Now and Then- Swimrun Evolution

Andrew Wallace
05.06.20 11:28 AM Comment(s)

Swimrunning is a Learning Curve - Live It and Love It!

I thought I would do a swimrun diary post because it was quite interesting to see the the scope of change in just one year in terms of the type of kit I now use for swimrunning; plus recently I have seen so many posts from swimrunning group members in social media about kit and can fully understand the concern those who are just getting into the sport have about having the right kit. Personally I believe this way too much marketing pressure to use the so-called 'correct' kit when in fact the lot of it is not really necessary!

Get Wild, Get Back to your Childhood!

I was lucky enough to grow up in rural Wales. There is no such thing as 'wild swimming' or 'open water swimming'. It was just 'swimming' and as kids we spent our summers swimming in rivers, lakes and the ocean. We spent hours and hours, often days on end, running around river banks diving in the water, fishing, making fires, running onto the next location, in nothing more than a pair of shorts and trainers. Then we would camp under the stars and do it all over again.

It was a fantastic childhood.

Today there's 'coasteering'. Back then it was just known as rock scrambling and cliff jumping and snorkeling, in a wetsuit if we could afford one but usually in a pair of shorts and and the same old grotty trainers, which had usually not been cleaned or dried since the last time they were used!

I love swimming running because it takes me right back to those days.

What Kit?

After an initial spell of trying out all the kit that I had read was 'needed', I rapidly fell into a minimalist approach. 

Paddles

I was a competitive swimmer. I guess this gives me an advantage in in the swimming sections but the first thing that I ditched when I got more and more into swimrunning were the paddles. 

Paddles were designed originally for use in swimming training for resistance work. They've been around for decades. Use of swim paddles requires a massive amounts of extra energy during the pull phase due to the additional resistance in the water. They also require well developed shoulder muscles to use them effectively.

Repeated use of paddles, especially if you have not developed the shoulder strength required, is also a sure way to induce shoulder related injuries. Swimrun courses can be 20, 30, 40 + kilometres, so this needs to be considered if you plan to use them.

They are also very cumbersome and can be annoying if attached to your waist belt, or can be restrictive to breathing if you stick them in your wetsuit when you run.

In the end I think it's important to assess the the 'cost' versus benefit. Personally I think it is much better to focus on improving your swimming pull technique rather than using and relying on kit that is designed really only to be used in a pool to condition the shoulders.

Pull Buoy

As an ex competitive swimmer I consider myself to be at home in the water. My foot positioning is good and swimming with shoes on doesn't phase me.

In swimming, good leg positioning in the water is attained by the lower back and glute muscles. The swim buoy was probably introduced into the sport by those who perhaps were not 'swimmers' but who were runners who felt they needed something to counteract the weight of the shoes in the water. It's just a thought.

However, swim buoys are used by swimmers to build up shoulder strength during swim training and are designed to prevent you from kicking, thus forcing the arms and shoulders to do more work. They do not nor are intended to save any energy when swimming.  We humans were not designed with a single mono fin and our legs and feet and kick propel us through the water as well as our arms.

Shoe technology has come a very long way with the advent of barefoot shoes which are also actually really good to swim in and very light, to the point that some even float.

In my humble opinion a pull buoy becomes unnecessary and adds to the stress your shoulders will face if you are using swim paddles.

Should I be saving my legs for the running stages?

I have often heard triathletes saying "you should not kick during the swim stage".  Each to their own of course and they're entitled to their opinions but in mine you should kick but you should learn how to swim/kick efficiently.

Not kicking will force the legs to sink and this is I think why the pull buoy was introduced as a piece of swim running kit. But by not kicking you are forcing your arms and shoulders to do all of the work, which will use twice as much energy as swimming with an efficient two beat kick. An efficient two beat kick can provide a surprising amount of propulsion if it is done correctly, even with shoes on, for minimal effort. 

Shoes

At first I didn't want to jump straight in and spend loads of money on kit for a sport I wasn't sure I would enjoy; and I see many people making the same comment in social forum groups.

