Interviews with Rich Abrahams and Mark Warkentin

As Chris Anderson described in The Long Tail, the internet has made possible a previously unthinkable wealth of content for niche interests – e.g., Masters and open-water swimming.

Here are two great examples from the past week:

First, Rich Abrahams. The consensus “swimmer of the meet” at the recent Masters Nationals in Atlanta, Rich threw down a 49.4 100 Free and 22.1 50 Free. Fast times for anyone, but guess what? He’s 65 years old. In other words, not just fast, but almost-unbelievably fast.

How did Rich do it? Through several candid posts on the USMS forums and a video interview with Swimming World, you can gather hints. The most interesting nuggets, to my mind:

  • his focus in practice on lots of race-pace swimming
  • his approach to dryland training:
    • focus on overall, balanced strength rather than swim-specific strength
    • one long workout Sunday morning, one shorter workout Wednesday (providing several days recovery between each)
    • the importance of long-term consistency (i.e., over several decades)
  • his preference for swimming with 1-3 like-minded training partners, rather than with a team

Second, 2008 open-water 10K Olympian Mark Warkentin. Mark and I grew up together and swam for many years with the Santa Barbara Swim Club. He’s the toughest workout warrior I’ve ever known – and also a smart, wily open-water veteran. So, like ’08 gold medalist Maarten van der Weijden, he routinely beats people in the open-water who are faster than him in a pool.

Two days ago Mark made an appearance on the Simon Gowen Triathlon Show (h/t Daily News of O.W.S.). The interview has some less-meaty parts (it’s a triathlon show, after all), but there are some good tidbits for more advanced swimmers. In particular:

  • a good way to train yourself to breathe on both sides (while still breathing every other stroke): do a long swim, alternating 50m breathing to one side, 50m to the other
  • the importance of repeating sets over time – to gauge progress, but also to hold yourself accountable (you know how fast you should be going)
  • “pool open-water” training – take out the lanelines
  • the importance of being comfortable swimming in a pack – taking advantage of “moving water” and keeping your composure when you get hit or kicked

Back in the saddle

After a day off following the races in North Carolina, I’ve strung together as good a 4-day stretch of training as I’ve had in several months. My volume is up a bit (I’m on pace for ~29,000 yards this week), but especially the intensity.

Monday I pounded out 4,000 SCY (including 1,700 of kicking) right after lifting (session A). Tuesday I combined SCY & LCM for 3,740 yards, again right after lifting (session B). This workout included the following race-pace set (LCM):

  • 4x {200 fast, 100 easy} @ 6:00
    • 2:28, 2:27, 2:27, 2:15 (pull)

Those times don’t appear all that great, but given that I lifted right before, I was pleased. Wednesday I reached 5,000 SCY despite soreness from 2 back-to-back lifting sessions. Main set:

  • 4x {500 @ 10K pace, 10 sec rest, 200 build to fast, 50 easy} @ 10:00
    • I held around 5:55 for the 500s and 2:16 for the 200s.

This morning I managed 3,500 LCM in just over 50 minutes, with just one set:

  • 5×700
    • #1 warm-up @ 11:00
    • #2-4 moderate descend to 10K pace @ 10:00
      • 9:32, 9:27, 9:25 (pace of 1:21.7, 1:21.0, 1:20.7)
    • #5 warm-down

Tomorrow and Saturday I’ll dial it down slightly – a necessary recovery from the past 4 days, but also to hit Sunday’s race (USMS 1.5-mile O.W. Champs in Livermore, CA) ready to swim fast. Sunday morning I’ll visit my old friends at Stanford Masters for a warm-up.

Hello, California!

Race Report: USMS 1-mile Champs (Huntersville, NC)


Huntersville, NC, site of the USMS 1-mile Open Water Championship, is a 415-mile drive from Columbus – through the rolling, verdant hills of West Virginia, western Virginia, and into the Lake Norman area north of Charlotte. We broke up the drive in both directions with restorative lunches in Charleston, WV. Bluegrass Kitchen going south, and Tricky Fish going north (both highly recommended).

Continue reading “Race Report: USMS 1-mile Champs (Huntersville, NC)”

The meet warm-up: Preparing to swim fast

Tomorrow morning I will fly from Columbus to Atlanta, and from the airport will head directly to the pool and warm up for my first event, the mile.

