Must one be a Fast swimmer to be a Great swimmer?

An excerpts from an interview with Kevin Murphy, the real “King of the English Channel”:

I don’t regard myself as a great swimmer. What I’ve got is an overwhelming ability to keep going, physically and mentally; I’ve got this obsessive willpower to keep going. As a swimmer, there are lots of people who are much better than me; there are a lot of swimmers who are a lot fitter than me. But the point about what we do is… I like to say that 50% of it is willpower; 25% swimming ability; and 25% fitness. The only thing about it is, the fitter you are and the better swimmer you are, the less it hurts psychologically.

Kevin was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame in 1977 – and the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2009. Among other feats, he’s completed 34 crossings of the English Channel.

And he is not a fast swimmer. (His fastest E-F crossing was 13 hours, 31 minutes).

This cuts to the heart of marathon swimming and is perhaps the most significant difference from pool swimming (in which athletes are judged only on the basis of time/speed). Marathon swimming is mostly about persistence and stubbornness, or as Murphy says, “willpower.” It’s nice to be fast, of course; but it’s a relatively minor detail. A luxury.

Kevin Murphy is not a fast swimmer. Yet he is undoubtedly a great swimmer.

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.