Elite vs. Masters in the open water

What’s the difference between Masters open-water races and elite FINA or USA-S open-water races? I would argue, it’s not so much the absolute swimming speeds (1:10 per 100m for 10K, compared to 1:20 to win almost any Masters 10K), but the variability of swimming speeds.

Masters races have a much wider spread of abilities. In this year’s USMS 10K at Morse Reservoir, the top 10 finishers were separated by 9 seconds per 100m, and the winner was a full 29 seconds per 100m faster than the median finisher. What this means is, most people are swimming most of the race by themselves.

In FINA races, the spread in abilities from top to bottom is (I would guess) less than 5 seconds per 100m. What that means is: lots of pack swimming. In order to successfully break away from an open-water peloton, a swimmer will not only have to swim faster than the others in the pack, but fast enough to break out of the peloton’s draft.

As a result, elite races are characterized by 8-9K of conservative, highly tactical swimming followed by 1-2K of balls-out sprinting. In contrast, Masters races – especially those over an hour (for the winner) – more closely resemble “time trials.”

As an exhibit, here are the 2K splits (with 100m paces) from the June 2010 USA-S 10K National Championship, provided by Powerhouse Timing:

A Gemmell (M-3)
J Kinderwater (M-6)
0:23:22.69 0:01:10.13 0:23:21.75 0:01:10.09
0:23:43.88 0:01:11.19 0:23:43.41 0:01:11.17
0:23:52.90 0:01:11.64 0:23:54.31 0:01:11.72
0:23:46.10 0:01:11.31 0:23:46.10 0:01:11.31
0:22:30.27 0:01:07.51 0:22:35.97 0:01:07.80
C Sutton (F-1)
C Jennings (F-2)
0:23:49.27 0:01:11.46 0:23:49.27 0:01:11.46
0:23:59.33 0:01:11.97 0:24:00.26 0:01:12.01
0:24:12.62 0:01:12.63 0:24:13.78 0:01:12.69
0:23:35.20 0:01:10.76 0:23:28.99 0:01:10.45
0:23:42.40 0:01:11.12 0:23:48.06 0:01:11.40

These were the only four swimmers for whom all 5 splits were recorded. For the men, Gemmell and Kinderwater finished 3-6 (negligibly behind the winner), and for the women, Sutton and Jennings finished 1-2. Interestingly, the splits were almost identical through 8K, for both men and women. In the last 2K, the men seemed to find a new gear – almost 4 seconds/100m faster – while the women maintained their previous pace.

What’s your “forever pace”?

What pace can you hold… well, maybe not “forever,” but let’s say… indefinitely. What would your pace be if you intended to swim all day – not racing, just swimming (and given that you’re fully warmed up) ?

Imagine you’re David B. (a.k.a. “chaos” on the USMS forum) swimming across the Catalina Channel. He’s a swimmer fully capable of a sub-10 hour crossing, but because of adverse currents it turns into 15 hours, 37 minutes. What’s that pace?

As I think more and more about true “marathon” swimming – I’m doing my first race over 10K in October – this seems an increasingly fundamental question. Yet it’s a question that, despite my many years in the sport, I had never thought to ask.

Now that I have more regular access to long course water, I’ve had better opportunities to answer this question. And for me, right now, that pace is about 1:24 (+/- 1 second) per 100 meters.

Obviously, since I’ve never done a swim longer than 2.5 hours, it’s difficult to say what 15 hours in the water would do (nothing good, I’d imagine). However, I’ve tested myself under a few different “adverse” circumstances – e.g., the day after a hard night of “socializing”, the day after a long weightlifting session – and it always seems to boil down to about 1:24/100m (22:30 per mile). Like clockwork.

For a 10-mile swim (ceteris paribus – not accounting for chop, current, super-warm water, etc.), that pace works out to 3 hours, 45 minutes. Anyone want to wager an over-under?

Cycles of work & recovery

A few weeks ago I described the “balancing act” I face between (a) doing so many races this summer, and (b) training sufficiently to swim races such as the 10K. I just realized I never followed up on that post!

