Category Archives: How To

Learn various skills and knowledge useful for Open Water swimmers

How To: Building an Open Water Swimming Toolbox

This is my open water swimming toolbox, come and have a poke around. Okay, hang on, watch where you’re putting that finger.

The toolbox is made of lycra, silicone, plastic and flesh and brainstuff. I constructed it myself because you can’t purchase one off the shelf, regardless of what some salespeople will have you believe, and you can’t borrow someone-else’s.

The tools inside are pretty cluttered but all pretty well maintained.  Like most toolboxes there’s some useless sand and greasy stuff and sticky bits  in there, the shape has bulged a bit and the exterior of the box is getting a bit old and battered and faded but looks aren’t everything and all the scratches and dents have stories of their own.

This weird-shaped thingamajig here is called Experience. It’s the tool I use every single swim. Every swim sharpens it, and makes it fit the next job even better. Curiously, the more I use it the more I know how to use it. Sometimes I open up one attachment to figure out if it’s safe to swim. Sometimes I use a different attachment to tell me if I’ll be able to get out safely. Sometimes I even discover a new use from a previously completed operation.  And occasionally I fish the whole tool out of my Speedoes if things get a bit iffy in the water and I need to measure the whole situation. It’s quite waterproof and is easily stored no matter that it seems to be bigger than when I first used it on my second swim. (The Experience tool that is, not the Speedoes or other contents thereof!).

This incredibly complex and weird-shaped widget is called the Stroke tool. It’s always important to get help learning this tool. It’s not the only tool nor even the most important but while you won’t get the job done using it alone, neither will you get the job done without it. It comes with four different major sides,  but each major use has lots of smaller increments and adjustments. Mastering this tool is a lifelong task, and you need to make sure you don’t mistake an Apprentice level for a Journeyman or Master level. I’m at about Journeyman level with this thing after years of practice. The tool also includes this dial here called Strokes Per Minute which can be set anywhere from 70 to 78 but you need to calibrate this tool to yourself and you might find you use a far lower or far higher range of settings. This whole tool is a bit tricky and also never seems to be just quite right. Make sure you read and don’t lose the manual as it’s pretty complex and you’ll find you have to refer back to it every so often. Sometimes the Stroke tool breaks down and you might have use both the Experience and Adaptation tools to get the job done. You should also realise that this tool is temperature sensitive. Funnily enough despite its complexity, it’s also a bit a like a hammer: It’s just not enough for every problem.

This blocky-looking block yoke (Irish term) is called the Training tool. You have to make this tool yourself. It’s a lot of work to build but it’s essential to balance the toolbox and to support the other tools. Occasional Maestro’s of the Stroke tool will denigrate the Training tool but people who leave the Training tool out of their toolbox will always get caught out on the job.

This roll of stuff here is called Adaptability. It’s like a more waterproof duct tape but you can stick a bit behind your ear and grab it when you need it and your hands are full. I use it to stick some of the other tools together when an unforeseen situation arises.  And unforeseen situations arise all the time, so this tool is really useful. But like the stroke tool it can’t be the only thing in the toolbox. Sometime you might want to stick a bit of experience onto a length of stroke and make it stand on a chunk of training. A bit of adaptation is yer only man tool for some jobs.

Some people will try to get you to put extra specialist tools in your toolbox usually because they are selling it. Mental toughness is a good example. It’s an essential tool. But there are some quirky things about the existing tools. If you learn to use the tools well they already do the specialist tasks, such as accurately taping the right bit of experience to the right big bit of training using some adapability and you know, you end up with a tool that does the same thing.

This is a pencil and notebook. I use this to record the jobs I’ve done.  If I don’t record what I’ve done, how will I know what I’ve learned?

These are the Checklists. No good workman starts the job without checklists.  Make sure to check the location, temperature, wind, tide, currents, exit and risks boxes for every job.

These here are the Plans.

This is Plan A: Swim Harder. Plan B is Swim In a Different Direction, Plan C is Swim In the Opposite Direction, Plan D is Keep On Swimming, Plan E is Don’t Get In and Plan F is Get Out. Every plan is appropriate to a particular situation and sometimes you might even use the whole lot. Some over-confident workmen only go on the job with Plan D and think it’ll be adequate for every situation. Don’t forget  the workman’s Seven-Ps planning rule: Proper prior planning prevents piss-poor performance.

Never forget to bring Plans E (Don’t Get In)and F (Get Out) because when you have the confidence and knowledge and know the time and place to use those plans appropriately, you’ll have built your own toolbox and be  ready for whatever the job throws at you.

Now get out there, there are jobs waiting to be done.

More brief lessons from marathon swimming – II – Marathon swimming is like childbirth

I split what was originally a single list,  because well, if you are writing every week for over four and half years, you need to make your ideas count. Also, I found that the original draft just kept growing and likely will continue to so do, so this will easily allow me to add another part at some point in the future. (Which is already started).

  • No food in the world tastes as good as [Dooley's fish n' chips in Tramore] after a marathon swim. This works for your preferred location and fast food.
  • The water is always rougher than it looks and the wind is always higher.
  • But it was better yesterday.
This wave was as high as ahouse
This wave was as high as a house, and the wind was Force 11


  • Chocolate, coffee and porridge is practically a balanced diet.
  • Nothing is better than porridge, (even if you hate it).
  • Every marathon swimmer should crew at least once in their life to appreciate how essential the role of crew is to our swimming.
  • It’s not the length of the war swim, but the depth of the foxhole pain of the training and who you share it with that counts.
  • Marathon swimming is exactly like childbirth. You don’t know exactly when it’ll start, how long it’s going to go on for, or how much pain will be involved. You may also beg for drugs and try to punch someone. And it’s all forgotten mere minutes after the event is over. I make this comparison with absolute male certainty.
  • You have never farted like you have farted after six hours or more of liquid maltodextrin feeds.
  • The patch of warm water that embraces you, punishes you worse when you leave it. So it’s not entirely unlike divorce.
  • The way a marathon swimmer looks after six hours in sub-ten or eleven degree water is good evidence of the evolutionary link between humans and apes.
  • The way a marathon swimmer looks after 14 hours or more in salt water is good evidence of the close link between humans and whales.
  • All Carb/maltodextrin costs twice as much as you think after you have thrown out all the prepared but unused feeds.
  • When forced to poop while in the sea, make sure the wind and tide are going in the opposite direction you are and that there’s no-one behind you.
  • No swim ever goes 100% to plan. Ever.
  • The people who ask “why” will never understand your answer. The people who understand, will never ask.

Brief lessons from marathon swimming – I – Never eat a curry the night before a long swim

There’s a discussion thread on the forum called Tips and Tricks and I’ve been writing my How To articles for a few years. But here’s a list of brief random items I’ve learned that I threw together, which  individually are too short for articles (right now anyway, who knows what’ll be possible mid-winter when I’m out of ideas). I’m pretty certain every other swimmer would have their own additions.  More to come in the next article.

  • Never eat a curry the night before a marathon swim. No details are necessary.
  • It’s always all about the weather.


  • And the waiting. Never forget the waiting.
  • You can always pick a marathon swimmer out of a crowd based purely on their facial tan.
  • Never eat a banana on a boat in rough weather.
  • Seagulls are evil bastards. Their mimic all the things of most importance to marathon swimmers, such as other swimmers, boats, kayakers, dolphins and lighthouses, just to piss you off. If this is insufficient, some of them will try to vomit or crap directly on you.
  • Nothing is predictable in open water and marathon swimming.
  • You never feel as physically dirty as you do after a marathon swim. You never enjoy any shower as much as the subsequent cleansing.
  • When in doubt, add more food.
  • A bad or tough swim is more personally rewarding than a good or fast swim.
  • Classic elegance
    I wouldn’t swap it for anything
  • While in the long-term sleep is essential, in the short-term it’s less vital that you’d imagine.
  • There are people I’ve spent many hours with, whom I wouldn’t recognise without a swim cap and goggles. And visa versa.
  • Don’t believe that all the ones who do the most marathon swims are necessarily better. They sometimes just have more money. Like everything else in life.
  • Never go out on a boat without foul weather gear, regardless of forecast.
  • Just because you are paying someone two and a half grand for a  day’s work, doesn’t mean they will treat you with respect.
  • No pilot is God, nor are pilots all of equal ability.
  • There’s more than one way of feeding, and more than one type of food.


An Analysis Of Open Water Drownings

Any experienced open water swimmer will be, or at least should be familiar with evaluating personal risk on an ongoing basis. (I have written many posts about the Do’s and Don’t’s of open water).

One thing we don’t talk about is drowning, because we put ourselves in the category of people unlikely to join the statistics, just because we are strong, confident and experienced open water swimmers.

In some cases below I can’t separate open water drowning from overall drownings. The IWS report is particularly useful for so doing however.

The Irish Water Safety Association (which promotes open water safety and collates Irish drowning figures and for decades has taught people to swim in open water locations) released a report about drowning rates in open water locations, based on 25 years of data collection up to 2012 (not including 2013 which had higher rates due to an unusually good summer).

The headline figures are startling. An average of 140 people drown every year in Ireland. America’s CDC releases the US figures, and for 2005 to 2009, the annual average is 3,533 (non-boating related). That’s almost 10 per day in the US, of whom two are under 14.

The World Health Organisation places drowning as the third leading cause of unintentional death worldwide, accounting for 7% of all injury related deaths. In 2011, 359,000 people worldwide drowned, 95% of them in poorer countries. As the CDC notes, for every child that drowns, another five receive emergency department treatment, and some will suffer long-term disabilities up to permanent vegetative state.

If you work out per capita rates, you find Ireland is 0.000035% while the US is 0.000013%, almost one-third of Ireland. However the Irish figures do include boating, suicide and fishing industry accidents. The IWS say that the suicide rate figure accounts for one-third to half of the Irish total, so once that’s accounted for the Irish and US accidental drowning figures aren’t that different.

79% of Irish drowning victims are from the local area. One is never more than 100 miles from the sea in Ireland whereas the maximum distance from any sea in the USA is over 1000 miles.

In Ireland 79% of drowning are male, the same as the US.

One of the more surprising statistics from Ireland is where the drownings occur and the figure that prompted me to write this article.

Irish drowing locationsIreland’s relationship with the ship has long been difficult. It is only very recently that we’ve started to embrace our coastal heritage, as traditionally the Irish were extremely wary of the Atlantic, understandable when we take the brunt of the wild Atlantic. We swimmers also know that people here assume the sea is more dangerous.

The locations listed are varied: Lakes, rivers, canals, ponds, quarries, but also bog holes, drains, slurry tanks and reservoirs. We have a weird sport here called Bog Snorkling (yes, it’s worth clicking on that link and yes, I’ve considered it but I hate kick drills) but I’ve not heard of any drowning during this sport. Such drownings are more likely to occur with bog walkers or people footing (cutting & stacking) turf.  Slurry tank deaths are a tragic annual incidence that result when farmers or agricultural workers are overcome by hydrogen sulfide and drown as a consequence).

Inland also includes swimming pools which are less than 1% of drowning as Ireland is too cold for home or outdoor swimming pools to be popular here.

If we look at the breakdown, one noticeable figure stands out.

Irish drowning locations breakdownRivers are three times more likely as a location for drowning than the sea, with lakes, which are often assumed to be safer, almost equal to the sea.

Five counties accounted for 52% of all drownings (Cork, Dublin, Galway, Kerry and Mayo) and the main location in those is rural. As the IWS reports says “while [] rural
drowning presents as principal region in nine counties, the majority of drowning incidents appear to happen in or surrounding urban settlement areas“. County Cork’s river Lee is the highest single location in the figures.

The IWS report also gives a breakdown of the circumstances leading to drowning.

Irish drowning circumstancesSwimming and walking suffered the same level of drowning. If one adds shore angling, more people drown from the shore than from getting into the water. You may recall I wrote a relevant article last year called “There’s no such thing as freak wave, coastal safety is your own responsibility.

You’ve probably heard the old saw that the “strongest swimmers are the ones most likely to drown“. The report says that data on ability is lacking in 42% of cases, 26% are reported as poor and 33% as good, so there is some support for this notion but it’s hardly conclusive.

In contrast, it says that 27% of cases involved some level of intoxication, and maybe a third of those were intentional. In the US, that figure is up to 70%.

All this indicates that the “average” Irish drowning victim is a 42-year-old male, who has drank some alcohol, and is from the local area and the location is more likely to be a river near an urban location.

The average US victim is younger due to an increase in child drownings. Minorities, whether racial or economic, are also more prone to risk.

So what should you do? I tried to come up with a list of things that individual open water swimmers can do outside becoming qualified lifeguards. As swimmers we take absolutely for granted that every child should be taught to swim.

