Limiting Factors in Marathon Swimming – Part 3 – Psychological Factors

The previous two posts dealt with the physiological and environmental limiting factors of marathon swimming. As noted in Part One, non-swimmers and those unfamiliar with the sport tend to see the physiological factors as the greatest hurdles for swimming further distance, often imagining that marathon swimmer’s have some physical capability beyond the average person whereas the Environmental Factors in Part Two are possibly more likely to be a governing factor.

Assuming a swimmer has done the training, for unsuccessful swims the environmental factors are more likely to cause a swim to either not start at all or to be abandoned, and of those weather will always be the swimmer’s greatest challenge.

Experienced swimmers however will generally mostly agree that marathons swims are “more mental than physical”. And because of the complexity of individual psychology, these factors are not as easily codified or itemized, and what I may consider the greater challenges may be not such an important item for someone else, but some can be identified.


Alan Clack at Varne, waiting for the word and the weather
Alan Clack at Varne, waiting for the word and the weather

Of all the aspects of marathon swimming that I feel are most misunderstood, this aspect may be the least appreciated. It is very difficult to explain the psychological pressure endured by a swimmer who is waiting for a weather window to open. The swimmer may have invested two years of their life and a not-insignificant amount of money, only to find they don’t even know if they will swim. Depending on the person this can lead to stress and lost sleep. While this occurs prior to the swim, assuming there is a wait period, it’s impossible though to know if or how many swims may have been unsuccessful because of the pre-swim stress affecting the actual swim.

Other swimmers, having waited a lifetime for an English Channel solo in particular, can make poor last-minute decisions or changes regarding crew or feeding. Others feel that having waited those years, they must take chances. Probably the most likely impact of waiting is the decision to swim in a marginal weather opportunity that they would otherwise not have swum in. It is very easy to say this from the outside, much much less so from inside the bubble of the waiting swimmer in a marginal situation, when the pilot isn’t giving a clear indication and the decision rests with the swimmer.

Uncertain duration

Almost all swimmers step into the water with some target time or duration in mind, even if it never articulated to anyone else. Some of us learn this error the hard way and spend the rest of our swimming lives repeating it. All that counts is standing up in France is my own oft-repeated variation. A number of swimmers have found that their swim due to be two or six hours longer than expected, they have no desire to continue.  (You might recall this was the subject of a question I asked Harley Connolly, Trent Grimsey’s coach, prior to his English Channel record attempt, whether he would continue if he wasn’t on record target). Imagine this extra time extrapolated to a two-way Channel swim or a Cuba to Florida swim, when the estimated time is subject to even greater deviation. Imagine you are expecting to be swimming for 40 hours (40 hours!) and then you are told “no, it’ll be 54 hours“, longer than anyone else has ever swim? That would bring a unique psychological weight. But all additional swim time brings the possibility of being too much for a particular swimmer.

Unprepared for or unexpected events

Many marathon swimmers will go through personal form of visualisation to help ensure a successful swim. Maybe imagining picking up a rock on Vista Point or Cap Griz Nez or returning home successful. Visualisation is a powerful and well-known tool for athletes (and others). For swimmers this visualisation can include the various things than go awry during a swim, such as worsening weather or digestion or elimination issues. But what happens when reality sidesteps your visualised possibilities? Swimmers expecting a usual night-time start who instead find they have a mid-morning start and therefore will be swimming into the night instead of into the day? It is a more difficult thing to have night after ten hours of swimming than to have dawn after six hours. One is a prolonged boost, the other can act as a mental hurdle or even cliff.

Steve Munatones regularly repeats that the most important rule of open water swimming is to expect the unexpected. But while that’s correct and reasonable, it’s also easier said than done when the nature of unexpected events is to blind-side us. Some can be dealt with and the better the training and the more the experience the more likely the swimmer is to have to run into various scenarios. The epitome of this type of preparation surely has to Lisa Cummins whose training included every possible variation she could manage, from deep cold to night swims, to various feeding methods to the Torture swim, this type of training common to Sandycove Island Swim Club Channel Aspirants. All are intended to give the swimmer the broadest possible well of experience from which to draw. But there is always something unexpected out there for every swimmer. How can you prepare for solid fog? How can you prepare for getting trapped under the pilot-boat?