So, what’s the strategy? As the title implies, I time the intensity of my training around the races. What that means in practice is that I do my most intense workouts (including weight-lifting) near the beginning of the week, and reserve the end of the week (Friday, and possibly Thursday as well) for recovery. Then, come what may on Saturday, I’m ready to perform.

The elegant part of this strategy is that recovery days should already be part of the training plan – whether or not I have a race on the weekend. Work followed by recovery is how the body gets stronger. Training intensity that follows (approximately) a sine curve over time will be more effective than a flat line.

The only adjustment I make is that my recovery days are fixed – always at the end of the week rather than scattered at random. If I don’t have a race on the weekend, I’ll use Friday for recovery anyway – but then do something intense-ish on Saturday to keep the cycle going.

More from Elk Lake

Two more fun pics from my recent Oregon adventure. First, here’s me with Dave Radcliff – 1956 Olympian in the 1500m and owner of multiple FINA Masters world records. He and his wife Nancy are old friends of my parents, though I hadn’t seen them since I was a kid.

Dave is, to say the least, a remarkable swimmer. I went back through the results of every open-water event I’ve done this year (plus last year’s Big Shoulders) and counted only 6 swimmers his age (76) or older – four in the Livermore 1.5-mile, and two in the 2-mile cable swim. At Elk Lake, Dave swam all five races – from 500m up to 5K. Amazing, right? Well, get this: If you were one of the other swimmers in each of those 5 races, there’s a pretty good chance that you lost to a 76-year old. In the 5K, he finished 18th out of 71, in a time of 1:15. Mind-boggling.

And here’s one of me, wondering if I could ever get tired of that view…

Race Report: Cascade Lakes Swim Series (Elk Lake, OR)

Bob Needham’s write-up here.

“Over the hills and through the woods” has been a common theme in my summer open-water tour. My latest stop was no exception – though the hills were a bit higher, the woods somewhat thicker. Elk Lake is a 405-acre glacial lake in deep wilderness, yet only a 40-minute drive from Bend. And what a spectacular drive it is – through seemingly endless alpine forests and past numerous snow-capped peaks.

Central Oregon Masters Aquatics (COMA) has organized annual open-water swims at this venue for a number of years – at least 15, from what I heard – and in recent years it has expanded to a series of five swims over three days. They call it a “festival,” and it is truly that: a grand, All-American celebration of of nature and sport.

Continue reading “Race Report: Cascade Lakes Swim Series (Elk Lake, OR)”

Lake Erie a no-go

I’m usually not one to back down from a race. So, my decision to scratch yesterday’s 2-mile Lake Erie Open-Water Swim was not without regrets.

I had some chores to take care of down in Columbus before the renters move in to our house. I figured, instead of returning the same way I came (through Indianapolis), I’d swing through Cleveland and reward my hard work with the Lake Erie swim, which is part of the GLOWS series.

I made it up to Cleveland Friday evening, but soon after checking into the hotel I opened my laptop and read some disturbing news: A “swim advisory” at Edgewater State Park – the beach just west of downtown Cleveland where the swim would take place. Elevated E. coli levels, apparently.

Now, Cleveland has cleaned up its act in recent decades – recall the 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire – but this was not what I wanted to hear. On top of the Friday swim advisory, there was also a large thunderstorm making its way through town at that very moment. Meaning even worse water quality the next morning.

82 people showed up to swim Saturday morning (of 99 registered), but I was not among them. I was already on my way back to Chicago. Did I make a mountain of a molehill? Perhaps. Yesterday’s E. coli reading (reported today) came out at 63 CFU, well below the state threshold of 235. So it was probably safe to swim.

No doubt, I’ve unknowingly exposed myself to much worse water-borne dangers than Lake Erie had to offer that morning. But that’s the way it goes – under uncertain conditions, I made a decision. Thankfully, there’s still plenty of racing left on my summer schedule.