10 mile swim

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


How to Design an Ultramarathon Swim Workout

I am in training for a four day, four lake, 40 mile open water swim challenge in April. Due to factors beyond my control (i.e. I am not independently wealthy), I do 90% or more of my training for ultramarathon length open water swims in pools. That’s a lot of swimming in a small box of water. How do you design very long workouts for the pool?

An ultra length distance pool workout has to be satisfying for your mind and your body. Swimming seven miles straight in a pool is not going to make you happy. And simply multiplying your regular workouts by some factor is not good either: a 20 x 50 yard set is fine, but a 200 x 50 yard set (or a 20 x 500 yard set) is monotonous. In addition, swimming nothing but free (front crawl) for hours and hours is hard on your shoulders; I like to have some stroke work and drills in my workouts to give my shoulders a break.

When designing a very long workout, I keep two things in mind: structure and variety. Structure makes clear where you are in the workout. Variety keeps your mind engaged.

I love to swim pyramids. You increase the distance of each unit by even increments up to some point, and then you decrease back down. It’s useful to know that 100 + 200 + 300 + 400 + 500 + 600 + 700 + 800 + 900 = 4500. The last time I swam 10,000 yards, I did it like this:

100 free
200 pull
300 kick
400: 4 x 100 w/a moving stroke 25 (25 back, 75 free; 25 free, 25 back, 50 free; etc.)
500 free
600: 2 x (200 free + 100 back)
700 pull
800: 8×100 alternate IM and free
900: 300 swim, 300 kick, 300 swim
1000 swim
Repeat backward, starting with the 900 and decreasing down to the 100.

It was a great 10,000 yard workout; I always knew how far along I was, and the whole thing flew by. If you add a second 1000 free in the middle, you have a 11,000 yard or meter workout.

Pyramid of Khufu

Pyramids are inherently satisfying. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

If I can’t work out a nice pyramid for my distance, I like doing sets of some standard distance with variation within each set. So, a 12,000 yard/meter set could be 6 x 2000:

1st 2000: 500 swim, 500 pull, 500 swim, 500 kick
2nd 2000: 8 x 250 ladders (each 250: 100, rest 5 sec, 75, rest 5 sec, etc.)
3rd 2000: (6 x (200 free + 100 back)) + 200 free
4th 2000: 500 swim, 500 pull, 500 swim, 500 kick
5th 2000: 10 x broken 200s (each 200: 100, rest 10 sec, 50, rest 5 sec, 50)
6th 2000: 4 x 500 (each 500: 4 x (25 stroke + 100 free))

Or I do the beads-on-a-string workout, alternating sets of different sizes (big bead, little bead, big bead, little bead, etc.). Here is a 13,000 yard workout, made up of 2000 yard sets with 200 yard kick in between:

1st 2000: 500 swim, 500 pull, 500 swim, 500 pull
200 kick
2nd 2000: 6 x (200 free + 100 back) + 200 free
200 kick
3rd 2000: 8 x 250 ladders (each 100, 5 sec, 75, 5 sec, etc.)
200 kick
4th 2000: 20 x 100 alternating IMs and free
200 kick
5th 2000: 10 x broken 200s (each 200: 100, 10 sec, 50, 5 sec, 50)
200 kick
6th 2000: 500 pull, 500 swim, 500 pull, 500 swim

These last two workouts won’t give you the feeling of rolling downhill in the second half like a pyramid structure does, but you always know where you are in them. And you can play with fractions and percentages in your mind as you swim if you enjoy that kind of thing. I enjoy that kind of thing.

I’ve got a lot of swimming to do, and I’m always looking for new structures and sets. Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

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On Adjusting the Yardage

I’m having a rough time right now. I’m dealing with it by swimming a lot of butterfly. It’s no surprise that I’m having a rough time right now; it’s December, and December is difficult. Fortunately I have enough self-awareness to recognize what’s going on. I swim for my mental health — any physical benefits are just happy side effects — and I know when I need to adjust the dosage, I mean, yardage.

There are times when a person swims long, steady, meditative swims under beautiful skies. And there are times when a person swims sprints, 12 x 25 alt free and fly, in old, dark 25-yard pools.

Swimming butterfly is the opposite of meditative. It is all-consuming. I have to concentrate on technique the whole time: putting my hands up straight ahead of my shoulders, keeping my feet in the water. When I get tired, my hands hit each other in front and my feet pop out, and I think, “Dammit, woman, get it together.” By number eight I’m breathing hard. By number twelve I’m done.

But if I swim enough butterfly, peace descends upon me like a blanket placed on my shoulders. Sometimes I can feel it hit as I’m walking back to the office. It’s clearly biochemical — endocannabinoids– and it works. Make your own mood-altering chemicals, my friends, in your own bodies.

Yesterday I swam this:

  • 2 x 500 modified SKIP
  • 12 x 25 alt free/fly on :30
  • 200 free, breathe every 5 strokes
  • 200 free breathe whenever I wanted
  • 6 x 50 kick on 1:00
  • 12 x 25 alt free/fly on :30 (again)
  • 4 x 75 (25 free, 25 fly, 25 free) on 1:20
  • 4 x 75 (25 free, 25 back, 25 free) on 1:20
  • 4 x 75 (25 free, 25 breast, 25 free) on 1:25
  • 4 x 75 (all free) on 1:15
  • 100 cool down

That’s 3600 yards. A SKIP is Swim, Kick, IM, Pull; I did the 500s as 200 swim, 100, kick, 100 IM, 100 pull.  And those 25s, by the way, are really on 25 seconds (free) or 35 seconds (fly), so I can have more rest for the fly.

