What is swimrun – and why you should give it a try

Tired of the road? Bored of the pool? Swimrun could be the adventure sport you've been waiting for

A swimrun is exactly what it says: you swim and run. But unlike aquathlon, where you swim first, put on your shoes and then run, swimrun involves non-stop multiple swim and run sections. There are no transition areas to leave kit. Participants must carry everything they need with them and therefore swim in their running shoes and run in their wetsuits (which are usually compulsory). 

Jude Palmer, a swimrun and running coach, says swimrun is much like wild swimming in that it shares a sense of adventure, community and personal challenge. And, as with swimming events, you can take a swimrun seriously and race hard or you can complete it at a more comfortable pace and savour the experience of being active in nature and connected to beautiful landscapes. 

The running part in swimrun is often on trails. If it’s described as technical (which it often is in swimrun) it probably means it involves steep ascents and descents, leaping between boulders or wading through mud. This is good because you can slow down and enjoy your surroundings. It stops it being a race and turns it into an adventure. 

“Rather than thinking of runs as being, well, runs, think of them as a way of linking some awesome swims and encouraging you to visit spots which you may not usually get to,” says Palmer.


Above: Swimrunners negotiate steep trails at Swimrun Breca.

Naturally, such an activity started as a drunken bet. Swimrun originated in Sweden with Ötillö, which means “island to island”. In 2002 a group of friends challenged each other to race 75km across the islands of the Stockholm archipelago to get to a hotel in Sandhamn. The last one there would buy the drinks. In 2006 it became a formal event that has now expanded into the Ötillö Swimrun World Championship. One of the toughest adventure races in the world, teams of two swim between 26 islands and run over them, covering a swim distance of 10km and 65km of trail running. 

But you don’t have to travel to Sweden or be an ultra-runner to do a swimrun. The sport has spread across the world and there are now events as short as 5km, which has opened swimrun to a wide range of participants.

Why you should do it

The best events take place in some of the most stunning scenery you’ll find. If you want to swim across an archipelago in Norway, along a Swiss mountain valley or between the islands of the Outer Hebrides then there is a race for you. 

“Swimrun is fantastic for open water swimmers,” says Ben de Rivaz, founder of event organiser Breca Swimrun. “The swim routes are challenging and really exciting to navigate. Also, it is one of the only multi-phase sports that rewards strong swimmers due to the swim distances involved.

OTILLO 1000 Lakes - 2018 - 102939-300918-PierreMangez-HRpng

Above: Swimrunners exit the water at OTILLO 1000 Lakes, Germany - 2018. PierreMangez-HR.

I love swimming. But running...?

Start small. You don’t have to dive in to the full 65km of running. Shorter events are a perfect introduction to the sport. 

Chloe Rafferty of Love SwimRun Llanberis says: “I wanted to put on a smaller race that would be more achievable by a bigger demographic. Love SwimRun Llanberis is only 16km in total, with 3.5km of swimming and 12.5km of running.” 

Jude Palmer says to remember that you tackle a swimrun just like you’d eat an elephant: bit by bit. “An overall distance may be 10km but the longest run might be 2km, which is definitely manageable for most of us, especially with a bit of practice combined with your swimming fitness.”

How do I train for swimrun?

If you are an experienced open water swimmer then the challenge of swimrun will be the running, so focus on that. Build slowly but consistently. As with any sport, training for swimrun is about being specific. The repeated transitions between swimming and running are tiring so try to do some practice on this before your event.

Do it together

In its original format, swimrun is a team event done in pairs (men’s, women’s or mixed). Both partners need to complete the full course and stick together throughout, which works best if you’re evenly matched. That said, it is almost impossible to find a partner who matches your speed and endurance at all times. This means you need to support and encourage each other, and that’s all part of the swimrun experience. While there are events you can do solo, we recommend a paired race if you can. “The suffering and elation entailed are shared experiences,” says de Rivaz. “Teamwork plays an integral role in success. Above all, it is great fun!"

Image: Breca Swimrun