  • As every experienced open water swimmer knows, alcohol should be absolutely avoided. If you see people drinking while around water or looking like they are going to get in, (this happens at the Guillamenes), try to talk them out of swimming. I know how these conversations go, they are not easy. Nonetheless.
  • Use a buddy system. (When you can, most of the time I can’t)
  • If you see small children without an adult, stay on watch yourself until you find their guardian. The figures suggest  that children under 14 should also always be supervised around  water.
  • In your local location, in the absence of signs, flags or lifeguards, communicate any relevant local dangers to others. Wind, wave size, rip currents, tidal currents, exits, submerged rocks, jellyfish, weaver fish etc. I’ve found for example that casual bathers and inexperienced swimmers frequently underestimate wave size and exit difficulty. One problem I occasionally face is that teenagers assume if an “old guy” like me can get in the water, so can they. Even if it’s Force 5 with four metre waves. Be prepared to explain your experience and warn people off.
  • If you don’t have life-saving experience or training, familiarise yourself with some basic techniques, such as throwing lifebuoys or rope, using approaching a drowning victim from behind instead of in front and contacting rescue services. Did you know that 112 is the emergency services number across all of Europe?
  • Be wary at new locations. Be wary at rivers and lakes (hidden obstacles, fast currents, marine craft). Be wary in urban locations.

Related articles

Irish Water Safety 25 year report.

WHO media report on worldwide drowning.

CDC US water injuries, 2005 – 2009.

CDC report on natural water setting drownings.

Introducing The LoneSwimmer Plan™©® to becoming a more goodlier Internet swimmer in 19 or 27 easy steps

Every so often I get asked by a runner or triathlete for a bit of stroke advice or help, which I’m always happy to do, (as, in my experience, is pretty much the case with every experienced swimmer in a public pool).

Here’s how it usually goes:

Hey, you seem like a decent swimmer. I have a triathlon coming in two weeks, can you give me some tips on getting better at the swimming leg?

I suppress my inner sigh at the allowed timeframe, analyse their stroke, give them the most essential advice (almost always; exhale underwater, and stop kicking like you’re trying for a drop-goal, give them a couple of appropriate drills* and tell them to just focus on technique for the next two weeks).

Two, three, six months, or a year later, having giving up the suggested drills after the first two days, because “well, they were slow and boring and making no difference“, they’ve made zero progress.

I finally realised the problem: I’m not T’Internet.

They are used to, indeed want, T’Internet to tell them what to do. What equipment to buy, what kind of swimmer they are and what kind they aren’t and what kind they should be. I’m just a ridiculously handsome, tall and svelte middle-aged guy in a pair of Speedoes. (As you know, I’m kind of like the Mark Foster of open  water swimming). And I’m right there. I mean if I was any good, I wouldn’t be in their pool, right? I’d be on T’Internet.

Former 6x 50m World Champion Mark Foster. Just give him to me for six months and I could make something decent out of him. A few scrapes off the reef of Sandycove's second corner would make something proper out of him
Former 6x 50m World Champion Mark Foster. Just give him to me for six months and I could make something decent out of him. A few scrapes of his face off the reef of Sandycove’s second corner would add a bit of proper manliness.

And further, I realised, the world does not have enough T’Internet Godlike Swimming Gurus.  So for all those people who want more Internet swimming and another guru, me ‘n the team here at LoneSwimmer™©® Towers™©®, having spent huge sums and committed vast resources to the development cycle, are finally unveiling the spectacularly effective LoneSwimmer™©® Internet Swimming Plan™©® (aka LISP ™©®)

The main features of LISP™©® are

1: More Swimming Acronyms (MSA), abbreviations and buzzwords.

2: A decidedly effective and concise 27** point  Personally Integrated Stroke System (PISS™©®) for easily and quickly making your frontcrawl more goodlier.

3: A Cult of Personality based entirely on me and comprising a growing network Collection of LoneSwimmers™©® Across the World (CLAW™©®).

4: New drills that are not-at-all like existing drills, tailored specifically for you with cool new names. In a breakthrough new feature not previously seen on T’Internet, every single CLAW™©® member will be given individual drill names for each drill, ensuring personalised personalisation.

5. A simple and easy rolling monthly payment plan through PayPal for your convenience, and for which you gain access to the labyrinthine archives, covering diverse subjects from open water techniques through social aspects of swimming to fashion and beauty tips, the value for money is extraordinary. The cumulative amount you spend will be far in excess of a visit to some local coach for basic stroke analysis who can actually see you swimming, or buying that decent swimmer a beer in exchange for their advice, but you know you are getting the best Internet advice. Let the losers get their advice locally.

6: For a modest extra fee of $14.99 per query, the team will answer all your incredibly difficult and never-encountered-before-not-ever open water swimming queries, including but not limited to:

Why can’t I swim straight?

What kind of goggles should I use?

My legs! What the hell do I do with my legs?

Are there bitey things in the water?

Does my arse look big in this?


I’m sure you are all excited as excited about this as I am. Years of giving out advice for nothing reciprocal is for fools.

Let it end, I say.

In Part Two we’ll look at my copyrighted and trademarked Twenty Seven Easy Steps To Becoming a Goodlier Internet Swimmer (TSESTBAGIS™©®)**.

And I’ll be rolling the awesome TSESTBAGIS™©® Franchise Coaching Opportunity (™©®) where you too can partake in CLAW™©® as a higher level for a very reasonable cost. And for every future member you sign to TSESTBAGISCLAWFCO™©® you will benefit in a financial reward that is not in any way like a pyramid scheme, and I have the lawyers and a Certification of Financial Compliance from Myanmar University of Financial Rectitude and People’s Agricultural Learning to assert such.


*Swim With One Leg in the Air Drill (SWOLeD™©®). I do it every day***. I proudly assert that I am the world’s best one leg in the air swimmer.

** Or 19. Or something. Actual number of steps subject to revision.

*** Really.

The Swimming Smoothie – food for swimmers

(This is a repost and update, due to a resurgence in interest in this post. As it’s a few years since the original post, I’ve played with other variations of ingredients since.)

Swimming generally and open water swimming especially is a sport of high energy demand. Many swimmers struggle to keep weight stable let alone increase it. The demands of cold water training are extraordinary and can project an average person’s appetite into the realms normally associated with power lifters and Olympian swimmers.

A favourite of endurance athletes of all disciplines for its slow release of energy, porridge (oats) is the quintessential breakfast to fuel any high energy effort.

Though I dislike it, I can force myself to eat it. I think the only time I’ve ever enjoyed it was in the middle of the night of the 24 hour swim.

One solution was a homemade Oat, honey or syrup & peanut butter bar,  which is very useful for a travelling breakfast or high carb snack, and has some real advantages, high carbs since it’s also made from oats and protein. With honey as a binder.

I played around some more and hit on the Swimming Smoothie. I’ve actually been eating this for about two years, and completely forgot to mention it.

This makes a really quick and tasty meal, whether breakfast or otherwise. It contains plenty of slow release calories from oats, but also has quicker release carbs from berries and juice, with protein for better carbohydrate metabolisation.

Ingredients before mixing
Ingredients before mixing
  • Apple juice or milk* (grape juice may need to be avoided**)
  • Smoothie IMG_9949.resized.rotatedLow fat natural yoghurt
  • Small banana or pineapple (optional)
  • Berries including blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries (frozen berries work fine and have the advantage of cooling the smoothie).
  • Half mug of uncooked porridge flakes (oats). (That’s about the amount you’d use to make a bowl of porridge. You won’t even taste them in the smoothie).
  • Depending on mood, requirement and what’s in the fridge, I might add pineapple, creme fraiche or even full cream if I have it.
Finished smoothie. Yum.
Finished smoothie. Yum.

*Apple juice is chosen because it has lower G.I, (slower release and thus effect on insulin) and higher fibre BUT it has higher fructose than glucose and tastes sweet. Orange juice also works of course is less sweet than apple but any fructose has a lower G.I. than sucrose. Milk works well as a liquid alternative to juice, and for lactose intolerant people soya or almond milk would also work well.

**For swimmers in very heavy training who are concerned about becoming anemic, they can easily add an iron-rich water like Spatone. When taking any iron supplementation though, it’s important to avoid grapes or grape juice as this binds iron and stops absorption.

A nutritionist make suggest other substitutes, but I’m all for convenient and easy. And I know this works after using it for many years.  

It’s possible, and might even be necessary, for you to tinker with this, especially if you have any Irritable Bowel Syndrome caused by fruit, or fructose mal-absorption problems.

The fruit chosen should have the fructose balanced with glucose, meaning ripe bananas, berries, pineapple, kiwi, orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime, plum.

Remember this started as, and still is primarily, a morning meal, specifically to fuel long swims, and I’ve been happy with the use and results over years. 

You could add whey and/or Maxim also, I’ve never felt the need.

A half litre (about a pint) of this Smoothie will give plenty of energy to last for hours. I’ve often made it for lunch on the go, and it works great to have as breakfast in the car. It’s flexible both in making and consumption.

A smoothie doesn’t stay fresh for long. It’ll start to ferment within a few hours because of the fructose, so if you make it the night before for the morning,  you’ll obviously have to keep it refrigerated.

I’ve gone through a new blender about every two years. Last year my sister gave me a gift of a Kenwood Smoothie2Go which makes the smoothie directly inside a large plastic smoothie cup. It comes with two cups and lids and is a great improvement over a larger blender, with less waste, quieter, quicker and it’s easier to clean. Recommended.

Cold Water Acclimatization

This post was a companion to HABITUATION, both of which I wrote in early 2010. Since I revisited and largely rewrote that as Cold Water Habituation, my plan was to do the same in this post also.

Acclimatization (acclimatisation for those of us who forego the use of the z)  is a different factor to habituation.

While habituation is simply the process of adapting to getting into cold water, acclimatization is about a person’s ability to stay in cold water for longer.

(Acclimation is the same process but done in controlled or lab conditions).

In brief, as every open water swimmer knows, the more you train in cold water, the better you will be able to tolerate the cold, and the longer you will be able to swim in the water.

Acclimatization is a more difficult and often almost mysterious process than habituation. It takes longer to develop and longer to lose. It tests one far more, requiring a greater willingness to push ourselves.

I’ve luckily gotten to know a lot of cold water swimmers, originally through the Sandycove swimmers group, many of whom say you can think your way through cold, at least up, to a certain point. I know one swimmer and psychologist who helps people in this area, and stress overcoming the fear, that the swimmer should tell themselves that they are warm when they feel the cold, or to focus on different subjects, or to imagine they swimming in warm water, etc. These are classic sports visualization methods that are used to transcend different problems.

Guillamenes platform during winter storm, long exposure
The Guillamenes platform during a winter storm, (long exposure)

I have certainly found for myself that even getting into  6 or 7 º C., after the first minutes of pain, that I now have a definite whole-body feeling of warmth, (excepting feet and hands).

However, there is the problem that physics and the laws of thermodynamics are absolute. A favourite quotation of mine is  “eventually the dead hand of the Second Law will hold sway over everything”. (Yes, I have a melancholy bent). However, this alludes to the fact that entropy increases and heat is lost in everything in the universe. As open water swimmers we are affected by such facts as:

  • One loses heat in water at 30 times the rate in air (thermal conductivity).
  • Heat loss is slower on sunny calm days than overcast windy days which strip body heat away even more quickly.
  • You lose 10% of your heat through your head, (in proportion with the rest of your body).
  • The ratio of heat loss is proportional to the volume and surface area, so larger people lose heat more slowly as the ratio of volume to surface area is increased.
  • Fat is an insulator and slows heat loss.
  • Insufficient food and fluids, alcohol intake, illness or not enough sleep all make one feel colder.
  • Pockets of changing water temperatures have a significant effect.
  • The Second Law of Thermodynamics: In a closed system, entropy increases. In the case of swimming, the closed system is the body, the air and the water. heat will flow from the warm body to the cooler water. You lose heat unless you input sufficient heat energy.
  • No-one is immune to heat loss or hypothermia.

Put all that together and all you get is what you already know. You get colder quicker in water, but the rate of change is dependent on a range of factors.

One factor I didn’t put in there is the mental aspect, because it’s difficult to see how thought (Werner Heisenberg & Quantum Mechanics aside :-) ) can have any effect on the rate of change of the system, i.e. how can thought slow your cooling rate? Many experienced swimmers will say you can think your way into extending your time in the water. I’d never been able to say this. I do believe that you can stay calmer, and accept what’s happening, which makes it feel easier.

