I’ll take my first open water swim of the ‘season’ tomorrow. Lake Awosting should be just about 50 degrees. It will feel stingingly cold for the first few minutes then feel healthfully invigorating. I usually swim for only 10 to 15 minutes in my first dip of the spring, but if custom holds I’ll stretch to 30, then 60 minutes inside of two weeks.
Which—other than the last week of March at our Open Water Experience in Kona–will be the longest I’ve swum since January.
Since 2007, from November through April, I’ve experienced chronic achiness and fatigue, which is exacerbated by even mild exertion. My doctor diagnosed it as an autoimmune condition. But now I suspect it’s actually a reaction to chlorine. Or at least the ‘chloramine fog’ blanketing the surface of the 50-year old, poorly-ventilated college pool in New Paltz.
What do you do when your pool becomes toxic? I’m fortunate to have an Endless Pool, which is well-ventilated and has a sanitation system that needs only a trace of chlorine. I usually swim for just 30 minutes, mostly in a quite gentle current. Not the kind of preparation traditionalists say you need to reach your potential in open water distance races.
With my first race, the 2 Bridges 5K in the Hudson River just three weeks away and a planned crossing of Gibraltar Strait in October with three friends, should I feel concern about being under-prepared for long open water swims? Well, I’m not, and I believe I have good reason for my sanguine attitude. Three good reasons in fact.
On three occasions, I went into an event or open-water season woefully-undertrained by conventional standards. Once by plan, and twice because of circumstances beyond my control. Each time, I was pleasantly surprised—even stunned–with how well things turned out.
June 2002 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim
In Dec, 2001 I decided to enter the 2002 MIMS, in part to celebrate having reached life’s half-century mark a year earlier. I’d swum only perfunctorily since the previous summer, and one day after I registered the college pool began a 3-week holiday closure. With travel for work in late January, I finally began swimming regularly in early Feb, leaving just four months to prepare for a 28.5-mile swim.
While I lacked an aerobic base, I felt confident in my efficiency base and decided to focus on making that even stronger. I wanted to test the proposition that it’s possible to comfortably complete an ultra-marathon swim on non-ultra training volume.
For the next 16 weeks I averaged about 16,000 yards per week (a half to a third of what other MIMS’ers were doing), with the exception of swimming a 10,000-yard, 3-hour pool practice in weeks 14 and 15, raising my total for those weeks to a bit over 20,000 yards.
I swam those not with the intent of building extra endurance, but to see if I could finish each session feeling more energized than when I started by swimming with consummate ease. Doing so showed me I was on track for a successful marathon.
On marathon day, I swam as easily as possible, but intent on making every stroke count. Or, put another way, not wasting a single muscle contraction. Taking a quite leisurely 49 strokes per minute, it was essential I travel a good distance on each.
Swimming like a tourist, (and slowed by relatively sluggish currents where my paddler guided my hugging the Manhattan shoreline—the rest of the field was closer to mid-river where the currents are much faster) I reached the Harlem River, about 8 miles into the race, well behind the rest of the field.
But over the next 20 miles I passed three other soloists and a relay. Not bad for an ‘undertrained’ swimmer. And despite being badly dehydrated in the final miles, because of inexperience planning my nutrition and hydration regimen, I felt only moderate fatigue upon reaching the finish, which I reached in 8 hrs 53 minutes. After drinking 64 oz of water on the drive home, I felt fully recovered the next day.
2005 Betsy Owens 2-Mile Cable Swim (US Masters National Open Water Championship)
In October 2004, while doing a bench press set—mindfully, with moderate weight and impeccable form—I ruptured the biceps tendon in my right shoulder. For a swimmer, this is normally a very serious injury requiring 9 months or more to return to full strength. HMO requirements delayed surgery for 5 months, while I did more conservative therapies.
It was evident I’d need surgery (I didn’t have a diagnosis yet—an MRI was inconclusive) because, after months of therapy I experienced disabling pain attempting undemanding tasks like pouring tea from a kettle, flipping a wall light switch, donning my seatbelt. However, two months after the injury, and before surgery, I could swim pain free. By modifying my stroke to avoid pain—the origin of the Mail Slot focal point—I was able to swim pain free, and even a bit faster than before the injury!
