10 mile swim

It isn't far to swim when you have friends waiting at the end.


On Fat Thighs

I have fat thighs. They are permanent. I know this because some time ago I injured my jaw and had difficulty eating. I lost a lot of weight; my hipbones and collarbone stuck out, and my face became thin. It was all very interesting until it became scary. But during the whole experience, my fat thighs did not budge. It was then that I realized there was nothing to be done about my fat thighs except to love them. They are with me for the long haul.

Swimming may be the only sport that rewards fat thighs. The number one problem I see in the swimmers around me is that their legs sink. From the next lane, these swimmers look like they are riding a bicycle, their legs much lower in the water than their torso. You can work to improve your body position, of course. But you have to admit, it’s much easier to position your body correctly when you have the advantage of fat thighs floating your back end up.

This is why so many people actually swim faster with a pull buoy stuck between their thighs. It seems impossible: shouldn’t immobilizing a swimmer’s legs slow them down? But the pull buoy compensates for their dragging legs, bringing their body into a more efficient position.

I never use pull buoys. My fat thighs keep my legs up.


This is a pull buoy. You stick it between your legs for pull sets. I never use them. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

So this is a shout out to all my people with fat thighs. Don’t listen to those who tell you to hate your body. Your thighs are your strength. Make the most of your natural advantages. Come swim with me.


What Not to Wear

There was a time not long ago when people just swam naked. As George Borrow writes in The Romany Rye (published 1857):

Swimming, however, is not genteel; and the world—at least the genteel part of it—acts very wisely in setting its face against it; for to swim you must be naked, and how would many a genteel person look without his clothes?

“To swim, you must be naked.” Perhaps in some deep philosophical sense this is still true, but in the kind of places I swim, to swim, you must not be naked; you must wear a swimsuit, a tiny form-fitting garment manufactured of petroleum-based fabric.

Women’s swimsuits–that is, suits for adult women with mortgages and reading glasses–can be divided into two classes: those made for hanging around and those made for actual swimming. The ones for hanging around have skirts and ties and buckles; they have underwire and pads and ruching and all kinds of crazy things. You wear these for reading magazines and watching children, not for swimming. I once tried to do a lap of butterfly in a suit with a little skirt. It went poorly. A suit with a skirt is to an actual swimsuit as a Rose Bowl parade float is to an actual car: the float looks pretty, but it’s not going anywhere fast.

Suit from Splish.


The kind of swimsuit made for swimming is much simpler in construction, although they can still have some personality. For example, I bought myself a lovely Splish suit as a special treat. The pattern is called Tsunami.

Sadly, it lasted just two months before chlorine ate it. I wore it over another suit to extend its life a little, but it was all stretched out. I still covet the Splish suits, though (warning: they run big), and I’m thinking about getting another one for races.

If you swim a lot, you buy suits frequently. This is what I resent most about swimsuits; I would save a fortune if, like Burrows, I could swim naked. Sadly, swimming naked would almost certainly get me kicked out of my pool, and I could not bear it: I would be sadder than Dante, exiled from Florence, eating bread with salt.

If you are hoping to save some money but still get a quality suit that will last, I recommend the grab bag swimsuit. I have been buying them from SwimOutlet, but other retailers sell them too. The process works like this: you select a type and a size, and they send you a suit. Maybe it will be a hideous color. Maybe it will have a horrible and unflattering cut. But maybe it will be just fine, and why be so picky? You pay your money and you take your chances.


Captain American’s shield. Made of vibranium. Image from Wonder World Comics.

The most recent grab bag suit I bought was this one: Speedo Endurance Grab Bag Swimsuit (that link might not work forever: google “speedo endurance grab bag” and you should get lots of options). I was excited when I saw that it was available: the Speedo Endurance fabric wears like iron. I don’t know what it’s made of, but I suspect it’s polyester reinforced with vibranium, the (imaginary) material that makes Captain America’s shield.

Misty Hyman and I have the same swimsuit. Image from USMS.

It just so happens that SwimOutlet sent me a suit that looks a lot like Captain America’s shield; it’s just like the one Misty Hyman is wearing on a recent cover of SWIMMER magazine. Coincidence?

