This is the story of my Windermere solo swim on Sept 10th 2015. Many of my swimmers have asked me to give them as much information as possible, so it’s a fairly long read but I hope you enjoy it and get something out of it.
Windermere has alway held a fascinating attraction for me, as has the beauty of the lake district. Having family live there meant we spent a bit of time there when I was younger and it is one of the most scenic areas in the UK.
Swimming wise, I fell in love with Windermere from my very first open water swimming event at the Great North swim. The waters are clean, clear, cool and the naturalness of it makes it a very special place to swim, I knew after my first swim there that I wanted to swim its length.
I was meant to do this swim last year but sadly my mother passed away a few weeks before so I figured staring at the bottom of a lake for 10.5 miles may not be the best idea. This year it was on the cards again and instead of booking up via the event company I was meant to go with last year I opted for a solo with Chillswim. The reasoning behind this was down to the cost (in my mind) not being massively different considering the extra service and experience I would get, and secondly the event company swim course did not swim the entire length of Windermere, cutting the swim short at Low wray, I will touch on this topic again later to help any others trying to make a decision on how to proceed with their swims.
Now, my training for this was very bespoke. I have written training plans for numerous distances this year and give the athlete a recommended session type, distance and weekly distance to build them up for a given event. I however coach, that means a lot of water time but not a lot of time left for personal training time, so adaptions of my training was key. So far this year I have over 500 individual open water coaching hours to my name, add to that time at the pool, analysis sessions and club sessions and it left minimal time for my own training. I still followed a training plan, but it did look very different to ones I had written for others and had to factor in my job, family and available time.
I started building my base fitness in the pool over the winter, honing technique and building speed using a mix of
Technique focused sets and CSS training, spending a long period building up and improving my pacing skills for the longer distance swims. I slowly built up distance in the pool, getting up to 35km a week towards the end of my pool schedule. Once the main open water swim season started, which in the UK was the start of April, my swimming switched (by default for my job) to Open water. Since then my base fitness continued to be built mainly from my open water coaching work. Swimming with all different levels of athlete from those slower, the same and faster than me continued to build great base fitness, but as mentioned limited my own regular training swims. As with all things we need to work around our jobs and family commitments so I made sure I planned in one quality long swim around every 4-5 weeks, building up the distances gradually as the season progressed. I also grabbed shorter open water
sessions whenever I could, which was sometimes a spear of the moment swim before, after or between coaching sessions. My longest training swim in my preparation was the Henley Bridge to Bridge event. This gave me a chance
to do most of the swim distance (albeit broken) and also practice my feeding, pacing and test my fitness. It was also a thoroughly enjoyable event in itself (see my event review of B2B here).
The best tool I used for training this year has to be the Finis Tempo trainer. We recommend these in our coached sessions in both pool and lake and I must say the pacing work I performed through the season paid dividends in both Henley and Windermere swims. In the pool it was used for both SPM training and CSS based sets whilst the switch to open water meant it became a hugely useful tool for getting into a good SPM zone, I highly recommend their use.
In my prep for Windermere I had swum both wetsuit and non wetsuit all year, both coaching and training. This year water temperatures around the country were struggling to get above 20 degrees after quite a poor summer, so most of my coaching on longer days was done in a wetsuit. This made the decision of whether to swim suited or skins quite a tricky one and I was unsure about this all the way up to the point where I was standing on the jetty getting ready to go. A big part of me wanted to do it skins (non wetsuit) but the other part of me wanted to enjoy the swim and not worry about getting too cold during the hours and hours of swimming. The final decision came when I saw the thermometer drop to 16.1 degrees at the start, and having already been told there was a cold patch in the middle I decided to go suited (this was literally a last second decision). Despite all those coaching hours I was really not sure if I was acclimatised enough for around 6 hours of skins swimming in water as low as 15 degrees (in places).
