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by Alex Kostich

October 1, 2002

The mental and physical components of going longer

Be it Hawaii, the Caribbean, or the less glamorous Hudson River or West Coast, many ocean swimmers and triathletes hesitate to venture into open water races more challenging than the usual 1-to-2 mile distances. Granted, it’s hard to find official races that are longer; the prestige events tend to be in the 2-3 mile range, and the most common summer circuit races are usually only a mile. But there are many benefits to competing in open water endurance events, most notably the feelings of accomplishment after a successful race--a race that not many of your peers could have done on their best day.

With fall and winter upon us, there is no better time to prepare for a lengthy open water challenge, given that you have several months of training time to put in the requisite amount of preparatory yardage. This article will outline the basic training and mental preparation you need to do in order to successfully complete a swim over three miles.

For starters, the right mental approach is critical. So many swimmers I know are intimidated by open water swims for the most unfounded reasons, ranging from a lack of confidence in their endurance ability, their fear of open water conditions, and their inability to forget about sharks, poisonous jellyfish, and other forces of nature and Acts of God.

So let’s break this down one by one:


If you are a Masters swimmer who can complete a 3000-yard workout, you can easily finish a 3-mile (4500 yd.) race with no additional training. Swimming in the ocean is easier than swimming in a pool because of the salt-water buoyancy factor; so if you can complete a 3000 yd. workout you can assume that your endurance level in the ocean is substantially more than that. Factor in the adrenaline surge of competition, and your body is capable of rising to the occasion even if your mind initially is not. And if you are really worried about your endurance ability, increase your weekly yardage intake so you feel better about yourself!


If your experience in the ocean is limited and you hesitate entering races for this reason, expose yourself to open water conditions in the summer months by swimming with friends who train with you in the pool; take a group trip to an open body of water and work out there. You will enjoy the change of scenery and realize, in a group, how much fun it is without being intimidating.


While I can’t promise a lack of random Acts of God, I can assure you that there has never been a documented shark attack during an open water race in the world. Over the years, I personally have seen many sharks but have never been approached, much less followed or eaten! Getting stung by a jellyfish can be unpleasant, but it is extremely rare and usually barely noticeable in the excitement of a race. Besides, in the event of a Box jellyfish- or Portuguese-Man-of-War influx, the race directors will usually cancel, or postpone, the event anyway.

Now that you have cast your fears aside and realized your open water capabilities, there are a few training suggestions you can follow throughout the year to better prepare you.


--Attempt to increase your yardage and the actual length of your workout “sets.” If your Masters program or team favors short, aggressive, fast sets such as 50’s and 100’s, begin to incorporate 200’s, 500’s, and ladder sets into your workout.

A good ladder set is swimming 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 yards with 10 seconds rest in between each distance (this ladder set adds up to about a mile). Once you are comfortable with this challenge, double the set’s distance by going back down the ladder, 500,400,300,200,100, with only 5 seconds rest on the way down (between each distance).

--When you are doing a warm-up or pulling set, opt to go longer distances than your usual 500 yard warm-up or 800 yard pull. Challenge yourself by completing a 1500 pull set, for instance. By continuously keeping your heart rate at a constant level without rest or recovery, you will develop endurance and condition your body to maintain faster speeds for longer distances.

--Push yourself to swim the length of your goal-distance race, or longer, in one nonstop “workout.” When I train for the Victor’s Annual Swim Around Key West (a 13-mile distance), I make sure to complete a 15,000 meter straight swim at least once in the pool before I consider myself “ready.” This is just as important to do for your mental confidence as it is for your physical “dress rehearsal.” Remember also that if you can do the race length without stopping in the pool, it will be easier in the ocean when you factor in buoyancy and adrenaline.

Accomplishing a (really) long-distance swim is a great way to boost your confidence. Pushing your body to do something it has never done before leaves you feeling great, and the physical health benefits of developing your endurance level will be apparent. With winter upon us and motivation lacking, it’s a great time to set a goal for next spring or summer and stay motivated during the holiday season.

Alex Kostich graduated from Stanford University, where he was a collegiate champion. He is a three-time Pan-American Games gold medalist, and continues to compete in open-water races around the world each year.

This article originally appeared on, and is reprinted with permission from the author.


  • Technique and Training