10 mile swim

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


On Swimming like a Girl

“It appears that open water swimming is unique among the world’s various athletic competitions. In particular, in the marathon swimming world, not only are women holding their own against their male counterparts, but they are also waiting on shore for the men to finish.” Steven Munatones analyzes records from marathons, triathlons, and open water events and concludes, “Based on the data, it appears that open water swimming may be the most competitive amateur sport when men and women race together. The race is on. May the best (wo)man win.”

Lynne Cox, swimming like a girl. Photo by Michael Muller for ESPN, from Hell in High Waters: The Lynne Cox Story.

I’m thinking about swimming and gender again because of a video going around (an advertisement for Always) about the phrase “like a girl”: how saying someone does a physical activity “like a girl” is a way of saying that the person does it weakly or badly. The point of the advertisement, of course, is that “like a girl” should be reclaimed as a compliment instead of an insult.

But I have also seen comments online from people claiming that it’s simply a natural fact that women are weaker and slower than men. Men are (on average) bigger. Men have (on average) more muscle mass. Women should accept their weakness as a biological inevitability.

And it’s true that in most of the sports I am familiar with men are better than women. Men compete against men, and women compete against women — otherwise men would win all the time. Most competitive sports have men’s leagues and women’s leagues, or even men’s versions and women’s versions: in the US we have baseball for men and softball for women. When men and women play together, rules are put into place to compensate for women’s inferiority: for example, in our local co-ed soccer (football) league, a minimum number of women have to be on the field for each team to keep it fair. We take it for granted that men will win athletic competitions, that the men’s 50 meter dash will be faster than the women’s 50 meter dash, that the male skaters will do the quadruple jump while the female skaters do the triple.

But men are not always better in open water swimming. Munatones’s analysis shows that women often win competitions. It’s not every race, it’s not every time, but women hold the records in several key events, such as the Catalina Channel swim (both directions). Not only that, the average women’s times compare to the average men’s times in events such as the Catalina Channel and the Manhattan Island Marathon.

Munatones doesn’t speculate about why men and women are so closely matched in open water (and so mismatched in other sports), but it seems to me that there’s at least one specific physical reason: women float.

Last year, three men and I swam 50 x 50 yards on 50 seconds to celebrate the 50th birthday of one of the men. This is a thing swimmers do: swim a special workout, maybe with some numerological significance, for a birthday or holiday. One of the three guys is a bit slower, and I figured he would swim at pace as long as he could, taking off a 50 here and there. It’s a perfectly respectable thing to do; I’ve done it in other situations. Instead he appeared at the pool wearing his wetsuit. Wetsuits make you faster by improving your buoyancy, but wetsuits make you warmer too, and I would not want to swim in our 80-degree pool in a wetsuit.

So I said to him, “You’re wearing your wetsuit?”

And he said to me, “You have a built-in wetsuit.”

Now, just think about that for a second: this man was saying that I had a natural advantage on him because I am a woman. I have more body fat than he does. In other words, I have a built-in wetsuit.

Is there another sport in which women have a physical advantage? Most of our sports are designed (you could say, rigged) to reward the things that men’s bodies are good at. Men are tall and they have muscles, and most sports reward taller, muscly bodies, either big and muscly or lean and muscly. Men aren’t naturally better than women at sports; the sports are set up so that they win.

In most sports, fat is bad, and breasts in particular are in the way. Think of the sports bra industry, selling elaborate garments to female athletes so that they can strap their breasts down. Think of the legendary Amazonians, cutting off one breast so that they could shoot arrows more accurately. Think of gymnastics, a sport for girls rather than women: a post-pubescent woman’s body, with breasts and hips, is such a disadvantage that you rarely see adult women in competitive gymnastics.

Here's another reason I'm not interested in running.

Here’s another reason I’m not interested in running.

But open water swimming rewards technique, efficiency, and buoyancy, and fat floats. A higher percentage of body fat is not a disadvantage. You can use your energy to swim. And the longer you swim, the less important it is to be tall and have long arms and the more important it is to float.

I swam the Alcatraz Sharkfest swim back in 2011. It was a race with about 700 people, many more men than women, and people ranging in age from 10 to 70. The water temperature was 61 degrees, and wetsuits were recommended: most people wore them, including me. But that day the race was won by a woman in her 20s who was not wearing a wetsuit; she beat us all, men and women, in wetsuits and without.

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; sometimes the swim is to the one who can float.

Swim like a girl. Swim like a woman.


Book Review: Open Water Swimming, Steven Munatones

I borrowed Steven Munatones’s Open Water Swimming from the library (through the wonder of interlibrary loan), but I had only read about halfway through it before I knew I needed to buy my own copy. I live in a house full of books–seriously, it’s full of books; you can’t walk down the hall with a laundry basket without knocking books off the shelf–so I don’t buy a book unless I know I want to read it and reread it and take notes in it. This is a book I’m going to return to again and again.

Open Water Swimming has ten chapters (plus resources and a glossary):

  1. The Open Water Swimmer
  2. Overcoming the Elements
  3. Choosing Your Events
  4. The Open Water Tool Kit
  5. Building a Faster Freestyle
  6. Preparing for Short-Distance Swims
  7. Preparing for Middle-Distance Swims
  8. Preparing for Marathon Swims
  9. Racing Tactics for Every Event
  10. Triathlon Training and Finishing Fast

You can tell from the list that the book aims at a wide audience, from the beginning triathlete to the marathon swimmer, so parts of the book do not apply to me right now and might not apply to you. Someday, though, maybe I’m going to want to swim the Tsugaru Channel (known for nighttime blooms of squid!), and I’ll know where to look for info.