The indecision about wearing a wetsuit contributed to my nerves before the event, as soon as I made the choice I was a happy little swimmer and started to feel at ease with the task at hand straight away, I was only doing one length after all. My advice to anybody considering this swim is to decide before hand what you are doing, which is what I always tell people I coach, I just needed to take my own advice. Colin Hill said I was a first in his experience to have not made the choice come the morning of the swim and not making that choice the night before (or sooner) as it is my only regret, as it would have made the lead up a little less tense.
Personally I am not a believer or participant in the skins vs. wetsuit debate/war, so this really did not bother me. A swim is a swim and I know in my heart I could do it skins as I am too determined to finish whatever I set out to do and had trained in both wetsuit and non wetsuit. But I also know I would not have enjoyed it nearly as much! Go with what YOU are happy with, especially for a distance swim, remember it is your swim and nobody elses. I am sure we all do this for the love and the challenge, not to please others or gain their approval.
I must note a thanks to Dawn Brunning and Bryan Avery for their advice in this area as well.
All started well with the swim and I instantly felt at home, at ease and was going at a good pace in the water. Sometimes when you swim you feel like you are flying, this was purely one of those moments. The water was reasonably flat to start with and made progress smooth and efficient. I had trained at a stroke rate of around 64SPM and was maintaining between 62-64SPM for most of the swim.
My first feed stop was at around 50 minutes, a quick stop for an energy drink. The swim still felt good at this point and I did not want to hear how far I had come in case the actual distance did not match the feeling of the swim, so did not ask. What if I had only done 2.5km and was off schedule? at such an early stage this could have been mentally damaging. The next feed came and went, a water and energy gel, plus a few haribo. This time I got a distance report and we were at 5.75km, ahead of schedule already by half mile or so, great news and I felt fine.
I had a feed stop just before the halfway marker of the car ferry, this was a bad stop and took longer than the others. About a minute before the feed I had a “moment”, I don’t even know what caused it but mentally it was a moment and things felt a little wrong. The stop was longer than the others as I had some haribo and water and I was puffing at this stage a little, maybe a little panic as it suddenly felt wrong. I had also been thinking of the distances in a different way up until that point, then hearing your nearly at half way made me think “is that all, Im not even half way yet!”. On setting off again my arms just would not move at my previous pace and I still did not feel like i had done only minutes before, in just a few minutes I had gone from strong and effortless to having stalled mentally and physically. Instead of overly worrying about this I decided to ride it out until the next feed, effectively I had a little rest in the middle section of my swim. Tactically it worked and was a fantastic call on my part (even if I do say so myself). I often tell swimmers that sometimes you have to adapt your swim so it does not defeat you, this was one of those times where I definitely needed to take my own coaching advice on board as a swimmer, rather than a coach.
The tactics worked and after the next feed I felt more at ease and felt like the pace picked up again, I started to feel strong, efficient and smooth again. The water was still relatively calm and the only chop was from the more open sections and from passing craft, which did on occasion take me by surprise but a quick change of stroke style helped get through those brief moments. Don’t get me wrong, there was certainly no battle with the chop so I was very lucky with the weather all the way through (thanks mum). In fact the worst part of the weather was trying to see at sunrise, I had to swim quite close to the support boat in order to shield myself from the sun glare and not be blinded. I could have switched to bilateral or breathing to the left at this point but it just did not feel right at the time and was interrupting the rhythm I had built up. I never thought I would be cursing the sun coming out in the lake district! On the plus side it did make the water look amazingly beautiful both on top and below.
Moving up the lake and feed after feed felt good, my mind was back on track and I was mentally on top of the swim. Each section was basically a feed section, swimming from one feed to another and seeing movement on board the boat near a feed time made me feel like a little puppy, knowing that food was being prepped and on its way. I don’t think I have ever felt like that in any situation.
Around 4km from the finish I was starting to feel it in my left arm and shoulder as they started to fatigue, it felt like the left arm was operating at only about half capacity sometimes but mentally all was good and the words of Mr Paul Newsome (and Dory the fish) went through my head – “Just Keep Swimming” a glance at the JKS I had written on my hand (and the Mum below it) was the occasional little boost that I needed.
