How to Swim a Long Way in a Short Pool: Practical Considerations

These days I’m swimming long distances in a short pool. Soon, very soon, we will swim in the lake, and in two months I’m doing a five mile race in Charleston, but most of the time, I am (and will be) swimming in a 25 yard pool. As the weeks go on and the distances get longer, I’m developing techniques to make these long swims work better. This weekend, I swam 11,200 yards, and it was the best long swim yet.

How do you swim a long way in a short pool?

1) Break it up

I have said this before, but it’s even more important at longer distances: you can’t just swim one big unbroken stretch. I had a really enjoyable 7500 yard swim one Friday when I was short of time, but I can’t do that often. Long distances are much easier to manage–mentally and physically–when they are broken into chunks.

I recently found, my new favorite tool for making a long workout. I don’t know what other people do with it, but I’m using it to figure out different ways to break a given distance into equal units. For example, if you look up the number 11,200, it tells you that it can be broken up the following ways:

2 x 5600
4 x 2800
7 x 1600
8 x 1400
14 x 800
16 x 700
28 x 400
32 x 350
56 x 200
64 x 175
112 x 100

(11,200 can be broken up in other ways too; these are the ones that will work in a 25 yard pool.)

I like to swim long distances in equal sections. It makes me happy, thinking about swimming part 1, part 2, part 3, etc. I decided to swim 8 x 1400, but I could have picked 7 x 1600 or 16 x 700 or some other combination.

Then I decided what I was going to swim for each 1400 section:

1400 swim
700 pull, 700 swim
8 x 350 alt kick (free, fly, breast, free) and swim (that’s two 1400s)
14 x 100 alt IM and free
4 x 350 alt pull and free
4 x (100 kick + 250 free)
1400 swim

There is variation in each unit, which keeps the workout interesting, and completing each unit is a little achievement along the way. I don’t have to swim 11,200 yards all at once; I just swim one 1400 yard block at a time.

2) Get a lap counter

I recently read a blog post, now lost to me, about counting strokes and laps. The post made a compelling case for the importance of knowing your stroke count every lap, your lap count every swim. But the author lost me when he or she stated that counting accurately was simply a matter of mental discipline.

I don’t buy it. I can read long, complicated, arcane texts. I can knit intricate lace patterns. I have buckets of mental discipline. But I can’t count laps, and I am not going to feel guilty about it.

I’m the kind of person who processes information by looking at it. If you read aloud a crossword puzzle clue (“City in Belgium, or insect’s annoying little brother”) and tell me that the answer is seven spaces with the third letter T, I will write on a scrap piece of paper “_ _ T_ _ _ _” in order to figure out the word (“Antwerp”). I can figure out a tip or solve a quadratic equation, but I need to write the numbers down. When I have a student talking to me in my office, I take notes as we talk. I need to see things to keep track of them, not just laps, but other kinds of information as well.

(Perhaps Socrates is right when he says in the Phaedrus that writing destroys memory, but there’s not much I can do about it.)

I certainly can’t accurately count the 448 lengths of a 25 yard pool that make up a 11,200 yard workout. For me, the Garmin Swim lap counter has been a terrific tool. It’s made specifically for pool swimming; it keeps count of laps by sensing when you push off the wall. I still haven’t figured out all the things it can do, but it’s doing what I need most: it keeps track of my yardage. It has made these long pool swims much easier.

3) Lubricate

My friends, the fact is that the swimsuit strap that is perfectly comfortable at 4000 yards may viciously chew through your neck like some kind of cross between a vampire and beaver at 10,000. Until I started swimming long distances in the pool, chafing was a problem I had only encountered in open water swims, particularly in salt water. But if you swim far enough and you’re wearing a swimsuit, it doesn’t matter where you’re swimming: eventually the swimsuit is going to start to chafe.

In her Open Water Swimming Manual, Lynne Cox writes, “Because of problems with chafing, there were top female open water swimmers in the 1920s and 30s who swam naked” and goes on to note that women today will often wear two piece suits and take off the tops once they’re out in the water (20).

Unfortunately, neither of these solutions is going to go over well in my home pool. So I’ve starting using Body Glide for these long swims, mostly on the areas rubbed by straps, but also on the undersides of my upper arms where they repeatedly brush against my suit. Petroleum jelly would work too.

Men don’t have to deal with straps, but I understand that they have other problems. I’ve heard men complain about beard burn from stubble. As for other kinds of chafing, Cox writes, “Some swimmers apply the lubricant only to key points of friction along their bodies. Some male swimmers apply lubricant to all the unexposed areas beneath their swimsuits” (24). I advise you to do what you need to do.

4. Wait for the dolphins

I love swimming. But not every second of every swim is wonderful. Even in a good swim, there are bad moments, when you are tired or sore or hungry. But I’ve found in my long pool swims that often when I’m dragging, another swimmer–friend or stranger–will show up and swim with me for a while.

When someone does, it makes me think of stories of dolphins rescuing people in the ocean–you know, stories where the boat overturns or the surfers go out too far, but the dolphins appear and swim along until rescue comes?

Image from
The dolphins. Image from gebl

This weekend R the triathlete (married to S the triathlete–they are a power couple) appeared in the lane next to me around the 7000 yard mark. He swam at my pace for 300 yards or so. We didn’t stop and talk–we were swimming–but I enjoyed the company. He was my pod of dolphins.

In any long swim there will be good moments and bad moments. You enjoy the good moments when they come. And in the bad moments, you wait for the dolphins.

Do you have other advice about how to swim a long way in a short pool? I’d love to know.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s