How to train for a solo Rottnest Channel Swim

Updated: Mar 8

The start line for the Rottnest Channel Swim

Every February in Perth, thousands of swimmers take to the water and brave the 19.7km Rottnest Channel Swim. On the day, there are three options for getting across, you can swim it in a team of four, a duo, or brave it alone and swim the whole way yourself for bragging and cool number plate rights.

The training required for each of these differs entirely. In true Aussie laid-back fashion, many team and duo competitors prefer the ‘she’ll be right’ approach and will often commence training a few weeks before the race.

For solo competitors however, not having the right training under your belt can turn a great day out on the water into a gruelling nightmare. The race will feel like it just keeps going like Mary Poppins bag, especially if the conditions are rough.

As a winner of the solo, duo and team categories of the race, Jarrad Lawford knows a thing or two about training and preparing for a Rottnest Channel Swim. Below he shares his training tips on how to prepare for one of the greatest open water races in the world.

1. Start training early

For first time soloists, I highly recommend you start training 12 months in advance and try to swim at least three sessions per week with a minimum of 2km in each.

In the months leading up to the swim, try and swim as many days as you can and set goals to stretch the distance covered each week.

If you’re one of many swimmers who start training quite late for a solo, don't stress. There are plenty of swim sets that will help you gain speed and endurance in a short amount of time. Variating between threshold and distance sessions is the best way to peak your fitness quickly and I’ll go into more details of what these kinds of sessions entail below.

2. Join a squad

While swimming alone can be a great escape, it can also become boring. Keeping it interesting with company is the best way to retain the passion and enjoy training.

Joining a squad to train for a solo is also the best way to push yourself. It forces you to attempt cycles and take shorter rests. It doesn’t matter whether this is a beginner, intermediate, advanced, surf or masters swimming squad, it’s miles better than training alone.

Most soloists will have joined a squad already. If you’re yet to make the switch, not only will this benefit your training immensely, but you'll meet fellow soloists with potential tips or similar goals to yourself. They may even be able to set you up with a paddler, boat and skipper.

When you join a squad, you’ll also find you can cover a lot more distance in a shorter amount of time. Swimming on your own can make you become lazy and take breaks more often. Squads force you to be more proactive and double the distance you would usually cover on your own.

Before you join a squad, ask advanced swimmers or coaches for technique tips. It’s always best to perfect your quality of swimming before you focus on quantity. If your technique is poor, I can guarantee your arms and shoulders will hurt much more throughout your swim.

3. Start swimming at your threshold

What is threshold? The best way to discover this is by doing a maximum sprint 50m of freestyle as fast as possible and immediately take your heart rate. Your ‘threshold’ range is 20-30 beats below your maximum heart rate. For example, if your maximum heart rate is 180bpm, then your threshold range is between 150-160bpm.

The idea of a threshold set is to consistently maintain your heart rate at this range for a prolonged period of time. It’s also where your heart rate will be for a majority of a solo swim.

Threshold sets are the best way to build up your aerobic fitness, sprinting and endurance capabilities at the same time. They are usually done in multiple 100’s and ideally you want to swim at a hard, yet maintainable speed where your heart rate stays within that threshold range. These sets are great for people hoping to swim as fast as possible, or simply make the distance to Rottnest.

Elite swimmers tend to do these sets at least twice per week usually on a Tuesday and Thursday morning and ideally are done at around 85-90% of their maximum speed.

The idea is to hold 20-30 beats below your maximum heart rate while attempting to maintain the same speed and heart rate throughout the whole set. If your heart rate peaks, slow the pace slightly. If it drops too low, increase the pace.

Below is an example of a threshold set for elite and beginner swimmers. If you’re just starting out on a threshold set, then 10x100’s freestyle is a good starting point rather than 30x100’s. As you grow more accustomed to doing these sets, start adding more 100’s each week.

Threshold set example for elite swimmers:

3x {10 x 100 Freestyle threshold} on 1min40sec. 100 easy after each 10 x 100’s.

Threshold set for beginners:

10 x 100 Freestyle threshold on 2min cycle. 100 easy after each 5 x 100’s. You want to have at least 30sec rest after each 100m, so adjust the cycle if necessary.

