Posts from Mar 2011

Fall at the Point

Mar 03 2011

I don’t take pictures very often. When I do, I often forget to upload them to my computer… which means they’ll just sit there on the camera for months at a time before I remember to check them out.

Here are some pictures I took last fall at Promontory Point. Besides being the best swim spot in Chicago, the Point is also one of the more beautiful public parks you’ll ever see. In case you couldn’t tell: I love this place.

The Pyramid of Death - a 25km pool set

Mar 07 2011

Last weekend I did the longest pool workout of my life. 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:

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.

An Open Water Swimming Pace Table

Mar 08 2011

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

Adventures in video analysis

Mar 12 2011

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. 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 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:

On the first, I hit about 1:11 with a stroke rate of 55-60 per minute.

Two notes:

On the next swim, I hit 1:05 with a stroke rate of 65-70.

On the last (threshold effort, but still controlled), I hit 1:01 with a stroke rate of 75-80.

The two issues my coach raised re: my technique were: (1) a tendency to “swing” my left arm around (rather than high-elbow recovery), especially at higher levels of effort; and (2) a thumb-first entry with my right hand. Issue #1 is definitely noticeable on the third video.

Issue #2 (thumb-first entry) is a bit more subtle. Just for kicks, I decided to do one more 100 - this time with paddles & buoy. I aimed to hit the same time as #3, but with the effort of #2. I came pretty close: 1:00 with a stroke rate of 67-70.

Watch my right arm - with paddles, it’s much easier to see the thumb-first entry!

Overall, though, I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw. I’ve put a lot of effort recently into making myself as efficient as possible in the water, and I think it’s paying off.

Hey Sully - how does this compare to what you remember from my time with the Sharks?

Don't underestimate Tampa

Mar 20 2011

Some people do the 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 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.

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 to withdraw from the latter two swims.

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

Wet Drylands

Mar 24 2011

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 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 a 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.

Review: FINIS Swimsense Performance Monitor

Mar 28 2011

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:

The Good

The Hopefully To-Be-Improved

The Can’t-Be-Helped

If you’re a data junkie, read on…

I put the Swimsense to the test with the following set:

When I got home, I connected the watch (via included dock and cable) to my PC and uploaded the workout data to my online Swimsense account. FINIS has a slick “web app” that lets you visualize and analyze your workout, and then drill down to each swim within the workout.

Here’s the first page you encounter after logging into the Swimsense app - a “big picture” perspective on your workout:

The top section shows times for each swim and splits for each length (25 yards, in this case). You can drag this section horizontally with your mouse to view the other swims.

Below that are five graphs with information on your stroke count, pace, and efficiency. These are summary data, showing averages for each of the 4 swims. A “SWOLF” score is the sum of your stroke count and time on each lap (fewer strokes and faster times = more efficient).

Zooming in on the top section, we can see my times for each of the 200-yard swims, and notice that the Swimsense got the lap count perfect. (Accounting for the button press at the start & stop of each swim, my actual times were about 1 second faster per 200.)

12 strokes/length
13 strokes/length
14 strokes/length
15 strokes/length

One minor complaint: I don’t need or want to see my 25-yard splits. The watch isn’t precise enough (seconds rather than tenths or hundredths) to show meaningful 25-yard splits. As a result, when I look at the data for individual swims, it appears that my “pace” varies a lot more than it does in reality, because the watch extrapolates the 25-yard split to a 100-yard pace. Look at the chart of my first 200. It’s very unlikely that my “pace” varied between 1:08 and 1:24 over the course of this swim.

FINIS, if you’re reading - it would be great to have the option of setting split-length to 50 yards or 100 yards. At 25 yards, it’s too susceptible to measurement error and rounding error. Here’s another example of the problem with single-length splits (from a different workout):

There’s just no way my pace was jumping around that much. See how when one split is slower than average, the next one tends to be faster than average? If this graph showed 50-yard splits instead of 25, it would be a much smoother line (and more useful).

So, the Swimsense is pretty good at counting laps. What about counting strokes? For that, we have to drill down to the specific swims. Here’s the first 200:

Remember, on this first swim I took exactly 12 strokes per length. The first thing we notice is that Swimsense counts stroke cycles rather than strokes. OK, then: 12 strokes = 6 full stroke cycles. The watch, however, counted 7/8/8/8/8/7/8/7.

So, there’s an error in there somewhere. Perhaps the Swimsense is “counting” my arm motion during the flip turn as a “stroke”? It’s tough to say. Whatever the case, the count should be consistent - I did the exact same thing on each length. Push off wall, streamline for a bit on my left side, pull down with my left arm, recover with my left arm (then right, then left, etc.). Then, near the opposite wall, one final stroke with my right arm (my 12th) before pulling myself down into a flip-turn.

