Extreme triathlons: How to train for a tough and cold swim leg

Top age-grouper Janine Doggett explains how to prepare for tough, cold and choppy swims


While a European lake-based Ironman event might serve-up warm water and zero swell, events with a tough terrain that push triathletes to the max across all three disciplines are becoming increasingly popular. When it comes to the swim section, this can mean colder, longer, choppier. This might be enough to put some athletes off ­– but hear us out! It’s worth it for the views once you get to the mountain run

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Often held in beautiful places from Snowdonia to Scandinavia, extreme triathlons are worth the pay-off for their legendary feel, but training for the tough swim section can be seriously off-putting. However, with the right preparation you can not only do it, you might even enjoy it. Here are our top training tips for getting extreme-swim ready.

1. Book some swim-only warm-up events (like the Swoosh)

Popular extreme events like The Brutal, Helvellyn and the Norseman all feature colder water – around 15°C – so long swim training in the right conditions is a must, and booking events is a great way to create milestones during preparation. The Outdoor Swimming Society’s Bantham Swoosh, for example, is a great build-up event for mid- or late-season A-races. Not only is it at the right time of year for pushing the longer miles, it’s got the right conditions too. In 2019, water was 15°C, and with over 700 swimmers there was plenty of opportunity to get to grips with swimming in busy water – and while it’s a shallow river, it can include a bit of a swell. (We also love the Swoosh for a training swim, because it’s got a laid-back atmosphere to help abate nerves.)

2. Start your cold-water training early

Don’t rely on your thermal vest or Wim Hof breathing to get you through a 15°C swim. Acclimatisation takes time – months not weeks – so it’s good to book your event as far in advance as possible, ideally with a winter swim season between you and the race. While winter training might sound extreme, it’s the best way to ensure that your swim will feel positively toasty, giving you maximum energy for the remainder of the event. To acclimatise through winter, find a training buddy and dip weekly. Take your time getting in, decrease your time as temperature drops (one to two minutes might be enough) and warm up properly afterwards.

Master the winter waters in 10 (moderately easy) steps


3. More strength, less fatigue

Picture a lake and you might imagine pan-flat water and the sound of a gong. But the bigger the lake, the more like the sea it can feel – especially with hundreds of swimmers thrashing about in it. Choppy water takes more effort, so you need strength. Use hand paddles to gently build up resistance in pool sessions – if you haven’t used them before start small, and gradually increase the size for more resistance. Twin with a pull buoy for arms-only sets. Add time in the gym to your weekly plan – whether that’s press-ups at home or trips to the climbing wall. The stronger you are, the more you’ll ward off fatigue come the bike section.

How to use swimming paddles

How to swim in choppy water

4. Train outside your comfort zone, early

It can be tempting to stick to pool swims for training, but getting into open water – as regularly as possible – is a vital part of a holistic training plan, because swimming in open water week-in week-out is the single best way to overcome open-water anxiety. Throughout the winter, the cold is a challenge, but as we’ve discussed above, dipping throughout the season will stand you in good stead.

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Come the spring (and double digit temps) you can move from dipping to swimming laps. Then, once summer arrives, you and your local quarry/sea-pool/lake will be bezzies. Since many triathletes only take to the water from April, being ahead of the game come spring will be a great confidence boost for the start of the racing season, too.