Active Sports

Inside SwimRun, America’s New Endurance Adventure

Have you ever heard of “SwimRun”? That’s ok, many Americans haven’t. In fact the sport was only born in 2002, but it is one of the fastest growing endurance sports in the world!

As the name indicates, SwimRun involves racers alternating between swimming and running a set course, usually over trails and rugged terrain and through open water swims. Learn a little about the history of SwimRun and how you can try your hand at this burgeoning global sport obsession.

A Brief History

SwimRun was born in in Sweden when Anders and his friend Janne were enjoying a late night drink at a bar with some friends. As often happens in these scenarios, a challenge was levied.

Over 30,000 islands dot the Swedish coastline in the Baltic Sea. The friends decided to pair up to run and swim from their island of Utö to the island of Sandhamn. The only rule was that each team must pass by the three restaurants on the islands between the start and finish points. The last team to arrive would pay for dinner, drinks, and hotel rooms.

The story is this first SwimRun took more than 24 hours and the four friends arrived too exhausted to celebrate. However, they committed to trying again the following year and other friends begged to join the fun. Thus, the sport of SwimRun was born.

In 2006 the first commercial SwimRun race launched. It used the original course, only in reverse. Eleven teams started in Sandhamn and raced to Utö. Two managed to cross the finish line within the time limits. From there the sport took root and spread like wildfire throughout Europe and across the world.

Now known as ÖtillÖ (“island to island”), the original SwimRun course serves as the world championship race each year. Hundreds of SwimRun races now occur around the world and across America for people of all ages to enjoy.

IGNITE SwimRun Series

The Basics of SwimRun

The basic characteristics of a SwimRun race are that it must take place outdoors and the swims must be in open water of some kind (lakes, rivers, oceans, etc.). Each SwimRun course should include at least two run and swim sections.

Participants usually race in teams of two, though a number of races include an “individual” category for those who wish to race solo. There are three team categories: mens, womens, and mixed-gender.

Experiencing the race with a friend is part of the history of SwimRun, not just a safety precaution. Most races require teammates to be within 10 meters of each other at all times. For this reason, many teams race with a bungee cord tether. This might sound difficult, but racing tethered means you can take turns leading in the swim and encouraging each other on the runs.

Competitors must carry all their equipment with them from start to finish. So, unlike triathlons where participants go through a “transition area” to trade out their swim gear for bike or run gear, in SwimRun competitors carry their swimming gear on the run and swim in their running shoes.

Getting Started

I’m sure by now you’re ready to sign up for your first SwimRun event. Who could pass up the opportunity to enjoy an adventure like this! Getting started really isn’t very hard.

Find a partner: From the start, racing with a friend has been part of SwimRun. Good racing partners support each other’s skills and help each other when the going gets tough.

Choose a race partner that has complimenting abilities, similar swim and run paces, and similar goals. It won’t be much fun if one of you is trying to post personal best times and win races while the other is out for the fun and enjoyment of it all (both of which are perfectly great goals!).

Choose a race: You and your race partner should choose an event that meets your fitness and comfort levels. Some of the races look very daunting on paper. Don’t be intimidated. Alternating swimming and running helps keep you fresh longer because your arms rest while you are running then your legs get to rest during the swim portions.

Many race series are adding shorter sprint SwimRun races with beginner-friendly courses and more manageable time cut-offs. There is a welcoming culture and environment in SwimRun events. Whether you are out to win it all or want to have a new adventure, there is a place and a distance for you.

Susan Haag said after her first SwimRun event, “I had an absolute blast!  I was in the mood for an adventure and I love playing in nature.  I was intrigued with what I had read about SwimRun & the pictures were stunning! Immediately I was at ease… the staff at IGNITE and the other participants were so helpful and welcoming.”

The two most popular SwimRun race series in America right now are Odyssey SwimRun and IGNITE SwimRun. Both offer well-organized, fun races scattered around the USA. Whether you would like to race the pristine lakes and forest of Minnesota or tackle the rivers and urban parks of Richmond, Virginia, there is a SwimRun race for you in America or around the world!

Gear you’ll need: Like any (good) sport, you can either start small or go all in. And because it’s still a relatively new sport, many athletes are “MacGyvering” their gear to suit their needs.

To get started in SwimRun, the absolute minimum gear you’ll need is:

  • Trail running shoes: Choose a pair of trail runners that have a lot of mesh and resist water absorption. This will keep them lighter and help prevent blisters during the run sections.
  • Socks: You will need a pair of socks that don’t move or bunch up when wet. Compression socks are very thin and designed to stay in place.
  • Swim goggles: Any pair of swim goggles that you like and are comfortable will do.
  • Swim paddles: Paddles are not required but definitely helpful. SwimRun events allow competitors to use swim paddles designed to help you swim faster and give your legs a rest. They come in multiple sizes depending on your overall strength, experience, and swim technique.
  • Pull buoy: This fun little swim aid is made of buoyant foam. You hold it between your legs to keep your legs and feet floating and not kicking during the swim sections. This will keep your legs fresh for the run. Most experienced SwimRun competitors modify their buoy to strap around one leg with an elastic lace so they don’t have to carry it during the runs.
  • Pull belt: While it’s not mandatory that teams are tethered together throughout the race, most competitors find it helpful to use a tether to stay within the required 10 meters and keep together during swim sections. You can either purchase a pull belt or DIY-create one.
  • Safety equipment: IGNITE and other SwimRun organizations require each participant to carry a waterproof whistle and a waterproof bandage with them through the race.
  • A training plan: Be sure to leave yourself time to train and prepare for the race distances. There are a number of helpful training plans and guides online for any distance.

Some optional gear that many SwimRun competitors find nice to have but not necessary are:

  • Wetsuit: Many SwimRun events require a wetsuit if the weather or water temperatures are cold. Some people purchase used wetsuits and cut off the legs to make the run portions easier.

Many wetsuit companies now make SwimRun-specific wetsuits with short legs and more flexible material designed to run in. They also put the zipper on the front of the wetsuits to get fresh air and some even added special materials on the butt area to help you slide over rocks getting in and out of the water.

  • Swim Safety Buoy: These inflatable, florescent-colored safety buoys strap around your waist and help you stay visible to any boaters or friends on shore. In case of emergency it can act as a flotation device. Some even have a small, internal waterproof pocket to keep your keys and a few items safe and dry.

Most races provide a colored swim cap and numbered team jersey for you to wear throughout the race. Typically, like marathons or other endurance events, there are aid stations scattered around the course for you to grab water and food. Some races ask that you carry a small drinking flask with you so they don’t have to use disposable cups.

Are you ready for your next adventure to be a SwimRun event? There are so many reasons to put SwimRun on your bucket list. You will love the challenge, enjoy the scenery, and feel a sense of pride and accomplishment as you cross the finish line.

Have you already participated in a SwimRun race? Share about what is inspiring you to try your first race or the story of your first SwimRun in the comments!


  1. Thank you for the awesome write up and explanation of SwimRun Jen. We can’t wait to get you out on the course.

    1. Thanks heaps! I’m excited to get out on the course!

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