Saturday, 4 February 2012

Ten things I wish I'd known when I started this swimming lark... Part I

I came to the sport of marathon swimming relatively late. I only discovered the joys and possibilities of non-wetsuit open water swimming in my late thirties, and I was 42 when I swam the English Channel in 2010. This is possibly the only aspect of Channel swimming where I am above average, given that the average age for solo swimmers is estimated at 33. I've also been involved in the sport a relatively short time, which means that there's still a lot I have to learn, but that I've also had to learn a lot quite quickly. So, I've boiled this down into an arbitrary "Ten things I wish I'd know when I started this swimming lark...." These aren't hierarchically arranged, and some are very individual while others, I think, are more generalisable. They come with the necessary caveat that there are far more experienced and knowledgeable swimmers out there who are far better sources of information than a relative neophyte like myself. But I'm guessing that if I wish I'd known these things, then I can't be the only one...

1. The cold isn't the problem.
This is not a generalisable point, since for some people cold is the primary challenge. But for me, it never has been, even though all my initial planning was around getting a swim slot at what I hoped would be the warmest point in the year with the most daylight....which I also hoped would make it warmer. As it turns out, and no doubt bolstered by a generous layer of body fat, I've never really had a problem with the cold, and certainly not on any of my long swims. So for me, the cold isn't the's just a really long way. I guess the key point here is: if you're taking on a challenge, make sure you know what the challenging part is....otherwise it's going to sneak up on you when you're too busy worrying about something else.

2. Drilling and speed work matter...for everyone.
I was told repeatedly in the early stages of my training not to just plod out long steady swims, but to intersperse that with speed sessions, as well as technique work. I took this on board to some extent, but as training progressed, lapsed into long slog mode; somehow, I had convinced myself that the speed work was for the speedy, not for the plodders like myself whose chances of success depended on being able to keep on hacking away for hours. In some ways, this is true, in that slower swimmers have to be prepared to be in for the long haul. But as I also discovered on my Channel swim, to be able to have different registers of effort and pace can make the world of difference on a swim. And as for the drilling - I had decided that it was not possible to work on technique and put in the distance simultaneously, so set the technique work aside as the training mounted. I am now a complete convert to technique work and drilling at the beginning of every set that I do, if for no other reason that it serves as a corrective reminder, preventing a slide into bad habits that comes with a focus on distance only. I haven't tested this out in a long swim yet, but I am absolutely certain that I am a better swimmer (more efficient, less likely to get injured) as a result of this change of structure to my training.

3. Strength and conditioning training helps.
Regular gym work with weights / stretch bands to strengthen your shoulder muscles and ligaments, as well as those in the arms, back, chest and core is an important element in remaining injury-free. I've also found it useful in balancing out some of the imbalances that are produced by freestyle swimming (e.g. the pulling forward of the shoulders). There is an age factor here, with most people becoming less flexible and slower to recover as they get older, making this kind of work increasingly important. I also follow a programme of stretching, and engage in regular cross training - these days, mostly running, but also some cycling, or working out on the gym cross-trainer. This provides some weight-bearing exercise (important for bone density, especially for women), and keeps the legs - often neglected in marathon swimming - fit, strong and flexible. In particular, I've found that running, plus some time on a wobble board has done wonders for my ankle stability - something that can be damaged by a lot of freestyle swimming. It's important not to see this as an add-on to training, but as a fundamental part of training - however much you feel like you should be using every spare training minute in the water, it's really worth setting aside some time for this.

4. Start from where you are, not where you think you should be.
One of the problems for novice Channel swimmers is that there are as many ways to train as there are swimmers. Those at the beginning of their training are commonly full of anxiety about whether they are doing enough, or enough of the right kind of training - I know I was. And then I would read about someone doing massive pool swims, or enduring very cold water, and I would immediately thing that that's what I should be doing....regardless of whether that was within my capabilities at the time. What I have learned over time is that you have to start from where you are, rather than where you think you should be - there is no value in hammering out a swim that is beyond your capabilities only to be unable to train for the next few days because you're completely exhausted and sore. Binge-swimming doesn't work - you'll just get injured and it doesn't build endurance in a sustainable manner. So, my advice is to make a realistic assessment of where you are, and start from there regardless of what anyone else is doing, increasing intensity / time / distance incrementally. It's not very spectacular, but it works.

5. Not every swimming costume rubs.
One of my biggest regrets is that in my first year of training, I just assumed that swimming costume rubs were an occupational hazard, and even with globs of vaseline, I would end up with sore patches on my shoulders and down my sides. At the time, I was wearing Speedo Endurance costumes, which I love for the pool, but just didn't work for me in the sea. I think I got seduced by the whole "endurance" idea and it was a complete revelation to me when I eventually switched brands (firstly to Arena, and more recently to TYR) that I finally twigged that painful salt rubs are not inevitable. My Catalina swim, for example, was completely rub free in my favourite TYR costume. So, the trick here is to keep looking around for the right kit for you - the same goes for hats (which shouldn't keep slipping off) and goggles (which shouldn't need adjusting). These are very individual matters...but don't settle for "okay". It's just a matter of finding the right product.


  1. Some really excellent advice in here, Karen. I'm on board with you 100%. Indeed, I've been writing something along the lines of your point #2, re: speed & technique work. In my observation, it's quite common for marathon swimmers to focus on high volume, at the expense of speed and technique. Perhaps especially among those who didn't grow up as competitive pool swimmers. While hard work and volume do help in marathon swimming, I believe for many, technique & speed are the lower hanging fruit. A way to become a better swimmer without having to increase time in the water. In my experience, a certain volume of high-intensity threshold training can be equivalent to multiples of that volume of slow plodding.

  2. Hi Karen
    I am with you on the drills and speed work. I have done the Critical Swim Speed test and do at least one speed session a week. I also tend to do 50m drill 50 m full and will swim at least 1K of drills per session. I see the two fold benefit of distance and technique.
    Excellent advice. Looking forward to the next 5!
    Was waiting for the Eastenders Do do do do do bit

  3. Thanks Evan and Sarah - I think it definitely helps, although it's important to note that not doing it doesn't necessarily mean you won't get across. I just think that it adds to the resources that you can draw on on the day. If you're not accustomed to that kind of training, it's a bit of a leap of faith. Plus, when I trained for the Channel, I had a very flexible work schedule and could afford to slog out long distances; the same won't be true next year, so I need to be as time efficient as possible.

  4. Karen, these ten things are brilliant. You say so easily the things in my head. I wish I had known all of this too, but most of all, I am glad to have met you. And glad that I can go swimming in the ocean again tomorrow. You're so right about the fun, it's fun!

  5. Hi Karen, really good advises. If you don't mind, I'd like to translate it to russian and post it to my swimming portal. Obviously with the reference to the original post.

  6. Grigori - of course. You're welcome to use the content.