Surf from Above

I recently came across some stunning photo slideshows at Surfline – aerial shots of the Southern California coast. (They require you to watch a short ad before viewing the slideshow – sorry about that.)

Riptide near La Jolla

The photos are geared towards surfers, but there’s great stuff for swimmers as well. Or for anyone – I can’t imagine who wouldn’t be awed by the power and beauty of the ocean and this magnificent stretch of coast.

My Dad surfed some of those same breaks (in Ventura County) on his longboard in the ’60s. I, on the other hand, never spent much time in the ocean as a kid – despite growing up in Santa Barbara. And I never learned to surf properly. Guess I was too busy in the pool?

In several of these photos Catalina Island is clearly visible on the horizon. Shortly after midnight this August 25th I’ll set off from that distant shore – and attempt to make up for lost time.

Review: FINIS Swimsense Performance Monitor

Note: I wrote a follow-up review of the Swimsense in May 2013.

The FINIS Swimsense Performance Monitor is a watch that, through various marvels of technology, monitors your pace, lap count, and stroke count as you swim.

I still maintain that for interval training, nothing beats a pace clock. Doc Counsilman’s ’50s-era invention will never go out of style. For long steady-state training, though, a watch that monitors laps, strokes, and pace might be nice. Personally, I can’t keep a good count after about 40-50 (more if the pace clock is large and digital).

In my case, it’s no idle question: I’m doing some long swims this year, and steady-state training is a regular part of the training diet.

But with niche products like this, one inevitably asks: Does it work? Counting laps and strokes is one thing – but does it count the correct number of them? This review is on the long-ish side, so for those short on time, here are the major bullet points:

Continue reading “Review: FINIS Swimsense Performance Monitor”

Wet Drylands

You don’t need a gym to get a great dryland workout. I’d venture to say that you don’t need more than a medicine ball and a pair of stretch cords.

In some cases, you don’t even need dry land! One of the most effective core exercises I’ve ever done involves taking the medicine ball with you into the pool (preferably not one of those old school leather med balls, though). Push off the wall on your back while holding the ball above your upper chest with both hands, and dolphin kick to the other end of the pool. Try to feel how your core initiates and powers the dolphin kicking motion, all the way through to your feet.

I typically do a set of 50’s, alternating 50 med-ball dolphining / 50 fast fly or back, working the SDK’s. I use a 4-6 pound medicine ball, but you can make it easier or harder by using a lighter/heavier ball or by holding the ball closer/further from your chest.

Don’t underestimate Tampa

Some people do the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim as a “warm-up” for one of the triple crown swims. And it makes sense: Tampa is early in the season, 8 weeks before MIMS and more than 3 months before high season for channel crossings.

But thinking of Tampa as a “warm-up” might tempt a person to take it less seriously – and that would be a big mistake. TBMS is one of only four annual organized ultra-marathon (25K or longer) swim races in the U.S. (along with MIMS, Ederle, and Swim Across the Sound), and it may be the toughest. While water temperature is not usually a factor, pretty much everything else is. Glancing through the archives, tide changes and rough seas seem to be the two big ones.

Swimmers typically start with the flood tide, which pushes them up Tampa Bay — for a while. If you don’t swim far enough over the next few hours, though, the tide reverses direction and starts to push you back towards St. Petersburg – making it effectively impossible to finish.

Tampa Bay is also quite large, so conditions can mimic those in the open ocean. Here’s what the Bay looked like in four recent years (click to enlarge photos):

2010 – 4/7 finished
2009 – 7/11 finished
2008 – 6/8 finished
2005 – 7/19 finished

Since Ron Collins’ pioneering swim in 1998 (9 hours, 52 minutes), there have been 149 solo entrants in the annual race. Of those 149 swims, 70 were DNF’s – they didn’t finish the full 24 miles. That’s a success rate of 53%. By comparison, over the same time period, 90% of MIMS entrants have successfully rounded Manhattan (239 of 266, not including those who withdrew before the event).

There are other factors at work, of course. The MIMS selection process likely “weeds out” swimmers least likely to finish, based on swim speed or previous cold water marathon experience. I don’t believe Collins has yet rejected anyone from attempting TBMS – which is a good thing, in my opinion.

