57th Street Beach and the Museum of Science & Industry, as viewed from Promontory Point. Hyde Park, Chicago, IL. September 9, 2010.
The same view from today, February 2, 2011.
Have you ever wondered…
How many [yards] can I swim in [4 hours] if I hold a pace of [1:15] per [100 yards] … and you wanted an answer right now? Perhaps you didn’t have a calculator handy, or didn’t want to fire up Excel… or maybe you just didn’t feel like thinking very hard.
Or, perhaps you have wondered…
If I swim [10K] in [2 hours, 45 minutes], what is my pace per [100m] ?
I’ll confess, I’m a little behind where I was hoping to be at this point in the season.
Life served up a couple unexpected roadblocks last month, at a time when I’d planned to ramp up for Tampa Bay. First, we lost our car to a snowy grave off the side of the I-45 in Wisconsin (my wife was unhurt, thankfully). Although neither of us use a car for commuting purposes, it was my primary mode of transportation to UIC, where my Masters group works out.
Suddenly, a 30 minute round-trip in the car was a 80-90 minute round-trip on the bus. I don’t always have an extra hour in my day for getting to/from swimming. “Doubles” are almost out of the question.
Then, I managed to tweak my shoulder - and injury incurred while attempting to retrieve my phone from the train tracks after it had fallen out of my pocket and off the platform. Why did it fall out of my pocket? You guessed it - because I was running to catch the train to go to swim practice.
Anyway… it was a rough January. But now it’s a new month, my shoulder is better, the temperatures finally seem on the upswing, and I’ve managed to string together a few decent workouts. I thought I’d share my past week of training:
Saturday - 5000 yards, including the following set:
Sunday - off
Monday - 4100 yards, nothing special
Tuesday - 6200 yards, including the following set:
Wednesday - 7500 yards, and here’s the whole workout:
Thursday - 6600 yards, including the following set:
Friday - 3500 recovery yards, nothing special
That’s 32,900 yards in 6 workouts. Saturday, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday’s workouts I did solo at the University of Chicago. Tuesday and Thursday’s workouts I did with my buddy Jared at UIC. Jared is a professional triathlete and former college swimmer. We’re about the same speed and have similar training needs, so he’s a perfect training partner.
Tomorrow I’ll probably take a recovery day. On Sunday mornings the Chicago Blue Dolphins offer two back-to-back 90-minute workouts. I may do them both.
As I 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?”).
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.
If you like gadgets and/or swim toys you may have found yourself, at some point over the past couple of months, 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 watch) - offer that a simple pace clock doesn’t?
At this point (early 2011), the features offered by swim watches basically boil down to:
Obviously, a pace clock is great at keeping time. Did you know it can also count laps? Assuming you keep a roughly steady pace, you can almost always use the pace clock to verify the lap count on a long swim. During my 10K Postal swim last fall, I had a direct view of a large digital pace clock at the end of each 100m lap. Whenever I pushed off the wall to begin a new lap, I glanced at the clock on my first breath. This helped me keep a perfect lap count for 10,000m, without having to consult my human counter. And, since I looked at the clock at the same point every lap (~5m off the wall), I also got my 100m splits to an accuracy of less than 1 second.
What about counting strokes? OK, pace clocks can’t count strokes. But really, is it that difficult to count your own strokes? (Especially in a short course pool.)
The Swimsense has some interesting additional features - the ability to upload workout data to your PC, for example - but that’s more about the “platform” than the watch itself. It still just keeps time, counts laps, and counts strokes. No integrated heart-rate monitor or anything (yet).
Pace clocks even have a few advantages over swim watches:
So actually, pace clocks are pretty awesome. Indeed, a swim watch would have to be quite a bit more awesome - $200 more awesome, in fact - to justify the purchase. Does the Swimsense clear the bar? Stay tuned. For now, I’ll list a few situations that might alter the calculus slightly toward investing in a swim watch:
On that last point - unless you’re training for a marathon swim, there’s really no reason to be doing lots of steady-state swimming (unless you enjoy it). Interval training is far more effective, and a lot more fun!
Last summer I bought a swim watch. In preparing for a SwimP3.
Back then there were two swim watches on the market - Swimovate’s 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:
But the main reason I stopped using the watch was: I had a vague sense that it was under-counting my laps and over-counting my strokes. For example, say I did a 30-minute moderate steady-state swim. I’d glance up at the pace clock mid-swim and see that I was holding around 1:12’s. But then when I finished the swim the total yardage counted would indicate a pace of 1:16’s. Or, when I knew I was hitting 14 strokes/lap the watch would say I averaged 16 strokes/lap.
The reason I had only a “vague sense” about this is that the watch only shows the total time and total stroke count for a particular swim. You can’t see your split times or how many strokes you took on a particular lap. If it did, I would have been able to go back, review my splits, and see whether (a) I really was going 1:16’s, or (b) the watch missed a lap or two. Instead, I was left with the frustrating feeling that “I think I swam 2500, but the watch says I only did 2350.”
(The Swimsense, you may be interested to know, provides split times and stroke counts for each length of a swim.)
In any case, I recently dusted off the watch and brought it to the pool for a proper test, to see if my suspicions held any water.
The test consisted of a set of 6×500 at a moderate pace, with about a minute rest between each. I did #1 without equipment, #2 with a buoy, #3 with a buoy and paddles, and repeated that pattern for 4-6. I counted my strokes on each length, and (obviously) made sure I did 20 lengths each time.
Note: I define “strokes” as the number of times a hand (left or right) enters the water out front.
Here are the results:
|**#**||**activity**||**laps (watch)**||**strokes (watch)**||**laps (actual)**||**strokes (actual)**||**time**|
On the first 500 I took exactly 14 strokes per length and - surprise! - the Oregon Scientific counted both laps and strokes perfectly. The next 5×500? Not so much.
On three of the swims the watch under-counted my laps (9 instead of 10) - confirming my “vague sense” from last summer. On each of the final five swims, the watch over-counted my strokes, sometimes significantly. On #6 the watch over-counted by 50 strokes (while counting only 9 laps!). D’oh!
Incredulous that the watch could fail so badly, I consulted Uncle Google to see about others’ experiences. There were few reports about the Oregon Scientific watch (only two on SwimOutlet), but in reading reviews of the Poolmate, some suggested that the watch gets confused if there’s not enough of a pause between your turn and your first stroke off the wall (i.e., if you don’t “glide” long enough).
It’s possible this may have occurred when I swam with a buoy, as the buoy tends to make you pop up right away. On the other hand, the watch still over-counted on swim #4 (no equipment) by 10 strokes.
So, I conducted a second test of 2×500, both without equipment, focusing on gliding off each wall and hitting exactly 14 strokes per length.
Here are the results:
|**#**||**activity**||**laps (watch)**||**strokes (watch)**||**laps (actual)**||**strokes (actual)**||**time**|
This time, the watch got the lap count right but - again - over-counted my strokes. Of greater concern, the watch didn’t over-count strokes in a consistent way. Remember, I took exactly 14 strokes per length (280 total) on each of these swims. If the watch had counted 300 strokes both times, then I could establish that the watch over-counts by 1 stroke per length - and use that adjustment for future swims.
I’m not sure there’s much else to say at this point. If the watch cannot reliably perform its most basic functions (counting laps and strokes), what’s the use?
But there were some additional issues that, even if the watch counted reliably, would render this product “not quite ready for prime time”:
To be fair, there’s one nice feature of the Oregon Scientific watch, compared to the Poolmate and Swimsense: You can replace the battery!
Full Disclosure: I purchased the watch with my own funds.
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).
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.