4. Variate threshold sessions with distance

On the days where you’re not doing sprints or threshold, you want to focus purely on covering more kilometres.

The best way to build fitness and speed is by getting the best of both worlds in training. If you are swimming threshold or shorter distance sprints on a Tuesday and Thursday, then the Monday, Wednesday and Friday sessions need to focus on longer distances.

Yes, distance sets can be boring, but it’s important to train how you’ll race. One great way to approach distance sets is to try and neg-split each distance.

Neg-splitting involves swimming the second half of the distance faster than your first. If you were doing a block of 400’s, aim to swim the latter 200m of each faster than the first.

This is a very underrated way of building up endurance and fitness. Your latter half of any set will naturally drop off in speed anyway, so neg-splitting is a great way of building endurance and consistency with your pace.

Some examples of great distance sets are below;

5x400 freestyle neg-splitting at 75-80% maximum speed (take 40sec rest)

6x200 freestyle as 1x easy, 1x moderate, 1x fast (30sec rest after each)

3x500 freestyle neg-splitting as 1x easy, 1x moderate, 1x fast (40sec rest after each)

2x1000m freestyle breathing every three strokes, sprint every fourth 50m (1min rest after each). Swim second 1000m faster than the first.

*Tip: try and go 50/50 breathing on your left and right side during distance sets, it will reduce soreness and prevent one shoulder becoming stronger than the other over time. Investing in a pair of underwater headphones makes long distanced sets more enjoyable as well. If your shoulders start fatiguing, try and bend your elbows more with each underwater catch for a few minutes to put more load on your forearms and triceps while taking some strain off your shoulders.

5. Train often in the ocean

In regard to weather conditions, it’s all down to how friendly mother nature is feeling on the day of your solo swim. It’s why practicing in all conditions is vital.

You could get perfect conditions such as the 2018 swim where the swell was low and a howling easterly blew the swimmers across. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you could cop a large swell and horrendous south westerly wind that will make you feel like a sock in a washing machine.

Breathing and maintaining your technique in a pool is easy. Throw in undulating waves and that muscle memory and comfort goes out the door. Try and get out and swim as often as possible in the ocean to practice breathing on both sides and adapt to any conditions.

Waves, swell and wind will try to alter your technique. It’s important to stick to your guns and the technique you know, rather than changing it in accordance with the conditions. This means maintaining a breathing pattern you’re comfortable with and try not to lift your head too high out of the water to breathe as this places a huge amount of stress on your shoulders, neck and abdominals over prolonged periods of time.

When training in the ocean, do practice sight-breathing where you lift your head looking forwards rather than to the side. This is what you will be doing at the start and end of the race when your paddler is not by your side. Throughout the race, it's crucial your paddler is to your side and not in front of you as you breathe. Having your paddler in front of you means lifting your head to see where they are which wastes a huge amount of energy. It's the paddlers job to keep you swimming in a straight line while watching the boat, not yours.

6. Practice with your paddler

You and your paddler need to click like clockwork on the day. Your job as the soloist is purely swimming in a straight line as quickly as possible. It’s the paddlers job to ensure you’re motivated, supported, fed, updated and swimming on the right line. The last 2-3km is pain city and you'll be frustrated and exhausted. Having a positive and switched on paddler is paramount.

Not only do you guys need to practice together, you both need to prepare and adapt to any conditions. For a paddler, rough conditions can also be incredibly intimidating and throw them off both mentally and physically. This is the last thing a soloist needs when they are the only direct support alongside them throughout the swim.

When you’re both free, take the kayak down to the ocean and practice launching it from the beach and working alongside each other in the water.

Rehearsing your feeding process is also incredibly important. On the day it is mainly liquids you consume, so practice the best way to feed that is both quick and easy. It’s also important for the paddler to set a target such as a floating marker in front of them to practice travelling in a straight line with you swimming around 1.5-2m directly to their side.