On the other hand, chapters five and six contain specific training advice that I am already putting into practice. In chapter five (“Building a Faster Freestyle”), Munatones clearly explains details of a strong open water freestyle (i.e. front crawl stroke), with drills to help with body positioning and efficient sighting. In chapter six (titled somewhat misleadingly “Preparing for Short-Distance Swims” as it contains workout suggestions for short, middle, and marathon distances), he sets up a framework he calls the Pyramid of Open Water Success; its foundation is base training, speed training, and distance tolerance. He then gives sets to help swimmers work on each of those aspects, and, to my great enjoyment, discusses how swimming other strokes in practices can help you swim long distances freestyle on event day. I’m already using some of his IM sets. Munatones also makes the absolutely terrific suggestion of beginning an interval from the middle of the pool, rather than by pushing off the wall. This is a great idea to practice starting from treading water; yesterday I did a 10 x 200 set (alternating IMs and free) in this way, and it truly kicked my butt. I was delighted. I will do it again.

In addition, chapter six has detailed directions about how to set up your pool to do POW (Pool Open Water) training; as I don’t control the set-up of my pool, they aren’t much use to me, but I can see these ideas being very helpful to a coach or team.

I also appreciate the way Munatones covers interactions among swimmers during a race. He sets up three distinctions: swimming defensively, swimming offensively, and swimming aggressively. Now, I have no desire to swim offensively or aggressively, but having swum several races, I understand the need to swim defensively. Munatones discusses drafting in chapter nine (“Racing Tactics for Every Event”), and I wish I had read his advice earlier: I would have been better prepared to deal with the miserable so-and-so who was poking my feet for a quarter of a mile at the Lake Lure swim last August. I’m still angry about it six months later. On the other hand, Table 9.1: How to Execute Turns with Authority made me laugh with glee; I want to execute turns with authority, and this season, I will.

There is more valuable information in this book than I am able to present here, including the overview in chapter one (“The Open Water Swimmer”), the discussion of equipment in chapter four (“The Open Water Tool Kit”–he’s just about convinced me that I need a swimmer’s snorkel), and the pre-race preparation advice in chapter seven (“Preparing for the Middle-Distance Swim”). Other swimmers might get excited about different pieces of advice in the book; there’s a lot here. But as for me, I think this book is a keeper. You can borrow my copy, but I’m going to want it back.

Open Water Swimming by Steven Munatones was published by Human Kinetics in 2011; it’s available in paperback or Kindle from Amazon.


The 400 IM, or How to Teach Yourself Not to Panic

Don’t panic and carry a towel: good advice for hitchhikers and swimmers alike.
Image from Wikipedia Commons.

I’ve started swimming 400 IMs. I’m not swimming them because I need to practice all four competitive strokes for my ten mile swim. I’m swimming them because I need to practice not panicking.

But let me back up. An IM is an individual medley, equal distances of the four competitive strokes in a set order: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle. A 100 IM is 25 yards (or meters) of each one; a 200 IM is 50 of each; etc. A 400 IM, then, is 100 butterfly, 100 backstroke, 100 breaststroke, 100 freestyle.

The 400 IM is traditionally considered a tough event. It is the longest IM swum in regular competition, and it hurts like hell. Tony Austin at SCAQblog has suggested that there should be a merit badge for every USA Swimming kid who completes a 400 IM without disqualification in competition; I want a badge just for doing the 400 IM without dying in practice.

Merit badge for surviving a 400 IM: Image from SCAQblog

As I said above, I don’t need to practice the four competitive strokes to do them during the ten mile swim. I will probably do some breaststroke along the way–it’s easy to look around and get your bearings doing breaststroke–and if the weather is nice, I’ll do some backstroke to look up at the beautiful Minnesota sky. But I don’t plan to do miles of either back or breast, and I don’t plan to do any butterfly at all.

I’m practicing the 400 IM for other reasons. Both Lynne Cox (Open Water Swimming Manual) and Steven Munatones (Open Water Swimming) advocate doing all strokes in practice for open water events. Cox notes, “It [doing the four strokes] will give you a variety of swimming skills to work out; it will keep your mind active; and it will enable you to work and stretch different muscle groups so that you can build overall strength” (60). Munatones adds another advantage, “The ability to swim straight is one of the best assets of an open water swimmer. In addition to bilateral breathing and having an efficient freestyle stroke, you can help yourself become more symmetrical by adding butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and individual medley sets to your pool swimming workouts” (121).

Check out this USA Swimming video of the 2013 National Championships in the women’s 400 IM; two of the eight competitors are introduced as 10K swimmers as well as pool swimmers.

I would add yet one more advantage to swimming the 400 IM to the ones named by Cox and Munatones: it builds perseverance. A 400 IM is at the edge of my endurance. It’s the 100 butterfly, of course: 25 yards is not a problem, 50 yards is doable, but 75 yards begins to hurt, and somewhere between 75 and 100 I can’t breathe. Sometimes I can’t get the air in. Sometimes I inhale water. Getting to the backstroke leg is a relief but not a rest; I still have 300 more yards to go.

This, I would say, is a good simulation of choppy water conditions at the end of a long race: I’m worn out, I get a faceful of water, and I can’t breathe. It’s not that I’m practicing the IM. I’m practicing swimming while coughing and feeling as if I’m dragging an anchor.

Some days I’ve just thrown a 400 IM somewhere into my 4000 yards. But I’ve also done this ladder set as my main set a few times; I adapted it from Steven Munatones’s IM workout suggestions in Open Water Swimming. I take 15 seconds (or so) between each swim:

100 IM + 100 free
200 IM + 200 free
300 IM + 300 free
400 IM + 400 free
= 2000 yards

It’s not pretty, and it hurts a lot. But I can do it. I’m learning not to panic.