I think that you get more used to being in cold, and you recognise your early hypothermia indicators better so you can push your limits more. You learn to swim further into your own cold experience. You get better at preparing and recovering. Some of those very experienced swimmers I know have learned to accept and box off the cold, realise it’s there, know the efficiency is decreasing but at the same time know there can be a long gap between the early hypothermia indicators and remaining period during which much swimming can still be done.

The simple positive feedback process of improving cold ability
The simple positive feedback process of improving cold ability

There is also the case that with improving  habituation, that heart rate and stress hormones decrease, and therefore the person feels better about getting into cold water and less nervous. Less heat will be lost in the initial minutes, which also leads to greater capability. This is the positive adaptive feedback system that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

The small improvements drive confidence, the confidence allows the swimmer to push themselves while staying more relaxed. The mental aspect of cold water swimming was the single thing I most struggled to understand in my first few years of winter swimming. It seemed too trite, too easy, without really saying anything useful. It is easy to say that mental attitude allows one to swim longer but it has taken me years of winter cold water swimming to really realise this, to integrate it and to try to convey it. To understand what it means and to comprehend the effect that thought has on my own cold acclimatisation and ability, and not least to be able to explain that better for myself and hopefully others.

It has not been a short journey. If I could do it, so can you.

Cold Water Habituation

HABITUATION was one of my very first posts, and the first post I wrote about cold and cold water swimming, over four years ago, little realising it would become my favourite subject. Although it is linked in the Cold Water Articles Index, I decided to air it out and rewrite it. (And change those capitals).

Back then I mentioned how I  had progressed in cold. I used myself as an example to demonstrate progressive cold water ability. I was previously a surfer, wearing wetsuits year round and thinking I knew what real cold was. I later realised I had only ever once been close to getting as cold as I regularly get as an open water swimmer after 30 or 40 minutes. I had been surfing for six hours straight with no hood in winter that time.

 I started swimming open water during summer, but wore a wet-suit for the first winter for very irregular swims, and I was still surfing regularly. Toward the end of my second winter of swimming, which wasn’t as regular as I swim now, I decided to do my first non-wet-suit swim of the year, which was in late March I think, only a month after what is usually the lowest temperature of the winter here. March is still very cold water. 

Ballydowane Cove across to St. John's island
Ballydowane Cove across to St. John’s island

I clearly recall, will never forget in fact, arriving at Ballydowane Cove on a cold Sunday morning, with chest high waves, and feel physical effects of profound apprehension, even fear.

I recall that first experience of 7 or 8 degree water like it was yesterday, and I swam for 10 minutes. Disappearing in the waves, and ending up swimming the short length of the beach, and taking ten minutes to so do, and having warned her I’d only be in for a few minutes, Dee thought I’d been drowned. It seems a long time ago. The fear lasted for the next few swims before it disappeared.

The process of getting inured to getting into cold water is called Habituation.

It is not special, it’s not a reflection of an innate ability to handle cold. it doesn’t mean or signify anything. It’s a purely physical response and almost everyone can do it. (Excluding people with cardiac problems or certain circulatory or cardio-respiratory illness or other underlying contra-indicated health issues).

It will hurt for a few seconds or even a few minutes. Increased adrenaline beforehand may elevate your heart rate before you get in the water. You will find it difficult to breathe the first minute or so. You may flail about for the first one hundred metres. You can just relax and float in the water, you don’t have to swim. In fact that’s what King of the Channel Kevin Murphy prefers to do in cold water.

But, you will also settle and relax and get used to it.

coldI know it won’t kill me.

This is a primary mistake that some people make. They think that other swimmers, (more capable or tougher swimmers than them, in their mind), don’t feel it. They do. I do. It just matters less. Of course I also feel the same about other’s swimmers capability. Somewhere is a swimmer who really is better at cold than everyone. It make be Finbarr Hedderman. Or Kevin. Or Fergal, or Lisa or Alison or someone else. But we are all on the same spectrum of tolerance, just in different locations.

When I wrote this in 2010, I’d just met cold water Sandycove legend and Channel swimmer Finbarr the previous weekend, river swimming in Fermoy in 7½º Celcius (45½F) water, in October. At the time of writing, I wrote that seemed too cold for me as a sudden transition  from sea swimming in 10º Celcius. And I had a few years of cold water swimming behind me already.

It made me feel like he’s good at cold and I’m not. But Finbarr is much taller than I, meaning an overall greater heat retention.  He is also exceptional in his ability. He swam 35 minutes in that temperature. I was seriously impressed. I’m sure it hurt him too though, just as much as a 10ºC (50F) hurt me then.

Finbarr's smile here belies the fact that his foot is planted on Liam Maher's neck underwater.
Finbarr’s smile here belies the fact that his foot is planted on Liam Maher’s neck. Underwater.

In 2013/2014, I don’t consider that exceptional, and regularly swim the same or longer in that temperature. Of course Finbarr is swimming an hour.

The first few times you immerse yourself in very cold water will provoke a fight-or-flight response, elevating heart rate and stress hormones, potentially leading to anxiety or even fear.

I saw this with a friend recently when we were going for a swim at around 7.5º C. He hadn’t been in cold water for a couple of months so he was very anxious beforehand. He was utterly fine during his swim and afterwards.

Habituation just means becoming accustomed. In our case become accustomed to getting in cold water. It only takes four to six repetitions before the pre-swim anxiety abates and your heart rate to stay controlled. It become easier. The pain of immersion will decrease, though never disappear, and cold shock response will also reduce somewhat. Indeed there are few physical activities from which we can have such a speedy response.

More importantly, is you will realise that it’s not going to kill you. All the pre-swim anxiety will start to diminish. That the pain is not what you anticipated, that your imagination is worse than the reality. That every time you experience that initial response, you are reducing the power that cold may have over you.

You will start to see Cold in a different way, as a more intangible ghost over which you also have power. Until you too are part of this cult.

HOW TO: Annual advice for a Christmas or New Year’s swim in cold water for the irregular open water swimmer

[This is a repeat of a post from the last couple of years. This post is pretty popular at this time of year, some editing to previous versions. :-) }

With Christmas coming, many people who would never consider getting in cold water will be thinking of a Christmas or New Year’s Day dip.

If you are wondering WHY you might or should do it, apart from taking part in a local tradition in many places, the great craic of meeting lots of people having similar fun,  doing something that will add more flavour to your Christmas dinner than anything, having a hot punch at the Guillamenes and supporting a local charityand the club I love, then read this.

The experienced cold water swimmers will not need any of this information. And those of you in the Southern Hemisphere who are enduring hot weather and warm water have my condolences. And there’s the South Africans, for whom the water can still be cold down there even in mid-Summer.

Guillamenes Christmas swim 2007

I’ll be down at the Guillamenes myself as usual, with the people who never normally go near the sea. The weather forecast for Christmas Day 2013 is pretty poor, winds and rough water, which will reduce the numbers but I’ll still be swimming unless it blows out.

The most important message I can give you is that cold is a skill, not a talent so it can be learned. But if your first cold swim is Christmas Day, you won’t do learn it on that one day. So instead plan and know what to expect. You cannot be too careful around cold water and rocks. Three days before Christmas 2013, the water in Tramore Bay was about 8.5 degrees Celsius, with a very cold strong wind, giving an air chill of two to three degrees Celsius.


If swimming by yourself, make sure you inform someone where and when and preferably have an observer.

* If it’s an irregular visit, your most important pre-swim action to make sure you know where to exit the water safely. Do not rely on the wisdom of crowds. Many of the people near you will know nothing and some will be acting macho.

* Watch the water before you get in. Regardless of the amount of people in it, if the water is breaking or surging more than about a metre, on steps, rocks or a ladder, the exit will be difficult, dangerous or even impossible.

* If you have been drinking alcohol the night before, don’t do it. Alcohol seriously impairs the body’s ability to deal with cold. The same applies if you haven’t slept the night before. Bravado has no place around cold water swimming when you don’t know what you are doing.

* Consider putting your swimsuit on *before* you go to the sea. You will spend less time getting cold before you swim.

* Make sure you have: a swim cap (silicone or neoprene preferably). If you only have latex, wear a couple of caps; a towel; goggles. And plenty of warm clothes for afterwards. Including a hat and gloves. Warm clothes are many light layers rather than a few heavy ones.

* Bring sandals or deck shoes. Winter swimmer Jack Bright points these are nearly as important as the towel.

* Bring something to stand on while changing. A spare towel, a piece of cardboard, a car mat.

* Forget grease. It does nothing for cold protection and you won’t in long enough to worry about chafing. If you are in long enough to need lubrication, you need none of my advice.

* Neoprene (wetsuit) gloves and booties will significantly reduce the discomfort if you are not used to cold. Wetsuits are definetiely NOT ALLOWED.

Newtown & Guillamene club members, Christmas swim 2011
Newtown & Guillamene club members, Christmas swim 2011


* If it’s windy, disrobe from your lower body first. Keep your torso and body warm for longer.

* Change as close to the water as you safely can. You want to reduce the time exposed before and after swimming. Make sure your clothes are above the high water line though.

* Wear the sandals as close to the edge as you can. The ground usually will be colder than the sea. Cold = numb = lacerations = blood.

* DO NOT STAND AROUND TALKING once you are changed. Get to the water.

* IT’S NORMAL TO BE NERVOUS. Your body is adapted to avoid cold. Just be positive. Accept the increased heart rate. Tell yourself you are a swimming god.

* It’s not a competition. Depending on your location there may be lots of people who don’t know what they are doing in the water that day. There will be 100s at my regular spot, whereas the weekend before there’s just me. Stay clear and watch everything. Move carefully.

* SPLASH WATER on your face before immersion. This indicates to your body extreme cold is coming (by which I include temperatures of up to 12C/55F. I can’t take someone calling 14C/58F cold seriously, no matter how I try). It will allow your heart rate to settle quicker.

* Just as you get in … tell yourself it’s warm. It doesn’t matter if you hear the sucking sound of body parts rapidly shrinking inwards. Cold is partially about attitude. Tell yourself it’s actually better than you thought: Hell, it’s almost warm. I was worried about this?

* DO NOT DIVE IN. Just don’t do it. I don’t care how tough you think you are. Unless you are a very experienced cold water swimmer this is a dumb thing to do. It causes heart attacks and rock impacts. But don’t stand there trying to get in either. Walk in to your waist. Splash the water. Then off you go. No more than one minute getting immersed.

RNLI Rib on duty for the annual Guillamene Christmas swim
RNLI Rib on duty for the annual Guillamene Christmas swim


* Without experience it is difficult to get the face into cold water. This is normal.

* Cold stimulates the gasp reflex through increased heart rate. After the initial 10 seconds It makes breathing difficult for the first three minutes. This is also normal. And why you splash water on your face and get in slowly.


* Change your breathing pattern to head above water or breathing every stroke or 2nd stroke.


* HAVE A GREAT TIME. Feel like a hero. Do 10 metres. Or 20 or 50 or 500 metres. It won’t kill you. Probably.

After a very cold 2010 and very low numbers in attendance, Guillamenes Christmas Swim 2011 saw a return of the crowds, with thousands of Euro raised for charity.
After a very cold 2010 and very low numbers in attendance, the Guillamenes Christmas Swim 2011 saw a return of the crowds, with thousands of Euro raised for charity.


* Watch your exit. Be careful. It is at this point most lacerations occur on the feet, legs and hands.

* Get your footwear on immediately and get to your clothes.

* If the temperature is below 10C, you will likely be a vivid lobster-red colour. Your skin will also be tingling all over your body. You will go from pain to numbness. There is no in-between.


* AFTER-DROP is dangerous. You have only a few minutes before its onset unless you only in a short time. After-drop is the body temperature dropping after you exit the water. It’s not a problem if you are only in a couple of minutes, though that time is less if the temperature is 5C (40F) or under.

* DO NOT VIGOROUSLY TOWEL YOURSELF. It speeds up the arrival of Afterdrop.

* Dry the torso first. Dress the torso.

* Then put on a hat.

* Then dress the lower body.

* Then and only then, have your chat, your hot chocolate or soup.

FEEL GREAT, job well done!

Go home and stuff yourself, secure in the knowledge you are a winter swimmer, at least once anyway.

Swimming Santas at Christmas 2012
Swimming Santas at Christmas 2012

Related articles

WHY would anyone swim in cold water? (

HOWTO Introduction to writing a basic pool swimming set

Many swimmers are often confused about how to write a basic pool set. Many experienced but younger swimmers from a club background had become accustomed to having a coach always provide their sets, without ever needing to understand for themselves what the coach is trying to achieve or why a particular set is used on a particular day or even how a set is constructed, though they usually figure it out.

Other swimmers without a club background, (I was one of these), who get training sets from differing sources, often do so without a plan or requirement, or just pick ones that fall within a certain distance range.