However, in swimrunning I would say the shoes along with the wetsuit are the most important if not the only kit you should really worry about.

I rapidly moved away from 'normal' trail running shoes to a lower drop, neoprene sock type shoe from Merrell. From those, I moved to an even lower drop barefoot shoe from Vivobarefoot, which I found was even better to swim in. An excellent choice actually.

Now I have gone more extreme and I'm experimenting more with Vibram Fivefinger Alpha barefoot shoes.

Although I really love trail running I must admit I am not a runner! At this point in my swimrunning I am not sure I can do long-distance routes in the Vibram Fivefingers although I prefer them over all of the other shoes. At 50 years old I have simply been using the wrong shoes all of my life to be able to jump into 40 + kilometres in these extreme barefoot shoes; and am building up the muscles required in the calves and strength needed in the tendons but it's going to take some more time.

For me the Vivobarefoot would be best on longer distances. 

Experiment.

But I would advise looking at the shoe as something you have to swim in too, not just for running. Think about the foot position when you are swimming and the flexion needed in the ankle. Regular trail running shoes are not good because of the high heel drop which adds to the weight and acts as resistance in the water. Also the shoe tongue acts as a brake. Cut the top off to streamline it.

Check out our kit reviews for the Vibram Alpha and other swimrunning shoes.

Hydration

I have tried everything regarding water bottles and ended up using a Salomon foldable water bottle. I stuff it in my wetsuit when I'm running. Avoid the cheap plastic foldable water bottles because they crack and and there's nothing worse than reaching for for some water on the trail only to find out it has dribbled down the inside of your wetsuit!

Wetsuit

I've tried all combinations from a neoprene vest and neoprene shorts as two separate items, to a cheap surfing shorty, to the Zone3 Versa entry level swimrun suit, eventually settling on the Head 'Rough Shorty'.

The Zone3 is a good entry suit, check it out here. The latest design as of 2021 has addressed the design flaw I highlight in the review.

I love the Head Rough Shorty wetsuit for many reasons. Check out the review here.

Gels: Pockets v Belt

I have found the inside pockets on all wetsuits to be utterly useless and prefer just to stuff things inside quickly: gels, hat and goggles, etc. They don't move anywhere and it's easy to pull things out. The Versa has an external pocket which is great.

I personally prefer using a homemade swimrun belt which consists of a close fitting mesh running pouch (fits snug to the kidneys), with a strong webbing belt and buckle sewn onto it. An elasticated belt band will not work and will slide down when you dive in or swim hard. 

I just found this setup easier to keep things in, rather than trying to use the wetsuit pockets on the inside of the suit. I have also sewn on nylon webbing loops to the belt, which I have attached a clip, which I use to tether my dog when I swim run with him.


Neoprene Arms and Calves

The Zone3 Versa comes with detachable arms which is a fantastic feature. These arms can be used with any other wetsuit. In the summer though, ditch any detachable wetsuit arms as you will generate enough heat not to need them.

I don't use any neoprene calf compression socks, some of which claim to act as buoyancy aids to keep your legs up: again I would recommend making sure your stroke is correct then there is no need for buoyancy aids.

Extras

Choose a wetsuit that has a whistle sewn into it or sew your own whistle into the zip tag if it does not already have one.

If your swimrun event requires a compass attach it to a tether on the belt. Otherwise ditch it. Most swim run routes are marked and have plenty of marshals and if you are doing swimrunning on your own I would advise researching the course first.

Swim buoy: use it for safety reasons if you feel you need to to but it will be very cumbersome to carry. Ditch it if you are are a confident swimmer and your swimming route does not involve going far from the shore. Use it if in doubt.

Conclusion

  • Go minimal. 
  • Don't feel pressured to use all of the kit, use what suits you.
  • Focus on fixing your swim stroke rather than relying on kit to fix it for you.
  • Practice and practise and practice. The kit you use will evolve as you get used to it.
  • Never enter an event without training with the kit, you'll regret it.
  • Don't be afraid to use your imagination and get creative.
  • If you can't find it to buy in shops or online, make it!

Get in Touch