Swimrun might sound pretty straightforward. After all, as a triathlete you’ve got swimming and running nailed. Plus, there’s no need to get on a bike or deal with all the associated kit. So easy…. Right?
Well yes, in a way. But there are also many things that make swimrun a unique sport all on its own and very different to triathlon. Basically, a swimrun race will see you moving through nature (most are held in stunning, yet often challenging, surroundings) using swimming and running as your methods of transportation.
Unlike in triathlon though, you do multiple transitions of swim and run, so you’ll be alternating between the two throughout the race – jumping in and out of the sea, or lakes, depending on the race you choose. Not only that, but in swimrun you race in teams of two – completing the whole race together – so you have the dynamic between yourself and a partner to consider as well.
Run sections in Swimrun are often over tricky terrain. Image: Jakob Eldholm/ÖtillÖ
So where did it all begin? Like Ironman before it, ÖtillÖ, the first ever Swimrun race, didn’t begin life as a commercial race. It was the brainchild of four Swedish guys who, back in 2002, wondered what it would take to traverse the 75km Stockholm archipelago (a string of 26 islands) from Sandhamn to Utö under their own steam. The result? They made it, but it took 24 hours!
The next year they raced again though and the swimrun idea started to gain momentum. Then in 2006, adventure racers Michael Lemmel and Mats Skott were asked to turn it into the first professional swimrun race. The rest, as they say, is history and there are now over 200 swimrun races worldwide including those run by ÖtillÖ and other event companies. Such is the demand for places, that the original ÖtillÖ race (now the world championship final, held every September) now has qualifying events. This year the series launched in the UK, too, at the Isles of Scilly.
Training for a swimrun means taking into account several things you may not have considered before. First up, you need to choose a race and find yourself a partner. Experiencing the race with a friend is central to the whole swimrun ethos – it’s all about supporting each other and sharing an (often life-changing) experience, so picking the right person is important. You need to be able to help each other out when the going gets tough, but also be able to support each other’s skills in swim and run.
Racing tethered helps athletes support each other. Image: Nadja Odenhage/ÖtillÖ Swimrun Isles of Scilly
Swimrun races usually dictate that you must be within 10-metres of your partner at all times and in many you can race tethered (by bungee cord and belts) which may sound odd to start with, until you consider the benefits. Tethering means that you can take it in turns to tow/draft through the swim, or a weaker swimmer in each team can be supported. The 10-metre rule also means you have someone there to help you over tough terrain or rocks, or to keep an eye out for you if you start to falter.
When picking your partner though it’s worth thinking about complementing ability levels… Small differences are ok as you can help each other overcome weaknesses, but as a slow-but-steady plodder you wouldn’t want to be teamed with someone who’s posting PBs and hoping to win – or vice versa!
Choosing a race
Next, consider which race to enter. Many swimrun races are pretty epic in distance, but alternating swimming and running actually helps as you’re able to rest your arms or legs and bizarrely, the water does freshen you up (and wake you up!) inbetween run sections.
Shorter races are becoming more prevelant too though, if you want to start small. ÖtillÖ have launched a Sprint series that sits alongside the main races and which – especially in the case of the ‘Final 15’ at the world champs – allows you to experience the course in a shorter way, without the pressure to meet cut-offs.
It’s worth thinking about travel too. On the one hand travelling into Europe to race gives you the chance to race in some of the best scenery on offer in countries including Sweden, Germany and Switzerland, but with UK races cropping up in places such as Scotland (Loch Gu Loch), the Lake District and Jersey (Breca Swimrun), Wales (Love SwimRun) or Cornwall (Hokey Cokey) there’s also the opportunity to see some of Great Britain’s best terrain and open-water, too.
Once you’ve got a buddy and a race, it’s time for the holy grail of swimrun – practise. With over 40 transitions in some races, you can save valuable time by nailing your transition strategy.
Here’s where the kit choices you make come in to play, too. Because of the unique nature of swimrun you’ll be wearing a wetsuit throughout and many companies make specific swimrun wetsuits now, that have stretchy panels in the underarms and crotch for running, a front zip to allow breathability/movement across the chest and more buoyancy in the legs to save them for running.
Swimrun rules allow you to use tools as well – so consider what might help you without being too much of a pain to carry. Many swimrunners attach a pull buoy to one leg with elastic, that can then be spun round for swimming. You can also use hand paddles and insert foam or other buoyancy aids into your calf guards, again for buoyancy.
Swimming with hand paddles is allowed in many races. Image: NadjaOdenhage/ÖtillÖ Swimrun Isles of Scilly
Run shoes are the other key consideration. Most swimrunners will keep the shoes on for swimming which means they’re going to get soggy, so choose a pair that are breathable enough to drain water, yet grippy and rugged enough to be able to cope with the running terrain.
So there you have it – swimrun in a nutshell. Find a friend, choose a race, experiment with some kit and then prepare to experience a race like no other…
For more on swimrun kit check out our complete gear guide here. Also, read 220 Triathlon Editor Helen’s account of racing the first ÖtillÖ Swimrun Isles of Scilly as a Swimrun newbie here.