One partial solution, and easy, is to seek out free sets online, from basic 0 to 1500 metre plans to longer and more advanced sets. When seeking out sets online or even from friends, you will know your own constraints. If you are training for your first open water mile race, then neither the training sets of a Channel aspirant nor a 100 metre sprinter will be of much use.

There are some simple parameters around coming up with a swimming set.

The first thing you need to decide is the time and/or the distance for the set. For many those two may be different. You may be aiming for a weekly total to build up fitness or strength through distance. You may be swimming during lunch break. You may be more interested in speed and technique improvements, or you may be trying to have bit of everything.

On the red top
Go on red top

At its most simple, it may be that you have one hour available or you want to swim 3000 metres, both of which are common sets for Master’s swimmers. What seems mysterious is quite straight-forward once you understand the basic design. Swim sets are often broken into three or four components:

  1. Warm Up
  2. Kick or technique set
  3. Main set
  4. Swim down

You can see from this that it really is very simple.

1. Warm up. When I was a racing cyclist I was able to seemingly go from cold to high heart rate with little warm up, which made time trials my favourite event. (Sigh, those days are past).  Warm up works well and is a requirement for all endurance sports. It is the simple process of gradually raising the heart rate to where it can support maximal effort. Warm up should start easy and increase in intensity toward the end. Note: Active stretching outside the water before starting is NOT advised for swimming and is not part of warm-up.

2. Kick or technique sets are the optional part of the set, especially for shorter sets such as an hour. But regardless of competence or time or distance, you should never completely abandon technique training. We often, especially open water and distance swimmers neglect kick sets. I’m certainly guilty of neglecting kick. But it’s also easy to neglect technique work as I discovered in 2012, which led to me having to rebuild my stroke last winter after visiting the Swim Smooth clinic. Warm-up and Technique/Kick, 1 and 2 can be combined so that you do technique or kick work as your warm up.  Sometimes this part is called the “pre-main” set and comprises the high intensity part of warm up.

3. Self explanatory, the main set is the most of the work in the set. Your main set will be longer if you are not using a “pre-main” or kick set. This the focus of the overall set. Some coaches and swimmers like to place the kick set after the main set.

4. Swim down, or warm down as it’s known in other sports, is usually short and should be easy, to allow the heart rate to drop. You shouldn’t be finishing your set heaving for breath, though an occasional time this happens to everyone and is fine.

Now we have a plan, and assuming an hour is allocated, we can put some times onto the parts: We can allocate 10 to 15 minutes for warm-up. Then another 10 minutes to 15 minutes for kick or technique. After that, we have 30 to 40 minutes for the main set depending on whether there is a pre-main set, and finally 5 minutes for swim down.

These rules are not absolute. A 3000 metres set of thirty by one hundred metres on a fixed time doesn’t adhere to the design, though the first five to ten repetitions may be used for warm up, and the last two or four for swim down.  Understanding a basic design helps you to come up with your own sets off the cuff.

In the next part of this we’ll look beyond a standard one-day set design to starting to put together a longer term plan and the complimentary variation in daily set design.

How To Select a Channel pilot & boat

This time of year I get more emails and PM’s asking about English Channel pilots, tides, Associations, Channel costs etc and all the related stuff.

During a recent weathered-out trip to Dover in September for Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel butterfly swim, which included yet another a trip out into the Channel, a tour of a new CS&PF boat and the usual swim chat, these all led to the suggestion from Lisa Cummins that I come up with a checklist to help prospective swimmers, both Solos and relay and crew, choose a Channel pilot and boat.

Following is a list of questions that you can ask yourself and the pilot. Most of these questions do not require the same answer to provide guidance for every swimmer, as the importance of the answers will be dictated by you and your crew’s experience, the particular swim location, conditions and duration and your own preferences.

You can find all the pilots and boats on the respective Association or Federation page, and some pilots have their own websites.

1. Have you checked with all the pilots for your preferred year, month and tide?

For the past couple of years I’ve been advising people who ask who don’t have a without a strong initial personal preference, to email almost all the pilots to check availability. This is your first step.

Mike and Lance Oram of the CS&PF, and Reg Brickell of the CSA are the pilots most likely to be booked two to four years in advance. Yes, up to four years for the most popular tides with a first slot, with the bookings increasing every year. Most of the pilots will have filled up their Number One slots for August and September two years in advance. Although all the CS&PF pilots operate the slot system, some CSA pilots don’t and book one swimmer per number of days or even a single day. So you need to check if you’ve been told you are Number One, just how long you have that slot.

2. Do you know anyone who has used that pilot? 

Pilots are all trained and experienced in what they do. Most are great. But like any walk of life there is variation and individual swimmers can have different and differing opinions. Given the individual contractual nature of the relationship between a swimmer and pilot, there is no independent rating system. But you should reach out to any open water swim groups you know for feedback. You may or may not get any relevant information, but I wish I’d done it.

It is a fact that the CS&PF has six licensed pilots, while the CSA has been operating seven boats. The restriction by the English Coast Guard allows a maximum of twelve boats in the shipping lane at any one time. So what happens if you are booked on the seventh CSA boat? Or maybe your pilot smokes and this could be a problem for you.

3. What level of comfort on the boat do your relay team or crew require?

Some swimmers don’t care or don’t think about this until too late. But the comfort of your crew or your own relay can be important to some swims.

  • Is there a toilet?
  • Is there enough space to rest?

If you have female crew, the simple requirement of having an onboard toilet is more important than for men.  Relay teams need to use a toilet more. Some CSA boats do not have a toilet (head in marine terms)! Some boats don’t have seats. Some CSA boats don’t even have any protection from the elements.

Mike Oram's Gallivant escorting Irish Channel record setter Tom Healy in 2012
CS&PF Senior Pilot Mike Oram’s Gallivant escorting Irish Channel record setter Tom Healy in 2012. Plenty of weather protection and crew space, charging points and low gunnals.

4. How does the boat handle in rough water ?

Some boats are more uncomfortable in medium or choppy seas than others. If your crew is experienced  this may make no difference, but for others it can be really important if your entire support crew or relay get sick. High-sided boats can roll more depending on the shape and keel ballast. If you are on a relay, especially a two-way then you need more space, room to nap or even sleep and enough space for food and clothes and swim gear for many more people. One way to investigate this is to look at photos of the boats on the websites and again, to ask around.

Channel boat The Viking Princess
Example – CSA Channel boat Viking Princess belong to CSA Channel Pilot legends the Brickell Brothers – biggest boat in the fleet, best protection for swimmers … roughest on crew.

5. What ancillary utilities are on the boat?

The Channel fleet is divided into CS&PF and CSA boats (obviously). If you were to make a sweeping statement comparing one fleet with the other, you could reasonably say that the boats of the CS&PF are more comfortable for crew, with more utilities, as the CSA boats are more likely to be used for fishing out of season.

  • Does the boat have the ability to charge a cell phone or camera or anything electric or electronic? (Some don’t).
  • Does the boat have any facilities for cooking food for your crew? (Some only have a simple two-ring hob)
  • How about ease of  heating water for the swimmer?
  • Can you store extra clothes of food out of the elements?
  • Is there a shower (for relays)? (Paul Foreman’s new boat Optimist has a shower)
Optimist IMG_8646.resized
CS&PF pilot Paul Foreman’s new boat Optimist. Paul is much favoured by Sandycove swimmers. Optimist is the most luxurious/comfortable boat in the fleet.

6. Does the shape of the boat affect your feed strategy?

This only affects solo swimmers but the high side of some boats can mean you will not be able to feed the swimmer directly and must use a pole or line. It may be another thing to consider.

CSA Pilot Eric Harltey's Sea Leopard - Low and wide and stable but with weather protection for crew
CSA Pilot Eric Harltey’s (right) Sea Leopard – Low and wide and stable with weather protection for crew – Hey there’s Haydn Welch as Observer.

7. Is protection by the boat from inclement weather important?

You might not think so, but if you are going in marginal or late season conditions, and have no experience of a boat…

Boat shape and size affects how much protection a swimmer can gain from a difficult wind. Some provide more than others. Is this important to you?

Of course it’s not all about the boat.

CS&PF boats Sea Satin and Suva, operated by Lance Oram and Neil Streeter respectively. Both are high boats with good weather protection. Gallivant and to some extent Anastasia are similar to Sea Satin
CS&PF boats Sea Satin and Suva, operated by Lance Oram and Neil Streeter respectively. Both are high boats with good weather protection. Gallivant and to some extent Anastasia are similar to Sea Satin.

8: Association fee

For the English Channel, swimmers must join either association separately from their contract with the pilot. Do you want a two year or five year membership? The answer to this question might not be as obvious as it first seems.

9. Pilot fee and deposit requirements and payment options

Not all fees are equal. How much is your pilot’s fee? If you are considering a two-way or three-way you need to check the scale. Doubles or triples can be just multiples of a one-way, but they also be applied on a sliding scale, eg, instead of doubling just add £2000. You also need to know what deposit you pay upon booking. Further you need to check how and when the remainder must be paid. Some pilots want the deposit immediately, some want it by the ending of the year before the Channel attempt. Some want fifty-percent paid at that time. Also, some pilots will only accept cash, some will accept a bank transfer. This may not have much impact when choosing a pilot, but can become important later on. It’s reasonable to say that no pilot will take you out without 100% of the fee being paid in advance.

10. Cancellation/No swim/weathered out refunds

Pilots operate different policies in the case of a cancellation or no-swim (weathered out). If you cancel in time usually you only lose your deposit and your association fee if you have paid it. If however you get weathered out there can be differences. With some pilots you will only lose the deposit, with some pilots it’s possible to lose up to 50% of the whole fee.

11. Do you plan to follow your Channel swim with a Manhattan Island Marathon swim?

NYCSwim have decided that CSA English Channel swims are no longer to be treated as automatic qualification. This means CSA Channel swimmers will need more paperwork. Is this important for you? (It certainly is for some swimmers, and it’s another problem I have with NYCSwim; their decision to change this policy without adequate notification for swimmers entering a Channel cycle).

12. Do you care that both organisations recognise your swim?

The CS&PF recognises ratified Channel swims from both organisations. The CSA only recognises CSA swims.


Contrary to first impression, just because I swam with the CS&PF, this is not an anti-CSA jab. I’ve been out on two CSA boats. One had no toilet, no power plugs of any kind, no weather protection. (I liked the pilot a lot though and the crew were great). The other was the roughest boat for inexperienced crew in the entire fleet and the best boat for a swimmer in protection from wind and I know crew who have sworn to never go on it again.

The other Channels such as North, Catalina, Gibraltar and Cook don’t have the same number of boats for swimmers to apply the same principle. Cook only has one, as does Jersey (currently). Catalina and the North Channel both have two pilots and the criteria for choosing in both of those lies more in choosing the approach of the pilot to navigation rather than anything else (hard or soft line, starting point).

Below is a very simple checklist for helping in choosing your English Channel pilot. Remember to choose what you think is important..

(I have pictures of Masterpiece, Anastasia, Rowena, Seafarer II, Connemara etc in my archive but you can find them all on the websites).

EC Pilot checklist

Sea Lice, Seabather’s Eruption and Swimmer’s Itch

I’ve covered Sea Lice back in 2011 and it remains a popular, though brief, post.

Possibly due to the early summer three-week-long heatwave in Ireland, the itching we associated with sea lice has started early in the first week of August instead on late August or September when the problem usually arises.  

Sea Lice
Sea Lice

It usually noticed while in the sea. I usually notice the itching in my armpits, along my torso and on my arms. As I said in 2011, sea lice is a generic term and for us in Ireland it is not as severe as other warmer waters. It can mean tiny jellyfish polyps or anemones. Women usually suffer more because whatever the cause gets trapped inside their swimsuits.

Topical skin ointments such as Safe Sea may provide some protection though I can’t vouch for that. Once water temperatures have warmed sufficiently that an immediate post-swim dowsing from a water bottle is unlikely to cause Afterdrop, a shower with fresh water immediately after a swim certainly can reduce or eliminate discomfort. Drying in the Sun without towelling off can also prolong the sensation as the nematocysts of the dead immature jellies can continue to fire on the skin. Regular long duration immersion swimmers may find the symptoms can become much more uncomfortable, appearing like pimples, blisters, hives or even severe hives upon hives.

But sea lice, aka immature jellyfish or anemones, may not be only cause of that late summer open water unpleasantness. The sensation can go by the term Sunbather’s Eruption, for sea swimmers, or Swimmer’s Itch (aka lake itch, duck itch, or cercarial dermatitis and many other names) for fresh water swimmers in warmer climes.

