Lessons from the Circle Line

The Circle Line cruise is almost a rite of passage for first-time MIMS swimmers. A 3-hour circumnavigation of Manhattan island, the cruise boat traces the same path as the marathon swim – albeit starting from 42nd St on the Hudson instead of South Cove.

The Circle Line is a unique and worthwhile experience in itself. The Manhattan skyline is visually stunning and full of interesting history – and the city’s geography lends itself to being viewed by water. But for MIMS swimmers, it’s essential research. Unlike most other marathon swims, you always know “where you are” in MIMS (i.e., how far you’ve gone, how far you have left) – so long as you’re familiar with the landmarks. Actually, I can’t think of a single other marathon swim with as many visual stimuli as MIMS.

The lower Manhattan skyline, as seen from the entrance to the Hudson River on 27 May 2011. The building under construction at center-left is the Freedom Tower, which will eventually rise 1,776 feet above Ground Zero. Swimmers will pass this view just a few minutes after the start of MIMS.

As it happens, I was in New York City this weekend. On a whim, I booked a slot on a late-afternoon Circle Line cruise. Why not get an early preview of my big swim – less than 3 weeks away? For any future MIMS swimmers-slash-Circle Line customers, here are a few tips:

  • Book online, and save $10 with the coupon code FB09.
  • Arrive early – perhaps 45 minutes to an hour – to ensure a seat with a good viewing angle.
  • The best viewing angle is on the port (left) side of the ship, given the counter-clockwise direction of the trip (same as MIMS). The top (open-air) level tends to be more crowded than the lower (covered) level. My trip was on a hot sunny day, so I took a lower-level port-side seat – and had a perfectly nice view through the window.
  • Alternatively – especially if you arrive too late to claim a good seat – they open up the ship’s bow shortly after setting sail. Position yourself near the lower-level front door and claim your “king of the world” spot when they open the door. (I hate that movie.) Personally, I think this is the best viewing spot; the obvious downside is having to stand for 3 hours.
  • Shortly before the cruise begins, find the narrator (who will be sitting on the lower level wearing a uniform) and make sure your cruise will actually make the full circumnavigation. Occasionally, due to high tides, the ship is forced to turn back at Hell Gate (entrance to the Harlem River) because it can’t clear the bridges. No refunds are offered – but as long as the ship is still in port you can leave and exchange your ticket for a later trip.
  • Watch only for the most obvious landmarks – these are the ones you’ll be able to see from water-level during the swim.
  • The Statue of Liberty – no matter how many times you see her image in books or on television – is awe-inspiring up close, in person. This really took me by surprise – I’m not ordinarily moved by such things. It’s a remarkable object.

On Recovery Drinks: a DIY recipe

Recovery drinks are expensive. My go-to “branded” recovery drink – Hammer Nutrition’s Recoverite – retails for $50/tub. That works out to $1.56 per serving (2 level scoops of powder, mixed in 10 oz water), which might not seem like a lot, but multiplied by 5 workouts/week and 52 weeks/year adds up to $405.

Chocolate milk, of course, is a perfectly acceptable alternative. And at $2.99 per half-gallon, the cost per 10-oz serving goes down to $0.47 ($122/year, a 70% savings). My favorite supermarket-bought recovery drink, though, is Silk Soy chocolate milk – at $3.99/half-gal, still only $0.62 per 10 oz).

Two downsides to chocolate milk: refrigeration and expiration (and therefore, more frequent shopping trips). Powder-based drinks such as Recoverite travel better and, in my opinion, taste better at room temperature.

But powder-based recovery drinks don’t have to break the bank – even ones with approximately the same ingredients as a branded recovery drink. The main thing, according to nutrition scientists, is a carbs-to-protein ratio of somewhere around 3:1 or 4:1. The carbs restore muscle glycogen, the protein repairs and builds muscle tissue, and the two act synergistically to help you recover. Some recovery drinks (including Recoverite) are also fortified with electrolytes and extra amino acids.

Turns out, most of these ingredients can be bought separately and combined in the same proportions as “branded” drinks — for substantial cost savings. The main ingredients in Recoverite are maltodextrin (carbs), whey protein, L-glutamine amino acid, and a full-spectrum electrolyte mix. After those, it’s just flavoring, sweeteners, and a few extra amino acids in very small quantities.

And guess what? Maltodextrin, whey protein, L-glutamine, and full-spectrum electrolytes are all readily (and cheaply) available at Amazon.com. I found whey protein (Muscle Milk brand) for even cheaper ($28.99 / 6 pounds) at Costco.

And so it’s with that in mind that I present the Freshwater Swimmer Generic-but-still-Awesome Powdered Recovery Drinknutritionally indistinguishable from Recoverite:

The recipe produces 6 servings – combine with 60 oz water in a half-gallon container, shake well, refrigerate, and voila! High-quality powdered recovery drink at $0.58 per serving.

How does it taste? Honestly, with no added flavoring – just the natural vanilla flavors included in the protein powder – it tastes even better than Recoverite.