My last feed stop was just opposite the low wood bay hotel where we were staying and low wray on the other side. It was lovely to see that part of the lake as I knew exactly how far I had to go after walking the section between low wood and Ambleside the evening before. You could see the boats moored in the distance and I set off with the words “lets do this” and I think I was smiling again. I upped my stroke and did my best with what now felt like my floppy left arm, but I was on the home straight and felt like the job was done. Then, one of the personal highlights of the swim, suddenly hearing a huge rumbling sound under the water and a little before we entered Ambleside two very low flying jets roared overhead directly above me. I just had the chance to look up and sight the first in the distance and the second flying overhead at that moment, it was truly magical. A short while later I saw Colin waving to somebody ahead and looked up to see my family keenly waiting for me on the side which was equally as magical. The whistle blew and my time stopped, the official time of my swim was 5hrs 28mins, my stats showed a relatively stable pace and an average moving pace of 1:48min/100m which I am more than happy with over that distance, pace over the whole swim time was 1:52min/100m which takes into account feeds etc. My target was 6 hours so I can safely say…………..I smashed it.
Swimming over 10km (not including bridge to bridge due to frequent stops) is a totally different game. It becomes less about the physical aspects and more of a mental focus and toughness exercise. Throughout the swim I tried to remain positive and apart from my wobble around half way coped quite well. I found myself using tricks that i often use in training and tell others to do on their swim to keep me focused and concentrating. Counting strokes was a favourite, sometime I did not even realise I was doing this until I suddenly realised number 200 was in my head. Another great tactic I used was to make a point of checking out my form at odd times during the swim, thinking about the stroke and how it felt and if anything was going wrong, then correcting any observations. This was a little harder at the end of the swim but a very worthwhile mental exercise.
Solo or event
I thought I would add this in for anybody looking to do this swim as there are different ways to facilitate it. This is only my observations and feelings and not a detriment to any of the companies that run Windermere event swims or the athletes that have taken part in those events.
Your choices, there is an events company that hold a Windermere one way swim every year, the BLDSA also hold a one way swim (non wetsuit only) and there are a couple of companies that provide solo guides for the swim. I opted for Chillswim on grounds of cost, reputation, individual service and the fact you get to swim the WHOLE lake.
The events company does NOT swim you into Ambleside, but stops short at low wray, this may not seem much of an issue but it is actually a good 25-35min swim away from Ambleside. When I took my last feed I believe this was approximately where the exit point for low wray would have been (as far as I can tell), and this would have made my time around 4hrs 55mins, a far cry from my actual finishing time when swimming into Ambleside. For reference I believe the BLDSA event swims the whole of Windermere from Fell Foot into Ambleside. This event is non wetsuit only and bi-annual with some entry restrictions.
I added this section as I thought it would be important for future swimmers to clarify the finishing point of their swim. To me it made the difference between choosing an event or a solo and spending a few extra pounds.
I cannot fault Colin Hill and Chillswim for their support services and would highly recommend them to any future swimmers attempting this swim. From the moment I first contacted them they were upfront with regards process, dates and costs and coped with my indecision about wetsuit or non wetsuit all the way to the end. Colin is himself an accomplished swimmer and cold water / winter swimmer so I had every confidence in his expertise. My observer was Steve Ashworth, who was also fantastic. Steve is an accomplished sports photographer and took some amazing images on my iPhone, and also with his own camera and video kit which I cannot wait to see. It’s strange but no matter how tired you feel if somebody shoves a camera in the water you do your very best to up your form. When I swim Windermere again I will be sure to be booking Colin and Steve at Chillswim.
Recovery is hard, but it’s also very individual. As I sit typing this I am on my third day of recovery and am still feeling a little stiff and very lethargic, this type of swim does take a lot out of you both mentally and physically. After the swim I felt fine apart from the scars of the swim itself and tried to keep myself moving around. The stiffness set in that evening and my body gradually stiffened up for the next few days. Annoyingly for me the hotel masseuse was off sick during our stay so there was no post event massage, which made things a little harder.