When the roof was being fixed at my pool last month, the pace clocks at either end of the pool became unsynched. I didn’t realize it until the first time I did a set that involved 25s or 75s. I came up at the far end, looked at the clock, and became completely disoriented. Time made no sense. So now I’m using the stopwatch function on my watch, which is as difficult as the rest of December: I’m not wearing reading glasses while I swim, and I can barely make out the numbers.

My eyes are old. And it’s December. But I’m dealing with it. I’m swimming butterfly.

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Questions about Open Water Swimming: 1) Don’t You Get Bored?

I asked friends to tell me what they wanted to know about open water swimming and about my experience at Swim the Suck, the ten mile race I swam in Chattanooga last week, and the most common question was, “Don’t you get bored?”

I don’t get bored. I didn’t get bored at Swim the Suck; I loved all ten miles of it. One of the people I met at the dinner the evening before the swim — she was swimming the event for the second time — said that she thought of it less as a race and more as a tour. And having swum the course, I agree: it was a tour of the beautiful Tennessee River Gorge from the water. You can see photos at my race report.

Open water swimming is like hiking. You look around. You see things. You need to pay attention to where you’re going, as you do when you hike — you’re looking for obstacles and making sure you stay on course — but you can enjoy the scenery as you go.

I think that’s what people may not understand about open water swimming, the fact that you can enjoy the scenery. The mechanics are simple. First, you see ahead when you sight. Sighting is when you lift your head to look in front of you; you don’t need to do it in a pool (in a pool you follow the black line), but you do have to do it regularly in open water. Sighting is tiring, however, and it slows you down. I’ve learned to sight like an alligator, lifting my head just enough that my eyes are above the water, but still, at the end of a long race, my neck is sore.

Here I am sighting while swimming in Lake Jocassee. Photo by B the kayaker. May 2015.

Here I am sighting while swimming in Lake Jocassee last spring. There are no alligators in Lake Jocassee, just me. Photo by B the kayaker. May 2015.

It’s easier to look around when you breathe. I breathe to the right and to the left equally well, so as I swim I can see what’s on either side of me. As we went down the Tennessee River last weekend, we enjoyed the mountains in early fall. Here and there we passed a house; M, my kayaker, pointed out a place that had a three-story-high tree house next to it, and we talked about it as a possible Airbnb location.

I pick races in beautiful places on purpose. The Lowcountry Splash is another example; you get an unbeatable view of the Ravenel Bridge (seen in the photo at the top of this blog). I suppose when you’re a serious competitor, you don’t spend time sightseeing, but I’d rather enjoy the view than win.

Of course, I don’t get to swim in beautiful places all the time — or even most of the time. But I don’t get bored swimming in a pool either.

When you swim two miles a day in a pool, you don’t just get in the water, swim two miles, and get out. Usually I swim a warm-up, a set with kicking and/or pulling, and a main set; maybe I’ll have a short cool-down.

At least a couple times a week I incorporate other strokes besides freestyle (crawl) into the workout. I developed a pain in my shoulder swimming backstroke (which is ironic, since I was swimming backstroke to protect my shoulders), so I’ve been doing more fly and breast. My favorite way to include those strokes these days is in 75s: 25 free, 25 other, 25 free. I do these in sets of four or six; for example, a possible 900 yard set is 4 x 75 with fly, 4 x 75 with breast, 4 x 75 with fly. Swimming a variety of strokes is one of the ways you keep the workout interesting.

Every day on my way to swim my workout, I walk through the fitness center. It’s a large room with two kinds of things in it: exercise equipment and devices to occupy people while they are using the exercise equipment. Music plays. Television screens are everywhere. It’s as if people have to be distracted from what they are doing in order to do it.

But I don’t need to be distracted from swimming. People talk about the need to practice mindful eating, to take pleasure in our food and be satisfied by it. I try to practice mindful swimming: I take pleasure in it, and I am satisfied.

Of course, there are days when I am no good at mindful swimming. I come in distracted. On those days, I use swimming to clear my head. Perhaps what I am experiencing other people would call boredom, but I call it a respite. My mind can rest as my body swims.

Over a year ago, a month or so before I did my first ten mile swim, I wrote a blog post called Why I’m Not Bored. It’s about the physical experience of swimming: what you see, what you feel. I wrote at the time, “When I’m swimming, I’m smiling.” Last weekend, at the end of Swim the Suck, my face ached. I realized the next day that it was from ten miles of smiling.

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On the Emergency Workout

It was a difficult week. I swam five days, and three of those I swam the emergency workout.

The emergency workout is for days when you are at the end of your rope, when you have lost the rope, when the rope is on fire. It doesn’t do all of the things a workout should do: there is no warm-up, no drills, no stroke work, no cool-down. It has two key qualities: it is efficient, and it requires no thought.

It can be shoehorned into a day when you don’t have time to swim but you also don’t have time to be insane.

My emergency workout is simple: 36 x 100 yards on 1:40. It takes 60 minutes. I follow the pace clock: leave on the 60, on the 40, on the 20. I know I will do that cycle twelve times, but I don’t even have to count to twelve: when I’ve swum for 60 minutes, I stop.

All hail the analog pace clock!

The analog pace clock. I leave when the red second hand is on the 60, the 40, the 20. If the black minute hand is on the 10 when I start, I swim until it’s on the 10 again. That’s all there is to it.

The emergency workout requires nothing of me but that I swim.

Other workouts focus on particular skills, strokes, techniques; they build endurance or speed. This workout does none of that. It has one purpose, and it has never failed me: no matter how bad things seem when I start, they seem better when I am finished.

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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 FactorNumber.com, 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 https://www.flickr.com/photos/gebl/3240892240/

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.