LAKE ULLSWATER is a 7.3 mile/11.8 km long lake in Cumbria and second largest in England behind Windermere at 11.2 miles/18.08 km. It was the first considerable long distance open water swim I ever completed.
I grew up in Langwathby, a small village near to the Lake, and so it had always been somewhere that I had visited when I wanted to swim, kayak, have BBQs or walk on the surrounding fells. I always wondered if I could swim it. My brothers and I grew up swimming in the Scotland highlands,Devon and in the waters and rivers of the Lake District, so I felt comfortable in the water, but I had never attemptedanything even close to that distance.
Training to swim Lake Ullswater
The furthest I had ever swum prior to Ullswater had been 1 mile, and that had been in an indoor pool. To complete the task, I would have to swim over seven times further than I had ever managed before. It felt like a big task.
The swim was part of an Art Project that I was part of with Northumberland based Arts Organisation VARC (Visual Arts in Rural Communities). The swim would serve as a way to cross a landscape, then with this new perspective I would create a series of 60 paintings and prints to describe the experience. This gave the swim added pressure, because if I was unable to finish the swim, then it would weaken the validity of my project.
Dividing Up the Distance
I decided to break the distance down into more manageable chunks first, so that it didn’t seem as far overall. I noticed that there are 3 natural sections (reaches) to the lake, so I mentally marked these as the three parts that I would have to completein order. I would focus completely on each one in turn and stay in the present. Once the first was completed, I would move onto the next one, complete it then finish the final stretch towards the finish at Pooley Bridge. To everyone else, it would simply seem like one long continuous swim.
I realized later that the lake had been carved by separate glaciers into three segments, so this division began to take on a deeper geological meaning as well.
The Physical Training
My training was fairly simple, in that I began with a small swim and gradually build it up from there.
My first swim was a disaster. I went into the lake in January and lasted less than a minute because I wasn’t acclimatized at all. It was freezing and dispiriting because after I was warm and dry it dawned on me that if I can’t even stay in for a single minute, how am I going to swim in the same conditions for over seven miles?
I decided to take baby steps. For the next proper straining swim (a few months later) I decided to establish zero expectations. The goal was simply to get in, swim, then get out again. That would be my starting point. It went well and I had an enjoyable meander around near the shoreline. Once again, after I had gotten warm and dry, I thought about the 7.3-mile distance that lay ahead. This time, I felt much more confident about the prospect.
I knew that it would be important to set milestones for my training, and to respond positively when I achieved them. I wrote down the following goals and completed them in order.
1. Swim half a mile in the lake
2. Swim one mile in the lake
3. Swim across the lake (conquer deep water fear)
4. Swim 3 miles in the lake
5. Swim from central point to Glenridding (start point – 3 miles)
6. Swim from central point to Pooley Bridge (end point – 4.3 miles)
7. Swim the entire distance from Glenridding to Pooley Bridge (7.3 miles)
These milestone swims were interspaced with other swims over a period of about 2.5 months. I generally swam three times a week, concentrating additionally on my technique, staying relaxed and building up a good amount of swimming volume – simply spending time in the water.
I also wanted to ensure that I had swum every section of the Lake before I attempted the full distance. This way I could ensure that I knew exactly what to expect from each phase of the swim.
It is true that you can always go further than you think, so I decided that once I had completed the final 4.3-mile training swim then it would be time to step it up and get the swim done.
I also stopped swimming in pools during this period. This was because I had access to the Lake.
Additional Training and Building Up Mental Toughness
I knew that the above milestones would help me to build a good cardiovascular base that would give me the necessary fitness and aerobic capacity to complete the swim, however there were many other factors at play that could negatively influence the outcome. These included deep water fear, the cold temperature and adverse weather conditions. It would be harder to swim if it was exceptionally windy for example.
I knew that I had to train for these uncontrollable factors, and I thought the best way would be to work on my mental toughness.
My go to activities here were weightlifting and hill sprints. These are both excellent for building mental strength because they are hard. I completed a three-month starting strength barbell program (from Mark Rippetoe) about one month prior to attempting to swim the lake.
This is a simple strength program that gets progressively heavier and utilises the major compound barbell lifts (squat, deadlift, bench and military press). This is a great way to build muscle and strength, but also to toughen up mentally. It takes guts to put a heavily loaded barbell on your back and squat when you are tired, but these actions transfer very well across to the psychological side of swimming.
Hill sprints are another great exercise for building mental toughness. Simply find a hill and run up it as fast as you can, return to the bottom then repeat for as many times as you need to, or for a specific amount of time.
Again, start slow, try doing a single sprint for your first session, or set a 3-minute timer and sprint up as many times as you can. Build this up. In each session, add an extra 30 seconds to the timer or run up the hill an extra time in comparison with your previous workout. This is simplistic and tiring, and the physical and mental rewards are well worth it.
It is not necessary to include these additional sports into your training, but for me personally I enjoy them and I have found them exceptionally useful for my swimming.
A Helpful Navy Seal Mental Strength Trick
There is an idea in the Navy Seals that when you feel completely exhausted, mentally broken and completely unable to continue, you are actually only 60% done. You still have 40% left so you need to suck it up and get on with it.
I always liked this idea because it changes your mindset and reframes your perspective about your own body. It is a great way to remind yourself that you are capable of much more than you think you are. It is also a great way to remind yourself to stop being soft and just get the job done.
Tips During the Swim Itself
As I went into the water when I began the swim I felt pretty nervous.
But I knew that I had my brothers, mum and friends around me in kayaks supporting me, and the worst that could happen would be that I would just have to stop.
I told myself that there was absolutely no way that I was allowed to stop. I would keep swimming until I got to the other end or because my support crew pulled me out. It was literally sink or swim. I took any decision to quit out of my own hands and committed myself 100% on the end goal.
I followed my plan to break the distance into three separate sections. Throughout the swim I always fixed my eyes on a specific point on the landscape and swam towards that. Once I got close I would pick a new marker in the landscape and swim towards that one instead. This helped to break the distance down even further.
I never looked backwards during the swim and never congratulated myself until it was done. Those were the few simple psychological rules that I applied that helped me get to the end.
To condense what I learned from this experience, I would say that if you want to complete a long distance wild swim then you need to build a decent aerobic capacity and the necessary mental strength in order to just keep going when things get hard.
You can do what I did or apply your own methods, but I believe that both are important in equal measure.
What’s Your Goal?
If you are reading this and you have your own personal swim that you would like to try, then I would advise you to go for it completely. We spend our entire lives building our limitations based on what our peers and society tells us are acceptable and normal, but once you start to really examine them, then you realise that they are generally complete nonsense.
Even if you can barely swim 25m in a pool right now, if you progressively and intelligently train in the right way, stay committed and accept that you will have to work hard, then there is no reason why you can’t swim a mile, or two or ten in the future.
Focus in on your goal, hack away at the unessential things that may be holding you back then give it a shot! Good luck, stay committed and have fun.
In our first book “Swim Wild”, written by youngest brother Jack with contributions from Calum and myself, we go into much more detail about these positive effects of outdoor swimming and how they can impact your life physically, emotionally and spiritually. Check it out if you would like to learn more.
Big brother Robbie (31) is the eldest of the trio. He was the proverbial canary in the cage, sent down to test the gloomy caverns of adulthood before the other two. An artist and writer, some of his swim-inspired VARC paintings were recently shown at a solo exhibiton at the Kendal Arts Centre. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of BOXROX Magazine, the world’s most widely read magazine for fans of functional fitness and Crossfit with 2.5 million monthly page-views from over 150 countries.