10 mile swim

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


How to Swim 500 Miles a Year

For the past three years (2104, 2015, and 2016), I have swum over 500 miles a year. It’s hard to articulate why. It’s not as if when I was a child I dreamed of being the kind of crazy person who swims 500 miles a year. But that’s the kind of crazy person I turned out to be. And if you think you might be that kind of crazy person too, here’s my advice on how to do it.

Let me note that I have two advantages. First, I work at a university with a pool. That means that most of the time I just have to get out of my office and walk across campus to swim (walking across campus is easy; getting out of the office is hard). Second, I have a lot of control over my schedule. I don’t have infinite flexibility, but I have more power to decide when I do things than some people do.

On the other hand, my life is not simple. I have a full-time job, two kids, a dog, and regular volunteer commitments. I have things going on. I’m sure you do too. So how do you get to 500 miles a year?

1) Put swimming on the schedule, and make it mandatory.

There are some things that I have do at certain times. For example, I have to teach my classes at their scheduled times. Teaching class at its scheduled time is mandatory. I do not schedule meetings, student conferences, medical appointments, haircuts, or anything else during the time I teach.

In the same way, during the school year I swim at the pool at lunchtime. Swimming at that time is mandatory. I do not schedule meetings, student conferences, medical appointments, haircuts, or anything else during the time I swim.

Last summer, I was coaching swim team on weekday mornings starting at 8 am. I got to the pool every morning at 6:15 to swim a couple miles before the children arrived. That was the only time I could swim, so that was when I did it. Every day.

Put swimming on the schedule, and make it mandatory.

2) Make alternative plans.

Sometimes (heaven help me) I have to go to a lunch meeting. Or I have a university event or a conference out of town or maybe even a vacation. That does not mean I don’t swim. I figure out another way.

In 2015, our pool shut down unexpectedly and without warning. The Powers That Be arranged for us to swim for free at a nearby pool, which was terrific. Unfortunately, that pool’s open swim hours were not the same as our open swim hours. I rescheduled everything I could. I made it to lap swim at that pool, every day, until our pool reopened.

When I went to Vancouver for a combination work trip/vacation, I swam at the Kitsilano Beach pool. When the family went to Disney in Orlando for my in-laws’ 50th anniversary, we swam at Lucky’s Lake Swim (it helps to marry into a family of swimmers). I’ve swum at public pools and health center pools and various Ys, not to mention some lakes and the occasional ocean, in the U.S., Canada, England, and Ireland.

I have written about travel swimming before; my quick advice is to pack a suit, a cap, goggles, flip-flops, a lock, and a towel. Bring your second-best towel, just in case.

The point is, you will inevitably run into problems. Don’t give up. Find another time to swim; find another place to swim. Make alternative plans.

3) Trust the swimming.

There are days when I don’t want to swim. There are days when I don’t have time to swim. You know what I do on those days? I go swimming anyway.

I have found that the days that I don’t want to swim and I don’t have time to swim are the days when swimming helps me the most. I think better when I swim. I work better when I swim. I am a better person when I swim.

Don’t debate with yourself about whether you should go swimming. Just go. Get up wherever you are, and head toward the water. Trust the swimming.

There are obstacles that can keep a person from swimming. I have experienced some of them. I had a period of time when I could not swim, in the sense that my doctor told me, “You cannot swim.” When my children were small, it was very difficult to find time to get to the pool. I know that costs and transportation problems are significant impediments for many people, and there are probably other issues I haven’t thought of.

But if you don’t have those barriers in your life, and you think it would be fun to swim 500 miles a year, don’t mistake solvable problems for major obstacles. A regular — if somewhat crazy — person can do it.

Here are some numbers: 500 miles is 880,000 yards. I usually swim 3600 yards a day, five days a week. If I’m heading toward a big swim, I swim more. But at a 3600 yard a day, five day a week pace, a person can swim 500 miles in 49 weeks, leaving three weeks for illness or unavoidable obligations.


My monthly totals from 2016. Screenshot from my USMS flog (fitness log), December 2016.

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The Four Mile Report

Here’s the short version: I swam four miles, and it was fine.

