inside have a fear of the unknown associated with the open water. Maybe you didn’t like the look of the swaying plant life at the bottom, the jelly fish deep down or the seal that just scooted by which gave you a fright. What is better? Seeing it all? or swimming in a churned up sea or fresh water off a peat bog with NO visibility? Then there are the things that go squish, zap and bang. Did you really just swim into a pile of weed? Ouch – was that a jelly fish sting or a sea lice bite? Damn – my hand just hit something – do I dare look? No problem, it is just a stick, sea bird, buoy, moored sailboat, island, floating bottle,seal, another swimmer, etc.

It is not just that the conditions are different every time you arrive for an open water swim. You are also guaranteed that they will change every minute that you are getting ready, swimming and getting dressed! A very different situation compared to the time you went to the pool last year and the florescent light was flickering and drove you crazy!

So YES the open water experience is much different from the pool experience.

If you have a great frame of mind and get through first two open water sessions – you will probably come to prefer the open water! Give it a chance…

I am thinking about swimming (pick anyone of these: the local 1 mile race (1.6k) across the bay swim, Dublin Harbour, the Santa Barbara Channel, English Channel, etc.) so can you tell me how many meters (or yards) I need to swim for the previous year?

The answer is: “You need to do enough meters to be physically and mentally confident.” I know that doesn’t really help you… They are no formulas. There is no such thing as a standard meter – all meters are different. I am not trying to be cute with either answer, this is just reality.

So let’s take the big channel swims – call them 34,000 meters (21 miles). Those would be “as the crow flies” meters. You may have already figure this one out – crows are much to smart to do open water swims! Let’s imagine that you swam 6 days a week in an indoor 50 meter pool and did 12,000 meters (13,000 yards) every session – stopping every hour for your carbohydrate drink. This would be a serious amount of training – more than double the training meters of the average English Channel swimmer. One small problem – your channel swim started at 3 am in the dark. You were never before in the sea at night, you panicked and ended your attempt after 13 minutes. So maybe the first 1,000 meters (1,100 yards) of night swim training is worth 100,000 meters (62 miles) of pool training? And so you get the basic idea!

So, step back and ask what kind of swim you are “likely” to get in say the English Channel. If you average less than 2,500 meters/hour (1.5 miles/hour) at your pool cruising speed then you will “most likely” be in the English Channel for well over 15 hours. Why so vague? Remember the variable conditions in all open water? Toss in the confused weather patterns where the Arctic meets the Atlantic, the continental land mass meets Great Britain and the narrow channel squeezing a fast tide to give even faster water speeds!

So, it is more a balance of the type of meters, some measure of distance all done in a way to ensure you don’t injure yourself yet do enough to give you confidence for the upcoming swim..

So what type of training meters should you do? How about all of the following: ocean night, waves coming from all directions, into the wind with the current behind you, next to a big safety boat, a few long (6+ hour) ocean swims, alone, getting several different kinds of frights (all while practicing safe swimming), with 30 to 60 minute feeds, 2+ hours without a feed, in water colder than 16C, sprints, with leg cramps, with a bout of vomiting, peeing, with arms so heavy you can barely lift them, going backwards with the tide and finally in for another few hours beyond what you wanted or planned.

You would want to read the last section again…maybe twice. Get the last shudder out of your system, take a deep breath and remind yourself that your own personal swim distance goal (be it 1 mile or 30 miles) can well be one of the more important things in your life for the next year and a bit. The pain and inconvenience of some training will make it all the more enjoyable when you achieve your goal.

Two friends swim around Sandycove Island in Cork Ireland (1,700 meters) in about 30 minutes in reasonable conditions. One day it took them 75 minutes to complete the lap in “lumpy” seas. What do you think those specific 1,700 meters “were worth”? I would say at least three times that many in the pool.

Why are pool sprints highly recommended as English Channel training? Try this situation – the boat captain says to you after 15 hours in the water: “The tide is turning. If you pick up your pace by 20% you will get to France in 15 minutes – if not you will miss the Cap and be in the water another 4 hours plus .” You will want to actually have that higher speed gear – honed through pool training. That would involve training of say 20 sets of 100 meters coming in on 1 minute XX seconds and resting for YY seconds between sets. Why the variables? Everyone swims at a different speed and with a different style.

To try and make a long open water swim after only pool training would be like climbing 30 strange and unknown steps in one go. The correct training will get you better acquainted with 25 of these steps BEFORE your big day. The more you have experienced the more prepared you will be. You can only visualise something you know a bit about. Visualising a bit ocean marathon is not possible unless you have swum long distances in a “similar” ocean before. Swimming 3 hours in the tropics will not allow you to visualise swimming 3 hours in 12C water.

Swim though a leg cramp on a planned training swim and if you have a similar experience in your big swim – you will remember how to deal with it – and have the confidence to do so. Remember – you can’s stop in the shallow end and massage your leg!

Guaranteed of success?

Sorry – wrong sport if you want a guarantee of success. Most very successful marathon swimmers will have a failure or two. The succeed you need at least the 4 aces: physically conditioning, mental preparation, good pilot/crew and good conditions. Some would say you need the 5th ace > luck as well.


If you have a goal now great. You need to declare it (at least to yourself) and set out a plan to give you a good chance of success. If you don’t know how to start…send me an email: ned.denison@corkopenwater.com

I don’t get paid for advice…so can hopefully get you headed in the right direction and possibly get you connected to others connected to your goal. Together we can arrange for advice on your training, emotional support (read as “a kick in the backside when you suggest missing an ocean swim because it is raining”) and help on the actual day.

Get those first two "emotionally and physically" challenging open water swims of 2017 - done and dusted! The third swim of the year is when you start to think it is all possible and all worth it!