beginners guide to swimrun

Swimrun is pretty new, originating in 2002 as a drunken bet (as so many good things do) between friends in Stockholm to race each other across the Stockholm archipelago. The resulting race became the iconic Ötillo race, and swimrun was born in 2006. 

Swimrun lacks the standardised entryways offered by more established sports; too wild for the sterile joyless toil of tri or duathlon, whilst the addition of an entirely new discipline in a ‘competitive’ setting can be daunting for trail runners or outdoor swimmers.  However, with a simple and measured approach, anyone can be a Swimrunner.

SO WHAT IS SWIMRUN?

At its core, Swimrun is all about running and swimming your way towards an end goal. It is gloriously minimalist – you run in your wetsuit and swim in your shoes. 

Races are typically completed in teams of two (although not exclusively). As a rule of thumb, 80% of a swimrun course will be running and 20% will be swimming although this varies by race. Full-length swimruns are over ultra-scale distances’ typically comprise of anywhere between 40-50km of running and around 9km of swimming broken down into numerous running and swimming sections. The swimrun world championship is a stonking 75km long!

If that sounds like a lot, there are ‘Sprint’ distances typically half of a full course and a growing number of 10km-ish distances. There are no standardised lengths in swimrun – its the course and environment that creates the distance.

A typical swimrun course

EMOTIONALLY INVEST IN SWIMRUN’S ‘Primary Loop’

The below isn’t overly technical or performance focussed. You’ll notice there’s not even a mention of finding a partner – whilst a partner often a prerequisite for racing and useful for training, it shouldn’t be a limiting factor to getting stuck in.  There’s plenty of time to worry about getting competitive.

The ‘Primary Loop’ is the fundamental building block out of which your overall experience of SwimRun will be built, and can incorporate a spectrum of factors:  Physically, it means the act of transitioning from a run into swimming, swimming into running, running in neoprene, swimming in shoes. Geographically, it is uneven often sparsely waymarked trails and open water. 

It won’t always be fun. Doing these things wet, too cold or too hot, and fatigued is at times an inescapable part of the sport.  If you have a reason to compel you to do it you will enjoy the highs and endure the lows all the more.  For many the real appeal of Swimrun is that it is a gloriously liberating way of moving through an environment, free of distraction and faff.  Experiencing the ground underfoot and the water in your hands without fuss.

WHAT KIT DO YOU NEED?

Like any new sport, kit is an exciting and daunting part of getting started. The joy of swimrun is you can tailor your kit to how you want to start! Nowhere near trails or open water? Run on a treadmill or outside and swim in a pool – most people have swimming trunks, trainers, and goggles.  If you want to start racing, or up’ing the volume outdoors, you’ll need to invest in some SwimRun-specific kit:

Essentials

  • Swimrun wetsuit
    • A glorious piece of kit, and investing in one early will pay dividends.  Unlike more typical wetsuits, they are designed to be flexible enough to run in, incorporating features such as front-zips for temperature regulation, and thinner material around high-wear areas such as the crotch and underarms. They also offer zipped pockets for carrying additional necessities such as water flasks.
    • When starting out favour buoyancy and ruggedness over speed – performance comes at the price of comfort.
    • BUT you don’t have to invest in a swimrun suit. You can cut an old wetsuit at the knees or hire a swimrun suit for a month or so. We have seen some weird and wonderful creations over the years, the swimrun community will welcome you with open arms regardless of what you look like.
  • Swimrun Shoes
    • Most SwimRun races have you running over trails, so decent grip is advised. Look for a pair that can drain water well. 
    • When starting, use an old pair you don’t care about getting wrecked, take a drill and put a couple of holes in the soles. It really is that easy!. 
    • Shoes are probably the least well served when it comes to sport-specific options, although more and more swimrun specific shoes are entering the market. You can see our top 10 here.

Additional kit

  • Safety Equipment
    • Not very glamorous, but pretty essential.  Mandatory kit for most races include whistles and tow floats for solo competitors. Also handy for training in open water, especially if alone.
  • Accessories
    • You’ll need a neoprene hat, coloured swimming hat, googles and earplugs for a complete compliment of kit.  There are other things that can be used to increase efficiency such as pull buoys, hand paddles, and neoprene shin guards, but less is more when starting out.

WHAT ABOUT TRAINING FOR SWIMRUN?

The real joy of swimrun training is it can be as flexible, focussed, or intense as you want it to be, and there’s a surprising amount of variety to be found in just two disciplines.  Only have half an hour? Do a swim or a run, or a short session of each.  Got longer? Stretch ‘em out.  A good rule of thumb is you need to be able to swim a couple of km in one go to be ready to enter a race – you won’t do that distance in one go, but all the shorter distances add up. We have free training plans here.

Build up until you are used to swimming and running in the same session, and try and get onto trails and into open water (lake, river, sea) as often as possible for these sessions. Don’t worry about distance, times, or transitions, just get the body accepting the volume and type of movement. This is not only important for entering races, but it is also what makes you a swimrunner, and is great fun!

Final tip, swim swim swim. Most of us can run, prioritising your swimming training for swimrun really is the way to go. 80:20 is a good rule of thumb (80% swimming vs 20% running). See our swimrun training plan for beginners here.

SWIMRUN MEMES

The memes are a real unforeseen joy of Swimrun, and a great introduction to the Swimrun scene.  Unlike some of its more established disciplines, enjoyment is really at the heart of the sport, and its esoteric nature is reflected in the personality of its culture.  It is really refreshing to be a part of a community that puts as much emphasis on enjoying itself as performance. The LowTideBoys are the best place for these currently.

ENTER A RACE

Chose a race and chose it early. Go for something that gets your blood pumping. A good recommendation is start modestly with distance like a Sprint but do it somewhere exciting or convenient.  Try and tailor it to your weaknesses – there’s no point signing up to do one with a lot of swimming if you aren’t a confident swimmer.  Not only is a goal useful for maintaining training focus, but you can then use your experience of this race to inform your training and race aspirations going forward.

UK Race Listings

Europe Race Listings

US Race Listings

New Zealand & Australia Race Listings

International Race Listings

This article was written by Wim Stevenson. Wim is an adventurer racer and swimrunner based in Northumberland.