The pre-meet warm-up is vitally important to how well you swim on a given day. Aside from getting a good breakfast, there’s probably nothing as important. Some people approach their meet warm-up mindlessly, without a plan – and that is foolish. I’ve even known people to skip warm-up entirely – and that’s just crazy.

The purpose of a meet warm-up is to prepare your body for optimal performance. That means bringing your heart-rate up, but not too far and not for too long. By the end of the warm-up you should feel loose but not tired.

How far should you swim? However long it takes to feel warm and loose (and if you’re a sprinter: explosive). First thing in the morning, this might take longer than in the afternoon. A good rule of thumb is: however far you swim near the end of your taper. For me, that means about 2000 yards, plus-or-minus 300.

Dave Salo apparently had his swimmers do literally the same meet warm-up every time (with slight modifications for each swimmer’s events that day), with the idea that over time your body will come to recognize that “Hey, this means I’m supposed to swim fast today.” I think this is solid advice.

Here’s my typical meet warm-up:

  • 400 – alternate 100 free / 100 back
  • 400 –
    • 2x {50 kick, 50 drill, 50 swim} – include strokes
    • 2×25 SDK (streamline dolphin kick)
    • 50 easy swim
  • 400 – straight free, build to 75%
  • 4×100 descend to 80% – possibly include strokes or IM
  • 4×50 IM order @ 85%
  • 8×25 – sprint to halfway, then easy – include strokes

That’s 2000 yards/meters. At this point, I’ll assess how I feel. If I’m still not ready I might add some additional 100s or 50s at a strong pace. If I’m doing any sprint events that day, I’ll do some starts. Then, I’ll warm down with at least a 300.

With a proper meet warm-up, you should be ready to swim fast at any time over the next 2 hours or so, with only some moderate swimming just before your race. If the wait before your first race is more than a couple of hours, you might add some pace 50s or sprint 25’s to the pre-race warm-up.

Health comes first

This past week was a perfect storm of events to temporarily derail my training, and I should have seen it coming. But there are some things you can control, and some you can’t.

It’s tough to train while traveling. Not impossible – I got in 7,900 LCM within 12 hours of arriving in Chicago – but usually tough. Add a few late nights, some occasionally excessive drinking and fraternizing, frequent use of public transportation, and, well, you’re asking for it.

And I sure got it. This wasn’t one of those bugs that teases you for a few days with a sore throat. This one hit me like a truck. Down and out.

At which point there’s nothing to do but rest and wait it out. For me, it has meant 6 days out of the water right before my taper was to begin. Could I have gone to the pool today? Perhaps. 15 years ago, I almost certainly would have. And the bug would have gradually dug its way into my sinuses and festered for the rest of the summer.

I’m not as fast a swimmer as I was when I was 15, but I’m a smarter one. Frustrating as it seems in the short-term, health comes first. Sickness is your body saying, “Slow down.” Respect it.

Battling the Brine

An old friend informs me (and he would know – he swam the 10K at the 2008 Olympics) that the dehydration I experienced in Miami may have been more perceived than actual. Saltwater in the mouth and throat can induce craving for fresh water even when your body is adequately hydrated. More important, he suggests, is energy. While I did stash a gel pack in my suit (and consumed it at the 5K mark), he says he’d actually take 3 or 4 during a 10K.

In any case, don’t drink the saltwater!

One important issue I didn’t mention in my race report is chafing. I didn’t mention it because, I suppose, it’s one of the few things I did right that day.

Saltwater is highly abrasive, and without preventive measures you can develop some nasty irritation – even on a short, half-hour swim. Anywhere your skin rubs together – especially in the armpit region – is vulnerable.

The solution? A liberal application, with rubber gloves, of a mixture of 50% anhydrous lanolin, 50% vaseline. Vaseline has good consistency and is easy to remove, but less staying power in a long swim. Lanolin has great staying power but a wax-like consistency, and is difficult to remove (even with soap). Combine the two and you get the best of both worlds.

Rubber gloves are essential – you don’t want to get that sh** on your goggles!

Credit for this grease recipe goes to ‘chaos’, who writes a great blog at