Prepare Mentally For A Big Swim


WITH THE Hellespont swim fast approaching, I wanted to share my training tips leading up to the big day. I really want to focus on the mental preparation that I undertake for big swims and will use for the Hellespont. I think building mental strength is one of the key elements of success for any arduous swim and an oft ignored aspect of open water swimming. The main reason is that when training for a specific race you can to an extent control your training schedule, your technique, aerobic fitness, anaerobic fitness etc but there are a myriad of factors outside of your control. It’s a common human desire to control and manage everything, a natural tendency for order and a dislike of the unexpected. However for the Hellespont there will be a large number of elements completely outside of your control so we need to make sure you’re mentally prepared for them. These could include deep water fear, the water temperature, unpredictable currents and adverse weather conditions. You might have the perfect elbow bend or bilateral breathing but that doesn’t matter one bit if you can’t mentally cope with the unpredictable. Here are my top 3 tips for mental preparation for the Hellespont.



I would say hands down that this aspect has been the crucial aspect in every single swim I’ve done, from Alcatraz to the maelstroms of the Arctic, visualisation has played a crucial part in completing every single swim. I would advise that this very second you start to visualise yourself completing the Hellespont swim, as you’re reading this article imagine yourself approaching the Asiatic shore of Turkey’s eastern coastline, imagine the smell of the salty sea air, picture the arcing crests of the waves as you near the beach, the taste of the sea, the ache in your arms and the call of the finish. Imagine yourself crashing through those waves, focus on that deep feeling within you, the reasons why you got to that start-line and the emotion you will feel on finishing. As you swim the final strokes and stand to your feet, imagine that feeling of pulling your goggles off and feeling the earth between your toes, you’ve just swum from Europe to Asia, you’ve just crossed the Dardanelles, turn around and look at where you came from and walk up that beach. 

This level of fantasising might seem indulgent but it’s absolutely crucial to cultivating an unstoppable sense of self-belief. For the Hellespont I have been visualising every single aspect of the swim, how I will feel the days before, what it will feel like to be stood on that start line, how I will feel diving into the waves and taking my first breath. Before I get to that start-line I will have visualised myself at every point of the race, I will have swum the Hellespont 100 times in my head and by the time I’m at the start beside you I will be relishing swimming it in the flesh, I will be ready because in my mind I have done it over and over again. Use this power of visualisation and imagination to build an unbreakable sense of self-confidence, it will help you when the unpredictable comes calling, when the wind picks up, when the currents run and the cold cuts in, you will have dealt with these challenges in your head countless times and will be ready to embrace them.

...picture the arcing crests of the waves as you near the beach, the taste of the sea, the ache in your arms and the call of the finish. Imagine yourself crashing through those waves, focus on that deep feeling within you, the reasons why you got to that start-line and the emotion you will feel on finishing.
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Now this has to be the favourite part of my mental preparation for any swim and a crucial part of your Hellespont prep. The Dark Place is the moment on any swim when you’re at your absolute lowest, when you’re exhausted and your arms feel like lead, when you question why you bothered signing up and why you ever thought you could swim across the Dardanelles. You must know that you will go to the Dark Place, it’s inevitable and you must prepare for it’s arrival. I know that on every challenging swim there will be a moment when I reach the Dark Place, that I will even remember preparing for it and hate and doubt myself nonetheless. 

The key to overcoming the Dark Place is to meet it’s arrival with joy and a smile, by this I mean that you relish it’s arrival because you are ready to tackle it head on. Reaching the Dark Place means that you have truly pushed yourself and are out of your comfort zone, that you’re in new territory and testing your very limits. Quite simply you’ve earned the Dark Place, it’s not something you’ll reach sitting on the couch with your hand in a bag of Doritos, it’s not something you’ll reach doing the same thing day in day out or the same swim in the same pool, but it is something you might reach swimming across the Hellespont. Like any battle you must choose your weapon and the weapon of choice for the Dark Place should be a special memory dear to yourself that you will save for that moment, it might be the memory of your first swim, it might be a specific good luck message from a loved one or a moment you cherish. Save this thought and stow it away for it will be your weapon against the Dark Place.

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The Descartes is absolutely crucial in achieving success on any big swim and will also greatly magnify your experience, enriching and providing depth to your emotions and enhancing the joy you will feel at completing the Hellespont - quite simply “The Descartes” is the reason why you are here. You need to find your Descartes, the reason why you decided to sign up to the Hellespont, the reason you travelled to Turkey to embark on one of the most epic swims on the planet and the reason you’re not sunning yourself on a beach rather than getting ready for a long distance swim.

For every single one of us the reason will be different, each one of us will have their own reason why we are there, I’ve met swimmers who’ve swum for many reasons and I’ve completed swims to mourn the passing of loved ones, I’ve completed swims to say goodbye to my family home and area I grew up in. I’ve completed swims to cope with depression, anxiety and stress and you will have your own reasons for completing previous swims. It’s absolutely crucial that you find the core reason you want to swim the Hellespont, forget ego, forget personal success, forget achievement, why are you really doing it?

On the morning of the swim you will feel an overwhelming sense of camaraderie as you look into the eyes of every swimmer, knowing that each of them has their own unique and personal journey that has brought them to that very point on the same day to cross the straits.

For me I want to swim the Hellespont to experience one of the oldest swims on the planet and to be immersed in the ancient culture and history of the Dardanelles, a channel laced with the love of Leander, the heroics of Byron, the tragedy of Gallipoli. I want to experience and be part of that history and I want to experience that alongside both my brothers, whom I know and trust more than anyone. All three of us visited Turkey together in 2008, we bathed in the white cascades of Pamukkale and swam around the Princes Islands in the Bosphorous. Returning to the Hellespont a decade later will be an incredible journey. Make sure you find your Descartes and that will give you an incredible amount of energy and self belief in those moments when you’re at your lowest.

Finally, the key to mental preparation is to understand that the reason you are doing the swim is to experience the unknown, that you signed up to the Hellespont because you don’t know what it’s like to swim from Europe to Asia, you don’t know what it’s like to cross the Dardanelles. If you want to control and manage every aspect then you might as well stay in the chlorine confines of the local indoor pool and the banality of it’s straight-lined lanes. Use the three tips above and rather than being afraid of the unpredictable elements, you will enjoy them!

See you at the start-line…