Origin Stories

Many open-water swimmers seem to have origin stories. A moment of revelation when one identifies – in a powerful and lasting way – with the experience of being in open water. In reality it’s usually more of a process than a single moment, but often there’s a particular event that seems to crystallize that process and lend it symbolic meaning (perhaps only retrospectively).

One of the great legends of open water swimming, Lynne Cox, turned her own origin story into an award-winning book. Cox’s story, too, was a process – but she also describes a moment from which the rest of the moments in her incredible career seem to flow. In 1971, she entered the Seal Beach Rough Water Swim and, as a 14-year old, won the women’s race and beat all but two of the men. Only a middling talent in the pool, Cox was encouraged by her coach, Don Gambril, to try open water.

lynne cox
Lynne Cox

 

Cox’s description of the race start sounds almost surreal, but I think many who’ve caught the open water bug will know exactly what she means:

The water was cold, salty, buoyant, smooth, and the deepest blue. And I swam as if I had learned to fly. I raced across the water. My strokes felt powerful, and I felt strong, alive, as if awakened for the first time. Nothing in the swimming pool gave me this pleasure. I was free, moving fast, feeling the waves lifting and embracing me, and I couldn’t believe how happy I was. It was like I had gone from a cage into limitless possibilities.

Swimming to Antarctica, p. 28.

Some origin stories are rooted in failure. Another legend, Penny Lee Dean, attempted to swim the length of the Golden Gate Bridge as a 10-year old (4-foot-2, 50 pounds), but DQ’d herself 400m from the finish by touching a support boat. She describes the pain of failure, and the inspiration that followed:

I cried. I had failed, but promised myself I would never quit again. Someday I would swim the English Channel. This swim taught me about challenges I had never experienced physically or mentally in the confines of a swimming pool; it inspired me to attempt every open water swim possible.

Open Water Swimming, p. 5.

Other origin stories seem almost accidental. If you ask Mark Warkentin how he got into open water, he’s been known to half-jokingly explain that he simply was trying to find a way onto the U.S. National Team, and the 25K seemed like the “easiest” (ha, ha) way to do it, because very few people want to swim that far. In 2006, he won the 25K National Championship, and made the team.

Is there any human sport more diverse than open water swimming? Not just diversity in terms of ethnic or socioeconomic background (though there’s plenty of that, too). I mean diversity in personalities, motivations, and character. Some are former pool swimmers looking for new challenges. Others have no formal swim training, but just like being in the water. Some are world-class athletes. Others are slow swimmers, but succeed through world-class persistence.

All you need are a suit, cap, and goggles – but really, you don’t even need those.

Review: Oregon Scientific Swim Watch

Last summer I bought a swim watch. In preparing for a 10-mile river swim, I started adding occasional aerobic steady-state swims to my usual interval-heavy diet. I needed something to keep track of how far I swam while I zoned out and listened to music on my SwimP3.

Back then there were two swim watches on the market – Swimovate’s Poolmate, and the Oregon Scientific swim watch. I don’t remember why I chose the Oregon Scientific – they were both priced at $99.99 – but that’s what I did.

I ended up not using the watch much, for a few reasons:

  • The holes in the strap are too far apart. My wrist is right between two sizes, so it’s either too tight or too loose, and thus uncomfortable to wear.
  • The watch is a bit bulky and I didn’t like the feeling of increasing my drag in the water (especially just on one arm).
  • The open water season ended in October, so I stopped doing long steady-state swims.

Continue reading “Review: Oregon Scientific Swim Watch”

Do you need a swim watch when you have a pace clock?

If you like gadgets and/or swim toys you may have found yourself, at some point over the past couple of months, drooling over the FINIS Swimsense Performance Monitor. And after playing with one for a few weeks now, I’ll admit, it’s pretty cool.

Before you fork over $200, though, consider the question: What does the Swimsense – and swim watches in general (e.g., the Swimovate Poolmate and Oregon Scientific’s watch) – offer that a simple pace clock doesn’t?

Continue reading “Do you need a swim watch when you have a pace clock?”

On training logs, and a 2010 retrospective

Among swimmers, runners, cyclists, weightlifters – really, any athlete in a quantifiable sport – it’s common practice to keep a training log. In high school and college, I kept a log only sporadically – and I really regret it now. I’d love to look back on some of the sets I did in those days.