The CDC points out that Swimmer’s Itch may be microscopic parasites, usually from snails, that infect seabirds and mammals, washed into the sea as eggs or larvae which, lacking their preferred host, burrow into human skin, causing an allergic reaction, similar to scabies that afflicts many families of young children.

Lifecycle stages of trematode species that cau...
Lifecycle stages of trematode species that cause “swimmer’s itch”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like scabies scratching will inflame the area and worsen the symptoms. Unlike scabies the parasites will at least die naturally and infected people are not infectious. It’s also safe to use a swimming pool if you have Swimmer’s Itch.

For worse cases the CDC recommends a number of possible treatments:

  • Use corticosteroid cream
  • Apply cool compresses to the affected areas
  • Bathe in Epsom salts or baking soda
  • Soak in colloidal oatmeal baths
  • Apply baking soda paste to the rash (made by stirring water into baking soda until it reaches a paste-like consistency)
  • Use an anti-itch lotion

Related articles.

HOW TO: The greatest sport on Earth. Follow a swim during Channel season

This is an updated version of a post from a few years ago on following marathon swims online, with the specifics mostly aimed at English Channel swimming. This is mostly for those unfamiliar with following a swim and I’ll try to explain a couple of anticipated questions before they arise.

Channel swimming is a sport that by necessity happens essentially in private. This private battle between a lone swimmer and crew and the sea is one of the features of what makes this special. The Channel can be a lonely place in the middle of a sunny summer afternoon, the swimmer essentially alone with the water and their thoughts. No social media or phone or GPS can capture that individual loneliness, something only other swimmers can understand.

In the five years since I first ventured to the Channel in 2008, things have changed quite bit, with social media and more online tools now far more predominant in following swims. So the changes for the more established swimmers will be even greater.

If you wish to follow a specific Channel swim, It is necessary that you have some rudimentary information, specifically the name of the person, the boat, and the day of the swim.

First a reminder of an English Channel swimming season. Generally in English channel swimming, solo swims happen on neap tides and relay swims happen on spring tides. (Generally but not always). With an approximately four-month long season, and tides alternating every second week, that means about nine weeks are available for solo swimmers. You don’t need to know which tide is which but you can assume as a rule of thumb that solo swimmers are waiting every second week.

The English Channel swimming fleet is approved for and correctly should have six boats in each of the two associations, the CS&PF, and the CSA. (That figure is dictated by the maximum number of pilot boats that can enter the shipping lanes at one time. The CSA fleet currently have seven boats, something that both a cause for concern for many and CAN have an effect on someone’s swim).

The most popular way of following a swim with almost live information is a SPOT GPS Tracker aka a Tracker. Many of the boats have these and some individuals or swim clubs have them, as they are not expensive. If the boat or swimmer is providing the Tracker they will provide the correct web address. There is no way of searching for SPOT Trackers as each is a unique IP address and does not carry any information about who is using it.  SPOT trackers update once every 10 minutes. For example this is the SPOT Tracker for CS&PF senior pilot Mike Oram. Tracks remain accessible for three days before they are overwritten or deleted. Each SPOT Tracker address may have a number of pages accessible from the bottom left of the left-side sidebar. Only the full details in the times of each reading will indicate the date of each track. Sometimes SPOT trackers can stop working during a swim. It’s also worth pointing out that the Tracker is on the boat, not the swimmer. At the end of a swim the boat will stop while the swimmer continues into land.

Random SPOT tracker English channel map
Random SPOT tracker English channel map

Above is a random, and completed SPOT Tracker window from Gallivant. The sidebar at the left includes time details for each update once the tracker is active. The bottom left has the page option. The sidebar can be collapsed. The map screen can display either map or satellite view and  the yellow line is the track of readings. A currently updating reading will display as a series of flashing concentric semicircles and the whole map is zoomable. In this map it can be seen that the track turns off Cap Gris Nez as it is on the boat and the map indicates the inside coast at high tide.

Many boats do not have a SPOT, and individual swimmers may not have access to a SPOT nor may not want to use or publicise a tracker. In such a case there is another way to check on a boat. Every boat in the Channel must have an AIS Transponder. AIS comes at different levels of range, and while the fleet is upgrading all boats may not have AIS that can be tracked the whole way across the Channel, though most now do.

The CS&PF website now provides Live Tracking for all its fleet on the Federation website. The advantages of the CS&PF site are considerable:

  • You don’t have to have the actual SPOT URL.
  • You can select one, many or all boats.
  • You can also see the CSA boats.
  • The Channel zones and shipping lanes, not visible on other charts, are visible.
  • The Channel buoys are visible.

All Individual pilots may provide their own tracking off individual websites such as CS&PF pilot Eddie Spelling’s excellent Eddie’s tracker for his boat Anastasia, displays great extra information such as air and water temperature, wind, and swim speed. Mike and Lance Oram’s Gallivant and Sea Satin are also accessible from their own website.

Using the boat name (or its marine registration numbers MMSI or IMO) you can find its current location on one of the online marine traffic sites such as (Dover), or For example Mike Oram’s Gallivant is MMSI 235023353.

The current 2013 list of pilots and their boats in the combined English Channel fleet:


  • Paul Foreman – Optimist
  • Eddie Spelling – Anastasia
  • Lance Oram – Sea Satin
  • Mike Oram – Gallivant
  • Neil Streeter – Suva
  • Chris Osmond – Sea Farer II


  • Reg Brickell – Viking Princess FE137 
  • Andy King – Louise Jane
  • Eric Hartley – Pathfinder
  • Fred Mardle – Samallen P40
  • Keven Sherman – Connemara
  • Stuart Gleeson – Sea Leopard
  • Peter Reed – Rowena FE75

For checking current weather in the Channel, data directly off the Sandettie buoy, north-east of the usual swim routes, is the most regularly used and the closest fixed point. There’s also a Dover harbour webcam which has very variable availability.

Outside these fairly automatic processes, the next most valuable information source is Twitter. For you Facebook addicts, you should understand that it’s easier for busy crew to update Twitter due to brevity and the less-used ability to send SMS text updates to Twitter. Crews are always busy, feeding, mixing, and ever watching the swimmer. This restricts time available for updating which is secondary to the important swim support. If you know a swimmer is going you should request a Twitter name, or ask them or a crew member create a Twitter account.

The CS&PF has a Twitter account also, as does the CSA, (somewhat less regularly updated) which are often used to update solos and relays out in the Channel. Eddie Spelling mentioned above uses Twitter to update on all his swims, ongoing. CS&PF President Nick Adams mostly uses his Twitter account when crewing for Channel swims, which he does regularly.

Many Channel swimmers and Channel junkies follow each other on Twitter and share news of swims (as well as other swim related stuff). Jumping onto the list of those I follow on Twitter (and visa versa) can help find many useful Twitter accounts.

Updates via smart or other phone can be erratic. There is little network coverage in the centre of the Channel. Also many people will not transfer to higher roaming costs of another country (though these are dropping in Europe thanks to EU legislation). A perennial problem is the limited battery life of most smartphones

It should also be remembered that during the closing stages of a swim, when people are most requesting updates is the time when crew are busiest.  An understanding of current weather and the possibilities that have occurred over multiple Channel swims means followers should be careful in the final stages of a swim of making sometimes incorrect jumps to conclusions and even of requesting constant updates from crew. It’s hard to wait but unavoidable.

With all these technological advances its possible to get closer than ever to the essential experiences of Channel swimming. the next big breakthrough, for whatever pilots will decided such an investment makes financial sense, will surely be live video from some boats. In the meantime we must use our empathy, experience and imagination to enhance the technological feeds, to put ourselves into the arms and mind of the crew and swimmers, engaged in the greatest and amongst the most extreme of adventure and extreme sports.

A guide to Dover for swimmers – Part 2 – Varne Ridge Caravan Park

Varne Ridge Caravan Park is such a personal part of the Channel swimming experience for myself and so many others that it is impossible to contemplate a Dover visit without Varne (as it is called) being an integral part. Every Channel swimming or crewing trip of mine to date (and I’m losing count) has involved a stay in Varne, and on the other occasions when I’ve visited Dover, a stop at Varne to say hello to my adopted parents is a prerequisite and guarantee.

Varne Ridge Channel Swimming Caravan Park is situated on the White Cliffs south of Dover, in Capel-le-Ferne, about halfway between Dover and Folkestone and is owned and operated by David and Evelyn Frantzeskou. It is named after the Varne Sands which is a sand bank directly out in the Channel where the Varne Lightship, well-known to Channel Swimmers, is anchored.

Apart from some regular repeat customers, and as indicated on the sign, Varne Ridge caters exclusively for Channel swimmers and is available by prior booking only. It is so exceedingly and justifiably popular with Channel swimmers that you are best advised to book your stay at the same time as you are booking your Channel swim.

Varne has a collection of fixed mobile homes or varying sizes, a studio apartment, and a couple of houses on the same short stretch of road and a few berths for caravans for their regular visitors. Everything is situated in a small park behind the house where David and Evelyn live. There is also an external shower block and toilets, useful when you are sharing a home with lots of swimmers all wanting to use the shower at the same time.

Sitting as it does high on the cliffs above the Channel, directly across from Cap Gris Nez, the ultimate goal of Channel swimmers, Varne is subject to both the unusual almost-French amounts of Sun and yet also the excesses of the storms of the English Channel and the winds that you can imagine afflicit the top of a one hundred metre cliff. Your weather memories of Varne will likely be one or both of the two extremes, glorious sun looking at the Channel and wondering why you are not swimming, or howling wind and rain. Usually both.

What makes Varne so ideal for swimmers are a number of factors.

  • The primary reason: David and Evelyn.

David & Evelyn IMG_8381.resized.rotatedI am not the only swimmer in the world that treats both as surrogate parents. They are always solicitous and helpful, personal and personable. You feel they are looking after you. This alone is a reason to choose Varne over any other accommodation. I cannot imagine another hospitality venue in the world that endures the same extreme highs and lows that afflict any and every swim tide and does it week in and week out. Every tide window sees successful and unsuccessful swims and David and Evelyn are part of each and supportive of all. Every successful swimmer returning to Varne will be greeted by their national flag hoisted at the camp entrance. That’s not insignificant. If you’ve never had your own country flag raised for an achievement of yours previously, it’s quite special.


  • Clean self-catering

Eat like a Channel Swimmer, Swim like a Channel Eater. Channel swimmers eat a lot and all the time. It’s therefore so much easier and cheaper to do your own catering. Every visitor to Varne finds the accommodation will already have milk and tea and coffee and maybe some biscuits and cereal in place for the first essential cuppa. Each house or mobile home has all the essentials for the serial eating and cooking required of crews of swimmers and support. Many departing groups leave unopened food behind, and while things are always immaculately clean, if you arrive late night Dave & Ev usually will have sufficient supplies to tide you over any initial lack (pun intended).

  • Other swimmers

This is a huge attraction of the park. During Channel season the homes rotate swimmers and crews. You will get to know the other swimmers on your tide window, more if you are unlucky with weather, swimmers on other tides. Not everyone likes the idea of swimmers popping in and out so your privacy is your own to keep or adapt, as you see fit, and should you want to engage in yet more swimming talk, because your life doesn’t have enough of it, you will find and get to know swimmers from around the world. I’ve met swimmers there from North and South America, across Europe, the Middle-east, Africa, Oceania and the Far East. Not least is the possibility that depending on the year and time, there could be an entire squad of Irish there. This is a good thing, we bring the craic (and Evelyn is half-Irish also). Each house and mobile home also has a visitors book. Great pleasure is derived from reading these and seeing your friends or maybe even heroes and even signing your own.

  • Swim support

David and Evelyn provide a lot of the equipment needed for Channel swimming. Flasks, blankets, feed poles, whiteboards, grease, electronic lights and even feed material left behind by other teams, some like the food mixes are gratis if they are there, some for purchase (lights and Channel grease which is hard to find if you don’t make your own, and no longer available in Dover) and a large supply of swim boxes for boats. No need to buy things you will use once if you’ve travelled a long way. (Though you also shouldn’t rely on Varne happening to have sufficient swim feed material lying around, as I’ve seen happen).

  • Cost and comfort

Channel swimming, solo or relay, is not a cheap pursuit. Uptight swimmers may have no interest is visiting tourist attractions prior to a swim. Long days of web-browsing and kill time when not swimming are more comfortable when you can come and go as you please without the essential claustrophobia that hotels can provide. and provide hotel rooms for many people can become very expensive very easily.

  • The Varne Ridge Channel swimmer plaques

The walls on either side on the entrance of the park are covered by commemorative plaques for the swims of everyone who has stayed in Varne. New plaques are added every year after the end of season. These are far nicer and more photogenic than the White Horse signatures. Swimmers never get tired of looking at these, searching out friends and well-known swimmers.

