How to prepare for an endurance swim (and it's not just about long distance training)

Lisa Lloyd has been swimming for most of her life, from competitive swimming meets and triathlons to swimming Alcatraz on honeymoon with her husband (yes, true story!). She has completed some of the world’s most challenging endurance swims, and now in her third trimester of pregnancy she is still going strong and swimming to keep healthy and active. I met with her over coffee to hear more about her solo English Channel crossing in 2015 and what advice she has for others preparing for a similar endurance swim.

You need a good reason to motivate you. Lisa explained how she had sadly lost a good friend to breast cancer, and decided to do a solo English Channel crossing to fundraise in her memory for cancer research. Thinking of her friend’s seven year battle was what kept her going during the arduous training programme and dark hours of the crossing itself; it seemed to pale in comparison to what her friend had endured.

Have a training partner. Lisa said that she had to skip hen parties, weddings, and Sunday afternoons in beer gardens – training for the channel crossing required a 4 hour round trip to Dover each weekend, and a 6-7 hour swim. She was lucky to find another swimmer who was also training for the crossing at the same time, so they could share the drive and be accountable to each other to show up. The training team in Dover also helped to keep Lisa motivated, “You would arrive and be told you were doing a 6 hour swim that day.”

Train in a way that works for you. Unlike a marathon for which you can find a training programme online, there are many different ways to go about preparing for an endurance swim. She said that everyone had an opinion on it, but she took all the advice and decided what worked for her.

Prepare for the conditions. Lisa swam 21 miles across Lake Windermere leading up to her channel crossing, and the lake was a similar temperature to the channel but with less choppy water. It helped prepare for the distance and the fresh water provided more of a challenge with less buoyancy. Most importantly, she said, it proved to herself that she could do it. She also did “pool crawls” with friends – swimming a mile in 3-4 pools in one day, which helped to get used to swimming while tired.

Look for positives. I asked Lisa how she felt swimming in one of the busiest shipping channels in the world, in a vast body of water which is only 17 degrees Celcius. “If it’s cold, is it sunny? If it’s still night time, how long until sunrise?” She said her back was purple from the cold and she had to train herself to keep her mind off the deep water beneath her. And when there was still an estimated 6 hours left of the crossing, she put it in perspective of the length of one of her training swims. She said she knows of others who do sums in their head to keep boredom at bay… whatever gets you through!

Never give up on your dreams. “You might not get there as you planned but you will get there,” said Lisa about her solo crossing and her other endurance swims. She recalls looking up to see Cap Gris Nez, with the end so close in sight, only then to be swept out with a changing tide. She had to swim parallel to shore to recover ground before being swept out a second time, all while suffering a back injury and resorting to back stroke at times to keep moving (see picture to the right). The memory of her friend had kept her going, she said, as she never thought she would have been capable to swim over 17 hours straight.

Thanks to Lisa for sharing this inspirational story. If you are interested in the English Channel swim, you can refer to the Channel Swimming Association or Channel Swimming & Pilot Federation.