Lessons in pool etiquette: Masters edition

Rob and Donal have already said what needs to be said about lap swimming etiquette – and with great style, I might add.

What I’d add to the discussion is this: The importance of etiquette is not limited to lap swimming! It’s not just the noodlers and resolutionistas. You might think Masters swimmers would pick up the basics of pool etiquette pretty quickly. It’s tougher to get away with being oblivious and/or rude in a team environment. You might even think more experienced Masters swimmers – those who, by virtue of their proficiency, have obviously been swimming for many years – would be least likely to offend.

Which leads me to a funny story. On my Masters squad, we recently had a new person join, who just moved from out of town. We’ll call him/her “Pat.” Pat is an excellent swimmer – most likely, (s)he once competed at the college level. Nonetheless, here I am, writing this post…

With a tip of the hat to Bill M., here are five New Rules of Etiquette in Masters swimming:

  1. When you join a new Masters team, join the lane you can keep up with… without equipment. Do not join the lane you “aspire” to swim in, but can only make the intervals with the assistance of gigantic flippers.
  2. If, on your previous team, everyone used gigantic flippers on all the main sets, do not assume that on your new team everyone will also use gigantic flippers on all the main sets – and that therefore, it is still OK for you to use gigantic flippers on all the main sets.
  3. Do not leave five seconds apart when everyone else is leaving ten seconds apart. Especially in a long-course pool with only three people per lane.
  4. When politely asked to leave ten seconds apart, do not petulantly ask at the next break, “Is it a crime to leave five seconds apart?”
  5. When it is explained that, “Yes, sometimes people get annoyed when someone pushes off right on their feet in a long-course pool with plenty of space” — do not, in response, say, “Well, I like chasing after bubbles – it makes me go faster.” Um, no. See, here’s the thing, Pat: It’s not about you.

Actually, that’s a pretty good rule to live by when swimming with a team: It’s not about you. 

Rob‘s guidelines for lap swimming etiquette boiled down to: Don’t be a dick. 

Donal‘s guidelines boiled down to: Be aware of what is going on around you.

To these I would add:

When you join a new team, pay close attention to the prevailing norms. Everywhere is different. What is normal in one place might be unbearably annoying in another. It’s your responsibility to figure that out – not your teammates’.

In praise of backstroke

photo credit: Santa Barbara News-Press, 1997.

Is there any good reason for a marathon swimmer to train strokes other than freestyle?

It’s fairly uncontroversial, I think, that training in multiple strokes makes one a better athlete, in a general sense. Each stroke works a unique set of muscles, giving swimmers more “balanced” power in the water. Eddie Reese (multi-time U.S. Olympic coach) is well-known for promoting IM training for all swimmers, including sprinters and single-stroke specialists. Multi-stroke training is also less likely to lead to over-use injuries.

Think of it as in-water cross-training.

What about open-water and marathon swimming? Or triathlon? Is there any point to training other strokes when you’ll never race anything but freestyle? If (like most working adults) you have limited time to train, isn’t that precious time best spent optimizing your freestyle? That certainly has been my approach. Not surprisingly, since I started focusing on open water, my other strokes have suffered.

Recently, I’ve been rethinking this position – especially with regard to backstroke. For one, there are technique benefits. The principles of balance, body position, and core rotation are much the same between backstroke and freestyle. To the extent you can develop efficient backstroke technique, your freestyle should benefit.

But I’m thinking of a more practical reason. Specifically, backstroke is a natural recovery motion for freestyle. While similar muscles are engaged in the two strokes, they’re moving in opposite directions. After a hard freestyle effort, backstroke helps you almost literally “unwind” your shoulders.

At Point Vicente. It was all I could do to raise my arms even this high...

How is this relevant to marathon swimming? Two words: shoulder fatigue. For me, this was the limiting factor in all my big swims this year – Tampa, MIMS, Catalina, and Ederle. My cardiovascular fitness was never an issue; my energy levels stayed high, thanks to a well dialed-in nutrition plan. The only thing holding me back was shoulder pain.

(Re: shoulder “pain,” I should clarify: I’m not talking about rotator cuff inflammation, which is dangerous and typically the product of technique flaws. Just fatigue/over-use of the shoulder muscles.)

This is especially true for shoulder-driven swimmers such as myself. So… what can I do to get beyond the brick wall of shoulder fatigue? A few obvious ideas:

  1. Train more – so my shoulders are better able to tolerate the abuse. (But do I have time?)
  2. Take more (or stronger) drugs. (Is that safe?)
  3. Develop more of a hip-driven stroke – distributing the effort away from my shoulders, toward my core and legs. (But how much speed will I sacrifice, given my short stature and weak kick? — not ideal for hip-driven technique.)
Backstroking somewhere in the Harlem River. Photo credit: Hannah B.

Here’s another idea: do more backstroke. I already do some backstroke during marathon swims – usually a few strokes after each feed. At MIMS, I backstroked under every bridge.