No shortcuts in marathon swimming

As a sort-of counterpoint to my post on Kevin Murphy, I want to highlight this item about Andrew Gemmell, winner of this past weekend’s Crippen SafeSwim 10K. Munatones writes:

He took off time from his collegiate career at the University of Georgia to train with world 10K champion Chip Peterson and coach Jon Urbanchek who has developed 28 Olympians winning 5 gold, 6 silver and 4 bronze medals.

“I have tried to break [Andrew] down,” commented Coach Urbanchek. “But he is tough. He keeps coming back ready for more.”

Notice Coach Urbanchek doesn’t harbor any illusions about minimalist training or competing on “efficiency.” You don’t make it to that level without already being efficient.

What Coach Urbanchek does say is: “I am trying to break him.

Marathon swimming is now an Olympic sport, so objective standards become necessary – in particular, speed. At the elite level, “willpower” is necessary but not sufficient. To be an Olympic marathon swimmer, you have to be fast. And to swim a 10K fast, you have to train your butt off. There are no shortcuts.

You might be able to survive a marathon swim on “less than 20,000 yards per week… with most sets being 3000 yards or less” (to be clear, I’m not talking about Kevin Murphy here). But it probably won’t be very pleasant, and you definitely won’t be fast.

No shortcuts. That’s another reason I’m a marathon swimmer.

Must one be a Fast swimmer to be a Great swimmer?

An excerpts from an interview with Kevin Murphy, the real “King of the English Channel”:

I don’t regard myself as a great swimmer. What I’ve got is an overwhelming ability to keep going, physically and mentally; I’ve got this obsessive willpower to keep going. As a swimmer, there are lots of people who are much better than me; there are a lot of swimmers who are a lot fitter than me. But the point about what we do is… I like to say that 50% of it is willpower; 25% swimming ability; and 25% fitness. The only thing about it is, the fitter you are and the better swimmer you are, the less it hurts psychologically.

Kevin was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame in 1977 – and the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2009. Among other feats, he’s completed 34 crossings of the English Channel.

And he is not a fast swimmer. (His fastest E-F crossing was 13 hours, 31 minutes).

This cuts to the heart of marathon swimming and is perhaps the most significant difference from pool swimming (in which athletes are judged only on the basis of time/speed). Marathon swimming is mostly about persistence and stubbornness, or as Murphy says, “willpower.” It’s nice to be fast, of course; but it’s a relatively minor detail. A luxury.

Kevin Murphy is not a fast swimmer. Yet he is undoubtedly a great swimmer.

The Kitchen Sink Set

Here’s a workout I sometimes do if I show up to the pool without a plan. It consists of 10 sets, each totaling, respectively: 1000, 900, 800, 700, 600, 500, 400, 300, 200, 100. You make up each set as you go along. Usually, I’ll do the first 1000 as warm-up, and tack on 5×100 cool-down at the end, for an even 6,000 yards/meters.

I call it the Kitchen Sink Set. Here’s one version I did this past weekend (SCY):

  • 1000 w/u: 300 swim, 200 kick, 300 pull, 2×100 IM
  • 3×300 pull, moderate
  • 4×200 IM, threshold
  • 14×50: 2x {fly, fly/back, back, back/breast, breast, breast/free, free}
  • 6×100 kick, descend 1-3
  • 100 loosen, 400 Free AFAP (as fast as possible)
  • 4×100: 50 drill / 50 swim, choice of stroke
  • 6×50 fly, smooth
  • 200 IM, broken @ the 50’s, 10 seconds rest – AFAP
  • 4×25 sprint under-water SDK (streamline dolphin kick) on back

I like this workout for a couple reasons. The structure of descending distances keeps you motivated to push through to the end (important when training solo). It has a little bit of everything – aerobic, threshold, lactate, mix of strokes, drilling, kicking, pulling, SDK’s. And it’s different every time. If you have a training partner, you can divide creative responsibilities to make it even more interesting.

Adventures in exercise physiology: Tampa edition

Best I can tell, I lost about 1 pound of body mass during the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim. Actually – probably closer to 1.5 pounds, but we’ll call it a pound. Marathon swimmers often lose substantial weight over the course of a swim, but most of this is water loss that is soon regained. I estimate that I lost a little over a pound of body mass – that is, fat (and possibly some protein cannibalized from my muscles). For convenience, we’ll call it a pound of fat.

Some back-of-the-envelope calculations:

Losing a pound of fat requires an energy deficit of 3,500 calories. I consumed 2,800 calories during the swim. That puts my total energy expended during the 9-hour swim at 6,300 calories — 700 calories per hour.

This tells me a couple of things. First, my energy expenditure is higher than I expected. 700 cal/hr is the typical estimate for “vigorous” swimming – but this was my ultra-marathon pace. Second, I can probably experiment with raising my calorie consumption. I took 311 cal/hr in Tampa, but when I’m burning 700 cal/hr that puts me in deficit within, at most, 5.1 hours (assuming 2,000 calories pre-stored glycogen), and possibly as little as 3.8 hours (assuming 1,500 calories glycogen).

Jared, am I thinking about this the right way?