I also suffered from pain when eating or drinking, especially hot food. This was almost like a heartburn sensation and on day 3 had just about gone, The symptoms of this also made me feel slightly nauseous for a day or too. This heartburn feeling actually presented itself during the swim on occasional feeds as well.
Straight after the swim I noticed (or rather my wife noticed) that my hands were grey and very swollen, to the extent that we had to take my wedding ring off, which was a task of soaping and pulling for a few minutes. I am not sure what caused this but they soon came down after food and drink.
Mentally, I was fine right after the swim but that night was quite disturbed and I thought I would have a good night’s sleep after all that exertion, but sadly that was not the case.
I would highly advise lots of rest after an event like this, we had plans for the Friday that involved a lot of walking. In the end this did not happen as I had no energy to power the body anywhere. My legs did not ache as such but there was literally nothing in the tank.
Update: It is now day 6 of recovery and although I have more energy i still feel a little lethargic. I am back in the water coaching but my arms are still tired and my stroke is still a little off (and I am quite slow). I have decided not to race a short event this weekend and I will see how the body feels for our Swimming club championships next weekend. Like I say, it can take a lot out of you that you may not notice until you try to do “normal” things.
So there we have it, the ins and outs of this great swim experience. It is certainly one for the bucket list if you like freshwater swimming but not one to undertake lightly. Prepare well for the event and you will enjoy every minute of it (or most minutes of it). I am more than happy with my time and pacing over the distance, have some great memories, photos and videos and in my mind “I smashed it” and more importantly enjoyed the moment.
If anybody is attempting or thinking of attempting this swim and has more questions about my experience or to get training advice please feel free to contact me.
Other Items related to my Swim
South West Swim – www.southwestswim.co.uk, Tel 07751793234, Email: Swim@Southwestswim.co.uk, for swim coaching and swim retail products from Finis, Chillswim / Swim Secure, HUUB and Speedo
Chillswim – www.chillswim.co.uk, Tel 01784 86841, Email: Info@chillswim.co.uk, for guided tours and Chillswim products
Movie IT – www.movieit.co.uk (Steven Ashworth, Photographer)
Lake District Images – www.lakedistrictimages.com (Steven Ashworth, Photographer)
Low Wood Bay Hotel – www.englishlakes.co.uk/hotels/lake-district-hotels/windermere-hotels/low-wood-bay/
Additional Doc, my example feed schedule
Please note this is what worked for me, everybody is individual regards feeding and it is VERY important to get this right for you as an individual. This will mean working out feed times, foodstuffs and energy products that agree with you etc.
The key to feeding in a long swim is not to run out of fuel, which is why many feed sooner than they would on a shorter swim. For example, not many swimmers will feed in a 5km event but you may notice by 5km (approx) I was on my second feed. This was to ensure my energy stores were topped up, rather than getting depleted. Also note that we deviated from this plan slightly on the fly, depending on how I was feeling but always had the core energy products as prescribed. As I was ahead of schedule in distance we stuck to timings.
Ensure to fuel before getting into the water as well, I had an oat bar (high carb and protein) as well as a 500ml caffeine based SIS sports drink.
|Time (accumulative guide KM)||Feed Type||Other instructions|
|50-55 mins (3km)||Sports drink||Bottle 1|
|+35mins (7km)||Sports drink
Loosen lid of cup please
|+35mins (11km)||Sports Drink
Bar and choc cup
Loosen lid of cup please
Loosen lid of cup please
|+35mins (15km)||Sports Drink
Bar and choc cup
Loosen lid of cup please
|+35mins (if req)||Water
|+35mins (if req)||Sports Drink||Bottle 1|
|+35mins (if req)||Sports Drink||Bottle 1|
Please always put a haribo cup and Gel in with each feed in case this is wanted during swim.
There are spare oat bars and haribo in the box if needed.