But Tampa Bay has humbled some great swimmers. In one recent edition, a swimmer who is perhaps the best non-professional marathon swimmer in the U.S. retired due to seasickness. Last year, a well known swimming guru (who had twice finished MIMS) planned to swim TBMS, Catalina, and the English Channel, all in the same year. After Tampa (which to his credit, he finished), he decided: maybe I’m not a marathon swimmer, after all. In 2007, tragically, one swimmer passed away from a heart attack.

The point is, this swim is a beast. I’m preparing for it as such.

Adventures in video analysis

A coach recently alerted me to a couple non-canonical things I’m doing with my freestyle technique. Of course, I had no clue I was doing these things. It occurred to me that it’s been years since I’d seen my stroke on video (my brief appearance in the Swim the Suck documentary excepted). Actually, probably about 15 years – at least as far back as high school. What else am I doing that I’m unaware of?

Having multiple underwater cameras positioned at different angles is ideal, but can be expensive to set up. On the theory that something is better than nothing, I bought a small tripod to mount and secure my trusty Canon PowerShot, which shoots HD video. Then, it was just a matter of propping it up at the end of my lane and pressing the shutter button.

I was mostly interested in looking at my freestyle (unlike some, I have no plans to swim around Manhattan doing butterfly). As long as I had the camera set up, though, I figured I’d check out my other strokes. Accordingly, I did a set of {100 free, 200 IM, 100 free, 200 IM, 100 free}. The 100’s free I descended to threshold effort (not all-out), and for the 200’s IM I tried to swim the 2nd faster than the 1st. I took about a minute rest between each swim.

For now, here are the videos of the three descended 100’s freestyle: Continue reading “Adventures in video analysis”

An Open Water Swimming Pace Table

When you book a channel crossing, most experienced pilots will want to know how fast of a swimmer you are. Can you repeat 20-minute miles, 25-minute miles, or 30-minute miles? A pilot will often want to start a faster swimmer at a different time of day (and in some cases, a different location) than a slower swimmer.

But what if you train mostly in a pool? Do you give the pilot your best 1,650 time?

The problem with trying to estimate speed in the open water from pool times is…well, lots of things. But one of the big ones is turns. If you gain 1 second every time you push of the wall in the pool, that’s 2 seconds per 100 long-course and 4 seconds per 100 short-course, compared to the equivalent distance in open water.

So, if you use a straight conversion of distance-to-distance, you’ll probably over-estimate your open water speed (unless you have really slow turns). Here, then, is an open water pace table that factors in time gained from turns. It assumes 1 second gained per wall – some people gain more and some people gain less, but I think it’s a reasonable approximation.

This pace table converts between pool pace times (100 short-course yards or 100 long-course meters) and open water swims of various distances. The conversion assumes 1 second gained per wall in a pool (4 per 100 SCY and 2 per 100 LCM).

100 SCY 1K 1M 10K 10M
01:40.0 18:57 30:30 3:09:33 5:05:04
01:37.5 18:30 29:46 3:05:00 4:57:44
01:35.0 18:02 29:02 3:00:26 4:50:24
01:32.5 17:35 28:18 2:55:53 4:43:04
01:30.0 17:07 27:34 2:51:19 4:35:44
01:27.5 16:40 26:50 2:46:46 4:28:24
01:25.0 16:13 26:06 2:42:13 4:21:04
01:22.5 15:45 25:22 2:37:39 4:13:44
01:20.0 15:18 24:38 2:33:06 4:06:24
01:17.5 14:51 23:54 2:28:32 3:59:04
01:15.0 14:23 23:10 2:23:59 3:51:44
01:12.5 13:56 22:26 2:19:26 3:44:24
01:10.0 13:29 21:42 2:14:52 3:37:04
01:07.5 13:01 20:58 2:10:19 3:29:44
01:05.0 12:34 20:14 2:05:45 3:22:24
01:02.5 12:07 19:30 2:01:12 3:15:04
01:00.0 11:39 18:46 1:56:39 3:07:44
100 LCM 1K 1M 10K 10M
01:50.0 18:40 30:02 3:06:40 5:00:24
01:47.5 18:15 29:22 3:02:30 4:53:42
01:45.0 17:50 28:41 2:58:20 4:46:59
01:42.5 17:25 28:01 2:54:10 4:40:17
01:40.0 17:00 27:21 2:50:00 4:33:35
01:37.5 16:35 26:41 2:45:50 4:26:52
01:35.0 16:10 26:01 2:41:40 4:20:10
01:32.5 15:45 25:20 2:37:30 4:13:28
01:30.0 15:20 24:40 2:33:20 4:06:45
01:27.5 14:55 24:00 2:29:10 4:00:03
01:25.0 14:30 23:20 2:25:00 3:53:21
01:22.5 14:05 22:39 2:20:50 3:46:38
01:20.0 13:40 21:59 2:16:40 3:39:56
01:17.5 13:15 21:19 2:12:30 3:33:14
01:15.0 12:50 20:39 2:08:20 3:26:31
01:12.5 12:25 19:58 2:04:10 3:19:49
01:10.0 12:00 19:18 2:00:00 3:13:07