The Endurance suits are expensive at full price, but the grab bag suit sold for half that. It’s not a particularly attractive cut on me. But if I’m swimming fast enough, who can tell?

Do you have suggestions for what (not) to wear?

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On Pull Buoys and Ankle Bands and the Trousers of Michael Phelps

A lot of people love pull buoys, and that’s just fine with me. Other people’s love for pull buoys in no way impacts me; I hope that those who enjoy using pull buoys will continue to enjoy using them for many happy years to come.

But while I like doing pull sets–that is, swimming using arms only–I don’t like using pull buoys. I don’t like them for the same reason I don’t like wetsuits: they mess with my body position. Most pull buoys are made of a piece of foam (or two pieces of foam) that you stick between your thighs to help your legs float behind you when you are not kicking. I don’t need help floating, and I especially don’t need a piece of foam designed to keep my butt bobbing near the surface.

Here I have to admit to a physical advantage: I am proportioned like Michael Phelps–if Michael Phelps were a five-foot-four-and-a-half-inch-tall middle-aged woman. Phelps has a long torso and short legs; he’s 6′ 4″, but he has the torso of a 6′ 8″ man and the legs of a 6′ one. As Bob Costas says in this video, “Phelps is perfectly tall–and short.” I too have a long torso and short legs. It’s an advantage for swimming. It’s a disadvantage for buying trousers. I sometimes wonder if Phelps has to hem his own trousers and if he’s better at it than I am. But these proportions (and good body position) mean that my legs float just fine and I don’t need or like pull buoys.

But I do like to do pull sets, and I am doing more and more of them in preparation for the ten mile swim. When I was a child on swim team, instead of using pull buoys we tied our ankles together with an inner tube. I don’t know what kind of inner tubes they were, but I know mine was an actual, complete inner tube, not a cut piece of rubber, because I remember how you had to be careful when you twisted it not to end up with the valve stem digging into an ankle. It was like this:

Image from Don Gambril's Swimmer and Team. Found at http://aquavolo.com/journal/article/2011/10/pull-buoy-or-not

Image from Don Gambril’s Swimmer and Team. Found at AquaVolo.

I liked using the inner tube, and that’s why I was especially pleased to learn that in the 21st century you can buy ankle bands that do the same thing without the ankle-piercing valve stem. The kind I own appears at 6:10 on the video I’ve embedded below, the yellow one from Finis. I think it’s terrific; it’s cheap and portable, and it works just fine. You can’t kick, not the least little bit, but you can still do a reasonable flip turn and push off the wall. The woman in the video uses it with a pull buoy, but I don’t; I just twist it around my ankles and go.

If you like pull buoys, more power to you. But if you don’t, or you’d just like to try something new, consider the ankle band.

This SWIMMER Magazine (from USMS) video review of pull buoys goes on for over nine minutes. It presents more types of pull buoys and ankle bands and other things than I ever thought possible:


How to Know How Far You Have Swum (or, I Am Not Looking at You)

Someone asked in the comments of this post about how to keep track of distance when you are swimming. I am a great person to ask this question because I want to know how far I have swum but I am lousy at keeping count; as a result, I have a number of compensatory strategies, most of which rely on setting up my workout so that it’s easier to count and remember distances.

But before talking about workout design, I should say that the best strategy I know is to swim with my friend K. K can keep track of laps. Let’s say you and some others are swimming a 40 x 50 meter set at 7 am in July in South Carolina. It’s ungodly hot in the outdoor pool, so you’ve pulled off your swim cap and your hair is floating in your face like seaweed, and you are cursing and swearing that this is the summer you are going to shave your head like the guys, and in your distress you have completely lost track of how many repeats you have done. You can ask K, “How many is that?” and he will know. He will always know. K swam the mile in college. He knows how far he’s swum, and he knows how fast. He also swims negative splits, which means that maybe you’ve been keeping up with him for the first 20 or 30 50s, but he’s going to speed up just when you are thinking that it would be nice to get out and lie on the pool deck.

