The Fishburn Set

I love Chloe Sutton’s Twitter feed.  She occasionally posts a set she just did in practice, and they’re invariably ridiculous. Chloe’s a professional swimmer, but she’s also, you know, a woman – and frankly there are only a small handful of men in the country who can keep up with her in practice.

Anyway, yesterday Chloe did a set that I recognized from my youth. It’s called the Fishburn Set, and it goes like this:

  • 5×100
  • 4×200
  • 3×300
  • 2×400
  • 1×500

That’s only 3,500 yards – not an unfathomable distance, especially for an elite distance swimmer. The key to the Fishburn Set is the intervals. For the first round of 5×100, the interval should be one that you can make (not too hard, not too easy). Then, in the subsequent rounds, your interval increases by a fixed amount. That amount must be less than the first interval.

So, let’s say you do the 5×100’s on 1:20, and your “increase” is 1:10. That would produce the following set:

  • 5×100 @ 1:20 (1:20 per 100)
  • 4×200 @ 2:30 (1:15 per 100)
  • 3×300 @ 3:40 (1:13.3 per 100)
  • 2×400 @ 4:50 (1:12.5 per 100)
  • 1×500 @ 6:00 (1:12 per 100)

It’s supposed to be a very challenging set, and if you design your intervals correctly, the interval on the final 500 should be perhaps just a bit slower than you could do a single 500 AFAP (as fast as possible) in practice.

Chloe’s intervals? 1:05, 2:05, 3:05, 4:05, and 5:05. Needless to say: Pretty awesome. I’d be happy just to make the first 5×100.

The Fishburn Set has been around a long time, and is a favorite of certain old-school distance coaches and swimmers – such as, to pick a random example, Bill Rose (Chloe’s coach at Mission Viejo).

One of my own former coaches is himself a proud member of the “old school,” and I figured he might know the origin of the Fishburn Set. He did. Apparently, it was invented by Bruce Fishburn, a swimmer at Michigan State in the early 1970’s.

So now you know.

Marathon swimming, boredom, and toys

Lake Michigan is cold right now. Too cold to swim in. It hit rock bottom (33F) sometime mid-December, and there it has stayed. What’s a marathon swimmer not living in SoCal or SoFlo to do?

The typical answer is: Long Course. And that actually has been a reasonably good solution for me… until this week. With the UIC varsity teams now approaching the championship phase of their season, the pool we share has now switched to short course ’til mid-April. So… three months until Tampa Bay and nothing but flip turns every 25 yards? Oh no!

Marathon swimmers need endurance, but equally important is being able to psychologically tolerate swimming for long stretches without stopping. This isn’t as relevant in pool competition, where the longest race is only a mile. In the mile, you still need good speed, so lots of interval training is the norm. Even in my younger days when I routinely covered 10,000m over a morning & evening practice, I’d rarely do sets that required me to swim more than 20 laps at a time (500 SCY or 1000 LCM).

In preparing for a marathon swim, though, long steady-state swims should (in my opinion) be an important part of the training diet. If you have year-round access to open water, the task is less daunting. But if you’re limited to short course and, like me, your eyes start to glaze over after 40 laps or so, you may have to get creative.

Thanks to recent advances in technology, there are now some interesting ways to mitigate boredom during long swims. In particular, waterproof MP3 players offer musical distraction, which runners have enjoyed since…I don’t know… the Walkman? And swim watches – which automatically count your laps and strokes – offer freedom from maintaining your own internal lap count (which, for me, is unreliable after about 40-50).

Over the next few posts, I’ll review four of these “swim toys,” two in each category:

Check back soon!

MIMS finishing times: Men vs. Women

This chart compares the average MIMS finishing time over the years for Men vs. Women (click to enlarge):

Interestingly, the average female MIMS finisher was faster than the average male in about 80% of the years. Men were faster only in 1982. (The remaining years are statistical ties.)