Pre-Tampa training swim

Last weekend I did a rather epic pool workout (as you know if you follow my Twitter feed). An unexpected excuse came up for a quick trip to Santa Barbara, and given my current lack of long course or open water options in Chicago, I decided to use the opportunity for a pre-Tampa training swim. The Rec Center at UCSB has a beautiful outdoor 50m x 25y pool that – conveniently – is open for LCM lap swimming from 9am to 8:30pm on the weekends.

Despite a chilly morning, it turned into a gorgeous day. With cloudless skies, a light breeze, and mid-day highs in the 60s, I actually worried about getting sunburned. When the front door opened at 9am I went straight to the pool to claim my lane – second from the bottom of the picture, with the best viewing angle to the pace clock. Incredibly, nobody joined me in that lane until the last 15 minutes of the swim.

In designing the workout, I aimed for something that would challenge me in terms of distance, time, and pace, but without boring me to death. So I ruled out a long continuous swim, or something overly repetitive like 15×1000. I aimed for something I could realistically do, but that also offered a not-insignificant chance of failure. My previous longest swim/workout in terms of both time and distance (including my club and college swimming days) was Swim the Suck last October – 10 miles (effectively ~8.5 given the favorable current) in 3 hours, 7 minutes.

I eventually settled on a 25,000-meter (15.5-mile) set that, at a constant interval of 1:30 per 100m, would take 6 hours, 15 minutes. This would approximately double the Tennessee River swim and put me within spitting distance of the current-assisted length of TBMS. While a 1:30/100m is a conservative interval for me under most circumstances, at marathon distance I knew it would pose a challenge. As a point of reference, a 1:30 pace for 10K is 2 hours, 30 minutes – no slouch of a time. It’s also interesting to note that only 4 of 45 competitors in the last USMS 25K National Championship finished under 6:15.

And remember, a 1:30 interval means my actual pace must be faster than 1:30, so I have time to feed between swims.

Anyway, here’s the set:

  • 1000
  • 10×100
  • 1000
  • 5×200
  • 1500
  • 5×300
  • 1500
  • 3×500
  • 2000
  • 4×500
  • 2000
  • 5×400
  • 1500
  • 5×300
  • 1000
  • 5×200
  • 1000
  • 10×100

I maintained my normal training volume going into the swim, though I did take off the day before. My energy level and general “feel for the water” during warm-up rated about a 6 on a scale of 1-10 – not ideal, but good enough.

After a quick 500m loosen-up, I did the first 1000m swim in 14:05 (pace of 1:24.5) – right on target. I managed to hold this pace for the first 10K (3×500). On the first 2000m swim (10-12K) I started hurting a bit and my pace deteriorated slightly; but I was still getting plenty of rest between swims. The second 2000m (14-16K) was slower still, and hurt even more.

By the “downhill” portion of the set (1500, 5×300, 1000, 5×200, etc.) I was fully ensconced in the hurt box. I experienced what I can only describe as a “narrowing” of consciousness. I had no idea what was going on around me; my stroke was on autopilot; I was aware of only the pain. But I kept making my intervals. Not by much – especially on the shorter swims – but I made them.

I finally did cross over the 1:30/100m barrier on the final round of 10×100. I started feeling dizzy and thought I might puke, so I just swam a straight 1000, alternating 50 back / 50 free. In the end I finished the 25,000th meter (excluding warm-up) a few seconds shy of 6 hours, 16 minutes.

Then I pulled myself out of the pool, chugged a quart of chocolate milk, and took a hot shower. I had entered the water a few minutes after 9am. It was now almost 3:30 in the afternoon.

That evening I watched the Oscars with my parents. I felt like I’d been run over by a truck, but I washed down some ibuprofen with a few glasses of wine (probably not the healthiest combination), which numbed me up pretty good. The next day my shoulders were still a bit perturbed, but I was better. Two days after that: as good as new.

25K training swim: check.