Do marathon swims require high-volume training?

A few weeks ago there was an interesting exchange on Steven Munatones’ Facebook page. In response to Steve’s report of a group of Irish marathon swimmers who did a monster set of 200 x 100m on 1:40, one well known swimmer/coach/guru commented:

How did I ever manage to complete the Manhattan Island Marathon twice, averaging less than 20,000 yards per week, and with most sets being 3000 yards or less? Ditto the 24-mile Tampa Bay Marathon.

Munatones responded:

You have written extensively how little you train for marathon by training neurologically vs. traditionally. Other swimmers also train relatively little while experiencing success in marathon swims. However, experiencing long tough workouts are a proven way to increase the PROBABILITY of finishing a race and overcoming the inevitable obstacles along the way. In my opinion, successful marathon swimming is about minimizing risks while occasionally doing long, tough workouts to maximize performance, especially if one is new to the sport. For yourself and others who have already completed a marathon swim or have decades of competitive swimming background, there is much less need to train long distances.


When successful people in the sport advocate less mileage and short training distances for channel/marathon swims, then newcomers in the sport are influenced by that minimalistic training approach. This, in my opinion, is not beneficial to newcomers. For most people, to train 3,000 – 5,000 meters per day without long training swims is not conducive to a successful and enjoyable channel/marathon swim experience. As Dave hints, if you want to be a channel/marathon swimmer, why train like a sprinter?

So, who’s right? Do you need to train long distances to prepare for marathon swims? I think the answer depends to some extent on what you’re trying to do: finish or race.

If you have near-perfect technique and many years of swimming experience (and the former usually requires the latter), I do think it’s possible to finish a marathon swim (under neutral conditions) on relatively low-volume training. With great form comes efficiency, and efficient swimmers require very little energy to swim at a conservative pace. Given proper feeding and hydration, theoretically the only physical constraint should be the swimmer’s need for sleep.

That said, a minimalist approach to training for a marathon swim is, under most circumstances and for a variety of reasons, probably not a great idea.

What if you encounter adverse conditions? Rough water and cold water both require more energy to swim through – and usually a higher stroke rate. If you’re accustomed to 3,000m/day in pools with a long easy stroke, you may find yourself unprepared.

And what if you want to race, not just finish? What if, as in MIMS, you need to reach certain landmarks by certain times in order to catch the tide cycles? Perhaps the most important reason for high-volume training is to be able to sustain some level of effort for a long time. Elite open-water swimmers on the FINA circuit train 80-100K per week not out of masochism but because they need to swim fast for hours at a time to be competitive.

When it comes to racing a marathon swim, there are no shortcuts. Raw talent and good technique may take you far, but they won’t allow you to sustain a 170 bpm heartrate for 2 hours (or a 150 HR for 8 hours). You simply have to put in the work.

I also find it quite telling that the people who advocate minimalist training may finish marathon swims, but they never do so particularly quickly, or place particularly highly.

Back to Reality

I’m back in Chicago after a salubrious fortnight in Southern California – a week with my in-laws in San Diego followed by a week with my folks in Goleta/Santa Barbara.

It was unseasonably rainy and, when sunny, unseasonably cool, but I didn’t mind. The stretch of south-facing coast between Point Conception and Ventura – with Santa Barbara at the center – is my favorite place in the world. Even the worst weather rarely precludes enjoyment of its blessed terrain.

Los Baños del Mar Pool in Santa Barbara, where I swam somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 miles as a teenager.

With holiday pool closures, schedule changes, and polluted ocean waters, finding a place to swim was an often frustrating quest. In San Diego I swam twice with UCSD Masters and once at the YMCA near my in-laws’ place. In Santa Barbara I got in twice with the S.B. Aquatics Club age-group team (coached by my longtime friend Mark) and once at Los Baños pool’s open lap swim, where I coincidentally ran into two former S.B. Swim Club teammates who were also in town for the holidays.

On New Years’ Eve, friend-of-the-blog Rob D. drove down the coast from Arroyo Grande. My wife and I gave him a brief tour of the sights before descending upon Butterfly Beach in Montecito for a swim. Rob took a thermometer reading of 54F, which is 4-5 degrees below my wetsuit threshold for any more than a brief dip. So I went with a sleeveless wetsuit. Rob, of course, was sporting his usual zebra-striped mankini.

Rob is pretty sneaky with that waterproof camera.

We had hoped to swim around the point west of the Biltmore and towards East Beach, but were stymied after only a few hundred yards by a thick wall of kelp. When we got back even with where we’d stashed our stuff on the beach, Rob noticed a seal checking us out from just a few yards away. He seemed a little too curious for comfort so we decided to swim it in.

From there we cruised back up the 101 to Goleta Beach which, as the southern terminus of Fairview Ave, is the closest patch of coast to my childhood home. By this time it was getting on towards 3pm and, with the sun lower in the sky the air temperature was back below 60. We opted out of a second plunge and instead just hung out near the water and talked for awhile.

All told, it was an excellent adventure that I hope we’ll repeat someday soon! For more pictures & words from the day, I’ll refer you to Rob’s account. While you’re there, be sure to read about his epic 10K Avila-to-Pismo polar bear marathon swim, which he undertook the very next day.

It’s been over 12 years since I’ve lived in Santa Barbara full-time, but more than any other place, it still feels like home. I always have mixed feelings about leaving, especially when it means returning to the Midwest in January. But I packed away an ample supply of warm California vibes, and until Lake Michigan thaws in late spring, they will sustain me.