Continued from Part 1.

How Much Is Enough To Be Comfortable?

When someone asks me a version of this question, I need to know a few things to help guide them toward an answer that is more suitable to their personal situation:

  • How do you want to finish this event: barely surviving it, comfortable, or competitive?
  • What is your swimming history? How many years have you been training consistently, with intensity?
  • How long have you been working on improving technique specifically?
  • What kind of races or big events have you done recently, in the last year?
  • What is your training volume of the last 6 months (volume in a single practice, and number of practices per week)?
  • How much more time per week may you be able to give to this training in the months to come?

In other words, I need to know what your starting point is, and what your budget for training is, in order to sense if you could do it with the time in your budget, and then form an idea of how many months (or years) of training you may need to get ready to swim that event safely and comfortably.


More Distance Requires More Time

It’s about progression. Over months, you take your body and mind in what they are capable of right now and progressively prepare them to handle working for the duration and under the stressful conditions your event requires. 

In general the longer the event, the greater your training volume needs to be. And, the less you have in your ‘swim fitness bank account’, the less history you have as a swimmer, the longer your build up to that event needs to be.

Not only do you need to invest more time into training to move from surviving to comfortable, and from comfortable to competitive, when you move from the reasonable distance events to extraordinary distances, your training volume needs to be extraordinary because the stresses you need to expose your body to are extraordinary. When you aim for an event of extraordinary or extreme distance, plan on having less time for other things in life besides swimming and recovery. 


What Is ‘Extraordinary’?

Rather than define ‘extraordinary’ as something that is merely relative to what you have ever experienced yourself, let’s define it in terms of…

  • the amount of stress this distance event would impose upon the body, and
  • the amount of training time that would be required to adapt the body to this kind of stress.

One has only so many discretionary hours to spend in a week. I imagine that the average citizen athlete may only have 1 to 2 hours a day to give to training and 3 to 5 days per week. Extraordinary is not only about the event itself. It’s also about the amount and type training that must go in getting there in shape that you can finish it comfortably. You only have so much time and energy each week, and the more extraordinary the event, the more you must give to training and the less you will give to other things that fit into an ordinary life.

Then, my next questions for the swimmer are:

  • What kind and what amount of training stress can you impose upon your body in that budget of time each week?
  • Does that get even close to the kind of stress your body needs to handle in the event itself?

The view across the Gibraltar Strait. Ready to swim 20K? It doesn’t look that far, does it?

Photo used with licensed permission from


The 2-Hour Mark

When it comes to long distance swimming there is a very fuzzy line between distances that require a reasonable amount of training time and conditioning each week to do comfortably and distances that require an extraordinary amount of time and conditioning. I will attempt to draw a line for us to work with.

Acknowledging the fuzziness, let me propose that events which last more than 2 hours are ‘extraordinary’. And with even more fuzziness, let’s say that events that last more than 8 hours are ‘extreme’ because of additional physiological considerations from working that long in open water conditions.

Events that have you moving for more than 2 hours are in a different category than events that last less than 2 hours. There are metabolic shifts that take place around that 2 hour mark that require your body to either already be conditioned to avoid it or to shift smoothly without causing you to feel a crash in energy and muscle strength, and thereby experience a crash in technical form which then puts you at greater risk of injury.

In the context of distance swimming, the fastest competitive swimmers can cover 10 kilometers in 2 hours. But the average (adult-onset) citizen athlete is looking at covering only about 4 or 5 km in 2 hours – half that distance. But 2 hours of continuous work, even at a moderate pace, is still 2 hours of work your body has to be capable of doing, even if you don’t travel as far as an elite swimmer.

It is reasonable that you could train 3 or 4 times a week, for 60 to 90 minutes per session, and follow a smart progression for several to get ready for a 2-hour swim event. You could occasionally do a 2-hour test swim within your budget of time, and not have to pay for it with days of recovery. So, we may argue that it is reasonable to think that you could train for a 5K event on 4 to 6 hours of training per week. 

But if you want to swim longer that 2 hours, you have to start looking at your values, your priorities in how you spend time each week, and consider carving out more for your training… at least for a season of time.


Read the entire series of Surviving, Comfortable or Competitive Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.


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