It can be said that the question the endurance athlete dislikes the most is Why do you do it? We all have our own particular reasons for swimming, every swimmer’s motivation is a unique recipe which includes some obvious ingredients such as proving something to themselves, looking for limits, fighting the inevitable onslaught of age, or simply loving open water swimming. To these will be others particular to the individual, such as seeking approval, validation, remembrance of someone, or overcoming some physical hindrance or others.

Whatever the unique blend of the swimmer’s psyche they may find that in the heat of battle, those reasons evaporate or are not sufficient or may have been misdirected. This isn’t a criticism, it doesn’t mean those swimmers are missing something. Instead for some swimmers it is in the swim that they discover something about themselves or their motivation which means that finishing a swim is no longer necessary to meet those internal expectations or reasons or that the training or the swim itself regardless of outcome was the real reward. Whichever is the case only the swimmer themselves knows the internal landscape and the rewards and losses and costs of the effort, successful or otherwise.

Self doubt

Made of water
Made of Water

Or should it be self-belief? How I title this section is surely more a reflection of my own mental landscape than any definite assertion. If you read about any adventures sports or know or follow any adventure or top class sports people like Adventurer Dan Martin, Ocean’s Seven swimmer Stephen Redmond, International elite swimmer Chris Bryan or adventurer Lewis Pugh or many others on Twitter, something you’ll notice amongst many (but not all) of them is that they post inspirational quotations. Some come from themselves, some are quotations that come from others that they have found useful or that they appreciate and wish to use to inspire others. In a way these quotations act like a shorthand for the internal mental effort required.

Part of the nature of the human condition is self-doubt and it is one of the most limiting factors of all. After all without wishing to start repeating a lot of those inspirational quotations, the person who believes they can, and the person who believes they can’t are both right. If I quote that, it doesn’t mean that I absolutely follow it. Personally the problem I have with inspirational quotations is that they make me feel inadequate, with all their exhortation of overcoming and victory. Life seems to me at best a series of compromises.

Nonetheless a certain amount of self-belief is required for big swims, or anything else. You need the belief that you can keep turning the arms over for the next ten minutes, feed interval, hour, tide, night or day. Some of that comes from training or experience, some of it comes from knowing yourself. Some of it we learn along the way. But we can also run out of it and run up against limits. Almost all of us have some limit to it.

Despite that, I have my own favourites. This Socrates quotation from a long time ago remains a favourite. During Channel training my training log said “Today is the Channel” so I would remind myself of the journey every day. Another is simply; “I do not stop when I am tired. I stop when I am done“. Even if I don’t always believe it, or myself…

This is another of the private internal battles the swimmer must undergo. The biggest difference between the same person who stepped off the beach in England, and who swam ashore in France, is the increase in self-belief, what we usually term confidence.

An extract from Channel Swimmer David Walliams' Channel mental training preparation
An extract from Channel Swimmer David Walliams’  mental training preparation

There are of course the other more mundane psychological aspects of a marathon swimmer’s life: Boredom, worrying about imminent physical problems, regretting missed training, anxiety about water depth or creatures, or ever embarrassment about bodily elimination, these are the ongoing easier understood issues of a marathon swim. But no less important for being more mundane or easier to convey.

Channels swimmers often say it is 10% physical and 90% mental. I prefer to think that it is 90% physical. And 90% mental.

Unlike most of the items in Parts One and Two, these aspects are neither visible, nor particular to marathons swimmers. And yet they can be bigger hurdles for being invisible and private and general.

But the biggest hurdle isn’t necessarily one or the other, but the one that either stops you or took the most to overcome.

Next time you look at any endurance athlete or event and in particular marathon swimmers, I hope I’ve given you some idea of the Limiting Factors with which each and every one must necessarily deal.

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