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

Race Report – Nike Swim Miami 2010

Two weeks ago a trip to Miami was not even on my radar. Then out of the blue an old college friend (both roommate and swim team-mate) emailed me about doing a relay for the Swim Around Key West. Sadly I had another commitment that weekend, but out of curiosity I went Googling for other races in South Florida (he lives in Miami) and — lo and behold — there’s a race in Miami April 17th!

Catch up with old roomie and his family? Escape from Ohio in April? Start my O.W. season 6 weeks earlier than planned? It was a no-brainer. Continue reading “Race Report – Nike Swim Miami 2010”

Increase effortlessness, not effort

I want to expand for a moment on the concept (discussed in the previous post) of increasing effortlessness rather than effort – within a set and over the course of a taper.

In a typical swim taper, in which athletes are preparing for events of 100 or 200m (or at most 1500m), it’s common to gauge the taper’s progress by monitoring pace times in practice. Over the course of a taper, a swimmer’s times on “pace swims” of 50 or 100m will tend to get faster.

In races of more than 30 minutes (~1.5 miles), however, it becomes less important to hit specific pace times than it is to modulate effort. This is especially true of swims 10K and longer (2+ hours).

That’s why, in preparing for tomorrow’s 10K, I’ve focused less on swimming a faster pace, but on how much effort I’m expending to swim a given pace. That’s what I mean when I say: Don’t increase effort (to swim faster), but rather, increase effortlessness (to swim the same speed with less effort).

Pick a pace time – in my case, let’s say 1:15 per 100m. In the middle of my training cycle, it might require 80% effort to swim a set of repeat 100s at this pace – even more with short rest. But by the end of my taper, I should be able to swim this pace relatively “effortlessly” – perhaps 65-70% effort – in other words, the effort I can maintain for the 2+ hours of a 10K.

As I’ve said before, if you can swim effortlessly, the pace will take care of itself.

Readying to rumble

T-50 hours or so until the aperitif for Open Water Season 2010. I’ll train right through most of my summer schedule, but I wouldn’t dare attempt a 10K unrested. So, I’m taking the week off from weightlifting and doing 3 days of below-average swim yardage. In these last few swims I’ll focus primarily on “feel,” not the clock. If I can swim “effortlessly,” the pace will take care of itself.

To help me build into a 10K feel, I’ve been doing (after a brief warm-up) a set of 12×100 LCM on descending intervals. I start with 2 on 1:45 and lower the interval by 5 seconds every 2 — so the last 2 are on 1:20.

My aim is to swim the last 2 at approximately 10K effort and speed, and to swim the first 2 no more than 5 seconds slower than the last 2. So in my case, I might swim the first 2 at 1:19 (giving me 26 seconds rest), and the last 2 at 1:15 (5 seconds rest).

Most important, my pace should descend by more than my effort. In other words, I swim faster over the course of the set not by increasing my effort, but by increasing my “effortlessness.”

Distance swimmers experience this subjectively as “feel” or “rhythm.” Objectively, this is a function of efficiency – in stroke technique and in energy metabolism.

By repeating the set several times this week, I can gauge the progress of my taper, and hopefully swim similar times with less effort – within each set and across the week.

Strength training and swimming: Things to consider

A teammate asks, regarding my strength training routine:

Would you recommend something similar for me (only been swimming 1.5ish years very haphazardly), or do you think the benefits are only for those who have slowed their pool gains down significantly?

My answer: “Yes, but….”

Yes – because:

  • Weightlifting and calisthenics are good for you, both in promoting strength and general musculoskeletal health, and in preventing injury.
    • If you learn to deadlift properly, for example, you’ll never throw out your back lifting a heavy box.
  • Getting stronger will, in general, help you swim faster. At least, a little bit faster (see next point).

But – because:

  • Strength training is a “low leverage” activity for improving swimming speed. The highest leverage, by far, is in swim technique.
    • So, unless your technique is already in the range of excellent-to-perfect (and even Olympic swimmers are constantly working on their technique), strength training is not the most efficient method of swimming faster.
  • My routine involves several “free weight” exercises – which are the best way to lift weights, but also potentially dangerous. In doing squats, deadlifts, overhead press, and bench press, you must use proper lifting technique, or your efforts may easily backfire. Unless you’re already gym-savvy, it’s a good idea to ask a trainer to watch your technique before attempting these exercises.
  • Ease into any new routine – no need to be a hero. If you haven’t been to the gym in a while, try starting with a few body-weight exercises. Then add some resistance bands.
    • With free weights, start with just the bar, adding weight only when you can easily do 8-10 reps with perfect technique. Don’t be distracted by the ex-football players benching 300 pounds at the next station.

Bottom line: You can swim very fast without ever setting foot in a gym (that’s especially true of distance swimming). Strength training can help at the margins, but frankly, I do it more for the general health benefits.

Strength training for open-water swimming

Notwithstanding this post’s title, my strength training routine – which I started about 6 weeks ago – is only partly tailored for open water swimming. It’s a balanced, total-body routine designed for strength, simplicity, and sustainability.

Strength means not designed for maximum muscle mass (the former helps swimming, the latter does not).

Simplicity means using only a few basic gym equipment, and that I can remember the routine easily without writing it down.

Sustainability means giving myself the best chance of consistently doing the routine over the long term. It’s integrated seamlessly into my everyday life, and it’s brief (no more than 30 minutes per session). Continue reading “Strength training for open-water swimming”