marathon swimming

‘Nyad’ documentary puts spotlight on marathon swimming

How you can train for your own ‘marathon’ swim

“It’s overly ambitious, but I think I can make it. It’s going to be my last swim.” 

Diana Nyad had spent hundreds of hours accomplishing marathon swimming feats. The Florida native swam 32 miles across Lake Ontario. She swam around the island of Manhattan and 89 miles from the Bahamas to Florida. Yet there was one ambitious goal that alluded her — a swim that would take 60 hours, across the Florida straits.

Nyad wanted to swim from Cuba to the Florida Keys. It was a distance of 103 miles in the open ocean. Conditions would be unpredictable, and currents could easily push a swimmer far off course. Sharks and box jellyfish were formidable foes.

A new movie on Netflix, starring Annette Benning and Jodie Foster, tells the story of Nyad as she sets out to accomplish her lifelong dream.

But the film does more than bring attention to the sometimes controversial Nyad. It also puts a spotlight on the sport of marathon swimming.  As it did for Nyad, marathon swimming offers an opportunity to test your limits and experience a new sense of accomplishment. 

Whether you want to take on a long-distance open water swimming event or create your own swimming challenge, “Nyad” provides the inspiration to push your boundaries and find a new passion for swimming.

marathon swimming

What is marathon swimming?

More than 116 million participate in open water swimming — diving into lakes, rivers, seas, and oceans. But for marathon swimmers, it’s about doing more than just a couple hundred yards or swimming the perimeter of your local lake.

Marathon swimming has gained popularity over the years, attracting athletes and adventure enthusiasts seeking new personal challenges. Endurance swimmers from around the world test their physical and mental limits by taking on iconic open water swims like the English Channel, Catalina Channel, and Manhattan Island Marathon Swim.

As the name implies, marathon swimming involves swimming long distances. But unlike running events, the “marathon” does not mean covering 26.2 miles. Open-water events can range in distance from 6.2 miles to 50 miles but there are challenges that can take a swimmer farther. 

The conditions for these swims, whether it’s a training session or an organized event, are in unpredictable, and sometimes adverse conditions. Swimmers don’t have the comfort of lane markers or the controlled conditions of a pool – they navigate through tides, currents, and varying water temperatures.

Perhaps the most defining characteristic of marathon swimming is not just the physical task of swimming long distances. Swimmers have to have the mental endurance and strength to complete these hours-long swims.

marathon swim training

Training for a marathon swim

If you’re inspired by “NYAD” on Netflix and the dedication and resilience of Diana Nyad, you can begin your own endurance swimming journey. The training will not only focus on building your physical endurance but developing the mental strength and specific skills to navigate open water conditions. 

Assess your current swimming abilities 

It is crucial to have a solid foundation in swimming and be comfortable in open water. Before you start training for a marathon swim, you need to have an honest look about your current swimming abilities. Among the considerations are your fitness level, comfort with open water swimming, and whether you are injury-prone.

Whether you work with a coach or mentor, this swim assessment will help you identify areas that need improvement, set realistic goals, and develop a comprehensive training plan to prepare for the challenges of the event. 

Develop a training plan 

Whether you are training for a short-distance pool event, a long-distance triathlon or marathon swim, a well-structured training plan is crucial for your success.

The demands of the plan will largely depend on the length of your marathon swim. If you are signed up for a longer swim, such as a 20-mile or even 50-mile event, you should expect to be training 10 to 20 hours a week. A shorter event, such as those in the 6- to 10-mile range, will require 5 to 10 hours of swimming per week. The plan will often include phases — phase, peak phase, and tapering — to help you build the fitness and endurance you need for a long-distance open-water swim. 

There are training plans available online but you can also work with a swimming coach to develop a more personalized schedule.

playlists for swimming

Simulate open water conditions

A swimming pool and open water have one thing in common — water. But when it comes to swimming, that’s often where the similarities end.

A pool provides a controlled environment. From the length of the lane to the water temperature to the visibility, the swimming experience can feel familiar and predictable. Open water is anything but. Open water swimmers face various conditions including waves, currents, and wind. The distance of the swim, whether it’s across the lake or to a predetermined spot, can vary.