Here’s the long version: I planned to swim four miles in a session by the end of January, and Saturday morning was open. I don’t know how representative a Saturday morning in January is of Saturday mornings in general–we are still very close to New Year’s resolution swimmers and all–but the crowd at the pool was much younger than my weekday lunchtime swimmers. Most of the swimmers looked like students (I swim at a small university pool–small university, small pool), and they were almost all male. A lot of the guys did the workout where you and a friend swim one length of the pool splashing splashing splashing and then stand at the end and talk for five minutes; you repeat this set a few times, increasing the length of the conversations as you go. I believe that if people are standing in the pool chatting for long periods of time, it is evidence that the pool temperature is too warm; if it were colder, they’d be swimming.

In any case, they made me laugh, the young people, and they gave me something to watch. And they weren’t all splashing and talking. One pair of guys was fast; they passed me swimming backstroke while I was swimming free. I would have had my feelings hurt, but I was into my third mile by then, and I felt I didn’t have anything to prove.

Here is what I swam:

900 free
300 swim, 300 kick, 300 pull
900 free
9×100 alternating IM/free
900 free
18×50 on :50
900 free
300 back, 300 kick, 300 free
= 7200 yards

I really did not want to do the set of 50s. I had to talk myself into it: “Woman, it’s only fifteen minutes of your life. Just do it.”

I drank two-thirds or so of a chocolate nutritional drink (< 200 calories of a 250 calorie serving) at 5400 yards–after the 50s–and finished the rest at the end. I went to bed that night with visions of the incredible breakfast of eggs I would cook myself, but woke up at 2:30 am starving, with itchy ears, nose, and throat. So I had cold mac-and-cheese and Benadryl and went back to sleep; then I had muesli for breakfast. No aches or pains in the morning.

Here’s my USMS flog since the beginning of January:

Jan 18 flog 1

And here’s my progress toward the 500 mile goal for the year:

Jan 18 flog 264,000 yards so far this year. It’s a good start.

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Swimming, Sleeping, and the Mundanity of Excellence

If you look around the internet, you will find article after article about the benefits of swimming. Swimming will make you stronger and healthier. You will sleep better at night, you will live years longer, and you will develop an incredible six-pack. You will become irresistible to men or women or both (you don’t necessarily get to choose). But none of this is why I swim.

I swim because I like to swim. I am not swimming to do or get or become anything. The incredible six-pack (which I do not have, in case you thought I might) is not the goal; the swimming is the goal. I am not training so that I can swim 10 miles in July; I am swimming 10 miles in July so that I get to do the training.

I bring this up because I have been rereading Daniel Chambliss‘s article, “The Mundanity of Excellence.” Chambliss is the Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College and has won a number of academic awards, including the ASA’s Theory Prize for work on organizational excellence. “The Mundanity of Excellence” is about excellence in swimming; Chambliss spent six years studying swimmers at all levels, from the Olympics to club teams, in order to form his conclusions. It’s well-written and thought-provoking; you should read it (broken link has been fixed) even if you never swim and never intend to.

Two particular points in the article grabbed me this time. The first point is about the attitude of top-level swimmers:

What others see as boring–swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, say–they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic. . . . Coming into the 5:30 AM practices at Mission Viejo, many of the swimmers were lively, laughing, talking, enjoying themselves, perhaps appreciating the fact that most people would positively hate doing it. It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it. (74)

This is The Good News, as far as I’m concerned. I am not a top athlete, but I do share this attitude: I do not see practice as sacrifice. I am not suffering when I swim. I like my pool, and I like my people, and I like swimming.

The second point is The Bad News–or, more optimistically, The News that Suggests Areas of Improvement. Chambliss demonstrates that a good attitude is not sufficient: in order to improve, you have to make qualitative changes in what you are doing and be consistent at maintaining those small improvements. Chambliss writes:

Excellence is mundane. Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of those actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence. (81)

Chambliss brings in evidence from his longitudinal study of swimmers for this argument. For example, he talks about the experience of Mary T. Meagher, Olympic champion and world record-holder in butterfly. In the year before she took the world record, she focused on making small consistent changes: she came to practice on time every day; she made every turn in every practice perfect. Chambliss reports, “This, [Meagher] says, accustomed her to doing things one step better than those around her–always” (82). Mary T. ended up swimming like this:

Excellence requires that we develop small skills, practice them, make them into habit. And this is the part of the pursuit of excellence that I find difficult: there are lots of mundane changes that I don’t want to make. I don’t want to work on my stroke technique. I don’t want to change what I’m eating. I just want to swim.

