7 Ways to Prepare for a Marathon Open Water Swim

by SwimSwam 2

December 18th, 2015 Lifestyle, News, Open Water

Courtesy of Julia Galan / SwimSpire

John Humenik (courtesy of Julia Galan)

John Humenik (courtesy of Julia Galan)

Marathon swimmer John Humenik has been conquering the open water for the past ten years, participating in events ranging from the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim to the Three Rivers Marathon Swim, to the Ocean Games. Growing up as an age group pool swimmer, John had a long-term fear of swimming in the open water. After he moved to New York City in 2006, frequent trips to Brighton Beach brought him into contact with the Coney Island Brighton Beach Open Water Swimmers (CIBBOWS) during their daily swims. Impressed with their ease in the open water, John decided to face his fears, joined the group, and has never looked back. Since then, John has balanced his career as a commercial airline pilot with as many marathon and open water swims as he can fit in his busy schedule. He also gives back to the open water community by acting as a “swim angel” for Swim Free, a non-profit dedicated to increasing the level of safety for participants and organizers of events in and around the water.

We sat down with John recently to glean some expert insight and advice in marathon swimming. If you’re training for your first long open water swim, this is a must-read!

1) Increase yardage gradually and tailor the amount to the specific event you are training for

Training for a marathon swim – defined as any open water event that is at least 10 kilometers in length – takes a great deal of physical and mental preparation. The time it takes to complete the event is roughly equivalent to a running marathon and, in some ways, can be trained for in a similar fashion. I recommend that your swimming yardage be gradually increased each week, with maximum yardage occurring about three weeks prior to your event.

How much the maximum daily and weekly yardage should be really depends on the individual. However, this yardage needs to correspond carefully with the event you are aiming for. If you’re swimming 9 miles, for example, you will not require many pool workouts longer than 10,000 yards. A weekly workout plan may include a long swim (for example, starting out with 5K and gradually increasing to 10-15K), speed workouts, cross training and/or strength training, and at least one rest/recovery day.

2) Be sure to incorporate plenty of technique work into your daily practices

I would caution against overtraining and doing long sets of continuous swimming back-to-back. It is very easy to get injured without also maintaining proper swimming technique – and seems to take forever to heal. Take my story as an example. My work schedule changes each week and it is often difficult for me to follow a strict training regimen. When I trained for the 28-mile swim around Manhattan, I was hell-bent on getting in my weekly yardage, even if it meant doing multiple 15K workouts in a row. This was a huge mistake. I developed tendonitis in my shoulder which sidelined me for a few months and almost prevented me from swimming the event.

Form and technique take on even greater roles as you increase your yardage and the amount of time you spend in the water. Incorporate adequate time for sets that allows you to focus on form and efficiency. I usually devote about 20-30 minutes on drills that develop and improve early vertical forearm and front quadrant swimming, bilateral breathing, smooth rotation and a balanced and symmetrical bodyline. Incorporating technique work into your routine to improve body alignment and eliminate drag will result in less fatigue and injury as your mileage increases.

3) Practice your race in the pool for a perfect fit

To mimic a typical race, plan a few workouts where you start out with a set – or several sets – on fast intervals. Try to keep up this intensity for about a third of your workout. The next third should still be strong, but as relaxed as possible, with a bit more rest. And finish off with another fast set, taking limited rest, to simulate a sprint finish. This will give you experience and confidence that you can bring with you on race day, knowing that you can start out fast and still have enough energy to push it at the end.

How you prepare for the race will have a large bearing on how you feel during the event itself. During your longer training sets in the pool, note how your body feels, such as your muscle exertion or your heart rate, for example. This will serve as the base line for your pace during the race.

4) Learn how to switch up your strokes during the swim

It’s natural to go harder at the start of your race, but try to get into the rhythm that your body will be able to maintain for a long period of time. If you are feeling tired, it often helps to switch strokes to stretch the muscles. You can also incorporate this technique into your feeding routine – for example, you can start up with breaststroke or backstroke after each feed.