As for feeding, I'm a strong advocate for consuming only liquids on the day. Having solid foods means treading water while you chew, not to mention it takes longer to digest. Your solids are consumed in the week leading up to the race in large carbohydrate meals. Why chew away on a banana and kick like crazy to stay upright when you can drink liquids with the same amount of energy in a few seconds and digest it faster?

For a majority of my solo race, I consumed Gatorade mixed with carbo-gel liquids (these can be purchased from Bike Force stores). I would recommend feeding at least every 15 minutes so you have plenty of energy reserves for the final 5km. Have water on every second drink so your stomach doesn't get upset and avoid ice cold drinks as these take longer to digest and can leave you with digestion cramps. Room-temperature drinks actually digest faster. Magnesium powder mixed with your drinks can also help with muscle cramps.

Some paddlers also tend to be in front of the swimmer on the day of the race. It’s best to breathe to one side looking at your paddler as this reduces the need for sight-breathing, places less pressure on your body and allows you to take deeper breaths. Looking forward and lifting your head to breathe actually hinders your lung capacity on each inhale.

*Tip: If your shoulders start to ache, practice switching breathing sides and having the kayak quickly swapping to the opposite side. Breathing to one side for too long places a lot of pressure on your lats, trapezius and deltoids muscles. Backstroke is also great for stretching out the shoulders and chest if you’re sore.

7. Recovery is just as important as training

Golden rule of training? Listen to your body. If you're exhausted, take a day off. Over-training is just as risky as under-training and taking advantage of your down time can better prepare you for training and racing.

As swimming is a full body and weightless exercise, it can be taxing after a while because it’s so unique in working so many muscles simultaneously. While it's extremely unlikely you'll ever pull a muscle in the pool, they can become sore from overuse.

Although it’s low impact, muscle tension can build up over time. The best ways to prevent this is try and get at least one massage per month (I upped this to one massage per week in the month leading up to the race). Also stay hydrated and if possible, try and jump in a hot bath or spa often and stretch out your muscles while doing so.

Mixing up your type of workout can help take your mind off the black line of the pool. Yoga and Pilates sessions are always great options. Gym sessions are good in small doses as they can leave you feeling sore. For heavy strength and conditioning sessions, I would aim to do those on Friday so you can recover over the weekend. In the month leading up to the solo, I would avoid gym sessions entirely and focus purely on increasing your swimming.

As swimming burns more calories than most exercises, you’ll be starving throughout the day as your metabolism will soar. For long distance swimming, carbs and protein are your friend. Plenty of vegetables, fruit, nuts, rice and pasta will help restore your energy. Try to avoid high sugars, junk food and excessive amounts of alcohol.

Keeping hydrated at work, during sessions and at home is also incredibly underrated for training. In my youth I barely drank enough water and I didn’t realise how much it can help for training and racing when drinking the right amounts. The best open water races of my career came from days where I was so hydrated I was running to the bathroom to pee every ten minutes before it started.

Not only does staying hydrated improve your performance, it will also benefit your memory, digestion and reduce sugar cravings while supplying nutrients to your muscles more efficiently.

Taper your training in the week before the race

It’s crucial you lower the intensity and distance of your sessions in the week leading up to the race. Tapering is a way of helping your body recover and build up energy storage prior to an event and this tactic is used by Olympians and coaches worldwide.

In this time, it’s important to eat copious amounts of high-carbohydrate and protein meals while drinking at least 4L of water per day.

Below is an example of how to taper your sessions off before your solo race on the Saturday.

Monday: Full regular training distance, stretch after session.

Tuesday: Reduce training distance by 25%. Lower amount of sprints/threshold by half.

Wednesday: Swim 50% of your regular session distance, no sprints.

Thursday: Swim 25% of your regular distance non-stop, have longer cool down. Try to fit in a relaxation massage if possible and not remedial as that can leave you feeling sore.

Friday: Take day off. Hydrate heavily and try to consume as many carbohydrates/protein as possible. Get to sleep early.

Saturday: Swim to Rottnest, take a quokka selfie and receive cool number plates.

Want to perfect your technique with Swimclan and learn more tips for the Rottnest Channel Swim? Feel free to come down to any of our sessions and our team of expert coaches will happily look at your technique and provide help with your training.

To book a session, click here

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