How far can I take this idea? What if, instead of just a few strokes per hour, I swam on my back for an entire feed cycle? Unnecessary for a 5-10 hour swim, perhaps, but what about a 15-20 hour swim? Could I extend the useful life of my shoulders by “unwinding” them for 20 minutes each hour?

It seems even more relevant in my case, because I used to be a backstroke specialist. In my younger, pool swimming days, my main event was the 200 Back. Compared to most, I give up relatively little speed on my back.

To quantify this, I went through my results archive and compared my backstroke and freestyle times through the years at the 100 (yards+meters) and 200 (yards+meters) distances. At both distances, I consistently gave up about 6% of my speed in backstroke, compared to freestyle. (This estimate includes a 2-second correction for the disadvantage of an in-water start in backstroke.) By comparison, the difference between the world records in the 100m freestyle (46.91) and 100m backstroke (51.94) is 9.4%.

6% is really not that much. If my ultra-marathon freestyle pace is 2.5 mph (just under 1:30 per 100m), that means theoretically I should be able to swim backstroke at 2.35 mph – still a very reasonable pace. I give up 6% of my speed, but I’m willing to bet it’s more than offset by delaying shoulder fatigue.

Food for thought…

Swimming with the Ocean Ducks at Goleta Beach

The blog has been rather text-heavy lately. This post should fix that.

The Santa Barbara Ocean Ducks gather Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at Goleta Beach County Park, and Sundays at Butterfly Beach in Montecito (plus Saturdays in the summer). It’s a diverse, friendly group of folks, and even this late in the year you can expect to see 8-10 of us in the water during the week; more on the weekends.

Goleta Beach

Typically we head out in groups of 2 or 3 according to speed. There are a variety of possible swim routes. Here’s one of my favorites (click to enlarge):

Goleta Beach to Campus Point

From our meeting place next to the shower head (west of the restaurant and pier, east of the restroom), we make our way beyond the surf line, 100-150m offshore. Then we turn right, towards UC Santa Barbara and Campus Point. On the outbound trip, we try to maintain a constant distance from shore as we bend around the cove. In the image above I’ve noted four intermediate landmarks, which offer convenient turning-back points if someone is in a hurry.

End of the Beach

The Rock

The Waterfall

The Stairs

The full trip to the east side of Campus Point is approximately 1800m. As seen on the satellite image, this location is actually a “false” point, beyond which there is a small cove that bends into the “true” Point. Usually the false point (or even a little before) offers a better turn-around spot, to avoid rocks and surfers – especially on big W or SW swells. Even on flat-ish days there’s often a nice little right-breaking wave at the Point – perfect for a bodysurfing interlude.

On the return trip we aim for a straight-line trip across the cove. If done correctly, this shaves 300m off the outbound distance. The north side of the pier (where it intersects with the beach) is the best sighting landmark. I usually make the 3300m (2-mile) round-trip in a little under an hour, including a bodysurfing break.

Here’s a short video I took near “the rock”:

It’s a beautiful little swim. There’s an occasional kelp patch to dodge, and perhaps a lone seal or pod of dolphins out for lunch; but for the most part, not much in the way of sea-flora or fauna.

A couple gratuitous Google Earth views of the swim:

From the West

From the East

Interesting historical note: this swim route partially retraces a favorite workout of Lynne Cox, a 1979 graduate of UC Santa Barbara. According to her memoir Swimming to Antarctica, Lynne would swim from the Goleta pier to Campus Point, then on to the next point (Coal Oil Point), and back – a 6.5-mile round trip.

Lynne Cox's route

I guess I need to find a paddler!

On Peter Attia’s nutrition webinar

Yesterday Open Water Source hosted a fascinating web-presentation by Peter Attia, a physician and Catalina Channel solo swimmer. The topic: Nutrition for Open-Water Swimming. Right up my alley, to say the least! There’s good news and bad news.

Bad news first: The webinar was oversubscribed so, despite pre-registering a week ahead of time, I got locked out. The good news: I was able to obtain the audio and slides, and “listen in” after the fact. (Friendly suggestion to the good folks at Open Water Source: Please don’t overbook your webinars. I realize they’re free, but still…)

The even-better news: The webinar was excellent. Though, somewhat different than I expected. A few weeks ago a friend sent me a whitepaper authored by Dr. Attia, entitled “Swimming in the Intensive Care Unit.” The gist of the paper is that a marathon swim is enormously stressful on the body, producing physiological symptoms not unlike those of a patient in the ICU with a traumatic injury. Therefore, proper nutrition is critically important to the success of such an endeavor. His recommendations boiled down, interestingly, to almost exactly what I had discovered on my own:

  • The purpose of feeding during a swim is to supplement your body’s other energy sources (glycogen and fat), not to replace every single calorie you burn.
  • Liquid feeds are better than solid feeds, because solids are difficult to chew and digest while swimming.
  • Feed often – every 15 or 20 minutes – to minimize blood sugar fluctuations.
  • An 8-10% carbohydrate solution (equivalent to, at most, 270 calories per hour) is best.
  • Maltodextrin is a better carb source than dextrose and/or fructose – its lower osmolality is less likely to produce gastric distress.
  • Fluid intake should be enough to require urination at least every hour.
  • Augment the carb drink with protein (or preferably, free-form amino acids) to mitigate muscle breakdown.
  • Do not supplement electrolytes in a saltwater swim (at most, perhaps a small amount of potassium).