So you can find yourself a person like K. Or, if you want to swim a very long way without breaks–and you want to spend money–you can buy a lap counter. I have had a Garmin Swim for a little over a month now, and once I have figured out all that you can do with it (I unexpectedly got a new phone at almost the same time, and I can only deal with one new complicated electronic device at a time), I will write a blog post about it. But I can say that it is very good at keeping track of straight laps of freestyle. If you swim 1000 yards free, it will record 1000 yards. It is going to be fantastic for when I am swimming lots and lots of distance later this year.

If you don’t have a human or an electronic lap counter, you can set up your workout to help you keep track of distance. The key is breaking your swim up into manageable chunks of yardage (500 yards/meters or less) that you can count and remember, especially with the help of the pace clock. I check how far I’ve swum by knowing what my pace is for different strokes and timing myself. So, for example, a 500 yard free warm-up usually takes me around 7:30. If I note what time I left on the pace clock, I know that in about 7:30, I’ve done 500. I try to count as I swim along, but if when I stop and look up, it’s been 6:45, I know I’ve miscounted and I have another 50 yards to go.

For sets of a distance repeated (like the 40 x 50 in the summer), I set the interval so that I can keep track on the pace clock. A pace clock looks like this:

A pace clock

If I’m doing repeats of 50 yards, I do them on 50 seconds. It works like this: 1st one, leave on 60; 2nd one, leave on 50; 3rd one, leave on 40, etc. Basically, I’m going around the pace clock backwards, and I know that whenever I come in (50 yards takes me 40-45 seconds) I should just leave on the next multiple of 10. The 6th one, I leave on 10, the 7th I leave on 60 (the top), and I continue around.

Some intervals are easier to keep track of than others; I work best on times ending in :55, :50, or :45 (or :05, :10, or :15). If you’re doing repeats on :55 (or 1:55 or 2:55), you know that going around the pace clock once is 12 repeats. For repeats on 1:15 (or 2:15 or 3:15), you know that going around the pace clock once (forward this time) is 4 repeats. For this reason, it’s better to set your interval at 2:05 or 1:55 than on 2:00 even.

All of this means that I spend a lot of time looking at the pace clock. At my pool it’s up on the wall. Every so often I encounter a person who doesn’t realize that the pace clock is behind him on the wall and thinks I am looking at him, hoping to strike up a conversation. This person will inevitably start talking to me just as I’m pushing off to swim the next repeat. Once I had this conversation:

Him: How are you?
Me: Fine. I’m leaving on the 30.
Him: (appalled) You’re using the pace clock?!?

I pushed off in the middle of “You’re using the pace clock?!?” and never found out why he sounded so shocked. We did not speak again. Perhaps a pace clock killed his sister. In any case, I would like a swim cap that reads across the forehead (in very small but clear letters), “I am not looking at you. I am looking at the pace clock. It’s behind your head.” It would prevent many awkward moments.

image from Steve Lambert

This would be helpful too (image from Steve Lambert).

One more tip: on occasion, I use physical reminders to help me keep track of repeats. If you have the right kind of lane ropes, the ones with small individual floating pieces, you can use the lane rope as an abacus, moving one piece for each repeat. For special swims, I break out the poker chips. For my 44th birthday, I swam 44 x 100 on 1:40. I knew there was no way I could count 44 repeats on 1:40 (I can’t count 4 repeats on 1:40). So, I brought 44 poker chips and two plastic containers to the pool. I put all the poker chips in one container to start, and then I moved one poker chip to the other container for every 100. When I was out of poker chips, I was done. Just like at the casino.

Maybe you have some terrific way to help you keep track of distance in the pool? I’d love to hear it.


On Goggles

I like to think of myself as a person who doesn’t have a lot of gear. But I also like to think of myself as a vicious, killer ninja, and that’s not true either. I have gear, some gear, which I tote from home to pool or from office to pool on a regular basis.

You don’t need much equipment to swim. You definitely need a body of water. You probably need a swimsuit. Cultural practices vary. These days I’m wearing two swimsuits because my last two suits wore out so quickly that I have to wear one over the other to avoid scandalizing decent folk.