But there is a qualitative change that I have been thinking about making, and Chambliss’s article encourages me to do it: get more sleep. Research suggests that getting more sleep can improve athletic performance. A study of Stanford University swimmers found that more sleep resulted in faster sprints, quicker starts and turns, and improved kicks. The lead author of the study, Cheri Mah, makes these suggestions:

Make sleep a part of your regular training regimen.

Extend nightly sleep for several weeks to reduce your sleep debt before competition.

Maintain a low sleep debt by obtaining a sufficient amount of nightly sleep (seven to eight hours for adults, nine or more hours for teens and young adults).

Keep a regular sleep-wake schedule, going to bed and waking up at the same times every day.

Take brief naps to obtain additional sleep during the day, especially if drowsy.

I am in the middle of reading Steve Munatones’s 2011 book, Open Water Swimming; he also emphasizes the importance of sleep. In addition, he notes that swimmers often find it difficult to sleep the night before a race and suggests getting extra sleep in the weeks leading up to the race to compensate.

I am hoping to develop the same attitude toward going to bed that I have toward going to the pool: at a certain time of day, I stop what I’m doing and I go. Eight hours of sleep a day: a small qualitative improvement, consistently implemented. It’s a start.

Meanwhile, I am also getting stronger and healthier, and I have become irresistible to men and women who are attracted by the smell of chlorine.

It's like this all the time now.

It’s like this all the time now.

I’m doing a lot of swimming.

Chambliss, Daniel F. (1989). The mundanity of excellence: an ethnographic report on stratification and Olympic swimmers. Sociological Theory, 7, 70-86.

There is more on sleep and swimming here: Sleeping for Swimmers at Swimming Science.


Here’s the Plan: There Is No Plan

there is no planIt’s January 1, which means that I am now officially training for the 10-mile swim. But it’s January 1, which means that the pool is closed, so I am now officially training for the 10-mile swim by sitting in my house in front of the computer drinking coffee and eating Trader Joe’s Triple Ginger Snaps.

The last week or so I’ve been thinking about my training plan. I read around about preparing for a long swim (see especially the LoneSwimmer post on Progressive Overload Training), and I printed out a calendar of the year up to July 26, the date of the swim, and sat down to fill in a schedule.

And then I stopped. I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow. How am I going to plan for March or May?

So here’s the no-plan plan: swim five days a week, with one long swim each week, increasing the length of the long swim by one mile a month.

End of . . . Longest swim (minimum)
January 4 miles
February 5 miles
March 6 miles
April 7 miles
May 8 miles
June 9 miles

A long swim and four shorter swims a week: that’s it. When the weather gets warm enough, I take the no-plan plan to Lake Hartwell and swim as much as I can outside. There is a one-mile loop–really just a half-mile down the shore and back–and I can do repeats of that loop. In the meantime, I start figuring out how to shoehorn these swims into the weekend pool hours.

Penny Lee Dean sets out a training schedule for a 10-mile swim much like this one, though more detailed, in her book, Open Water Swimming; I can’t commit to detail, but I was reassured to see that her plan was similarly structured.

I will also swim some races in May and June. At minimum, I want to do the 5-mile distance of the Lowcountry Splash in Charleston on May 24. I’ve done the 2.4-mile distance twice now, and it’s a beautiful swim and a well-run event; you swim with the current down the river and under the Ravenel Bridge. I took the photo at the top of this blog during the swim in 2012. I’m thinking about two other events as well. The Death Valley Open Water Swim at Lake Hartwell is usually held in June; I’ll sign up for the longest distance, probably a 5K, if I can make the date. There’s a 2.4 mile in Chattanooga on May 17 which would make a nice first swim, but it’s an overnight stay in Tennessee right before the Lowcountry Splash. I’m keeping my eyes open for other swims.

The other preparation I’d like to do is swim across Lake Jocassee, a cold clear lake near me. My friend T has a kayak or canoe or something boatish, and he suggested it. He could hand me food, and I could practice eating while treading water in a lake. It will be silly, but it will be a lot less silly than practicing eating while treading water in an old diving well that’s been converted into a therapy pool, surrounded by people aqua-jogging, which is my other option.

Now all I have to do is wait for the pool to open tomorrow so I can get started.