Varne plagues IMAG0261-resized

  • The view

Passing Varne you can tell the swimmers. Dave and Ev own the patch on the land on the cliff side of the road and swimmers shuttle back and forward throughout the day, to sit on the benches and stare at the battlefield, getting lost in our thoughts. Following an idea by Rob Bohane, a new bench was placed in Varne by Sandycove Island swim club and friends last November in memory of our sadly and tragically departed Pariac Casey, lost to the Channel in 2012. Paraic had of course stayed in Varne as have all the Sandycove swimmers.

Channel Dawn; The Separation Zone. Cap Gris Nez is directly opposite Varne Ridge
Channel Dawn; The Separation Zone. Cap Gris Nez is directly opposite Varne Ridge
  • Varne is not in Dover

Once you’ve seen Dover, what might initially seem to be a problem, turns to be a positive. A car is essential for Varne, but you are less than ten minutes from Swimmer’s Beach.

I’m still waiting for David and Evelyn to pass on the operation of Varne to Dee and I, despite promises! I can imagine nothing better. Ah well…

I am not an unbiased reviewer of Varne Ridge. I love the place and am always happy to return. I cannot recommend Varne Ridge highly enough as an essential part of the Channel swimming experience.

Tell them Donal sent you.

Paraic's Bench



How To: Swedish goggles (fit and review)

I’ve written a couple of previous annual posts reviewing various goggles, (one, two) that I’ve used, of which it seems there have been quite a few. (There are few greater swimming pleasures than wearing brand new goggles!)

I am a relatively recent user to Swedish googles (aka Swedes), I’ve been wearing them for less than a year. I had worn some Tyr Socket Rockets many years back but they didn’t last very long and never made it in a serious google review here. The Socket Rockets were possibly the coolest looking goggs on the market back then. They worked fine for about two months before starting to leak.

The Tyr’s were a modified-Swedish design (my own term), utilizing the socket design of Swedes but with a thin layer of silicon as a gasket. During last year’s open water season I was given a pair of modified-Swedish design goggles to try from a new American google company called Nootca. These were similar to the Socket Rockets in also having a thin silicon layer. They are also anti-fog and I choose a clear pair. I immediately liked them and have been using them for pool training until they began to approach end of life.

Only nine months use, so why are they dying? Mea culpa, partially. They suffer from two problems that most of my goggles have shared.

Anti-fog goggles

1. We all know anti-fog is a bit of a misnomer in goggles. It’s never 100% effective. With older goggs whatever is present deteriorates and more and more saliva or otherwise is needed. In the pool I take my goggs off a lot so I’m constantly licking the inside to clear them again.

2. The primary reason most of my goggles and swim caps die is mould (aka mold/ fungus)! I am not good at remembering to dry out my stuff after swimming, and combined with the damp of my swim bag, and the low ambient temperatures here in Ireland, means mould will eventually build up.

Nootca goggles with mould
Nootca goggles with mould. Time to throw out the goggles when you can taste it!

Regardless of what swim companies say, silicon is not completely mould-resistant and must be kept dry to be effective. Swedish goggle wearers tend to be evangelistic about them. In the Sandycove group Finbarr and Craig wear them. But here’s something that I confirmed with a few different Irish swimmers: Many of us had never heard of them until fairly recently (the last five or six years due to swim blogs). What I take that to mean is we may have heard the casual term sometime but we never saw them physically, never saw them in use in the local age-group club, never knew what Swedes meant, and probably all dismissed brief mentions of the term. Yet it does seem that they are hugely popular in the US where they are primarily used amongst competitive and former competitive swimmers.

So what are Swedes? Swedish googles are so-called because they are made by a Swedish company called Malmsten, who only have 16 employees, since the mid-1970’s. They are the simplest available goggle on the market. And the most complex. AND the cheapest. And, depending on your viewpoint, the best. They are in many ways the epitome of the Do One Thing and Do It Well and/or Swedish Minimalism schools of design.

Swedes out of the box & unassembled
Swedes out of the box & un-assembled

Swedes use a bare hard-plastic eyepiece. No silicon or rubber gasket. No case. They use string as the nose-bridge. You assemble them to your own supposedly perfect and unique fit.

The Australian company Speedo, the world’s biggest (somewhere between 100 and 250 employees, ten times the size) and oldest (99 years) swimming company, synonymous with the sport must have found the pervasive use of Swedes at Olympics and World Championship by many elite swimmers to be a significant marketing problem, because in the last few years they released Malmsten goggles under the Speedo label, and they are now finally and widely available to us commoners.

Ah, but that initial fitting. Well, that’s where the dissatisfaction comes with Swedes. With a pair of Aqasphere Kayenne open water goggles you open the box, slip them on and pull the strap for your fit and you are done. A button loosens the strap if you are having a massively-distorted-head-day, as we all apparently have had occasionally!

I like tool shops. I like tool catalogues. I like tools. I like the specificity of a tool designed to do a specific job. I like the heft of a drill, the knurled grip of a screwdriver in my fingers. A blue-steel standards-compliant set-square is to me a thing of purity and beauty, even if I am not a carpenter. It has an exact purpose for which it must be manufactured exactly and to which it should be applied exactly. Therefore I am attracted to the idea of Swedes, the simplicity and clean lines, the stripped-down but apposite functionality.

To get Swedes to function (i.e. seal) properly, you may need to take a different approach. You may have regular symmetrical ocular orbits, into which the googs sit perfectly. I don’t and that was part of my problem. Goggles leak mostly into my right eye, my eye socket must be less symmetrical under the skin. The approach below works well for me and isn’t in the very basic instructions Speedo include in the box.

The injection (flash) line is the very fine while line peeling up off the bottom lip
The injection (flash) line is the very fine while line peeling up off the bottom lip

1. Injection-moulded plastic produces a fine line of plastic where the mould halves meets called flash, familiar to model-makers. Take the back of a scalpel or box-cutter and scrape along this seam until this seam is removed.

2: Using an emery board (nail sanding board) sand along the seam until the edges are smooth under your fingertips.

3: Do a quick test of the eyepieces onto your eyes. Suction holding the briefly eyepieces in place show how they fit.

Nose string being attached
Nose string attached to one side

4: Run the string through one side and extrude both sides through the rubber tube.

5: Run the string through the other side from the top of the hole.

6: Loosely tie the ends of the string together by a simple over-and-under (the very first part of a bow-knot that you use to tie shoelaces) and slip onto your eyes. You can squint to hold the eyepieces in place if necessary, or hold them in place while someone helps. Pull the string a little tight but not to pull the eyepieces closer together than they already are.

Loosley tying the nose string
Loosely tie the nose string

7: Complete the knot by another over-and-under in the opposite direction to the first. This is a simple and secure square knot.

8: Rotate the completed knot back into the rubber nose-piece.

9: Insert the strap into the two side holes of the eyepieces and tie in place around your head. DON’T tie it too tight or it’ll be too uncomfortable and may in fact leak.


10. Once you have your fit I’d recommend  that you test them in the poor for a couple of days while having a backup pair ready. I’ve found that if I don’t have another pair to compare strap length against, I’ll usually tie them too tight initially. Some goggles like Finis or the Nootca’s use a plastic buckle that makes adjusting straps easier than retying them.

I’ve found the effective seal of the Nootca and the Swedes to be about the same, which is better than any other googles for the pool. Except my one pair of now retired and sadly irreplaceable in Europe, View Fully Sick goggles from which are just too expensive to get shipped to Ireland.

I don’t completely buy the “100% fantastic” recommendations but I do appreciate them. In a purchase of two pairs of Speedo Swedes, one clear and one mirrored, the anti-fog in the mirrored pair lifted off the plastic and cracked immediately that I got in the pool while wearing them. Also I think the mirrored are too dark for most Irish days and certainly too dark for the pool. The clear and blue pairs have excellent visibility however. I also still have other goggles that I like and use, such as Vanquishers and Lightnings.

Swedes are mould resistant, though if you look carefully at the Nootca’s, mould still builds up slightly in the angle between the front and side so it is likely to also do so with the Swedes. (Yes, I do rinse them daily). If anyone has any good tips for control of mould on swimming gear in a damp country apart from air-drying everything every day, or ways to clean the inside of goggles, please let me know. (I have used a slice of potato or carrot, yes really, to clean off some of the much that builds up without destroying the goggles).

Take your time to get Swedes properly adjusted though and you will certainly have a pair of googles that will be excellently suited to all uses, pool and open water and that will last longer than any others for significantly less cost.

HOW TO Articles Index

During the summer of 2013 I indexed all the cold and cold water swimming How Tos for your easy perusal. This time I am indexing the HowTo articles, each again getting a brief description.

HOWTO be an open water swimmer… One of the first posts on

HOWTO: Open water swim tips for beginners open water swimmers and triathletes.

HOWTO: Lane swimming etiquette. Essential conduct for all pool swimmers.

HOWTO: Marathon and Channel Swimming Swimmer and Crew Checklist (updated for 2013). Occasionally updated check-list for swimmer and crew.

HOWTO: Generic marathon swim Observer’s Report.

Improving triathlon swimming performance – Part 1. Addressing technique problems for triathletes.

Improving triathlon swimming performance – Part 2. Continued.

HOWTO: Swimming Notation. How to read common swimming training plan notation.

Sea Lice, Seabather’s Eruption and Swimmer’s Itch. Understanding and treating the various conditions

HOWTO: “How much do I need to swim for – x – open water distance?”. Various considerations in training for swimming a range of distances.

HOWTO: Progressive Step Overload training for distance swimmers and endurance athletes.

HOWTO: Discussing Zone Training. What is heart zone training and how it applies to swimming.

HOWTO Introduction to writing a basic pool swimming set. Writing a basic pool training plan for a single day.

HOWTO: Using Tide Tables. Using both online and printed Tide Tables for tide prediction and safety.

HOWTO: Tides for Swimmers, part 1 – Theory. It’s important that swimmers understand tidal aspects fully, especially those who live in high tidal range areas like Western Europe.

HOWTO: Tides For Swimmers, Part 2 – Local Effects. When considering tides, theory and local effects are often very different.

HOWTO: Understanding Waves, for Swimmers, Part 1. Waves, i.e. breakers are a difficulty for triathletes and new swimmers. Also important for coastal safety.

HOWTO: Understanding Waves, for Swimmers, Part 2.

HOWTO: Preparing for Cold Water. Basic cold water swimming introduction.

HOWTO: Annual advice for a Christmas or New Year’s swim in cold water for the irregular open water swimmer. An annual and very popular post. Longer than the previous post above.

HOWTO apply lubrication for distance sea swimming. Not everyone naturally knows how to do this.

HOWTO: Understanding Rough Water: Force Three. Specifics of a marginal sea condition.

HOWTO understand Sea Area Forecasts / Shipping News. Weather forecasting is a useful skill for distance swimmers.

HOWTO: Beaufort Wind Scale – An essential observational skill for the OW Swimmer. Being able to read wind conditions is essential to understanding the sea and safety.

HOWTOStudying weather online during a Force 10/11 blow. How to use online resources to track a storm and what various aspects mean.

HOWTO: Open water breathing patterns. The sea changes every day. To be an experienced sea swimmer you need to be able to adapt your breathing.

HOWTO: Swimming in rough water. Linked to the previous article.

HOWTO: Sample marathon swim feed schedule (MIMS). Feed schedules are personal, but this will give you an idea if you don’t know where to start.

HOWTO: Important factors in marathon swim feeding. Other factors outside the actual schedule for long distance feeding.

HOWTO: Introducing interval training to your swimming. Basics of swim training.

HOWTO: Understanding hypothermia in swimmers – Mild Hypothermia. Mild hypo is very common. How to recognise it (and not worry).

HOWTO: Understanding hypothermia in swimmers – Moderate & Severe Hypothermia. Moderate hypothermia is not moderate. Severe is life-threatening.

HOWTO: Diagnosing and addressing Moderate Hypothermia in swimmers. What to actually do about hypothermia.

HOWTO: Core Exercises, Part 1. Core exercise are recommended for swimmers to assist balance and strength and endurance.

HOWTO: Core Exercises, Part 2.

HOW TO: Why you SHOULD shower before you use the pool and why you SHOULDN’T pee in the pool. Things you need to know about pool hygiene.

HOWTO: One Simple Effective Core Exercise. One simple core exercise.

HOWTO: Theraband work for shoulder strengthening. Theraband work helps to prevent swimmer’s shoulder (impingement) problems.

HOWTO: Tennis Balls And Tights. A useful remediation technique for muscle knots that develop through training.

HOWTO: A simple open water swimmer’s first aid & medical kit. Be prepared, accidents happen around the sea.

HOWTO: Stretching for swimming. Help to avoid or reduce swimming injuries. Post-swim only.

