Posts from Jan 2011

Back to Reality

Jan 03 2011

I’m back in Chicago after a salubrious fortnight in Southern California - a week with my in-laws in San Diego followed by a week with my folks in Goleta/Santa Barbara.

It was unseasonably rainy and, when sunny, unseasonably cool, but I didn’t mind. The stretch of south-facing coast between Point Conception and Ventura - with Santa Barbara at the center - is my favorite place in the world. Even the worst weather rarely precludes enjoyment of its blessed terrain.

Los Baños del Mar Pool in Santa Barbara, where I swam somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 miles as a teenager.

With holiday pool closures, schedule changes, and polluted ocean waters, finding a place to swim was an often frustrating quest. In San Diego I swam twice with UCSD Masters{.broken_link} and once at the YMCA near my in-laws’ place. In Santa Barbara I got in twice with the S.B. Aquatics Club age-group team (coached by my longtime friend Mark) and once at Los Baños pool’s open lap swim, where I coincidentally ran into two former S.B. Swim Club teammates who were also in town for the holidays.

On New Years’ Eve, friend-of-the-blog Rob D. drove down the coast from Arroyo Grande. My wife and I gave him a brief tour of the sights before descending upon Butterfly Beach in Montecito for a swim. Rob took a thermometer reading of 54F, which is 4-5 degrees below my wetsuit threshold for any more than a brief dip. So I went with a sleeveless wetsuit. Rob, of course, was sporting his usual zebra-striped mankini.

Rob is pretty sneaky with that waterproof camera.

We had hoped to swim around the point west of the Biltmore and towards East Beach, but were stymied after only a few hundred yards by a thick wall of kelp. When we got back even with where we’d stashed our stuff on the beach, Rob noticed a seal checking us out from just a few yards away. He seemed a little too curious for comfort so we decided to swim it in.

From there we cruised back up the 101 to Goleta Beach which, as the southern terminus of Fairview Ave, is the closest patch of coast to my childhood home. By this time it was getting on towards 3pm and, with the sun lower in the sky the air temperature was back below 60. We opted out of a second plunge and instead just hung out near the water and talked for awhile.

All told, it was an excellent adventure that I hope we’ll repeat someday soon! For more pictures & words from the day, I’ll refer you to Rob’s account. While you’re there, be sure to read about his epic 10K Avila-to-Pismo polar bear marathon swim, which he undertook the very next day.

It’s been over 12 years since I’ve lived in Santa Barbara full-time, but more than any other place, it still feels like home. I always have mixed feelings about leaving, especially when it means returning to the Midwest in January. But I packed away an ample supply of warm California vibes, and until Lake Michigan thaws in late spring, they will sustain me.

Minimalist or high-volume training for marathon swims?

Jan 05 2011

A few weeks ago there was an interesting exchange on Steven Munatones’ Facebook page. In response to Steve’s report of a group of Irish marathon swimmers who did a monster set of 200 x 100m on 1:40, Total Immersion founder Terry Laughlin commented:

How did I ever manage to complete the Manhattan Island Marathon twice, averaging less than 20,000 yards per week, and with most sets being 3000 yards or less? Ditto the 24-mile Tampa Bay Marathon.

Munatones responded:

You have written extensively how little you train for marathon by training neurologically vs. traditionally. Other swimmers also train relatively little while experiencing success in marathon swims. However, experiencing long tough workouts are a proven way to increase the PROBABILITY of finishing a race and overcoming the inevitable obstacles along the way. In my opinion, successful marathon swimming is about minimizing risks while occasionally doing long, tough workouts to maximize performance, especially if one is new to the sport. For yourself and others who have already completed a marathon swim or have decades of competitive swimming background, there is much less need to train long distances.

When successful people in the sport advocate less mileage and short training distances for channel/marathon swims, then newcomers in the sport are influenced by that minimalistic training approach. This, in my opinion, is not beneficial to newcomers. For most people, to train 3,000 - 5,000 meters per day without long training swims is not conducive to a successful and enjoyable channel/marathon swim experience. As Dave hints, if you want to be a channel/marathon swimmer, why train like a sprinter?

So, who’s right? _Do you need to train long distances to prepare for marathon swims? I think the answer depends to some extent on what you’re trying to do: _finish or race.

If you have near-perfect technique and many years of swimming experience (and the former usually requires the latter), I do think it’s possible to finish a marathon swim (under neutral conditions) on relatively low-volume training. With great form comes efficiency, and efficient swimmers require very little energy to swim at a conservative pace. Given proper feeding and hydration, theoretically the only physical constraint should be the swimmer’s need for sleep.

That said, a minimalist approach to training for a marathon swim is, under most circumstances and for a variety of reasons, probably not a great idea.

What if you encounter adverse conditions? Rough water and cold water both require more energy to swim through - and usually a higher stroke rate. If you’re accustomed to 3,000m/day in pools with a long easy stroke, you may find yourself unprepared.

And what if you want to race, not just finish? What if, as in MIMS, you need to reach certain landmarks by certain times in order to catch the tide cycles? Perhaps the most important reason for high-volume training is to be able to sustain some level of effort for a long time. Elite open-water swimmers on the FINA circuit train 80-100K per week not out of masochism but because they need to swim fast for hours at a time to be competitive.

When it comes to racing a marathon swim, there are no shortcuts. Raw talent and good technique may take you far, but they won’t allow you to sustain a 170 bpm heartrate for 2 hours (or a 150 HR for 8 hours). You simply have to put in the work.

I also find it quite telling that the people who advocate minimalist training may finish marathon swims, but they never do so particularly quickly, or place particularly highly.

On pull buoys

Jan 08 2011

This is a pull buoy —–>

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

See, for instance, 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:

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

MIMS finishing times: 1982-2010

Jan 16 2011

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).

MIMS finishing times: Men vs. Women

Jan 17 2011

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.)

The Fishburn Set

Jan 26 2011

I love Chloe Sutton’s Twitter feed.  She occasionally posts a set she just did in practice, and they’re invariably ridiculous. Yesterday Chloe did a set that I recognized from my youth. It’s called the Fishburn Set, and it goes like this:

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:

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.