MIMS finishing times: 1982-2010

Five months until MIMS! In the meantime, some data porn for your enjoyment (click to enlarge):

The NYC Swim website has MIMS results as far back as 1915, but the modern version of MIMS as an annual marathon swim race began in 1982, when Drury Gallagher founded the Manhattan Island Swimming Association.

The chart above shows every MIMS finishing time from 1982-2010 (black dots), along with the slowest, fastest, and median time of each year (blue, green, & red lines, respectively). Only participants in the annual MIMS race are shown – no solo attempts (e.g., Shelley Taylor-Smith’s record swim of 5:45 in 1995).

    On pull buoys, ctd.

    A few follow-up thoughts on pull buoys:

    First, to be clear, the use of pulling gear for motivational reasons (as Mark described) is probably only relevant if you’re a distance/marathon swimmer who trains enough volume that mental fatigue is an issue. Or perhaps (as I described) if you’re just having a bad day of training and pulling gear means the difference between getting through a workout or bailing out early.

    If you’re a sprinter and/or stroke specialist, pulling equipment probably isn’t too useful, aside from certain types of drills.

    But Mark is a marathon swimmer, and so am I – so that’s why I wrote the post.

    Second, I want to highlight one particularly important quote from Mark’s interview:

    To make up for the lack of swimming I do a lot of running, cycling and kicking to make sure that I have strong legs and I do a lot of core work to make sure that my abs are ready to handle the body position requirements for a race, so it’s not like I only do pulling sets.

    So, it’s not that he doesn’t think leg strength is important, even as a marathon swimmer – he just finds it easier (from a motivational standpoint) to break up his training into different activities.

    What I didn’t realize at the time was how much leg-focused activity he does. In his recent Open Water Wednesday interview with Steven Munatones (excerpt only), Mark said he runs on a treadmill for an hour to an hour and a half daily.

    That’s a hell of a lot of running for a swimmer!

    Another MIMS match race

    This is sort of interesting.

    It isn’t being actively promoted yet, but it seems the Manhattan Island match race/record attempt wasn’t just a one-off deal. Last September, NYC Swim invited four swimmers – pros Mark Warkentin and Petar Stoychev, as well as two local women – to take on Shelley Taylor-Smith’s overall record of 5 hours, 45 minutes. Warkentin won the day, but still came 31 minutes short of the record.

    NYC Swim will hold another match race/record attempt this coming September 28, but the contestants will instead be the top two finishers of the regular MIMS event on June 18 (in which I will be competing).

    Who will they be? Maybe Vegas should put out lines on open-water swimming?

    On pull buoys

    This is a pull buoy ————–>

    At once the most common of training aids, and the most disrespected. According to conventional wisdom, pull buoys:

    • encourage weak body position – swimmers don’t have to kick and engage their core to raise their body position as they would without a buoy.
    • inhibit body rotation, causing swimmers to swim “flat” and thus less efficiently.
    • put extra strain on the shoulders, making injuries more likely.
    • discourage underwater kicking off walls.
    • are, along with hand paddles, a crutch used by lazy swimmers to help them swim faster and with less energy.

    See, for instance, this thread on the USMS discussion forum, or one forum member’s memorable suggestion of a drill to “throw a pull buoy as far away from yourself as possible.”

    Personally, I’ve always liked pulling with paddles and a buoy. I try not to overuse them – typically, I’ll use them at the end of a main set (say, the last round of a 4-round set) for a little extra “oomph.” Actually, it’s more than just a little – I’m usually about 6 seconds per 100 faster with paddles+buoy than without.

    So, I’ve never paid much attention to the scorn heaped on pulling gear (buoys in particular). But what do I know? Would I be a better swimmer if I “tossed my buoy away as far as possible”? Might the haters have a point?

    Here’s the thing, though: I’m not the only pulling enthusiast out there. And some of these people are actually fairly accomplished swimmers. More accomplished than, say, your average USMS forum participant.