The other three 200’s tell the same story: Accurate lap count, but stroke count is off by a bit. (Click to enlarge.)

#2 (13 SPL) #3 (14 SPL) #4 (15 SPL)

I actually don’t mind if the stroke count is off my 1-2 SPL (and to be fair, the Oregon Scientific watch was off by much more). The more important data, to me, are lap count and pace. The problem is, if the watch errs on stroke count, all the interesting “downline” calculations get distorted - SWOLF, DPS, and stroke rate. I’d love to see my stroke rate trend over the course of a swim - but if I can’t trust the numerator of [strokes / time], I can’t trust the quotient, either.

The Swimsense is designed to recognize not only how many strokes you take, but also what stroke you are swimming - fly, back, breast, or free. This is a killer feature if it works. The Oregon Scientific watch, for example, requires two extra steps: (1) setting the watch to fly/back/breast/free mode; and (2) calibrating the watch with a lap in whatever stroke you intended to swim.

So, does it work? For the most part, yes. I should note - I didn’t really “test” the Swimsense on actual I.M. sets or multi-stroke swims. I use the watch only for long, steady-state freestyle swims. The watch did, however, almost always correctly recognize that I was swimming freestyle on these swims.

There were a couple interesting malfunctions. For example, see the following set of 300’s LCM, which I did all freestyle:

The colors for each 50m length represent different stroke styles “perceived” by the Swimsense. In this case, blue = freestyle and green = backstroke. So, the Swimsense thought I was doing backstroke on the 4th length - though in reality I was doing all freestyle. Watch what happens on the next 300:

Now, the Swimsense thinks I did backstroke on lengths 2, 3, 4, and 6 - and freestyle only on lengths 1 and 5. My pace didn’t change significantly between each 50 - why would the watch think I did backstroke? Next 300:

Again, the Swimsense thinks I did most of the 300 backstroke, but actually it was 100% freestyle. The next 300 is the most interesting:

Now the Swimsense thinks I did all backstroke. Almost as if it was “learning” (albeit incorrectly). </p>

I have no idea what happened with this particular set of 300’s. To be fair, over the 50,000+ yards I’ve swum with the Swimsense, instances like this have been rare. On the other hand, compared to most people, I have fairly canonical stroke technique (i.e., I’m a forgiving test).

In the grand scheme, these are nitpicks. The Swimsense is a highly successful piece of technology, and worth the $200 I spent on it. Even better, because of the watch’s web integration, the firmware is update-able. So in a way, the Swimsense is “getting better all the time” - without you having to buy a new watch. In theory, every issue I’ve mentioned could be fixed in a future update.

The web integration is probably the Swimsense’s most valuable feature. When workout data are trapped on the watch (as with the Oregon Scientific), they’re just not very useful. Being able to export the data to a PC opens up so many possibilities for analysis - which the Swimsense web app takes full advantage of.

The Swimsense is available for sale at

Four Lakes, Three Rivers, and a Canal

Mar 31 2011

The 2011 open water season hasn’t even started yet, but I have an important announcement to make regarding my plans for 2012.

I call it the “Four Lakes, Three Rivers, and a Canal” Swim.

Mid-June of 2012 I’ll set off from the mouth of the Chicago River and swim 375 miles north to the Straits of Mackinac. From there I’ll swim the 250-mile length of Lake Huron to the St. Clair River, which will lead me (via Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River) into Lake Erie. I’ll then swim 250 miles across Lake Erie (hugging the Canadian shore) to Buffalo, where I will enter the Erie Canal. From there it’s 360 miles to the Hudson River near Albany. Finally, I’ll take a 140-mile “victory lap” down the Hudson to New York City!

“As the current flows,” it’s about 1,500 miles from Chicago to New York. I figure it will take me about 4 months: 2.2-2.5 mph swimming pace, 6-8 hours a day of swimming, with a little extra time built in for unforeseen contingencies and slow canal locks.

I’ve assembled a world-class support crew: my wife, our cat, former president Jimmy Carter (for moral strength), and a local outdoorsman (i.e., street person) here in Chicago, whom I recruited for his scavenging skills. Did I forget to mention? After each stage we will set up camp along the shore. As it’s not feasible to carry four months’ of supplies in two kayaks, we will “acquire” our next day’s supplies at each stop. In more rural areas, this will necessitate scavenging and possibly hunting.

I’m also happy to announce that the swim - which I will be promoting by its catchy acronym “4L3RaaC” - will be a fundraiser for my favorite charity: Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled.

I’m super-excited. I wonder if this will get me on Open Water Wednesday?

N.B. 4/2/2011: This is an April Fools’ joke.