Pool swimmers often swim in sets, taking rests at the wall. Open water and marathon swimmers have a continuous effort. And that sometimes endless feeling of swimming can be especially hard to practice in a pool.

As you prepare for a marathon swim event, it’s important to practice the skills you will need to complete the event.

A Michael Phelps Signature Swim Spa allows you to swim and train at home, whether it’s for a 10K event or just to stay fit. A swim system generates a continuous water current that you swim against. This “endless pool” effect enables you to swim without needing to turn around, providing a more uninterrupted swimming experience similar to what you will experience in an open water event. 

In addition, you can set the speed of the water current to match your training plan. A slower pace gives you the opportunity to swim at a lower heart rate for a longer period of time, building the endurance you need for a marathon swim. You can also swim at a faster pace to work on your stroke rate and speed.

Mental preparation

Marathon swimming is as much about mental strength as physical prowess. Practice mental resilience by setting and achieving smaller goals within your training sessions. Visualization and positive self-talk can also be helpful in staying focused during challenging moments.

fall swim spa tips

Safety and navigation

When you are swimming in open water, safety has to be top of mind. If you are doing a solo marathon swim, be sure to wear a swim buoy and have someone with you — whether they are in a boat or rowing next to you in a kayak. You’ll also want to be sure you know your route and be familiar with local maritime regulations and guidelines. 

You should also consider identifying landmarks along your route, which you can use for sighting along the way. Sighting helps you navigate and stay on course during a swim. It involves briefly lifting your head out of the water to look at a target point and then adjusting your direction as needed to stay on course. 

You shouldn’t simply reserve sighting for race day or even when you are in open water; it’s a skill that requires consistent practice during your training.

A Michael Phelps swim spa offers an excellent environment for honing your sighting abilities. While swimming against the current, raise your gaze towards the front of the spa as if you were checking in on your location in the water. (Because it’s a stationary swimming experience, you really aren’t going anywhere.). As you turn to either side for a breath, maintain your swimming rhythm. The objective is to become adept at sustaining your speed and form. You can incorporate sighting every six to ten strokes as a component of your warm-up or cool-down routine in the swim spa.

Acclimatization to water temperature

The water at your local pool is set to a consistent temperature — even if it does feel colder on some days compared to others. 

The same can’t be said for open water. The weather conditions, sunlight, wind, and the depth of the lake can all affect the temperature of the water. You can even be swimming in a lake and hit a cold spot that can momentarily take your breath away. 

Depending on where you plan to do your marathon swim, you might consider acclimating to cold water temperatures during your training. In a Michael Phelps swim spa, you can set the water temperature to the low 70s. Alternatively, you can practice cold water immersion. Two to 3-minute cold plunges in a Michael Phelps Chilly GOAT Cold Tub allow you to gradually expose yourself to cold water, helping your body adapt. Chilly GOAT Cold Tubs have a powerful 2.1-horsepower chiller that quickly cools the water to as low as 40 degrees. The cold tub, though, has a temperature range of 40 degrees to 104 degrees — allowing you to tailor your sessions based on preferences and training regimen. 

swim spa jets


Training for a long-distance open water swimming event is demanding on your body. You want to make sure that you are giving yourself enough rest and recovery so that you can train injury-free.

As you are training for an event, be sure to incorporate rest days into your training schedule and consider complementary activities such as yoga, stretching, and cold water immersion to help with recovery.

Michael Phelps swim spas have hydrotherapy features, such as jets and massage seats, that can be used for post-swim recovery and relaxation. You can use the massage jets to target high tension areas in the back and shoulders. The Xtreme Therapy Cove has a unique pattern of jets to target your back, hips, and legs — which might feel tight or sore when you are swimming for up to 10 hours a week.

swimming motivation

How to buy a Michael Phelps Signature Swim Spa

Do you want to be able to swim, exercise, and relax at home? Having a Michael Phelps Signature Swim Spa allows you to swim on your schedule while adding a fun factor to your backyard. You can click here to find out more about the benefits of hydrotherapy and relaxing in a hot tub. Or, contact your local Master Spas retailer to learn more about swim spa ownership. Wondering how much a swim spa costs? You can request a quote here.