Since I got back into swimming a year and a half ago, I’ve been much more conscientious about keeping a log, and I think it’s really helped – motivating me to get to practice, and helping me gauge progress. I split my training log between two documents: a text file where I write what I did in each workout (sets, intervals, times, etc.), and a spreadsheet where I log the total distance I swim each day. In two adjacent columns of the spreadsheet, I also keep a 7-day running total (how much I’ve swum in the past week), and an average of the previous four 7-day totals (i.e., 4-week moving average).

I like the 7-day running total for its straightforwardness – “What have I done in the past week?” But I think the 4-week average is actually a better indicator of my fitness level at any given point.

Out of idle curiosity, I decided to revisit last year’s log. Here’s a chart showing the running 7-day totals (blue line) and the 4-week moving average (red line) between mid-August 2009 and late-October 2010 (from the end of the 2009 O.W. season to the end of the 2010 O.W. season). The Y-axis is in meters, and I added some annotations to show the timing of various races and other life milestones. (Click the chart to enlarge.)

I’m actually surprised how well I ended up doing last year, given that I averaged only 19,000 meters/week. Obviously, at some point increased training has diminishing returns. But I have a feeling I’m still on the “steep” part of that slope.

Moreover, I never actually did a “real” taper last year. The most I gave myself was a 5-day “drop rest” for Big Shoulders – but even that barely shows up on the 4-week average. A “real” taper would show up clearly on the red line.

Short Course: The bad news

I recently noted an unforeseen benefit of doing long swims in a short-course pool: It’s easy to monitor your stroke count without counting!

That’s the good news.

The bad news?

Swimming for a long time without stopping in a short-course pool can increase the risk of tossing your cookies.

I assume this has something to do with flip turns, and I also assume it depends on what you’ve eaten recently. I didn’t have a problem in the One Hour Postal last year, but I occasionally do get nauseated during these swims.

It goes with the territory. Just ask Dave Barra, who did a memorably gruesome 30,000 SCY workout at about this same time last year.

Rob D. for president!

Or… best swim blogger!

Friend-of-the-blog Rob D., of Rob Aquatics fame, has been rightfully nominated for the About.com Readers’ Choice Awards, in the “Best Swim Blog” category.

This one shouldn’t even be a contest, folks. But go vote for him anyway – he deserves it. He makes a compelling case here, but I’ll add to it: Rob is one-of-a-kind. A true original, and a charismatic ambassador for the sport. He’s got an outsized personality (and beard), yet remains incredibly good-natured and humble.

I’m honored to call him my friend.

Now go vote!

The joys of short course

As I alluded to a couple weeks ago, I won’t have access to long-course water until mid-April. And Lake Michigan won’t be swimmable until probably late May (maybe a bit earlier with a wetsuit). Which means my ramp-up into Tampa will take place exclusively in short-course pools. Yuck.

At least once a week (see last Wednesday’s workout, for example), I try to do some long, aerobic steady-state swimming. 15 or 20 minutes at a time, to mimic my feeding schedule – or, as I build up, a series of such swims.

In doing these long swims, I’ve observed a couple things about short course that, in all my years of swimming, I had never noticed. There’s good news and bad. We’ll start with the good:

In a short-course pool, it’s much easier to monitor stroke count, and therefore swimming efficiency. The reason is, at any given pace my stroke count generally has a range of only 1. (N.B. I define “strokes” as the number of hand entries, counting both arms.)

For me, at a typical workout pace (say, 75% effort) my stroke count is usually 14. If I’m having a good day in the water, it might be 13. If I’m thrashing, it might be 15. But within a given swim, I’ll generally be in either a “13/14 mode” or a “14/15 mode,” depending on how I’m feeling. If I’m focusing on stroke count specifically, it’s not too difficult to hit 14 strokes every time.

The key is, when your stroke count range is only 1, you can actually monitor your stroke count without counting! All you need to know is which arm hits the water right before the turn. Since I always begin each lap with a left-arm stroke, if I end a lap with a right-arm stroke, that means 14 strokes. If I get tired and lose some efficiency, I get immediate feedback because after my 14th stroke I’m not quite there and am forced to take an extra one – with my left arm.

The point is – this is only possible in a short-course pool. In a long-course pool, my stroke counts are in the mid-30’s and subject to wider ranges. Long-course pools are appreciated by distance swimmers for the relative ease of getting into a good “rhythm,” because there aren’t as many walls to interrupt you.

The lesson here is that in some ways, short-course pools facilitate “rhythm” because they give you such regular, insistent feedback about your efficiency (“14, 14, 14, whoops there’s a 15, what did I do wrong?”).

Next up: the bad news.