5) Visualize your race

Visualization is also a wonderful preparation tool. At some point before the race – even if it’s the day of the event – try to walk or drive or bike the entire course so you know exactly what to expect. Picture yourself swimming past certain landmarks and even predict how you might be feeling at that point in time. During the race, be sure to frequently assess how you are feeling and make adjustments accordingly. There will be times when you’ll need to push through fatigue by focusing on what you did in training and your will to finish the race.

6) Work with your kayaker

open water (courtesy of Julia Galan)Marathon swimming is a team sport and working well with your kayaker is an important key to your success in the race. Swimmers new to marathon swimming often underestimate the services that a good paddler provides. First and foremost, they are there for your safety. But they are also your navigators and can save you a great deal of energy. I like to position myself just beyond paddle distance, slightly in front of their midline. And I maintain that distance the whole time. In other words, I follow them wherever they take me. If your paddler is new, it might be necessary to let them know you will rely on them to keep a good course. It’s a great idea to preview the course together the night before the event, if possible. The goal is to use your energy in the most efficient way possible. Constantly lifting your head to sight is unnecessary if you have good rapport with your kayaker. Just maintain good eye contact with your kayaker, relax, and entrust them to lead you. Note, of course, that there will be times when you will need to sight, primarily at the beginning and end of the race when you don’t have your paddler beside you.

open water (courtesy of Julia Galan)Not only will your kayaker keep you on course, but they will also be responsible for handing you feeds to keep you energized for the race. I try to make my feeding process as simple as possible. Most often the paddler is fighting wind and waves, especially when they are stopped. So don’t expect them to be able to mix things for you or do anything other than hand you a bottle. Pre-mix all of your feeds and keep them simple. If it is possible to practice feeding from a kayak before the event, by all means do so. If not, practice in a pool by drinking while treading water or floating on your back. The feed is a bit of a rest break, but don’t get carried away. I try to make them as fast as possible (5-10 seconds) otherwise I start to get cold and cramp up. And let’s face it, the longer you are stopped the harder it will be to get going again!

The race start is often very hectic with paddlers and swimmers trying to unite. If you are swimming with your head up to find your kayaker, you are wasting valuable energy. Try to have them identify you by swim suit, body markings (I like to use colored zinc oxide on my face and arms), stroke style, etc. You will have to sight for the first buoy. Once you make the turn at the buoy, maintain the best course you can, and hopefully your kayaker will recognize you and pull alongside.
One last thing about kayakers – they usually volunteer their services, and have to deal with schlepping their boat around all day. It’s a good idea to show your gratitude in whatever way you can (i.e. small gift, taking them out to eat, gift card, money, etc.).

7) Experiment with your feeds

A few thought on feeds… The average athlete will be able to process 200-400 calories per hour of extended exercise. I’ve found that I require a little more and that my stomach can process about 500 calories per hour before it starts getting upset. The only way to find out your intake requirements is to experiment. Your body will process the liquid or food you consume in a pool quite differently than in a choppy, salty ocean. Also, environmental factors will affect your nutritional needs. Generally, you will require more calories per hour in colder water and more water or electrolytes in warmer conditions. Also practice feeding at different time intervals. Most swimmers feed every 30 minutes, but some feed more often. I prefer every 20 minutes, since I start to feel my energy drop if I wait longer. Experiment to see what’s right for you.


Training for long distance open water races can be daunting. But with the right preparation, you will not only be able to finish, but you’ll also be able to enjoy the sights along the way. Hope these tips help you, and please do not hesitate to consult the many additional resources to help you along, for example: http://marathonswimmers.org/forum/discussions
This is just one of the many websites that provide great information from a wonderful community of accomplished swimmers. Happy training – and hope to see you at the Ocean Games in July 2016!


Julia Galan headshot, PhotoJulia Galan headshot, PhotoJulia Galan is a lifelong competitive swimmer and a USA Swimming and U.S. Masters Swimming coach. Julia’s passion for the sport, for coaching and for writing led to the creation of Swimspire, a coaching and swimming inspiration source geared towards athletes of all levels and goals.




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3 years ago

Thank You! Very nice!

1 year ago

Great article. I’m also an open water swimmer working in the airlines. It’s quite the challenge, and sometimes you have to do a 2 hour tether-swim in a hotel pool at 3am.