HOWTO reduce a swimmer’s use of towels. Really. Not everything has to be complicated.

HOWTO make your swimsuit (swimming togs) last longer. Surprisingly, not every swimmer knows this simple tip.

HOWTO tie men’s swimming briefs. Another of the simple tips.

HOWTO get water out of your ear. A very popular search item leading into this site.

HOWTO: Jellyfish ID charts. Particularly for swimmers in Ireland and the UK.

St Patrick’s Day swimming nutrition. Not really. How to make a great Irish Coffee. How to make a great one!

HOWTO: Follow an English Channel swim online.

HOWTO: Write a basic daily swimming session.

Future How To articles will be added to this index, as I remember to so do!

HOW TO: Why you SHOULD shower before you use the pool and why you SHOULDN’T pee in the pool

It’s a long time since I mentioned this subject but we do need to talk about this. Really. Do you shower before swimming in an (indoor)? If not, why not? Do you pee in the pool? In two UK and US studies, 1 in 5 adults admitted they have and in the UK study 70% don’t shower beforehand. Amongst general swimmers we can be certain the peeing figure is much higher whereas with elite swimmers the figure is almost 100%.

please shower before pool

I was reading a swimming forum discussion about this subject, which asked the number of  people who showered before swimming. No firm percentage who did was gathered but it was the majority who didn’t. Many swimmers admitted to never showering beforehand. Some said entire swim squads never showered and coaches never enforced the rules. It was both interesting and disquieting with the general lack of misunderstanding about the essential role of pre-swim showering for everyone.

An example: Even when we have dry land training first and are quite sweaty my whole team just jumps in the pool. Doesn’t bother me.

No evidence of any awareness by swimmers or coach there.

That was in fact the most popular comment. It was repeatedly indicated that showering before using the pool was less common in the US than many other countries. I can’t put hard figures on that though since the forum is populated predominantly by American swimmers. Showering before using the pool is common (but nowhere near universal) behaviour in Irish pools. But only yesterday I was doing a 10k swim and twice during it I could taste perfume and deodorant in the water after two different people entered at different times. Even lifeguards don’t all know the reasons why showering is important.

A small minority of people did say it was courtesy to other pool users to shower before swimming. A not-quite-as-small amount indicated that more people not showering required more work by the pool to balance the chemical load to get the filtration system to work properly/optimally, particularly having to increase chlorine.

Both these items are true but secondary to the main issue.

First you have to ask yourself; why is chlorine added to water? You all know: to kill communicable pathogens (particularly bacterial or parasitic). But it doesn’t kill everything. Cryptosporidium, which many have heard about from news stories of infected municipal and domestic water supplies can live for days in chlorine.

Sweat, soap, perfume, shampoo, conditioner, aftershave, deodorant, urine, faeces are all organic compounds which contain proteins.

When organic compounds are introduced into a chlorinated (or brominated) environment like a swimming pool disinfected by-products are produced. While the chlorine is intended to neutralise harmful pathogens specifically from faeces (urine is sterile) it also has undesirable side effects.


Chlorine reacts with the organics to create gases whose family are called Trihalomethanes (THMs). It reacts with proteins to form Chloramines which include Nitrogen Trichloride.

Trihalomethanes are colourless odourless heavy toxic gases. Chloramines are nitrogen chloride gases which display the strong chlorine smell people associated with smell of chlorine in a pool (and not actually indicative of such) and also toxic.

The extent of these gases produced is a function of the amount of organic matter entering the water: The more organic matter the greater the gaseous concentration AND a subsequent prerequisite increase in the amount of chlorine that must be added to the pool to keep it balanced.

Chlorine in any form is toxic. It impacts respiratory function and some THMs are carcinogenic. At the highest THM concentrations in pools in a study the cancer risk was deemed to be unacceptable (Study link 5 below).  Asthma is more prevalent amongst competitive  swimmers:

The risk of asthma is especially increased among competitive swimmers, of which 36% to 79% show bronchial hyperresponsiveness to methacholine or histamine (1).

There they are in a layer on the water just where most commonly you and I  are breathing, which is how we absorb the majority of them. About a third is also absorbed through skin, and some by swallowing. There’s no way of avoiding them if they are present.

pp_pee_poolThe more organics brought into, or urinated into the pool, the worse the health situation. A greater chlorine smell in a pool hall means the worse the pool chemical balance not cleaner water.

By now you hopefully understand if you didn’t already:

  • You should be showering before entering a pool. Regardless of if you have showered already that day.
  • You should be showering after using a sauna before entering a pool.
  • You should not be peeing in the pool.

If your pool doesn’t encourage showering, why not write a simple letter to them explaining that by doing so they reduce their chemical costs (by up to 50%).

If your friends and fellow pool users don’t do so, your example and encouragement is even more important.

Related articles

(1) Allergy and asthma in elite summer sport athletes. (PubMed)

Distribution and determinants of trihalomethane concentrations in indoor swimming pools.

Nitrates, chlorates and trihalomethanes in swimming pool water. (American Journal of Public Health).

Pathways of trihalomethane uptake in swimming pools (Science Direct).

(5) Cancer risk assessment from exposure to trihalomethanes in tap water and swimming pool water (Science Direct)

Drowning in Disinfection Byproducts? Assessing Swimming Pool Water (Environmental Science & Technology)

HOW TO: Marathon and Channel Swimming Swimmer and Crew Checklist (updated for 2013)

This list below was originally based on Freda Streeter’s English Channel check-list though it has evolved quite substantially.

I’ve reorganised the PDF by swimmer/crew/feeds/travel for ease of use. By the third version I added version numbers so you can keep track.

Major changes for June 2013 (Ver 3.0) include a new Travel section.

The list includes some things that Freda recommends and advises and is optimised for cool or cold water marathon swimming.

It also includes some optional but nonetheless useful items based on experience.

I’ve changed and added to it over the last couple of years and it’s now my personal check list and as such tends to evolve and change. (Items in blue are essential).

Some are very, very obvious but the dangerous things about check-list are forgetting to add the obvious and unspoken but essential, or not checking things off the check list.

Simplified PDF version without notes for direct printing.


  • Dry-bag for boat for swimmer clothes. (I use the large 44 litre one in the link).
  • Swimming Costumes.
  • Swimming Goggles and Spares: Minimum one pair each of clear and dark goggles (if you start in or swim into the dark you will need clear, you will need dark/tinted for bright sunlight).
  • Earplugs + spares.
  • Swim Cap and Spares. Use bright colours.
  • Towels. Apart from regular towels I’ve added both a travel micro-fibre towel and swimmer’s chamois towel for the many swims in Dover. I use a car-drying chamois, same product, quarter of the price!
  • Rain gear for swimmer.
  • Old warm, loose clothes for post-swim. (You will urinate heavily after the swim to eliminate intracellular fluids, so make your clothes are easy to open or lower. Remember if the boat is rough you may need to sit on a toilet).
  • Grease.
  • Light sticks - 4 or more (I use Adventure Lights, reusable, brighter and therefore safer and nothing difficult to dispose of afterwards). Test your batteries!
  • Safety pins for fixing lights.
  • Shoe organiser. Idea from Penny Palfrey, via English Channel Soloist Craig Morrison. Used to separate all the swimmer’s gear into individual compartments.


  • Foul weather gear for crew.
  • Blanket or Old Sleeping Bag.
  • Spare plastic Ziploc bags - I had some in my bag just in case I needed to take something last-minute out on the boat.
  • Food for your crew.
  • Latex gloves (or plastic bags) to apply grease.
  • String and/or Zip-ties because boats.
  • Duct-tape. Because you never know.
  • Make sure phones are set to auto select Networks before swim or they may lose cover and not know why.
  • Spare Carabiners – I got a bag of small mixed sizes for €5.
  • Bottled Water (Plenty) (Use only litre bottles; your crew cannot manage to pour from larger bottles in choppy water. (I used 1.5 litre bottles in MIMS and EC, no bother).
  • Chargers or extra batteries for phones and cameras on board. (Gábor uses a Power Monkey Solar charger).
  • (Underwater) Camera (with flash) to take on board. If conditions are right and you have a swimmer going to the beach with you they will need a waterproof camera.
  • Marker pens and masking tape. Masking tape makes a good base for writing on plastic bottles. Duct tape also works.
  • Wetsuit for support swimmers. It’s about the swimmer, not the crew. Best to stay warm to function best as crew.
  • SPOT GPS tracker. Visible to others. Test beforehand and get link. Most English Channel Pilots already have these but not all. They are now affordable and very valuable for engaging others in your swim.

Feeds and medical supplies

  • Feed schedule. I suggest you laminate it and bring copies and a pen to write on the laminate in case of rain.
  • Maxim (or whatever your choice of Carb is).
  • Measuring Scoop. I almost forgot this after putting my Maxim in plastic bags for ease of transportation.
  • Cups or Feeding Bottles. Mike Oram suggests plastic Milk Cartons as feed bottles. If using these, collect extra lids before you go as some will definitely get lost by the swimmer, and you want to keep salt water getting in the bottle.
  • Retractable Dog Leash or line, (as I previously suggested, the crew unspools it to feed the swimmer, easy and quick to retract). I’ve used it in the Channel in rough water, it works really well. Alternatively a Mason’s reel, fencing reel, kite reel. Anything to quickly spool out or reel in long lines. Make sure you have a spare backup line in case the first breaks (as happened to me). I’ve tested the dog-leash in the Channel and it  works really well with carabiners.
  • Fruit juice (Cordial, squash, whatever your choice of additive to feed is. I put my squash in a squeezy water bottle.)
  • Mouthwash (make sure your crew mix 50/50 or it will burn your delicate mouth. Delicate was on the original list, I imagine Freda (Streeter) writing that with a certain sense of humour about complaining swimmers. I use a 2:1 water/mouthwash mix, as 50/50 is too strong for me).
  • Tea Bags or Coffee.
  • Electrolyte. But with zero carbs. Maxim Electrolyte is zero carbs. I changed to Zyn with Caffeine for MIMS, it was better.
  • Chocolate Bar and Cadbury’s Chocolate Rolls, Milky ways go down a treat and do not stick to the roof of your mouth. (I didn’t use either of these – these are a real Freda thing. Some use Fry’s Turkish Delight or other for same reason.) Choice maybe peaches or Kendall Mint Cake etc instead.
  • Ibuprofen. (Anti-inflammatory).
  • Paracetamol (Solpadeine, Neurofen or similar stronger painkiller for the latter half of swim).
  • Anti-histamine (I’ve never tested nor used these during swims).
  • I also bring Colpermin Peppermint capsules to stop any potential pre-diarrhoea stomach spasms. They work really well and you don’t taste the peppermint.
  • Immodium or something to stop actual diarrhoea – Just in case.
  • Personal medication. Plan in advance. For example as an asthmatic, I discussed with my GP who prescribed a spare antibiotic to take just in case I got a chest infection since I can recognise the early symptoms.
  • Suntan lotion. Discussion on the forum on this subject amongst people who have greater sun protection requirement than Irish & UK folk.
  • Masking tape and permanent markers – masking tape is useful for labelling bottles that won’t take ink easily.
  • Dryboard or chalkboard and enough dryboard markers. If they get in any way damp they stop working quickly. You’ll need dry paper towel or similar to wipe & dry the board. Never used chalkboard on a boat myself, could be even more difficult in wet weather?
  • Funnel for mixing feeds. Make sure it has a wide neck, you can cut the top off a plastic One Litre bottle. If doing so make sure the funnel is slightly smaller than the bottle it is going into!
  • Wet cloth with plenty of washing up liquid, tied into a plastic bag, just in case, you or crew might want it after swim, useful for getting any grease off hands.
  • Whiteboard and whiteboard markers.
  • Torch for signalling for night feeds. (Maglite Mini LED etc).
  • More water and Maxim than you think you need. My view is enough for at least 6 hours (one tide) extra swimming if doing a Channel swim , but I obviously have a specific reason, it’s what I took and we were almost at the end of it for the English Channel. Boats DO NOT carry excess water, contrary to what many landlubbers think.
  • Notebook and pen for your crew chief. Tell them to record everything. 