Indeed, Dr. Attia’s specific product recommendations corresponded exactly to the products that, independently, I had already found to work best: Maxim and Hammer Perpetuem. So – good for me. Aren’t I smart.

What I didn’t realize until yesterday is that the “Swimming in the ICU” paper is actually outdated! Dr. Attia wrote it circa 2009, but in the past two years has completely changed his thinking and approach to nutrition.

How so? Stay tuned for Part 2

Venus, Mars, and Catalina

Previously, we’ve looked at some general stats on Catalina Channel finishing times, and the growth in participation since George Young’s pioneering swim in 1927. What about gender differences? (Taking a page from Katie’s playbook…)

From 1927-2004, there were 90 successful swims by men and 44 successful swims by women (a ratio of 2.05 to 1). From 2005-2011, there were 80 successful swims by men and 49 successful swims by women (a ratio of 1.63 to 1). So, the gap is narrowing…a bit.

Here, again, it would interesting to see the data on failed swims. Is the ratio of men to women the same for failed swims as for successful swims?

Side note: I decided to split the data-set at 2005 because it offered similarly-sized groupings, and because this was the year when there was a surge in popularity of Catalina Channel swimming (possibly due to the advent of the “triple crown”).

And here are the average & median finish times for each group (C-M one-way crossings only):

Average Median
Men 1927-2004 13:14 12:14
Women 1927-2004 12:17 11:03
Men 2005-2011 11:23 10:51
Women 2005-2011 11:00 10:39

In both eras, women are faster – despite lower levels of participation. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, given that women have the overall records in both directions – Karen Burton from Catalina (7:43) and Penny Lee Dean from the mainland (7:15). Interestingly, in my analysis of MIMS times I also found women were almost uniformly faster.

This raises an obvious question without an obvious answer: Why? (See the comments section for a couple theories.)

The third in a series of posts taking a statistical look at the history of Catalina Channel swimming (see parts 1 and 2). These analyses have not been validated or endorsed by the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation and should be considered “unofficial.” 2011 swims are included, but are unofficial until the ratification banquet on November 5.

CCSF’s official list of successful swims is available here. Penny Lee Dean’s authoritative history is here.

The ethic of self-navigation

Sometimes I think mild derangement might be a prerequisite for marathon swimming. Perhaps “derangement” is a bit strong; so I’ll say: In the world’s oceans, lakes, rivers, and bays, you meet a lot of offbeat folks. And I mean this in the best possible way! These are my favorite sorts of people.

So I feel nothing but respect and admiration when I come across someone who makes me seem downright conventional. Case in point: the comments thread on my original “wetsuits in marathon swimming” post. Here’s the anonymous, cryptic comment that gave rise to a fascinating discussion:

I look forward to the era when channel swimmers are forbidden to use the escort boat to block winds and settle chop, and when they do their own real-time navigation, swimming in out front.

I initially read this as snark from a wetsuit fan… but it turns out this person was quite serious! And not necessarily a “fan” of wetsuits. What (s)he was describing – and further explained in subsequent comments – was an ethic of self-navigation.

According to this view, a truly “unaided” swim eschews not just wetsuits, but also the navigational assistance of the escort boat. With enough knowledge and experience, a swimmer is capable of navigating him/herself across a channel – by monitoring the location of the sun/moon, and the direction of wind, swells, and chop. Therefore, the GPS navigation used in modern channel swims constitutes an artificial aid, and is equivalent to the black line on the bottom of a pool. Moreover, self-navigation lends a “strong sense of place,” given how much closer attention a swimmer must pay to her surroundings. It’s a purer form of open-water adventure.

To clarify, the ethic of self-navigation doesn’t reject the use of an escort boat – just the navigational assistance of an escort boat. The swimmer can use the boat for feedings and safety (communicating with nearby vessels) – just not navigation. Thus, the escort boat must stay behind the swimmer.

I challenged the anonymous commenter on a variety of grounds, but (s)he had answers for just about everything. I thought the conversation was over a month ago when I said, basically, “While I respect the ethic of self-navigation as a noble ideal, I don’t think it’s practical, and the existing ‘channel rules’ do a pretty good job of rewarding things we care about – like swimming skill, training, and mental fortitude.”

A few days ago Anonymous finally responded – addressing my misgivings but also going much further, grappling with several fundamental issues in marathon swimming. At 1,069 words, the comment is better linked to than copy-and-pasted, so here it is. It’s well worth your time.

I’m grateful to Anonymous for taking the time to engage with me on this. While I may not take up self-navigation anytime soon, (s)he has changed how I think about marathon swimming.

I love my readers.