    One particularly passionate pulling proponent is none other than Mark Warkentin. Mark, of course, was a 2008 Olympian in the 10K open-water event, and a two-time U.S. national champion in the 25K. He had an impressive career in the pool before that, including four NCAA All-American honors at USC and three individual golds at the 1999 World University Games in the 200 Free (1:51), 400 Free (3:53), and 800 Free (8:00).

    Mark also does (and has always done) an enormous volume of pulling. I know this because we swam together with the Santa Barbara Swim Club from when we were 7 years old until we left for our respective colleges. Mark still lives in Santa Barbara, and I occasionally work out with him when I’m in town for the holidays. Knowing that he has a somewhat unconventional view on pulling, I decided to ask him a few questions. Here’s what he said:

    [Evan] Why do you like pulling so much?

    [Mark] In my experience I don’t have mental/emotional fatigue as quickly when I have a pull buoy sustaining my body position.  Because I do not have naturally good body position in the water I find that when I swim a lot in practice I get “burned out” quickly because I have to focus so much on maintaining good body position.  A typical distance swimmer or open water swimmer needs to spend a lot of hours in the pool on a weekly basis, but a 1500 race only lasts 15-16 minutes and a 10K only lasts about 2 hours.  If you’re tapered and rested you should be able to handle the mental/emotional stress for that period of time, however it’s a lot harder to justify 20 hours per week (every week) at that same stress level.  I can do 20×400 with a buoy and go fairly hard the entire time without too much emotional duress, but if I were to do that same set swimming I would be very burned out afterwards.  If a swimmer has naturally good body position then it may not make any difference, but in my experience I can emotionally recover from a 8,000 meter pulling set significantly faster than an 8,000 meter swim set.

    [Evan] Do you find that you have trouble maintaining good body position during races when you don’t have a buoy?

    [Mark] To make up for the lack of swimming I do a lot of running, cycling and kicking to make sure that I have strong legs and I do a lot of core work to make sure that my abs are ready to handle the body position requirements for a race, so it’s not like I only do pulling sets.  I find ways of working these necessary muscle groups outside of swimming because I find that it’s emotionally easier.

    [Evan] What do you think of the view that buoys can compromise stroke mechanics?

    [Mark] I don’t think that buoys can compromise stroke mechanics – in fact I’ve found that my catch in the front of the stroke is much cleaner after I’ve done a long buoy only set.  Additionally, I think that I emphasize body roll more when I have a buoy than when I’m swimming because I know that I need to get my hips into the stroke to give me more power (because my power source is limited to my arms only).

    Lessons learned? Here’s what I take from Mark’s comments:

    • Beware of broad generalizations and one-size-fits-all training recommendations. Each swimmer is different, and it’s important to find methods that work for you. Long pull sets might be sub-optimal for a sprinter or a breaststroker, but might work for a marathon swimmer who swims most of his race with a 2-beat kick.
    • Mental fatigue is an obvious and important but not-often-discussed issue for marathon swimmers – especially those with careers as long as Mark or Petar Stoychev. Mark is now 31 years old, and has been training almost nonstop for 25 years! How does anyone maintain motivation over that period of time?
    • The issue of motivation is another long conversation in itself, but I think part of the answer is in finding ways to “trick yourself” into training even when the motivation is absent. For Mark (and for me, as well), pulling sets are fun. We swim faster but with less energy. It’s a crutch, perhaps, but a useful one. On days when I’m fatigued or feel terrible in the water, using pulling gear might mean the difference between getting in a full 90 minute workout or getting out after 30.
    • Another useful “trick” Mark mentions is mixing up his training. Swimming for hours on end can be mind-numbing, but mixing in various dryland activities (running, biking, weightlifting, core work) can help you extend your overall workout time while making it more interesting.

    So, next time you hear a coach or fellow swimmer mock the pull buoy, remember Mark. You can’t argue with his results.