The one other piece of gear I really need is a pair of goggles, because I swim with my contacts in. My young swimming life was before I had contact lenses, which means that much of my childhood was wet and blurry. At my parents’ house, there is an old photo of me standing behind the blocks at a swim meet with a sweet, winsome look on my face. I look like an angel in a dark blue swimsuit, but the fact is, I was no angel–I just couldn’t see anything. One benefit of years of blurry swimming, though, was that I learned how to swim straight so as to avoid mangling myself on lane ropes, a skill that is useful to me in open water swimming.

The pair of goggles I’m wearing now are over a year old; I got them soon after the 2012 Olympics. They are awesome in every way, not least that they have lasted so long. They were on sale at SwimOutlet.com for only $7.25, so I bought two pairs, which is why I could take a picture of a pair still in their packaging.

My super cool goggles

My super cool goggles with glitter-print technology

I almost always wear women’s or junior goggles. So-called adult goggles, like so many other things, are sized to fit men, and even if you pull the straps tight, there is too much distance between the eye cups, and they will leak. You may pay more for goggles that are marked women’s, but you can pay less for goggles that are marked junior. I go for these Speedo Junior Hydrospex; they come in perfectly normal colors, but the sparkly gold stars were on clearance. Who can say why?

I read a product review article in SWIMMER last spring (the USMS magazine–here’s their video review) about goggles for open water swimming and got all excited because of course I wanted special goggles for open water swimming; I just needed someone to give me a reason why. And that reason is to have a wider field of vision. Regular pool goggles are made so that you can see in front of you down the lane. When you are swimming open water, though, you need to see all around you because some crazy person is barreling toward you and you need to take evasive action. Just to make clear, I happily swam open water for a long time, including several races, with regular pool goggles, so it’s not as if you have to have different ones. But I found some AquaSphere Kaiman ones, also women’s (or small) sized, and they work well and have given me no trouble.

Once when I was swimming out at Lake Hartwell, where many open water swimmers and triathletes train, I came up on a group of people treading water all together. As I got closer I could hear the leader explaining to the group that to clear your goggles when they are foggy you can pull them off your face a bit and rub them with your two thumbs to clear them. He was demonstrating. This seemed to me to be a piece of information so obvious that it did not need to be said, but in case you didn’t know, you can rub goggles with your thumbs to clear the fog. If you don’t have thumbs, you can use your fingers or maybe your friend’s thumbs (which is why you should never ever swim alone).

More on gear to come.

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On Kickboards

This week swimming at Westside, I have been reminded of a general truth about swimming pools: wherever you go, the kickboards have bite marks. I don’t understand this phenomenon; I swam for years as a child, and I’ve swum for years as an adult, and I’ve never wanted to bite a kickboard. But there are a lot of people in the world, and we all want different things, and it seems many of us want to sink our teeth into a piece of foam, because there are always bite marks, little crescents of tooth prints, along the edges of the boards.

Westside is a beautiful pool, recently renovated, but the kickboards are antediluvian; I imagine elephants and tigers swimming alongside Noah’s ark, two by two, doing their kick sets with these boards, while waiting for the waters to recede. The kickboards at Furman are newer, and I have a favorite kind (yellow, slightly flexible); some of them have had “R.I.P.” written on them in black Sharpie to make them look like yellow tombstones, which is not completely unfunny. Maybe for my grave I can have a yellow kickboard tombstone, with my name and my dates and bite marks along the edges.

Every pool I’ve ever been in has had kickboards for swimmers to use. But when I went to the Kroc Center a few months ago, I couldn’t find them. While I was looking, a lifeguard approached me and told me that I could get a board at the desk. The board they gave me was hard plastic, shaped like a small shield. I liked it a lot, because it floated low in the water (you want your kickboard to be low in the water, so that it isn’t aggravating your shoulders; there’s a man at my pool who kicks with two kickboards in a little stack, and I wince for his shoulders when I see him). Anyhow, I have ordered myself one, and I will soon be one of those posh swimmers who bring their own kickboards to the pool.

It seems to me that I could bite on my new kickboard in times of rage, and I would look like the Lewis chessmen berserker.


US Masters Swimming is running a postal competition during the month of December, the 400 Kick for Time, where you get a friend to time you in your own pool and you kick the fastest 400 yards you can, no fins. You send in the time via a website (the postals are postal in name only these days). Winners get universal acclaim; everyone gets a t-shirt.