I had surgery in Feb 2005, followed by 3 weeks with my right arm in a sling and 3 months under doctor’s orders not to swim any whole stroke. I used the Endless Pool to replicate exercises I was doing in PT and to gently explore range of motion. For that time, ‘swimming’ meant easy reps of the TI SpearSwitch drill, in which I could hone balance, streamlining, and rhythmic rotation without lifting arm from water. To avoid over-eagerness, when I applied water-pressure with my right hand, I visualized the staple holding tendon-to-bone pulling out.
Five months to the day after surgery—following just two months of quite moderate whole-stroke training—I swam the Betsy Owens 2-Mile Cable Swim.
In 2004, I’d swum a personal best of 49:20. Swimming with modest expectations, I was dumbfounded to see 45:40 displayed on the race clock as I reached the finish line. I led the 50-54 age group for the National Masters title for 3000 meters, being passed in the final 200 meters to finish 2nd, to that date, my highest finish ever in a National championship.
What could be the explanation for improving my personal best for two miles by over 3-and-a-half minutes after having my training severely restricted for most of the 10 months preceding the event?
Summer of 2012 – Top 10 Percent 4 Consecutive Weeks
Last year at this time, I was looking toward the upcoming open water season with rather modest expectations. Because of a torn meniscus in my right knee at Christmas, then four months hampered by autoimmune symptoms, I was restricted to swimming in the Endless Pool three times a week for 30 minutes (the equivalent of less than 5000 yards per week) at very gentle current speeds and minimal effort levels.
As I began my racing season (also at 2 Bridges), I told myself I’d take pleasure in the social aspects of attending the events races, seeing friends and enjoying the experience, not allowing finishes below my usual standard to detract from the pleasure of simply swimming.
In that first race , on June 2, I finish in mid-pack but enormously enjoyed being there nonetheless. A week later I began swimming regularly in Lake Minnewaska, and my symptoms also began to abate. I began swimming at steadily brisker tempos, using my Tempo Trainer.
During my five months of gentle stroke tuning in the Endless Pool, I’d acquired an unprecedented feeling of silky synchronicity in my strokes. That feeling held as I increased tempo from 1.10 to 1.0 to 0.9 seconds/stroke. Soon I felt as if I was flying effortlessly up and down the 200-yard line at Minnewaska.
On July 22, I swam my second race of the season, a mile in the ocean at Coney Island. I maintained that silky feeling throughout, but didn’t expect the finish I had. I won the 60-64 age group by a minute. I also placed in the top 10% of the field overall—something I hadn’t done in at least five years!
Over the following three weekends, I swam three more races—another ocean mile, followed by two races of two miles. I won my age group in each by steadily larger margins. And in each I again placed in the top 10 percent in the field—the most exciting, and least expected, level of sustained racing excellence in my 40 years of open water racing!
Again, how to explain this in light of entering the season significantly undertrained —by conventional standards—in both volume and intensity for the rigors of open water distance racing? In particular, all three occurrences of hard-to-explain success occurred in my 50s and 60s. When I was much younger (I swam my first open water race at 22) I never raced well unless I’d done long, hard training.
Do Less, Get More
The short answer is that—to a far greater extent in open water than in pool races– it’s possible to do quite well with smart, strategic—yet fairly modest–training. This seems counterintuitive—isn’t open water racing reputed to be far more grueling than pool racing. But there are far more opportunities for error in open water—in starting, pacing, navigation, etc. And it’s like that most of the field will make those errors. Minimizing error can compensate for gaps in training.
Doing more with less in open water swimming is of great interest to aging swimmers like me. And of even greater interest to triathletes, who have to make time for three sports.
In next week’s blog, I’ll share the particular lessons I’ve taken from these experiences and will apply in my training for the upcoming open water season.
COACH YOURSELF IN OPEN WATER SKILLS AND STRATEGIES (click links below for details)
LEARN OW SKILLS AND STRATEGIES FROM TERRY LAUGHLIN AND TI COACHES (click links below for details)