Travel (new section for 2013 – mostly optional)

  • Power strip/power adaptor (The single most valuable new addition to the list). Many places you stay with crew will not have enough power outlets.  One extra 4-socket power adaptor solved this problem.
  • Microfibre travel towels as outlined above. Essential if you are in Dover and the weather is rubbish, and you are trying to get towels dry.
  • Unlocked mobile phone. If you can borrow/get an unlocked phone you can just purchase credit for anywhere. Mobile phone bills can be a big problem returning home from a foreign swim. For English Channel / North Channel / Gibraltar you will need credit from both countries.
  • Unlocked wireless broadband adaptor OR Android smartphone with Hotspot adaptor.
  • National flag
  • Twitter / Google+ / blog / Facebook passwords
  • Thong sandals (Dover only, but essential for swimmers)
  • Country map. Don’t rely on GPS.
  • Parking permits / tickets (for duration of swim)
  • Keypod or SurfLock or similar (lockable safe for safely attaching keys to car during training swims)
  • Folding chair(s) & bungee. Some English Channel pilot boats don’t have anywhere to sit comfortably on deck. A folding chair might be essential for some crew members. Only useful of course in appropriate weather. Use the bungee to hold it place against the superstructure.

Related Articles:

Here’s a simplified PDF with all the extra notes removed for ease of use and direct printing.

HOW TO: Open water swim tips for triathletes

This follows up Part 1 and Part 2 of common triathlon swimming techniques and remedies, and Evan’s tips on the best use of a public pool for training and a simple effective front crawl stroke tip.

I’ve written various How To’s about different aspects of open water swimming in detail. This post is intended to be a general round-up of maybe useful advice for triathletes (based on substantial open water swimming experience).

(By the way, I’ll be indexing the How To articles soon similar to the Cold Water Swimming Index, to make it easier to navigate).

  • Open water practice is different and separate to pool practice, and equally essential. You need both.
  • Breathing and sighting are two SEPARATE activities. Breathe to the side. Sight from LOW over the water (think of it as crocodile eyes).
  • Getting through large breaking waves is simple and quick (once you’ve practised it). Dive under them. Don’t try to go over or through.
  • Different wind strengths and directions (to your swimming direction) change the water conditions in different ways. Practice in all weather conditions.
  • My idea of cold and your idea of cold are different because you are wearing a wetsuit. I prepare for my temperatures, you MUST prepare for yours, even with a wetsuit.
  • Practice in open water well in advance of your event, and practice repeatedly.
  • Navigation is a learned skill. Pick something above the water and work out how often you need to sight forward to swim straight. Expect the number to be low at the beginning.
  • Few people are as good at sighting as they think they are. Most are worse. There are too many variable to always be certain you are swimming straight.
  • Practice turns around buoys.
  • Common technique causes of drifting off-course are crossing over the body centreline with your arm and breathing to one side (where it unbalances the swimmer). Address these in your pool training.
  • Controlled breathing is important. Don’t hold your breath.
  • Don’t concentrate on lowering your stroke rate, or gliding. (Yes, I know many of you try to do the opposite).
  • Do increase your stroke rate. And train for this.
  • Forget Total Immersion.
  • Don’t kick hard.
  • Don’t sprint at the start.
  • Don’t wear new goggles for a race.
  • Don’t start at the front of a race wave if you’ve never done so before.
  • Expect full contact with other swimmers. To avoid contact start slightly behind the pack.
  • Swim to the side of the pack.
  • Don’t trust that the pack knows where it’s going.
  • My sport is more extreme and dangerous than yours but yours is more popular and with a higher fatality rate. That can be improved by better understanding of and preparation for open water.
  1. Just because water is soft, doesn’t mean it’s easy. Train appropriately.
  2. The best safety decisions are made outside of the water.
  3. Your wetsuit is NOT an open water safety aid. Don’t use it as such to enter a swim you are not sure you are capable of completing.

How To: Improving triathlon swimming performance – Part 2

Following on from Part 1;


This is common and may be partially caused by increased thigh strength built up by running and cycling training. The legs kick wide, passing outside the silhouette of the body as seen from the front and adds very significant drag. In an elite sprint swimmer the kick only provides 15% of total forward propulsion and therefore provides less for most of the rest of us, and especially distance swimmers. The combination of added drag with reduced propulsive force means a scissors-kick is not just not providing little assistance, but is actually slowing the swimmer. For many triathletes less of a kick would be more effective in increasing speed and reducing effort. Note that the thigh muscles are the largest muscles in the body, with a higher density of fast twitch muscle fibres, which consume more oxygen and glycogen. If the muscles are being used inefficiently, the effects are systemic, adding drag while requiring more energy.

People who speed up while using a pull-buoy usually have a scissors-kick that is slowing them down normally. It is worth emphasising that, as I’m sure you have read, the kick is driven from the hips. However the lower leg is not stiff but is best described as having “soft knees.”

  • Do some swimming with a pull-buoy to determine if your kick is slowing you. If you are faster with a kick-buoy then it probably is. (Make sure you are NOT kicking while using a pull-buoy. This is the Aquasphere buoy that I use).
  • Another simple technique is to “make a fist with your toes“. This reduces the effectiveness of your hamstring muscles, reducing the range of motion of your kick. If you swim easier while doing this, you know your kick is adding drag. However this is not something you should be doing all the time, but only as a diagnostic tool or to get the feel of a more streamlined kick.
  • Tapping your big toes together when they pass will add bio-feedback for you to reduce the range of your kick. Again, this is not something you do every kick.
  • A long length of medium surgical tube or Theraband looped  over your ankles is useful for feeling the entire range of a kick. You will have to kick against the tubing which makes this an uncomfortable drill only used briefly but it will help stop your knees bending and again will demonstrate a better reduced kick range.
  • When using fins, make sure they are NOT long scuba-diving flipper types, but short stiff ones. Long flippers will force you to scissors-kick your lower legs more. I use Finis Z2 Zoomers.
  • One particular drill that I do occasionally is to swim with my ankles tied together with a large rubber band (or Finis ankle band though I simply use a loop of car inner-tube). This ensures I must concentrate on my chest buoy, which is a swimming phrase for the centre of buoyancy in the chest and lungs. To do this you must get yourself low in the water, your tied legs will be heavy and will sink down in the water, making you slower. So you must concentrate on elongating the body, staying smooth, and trying to elevate the legs. Don’t overdo this drill as it is too easy to use it to fall into a strength-only swimming technique. This drill is also useful as pool training for some choppy wind conditions, where getting low under oncoming chop is more effective than trying to swim over it.
  • Like many distance swimmers, I don’t do a lot of kick drills, but also like most experienced swimmers, I regularly use the side-kick drill as the most effective of all swimming drills. While I don’t recommend being as lazy as I am with kick-drills, this side-kick drill does work the kick, balance, elongation and rotation.
  • To do the side-kick drill you start by swimming a length on either side, one arm stretched out in front, the other relaxed by your side, on your hip. Concentrate on swimming straight and controlling your kick. Then you can add slow rotations to the other side. You can add a side-to-side transition every quarter of length, or every 12 kicks. The first side drill and a 6x kick (12 beat) rotation can be seen in the drill below. You are never too good to stop doing this drill and the various variations of it.

Not pulling through completely

The pull-phase in front crawl starts from when the hand engages the water at the catch (usually about 30 cm under the surface) until it starts to lift into the recovery phase. Many people shorten the pull phase and lose the power at the latter end of the pull.

  • When pulling, scrape your thumb against your thigh on every stroke


Even the most experienced and even expert swimmer will develop technique errors once they lose focus on their stroke or get tired, as Evan points out. So you must concentrate on correct technique constantly, and always expect new errors to develop and need to be remedied.

Get some stroke analysis

Yes, I already mentioned this in the first part but it’s worth repeating. All of the above points are based on having those specific problems. People may have one or two or more. The BEST single thing you can do for your swimming is to get some simple stroke analysis. This sounds both complicated and expensive. But almost any experienced swimmer you meet will be happy to do so. They will have sufficient understanding of stroke mechanics, understand that everyone needs this assistance including themselves and most importantly be able to see things you can’t. Obviously experienced coaches and video analysis will give greater benefit but you could be surprised how easy it is for someone to see something you are not aware of, and therefore for you to make changes. (I went through all this myself earlier in the year when I visited the SwimSmooth clinic and discovered problems that had crept back into my stroke).


Proportionally speaking the swim leg of any distance triathlon is the leg, shortest and the one least likely to cause the athlete to gain or lose too much time. Therefore the best strategy for most people is to maximise efficiency during the swim leg, and get out of the water fresh without having lost too much time.

I’ve tried to address the most common issues which reduce efficiency and which are easiest to address. There are also common issues with crossover, thumb first entry, lifting too high to breathe, poor catch, s-pulling and working on the other previous problems will improve these also.

However you should address each of these issues separately at first, and NOT try to focus on everything at once.

By tackling these main issues you will reduce drag, develop a controlled a propulsive stroke technique with no dead spots, and have a good breathing pattern. You will be much further along the way to moving through any water conditions with improved efficiency. Some of these changes can be made made quickly but expect to repeat any muscle action at least 10,000 times for it to become ingrained in your muscle memory. So to change something you have to repeat it correctly at least once every metre swam.

There’s another swimming aphorism that applies to stroke correction and improvement that derives from this slow rate of improvement. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.

Note. I’ve now also written a How-To – Improving Open Water swimming performance for triathletes.

Related articles

How To: Improving triathlon swimming performance – Part 1

This post is one of a combined series of triathlon swim articles with Evan Morrison. Evan is a top American open water and marathon swimmer who holds several long distance records including Santa Barbara and the Ederle marathon swims.  His article considers some common mistakes people make while pool swim training (not technique errors) and how to improve. (We are also the co-founders and administrators of Evan also recently wrote  an excellent, easy-to-understand and follow simple front-crawl stroke tip.

While I written quite a few open water How To’s that are useful for both triathletes and open water novices, I thought some observations on the most common triathlete stroke problems that I’ve seen wouldn’t go astray and simple correction for these problems. 

Stroke Analysis

While all of these issues are visible to a good coach, many triathletes, (like myself as a swimmer), don’t have a local swim squad, regular coach or other swimmers to observe, intervene, or even to casually analyse their strokes. Swimming is the most technically difficult discipline in a triathlon. Quite unlike running or cycling, simply swimming more won’t necessarily improve your technique, and may even embed stroke errors more deeply. Fitness alone also isn’t sufficient. Swimming is a two-person sport in that it requires someone else to see what you are doing. So the best first tip is to get some stroke analysis. this doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. You can ask at your pool or if you see someone whom is a good swimmer, I can pretty much guarantee that they’d be happy to help as almost all experienced swimmers understand this requirement. (Just ask when they between sets).

I know a triathlete who has been swimming for twenty years. That should make him an excellent swimmer. But because he not only doesn’t ask for input, but refuses any he is offered by anyone, his swimming hasn’t progressed or improved in any way in all that time. (And he also makes most to of the errors that Evan points out).


The most common question or complaint from novice swimmers refers to breathing. It is  often in the form of “I am very fit, I can run and cycle for miles, but I run out of air almost immediately when swimming“. You can have a sports car in the garage but if you don’t have fuel in the car it’s not going to go anywhere. In swimming the primary fuel isn’t food but oxygen. Stretching the car analogy, food is more like the lubricant used for an internal combustion engine, and air is more like the primary fuel. You need one to start and for power, and the other to keep the system working. So it is most important that you are continuously getting enough air by breathing. As all swimmers have favourite sayings they have heard from their coaches, one of mine that is relevant to this is you need to swim around your breathing, not breathe between your swimming. Many beginners seem to think of breathing as an addendum to swimming. The oldest and still most important instruction to swimmers is relax. Without being relaxed it’s difficult to breathe efficiently. A drill that helps this is the side kicking drill (below).

  • Don’t hold your breathe but exhale continuously underwater. Use both mouth and nose exhalation.
  • Don’t worry about speed, but take controlled strokes. (You can’t swim fast or efficiently without being able to swim slow).
  • To help control your breathing you can speak a word like “breathe” underwater on every arm-cycle, or even hum underwater.
  • Learn to exhale fully. Exhale and see if you sink. If you don’t try again, this time exhaling from lower in your abdomen and stomach. Pursing your lips adds exhalation pressure. (Easily demonstrated. Exhale as much as you can while reading this, then purse your lips and you will be able to exhale a little more).

Inflexible ankles

Inflexible ankles are common in triathletes who originally come from a running background or who emphasise running training. The repetitive impacts combined with a lack of focus on ankle flexibility leads to a decreased Range of Motion (ROM) in the ankles and leave some triathletes being unable to point their toes. In some cases not being able to point the foot at all, so the foot remains at up to 90 degrees to the lower leg. This adds significant drag, in effect a water-anchor to the swimmer. Stiff ankles will also cause the legs to drop down in the water, thereby adding yet more drag.

  • A simple solution to this is to increase ankle flexibility stretching. This has the great advantage of being amenable to being done while the person is sitting and relaxing or working. Two effective stretches from Michael Alter’s excellent Sport Stretches.

Ankle stretches 1-resized

Part 2.

How To: “How much do I need to swim for – x – open water distance?”

With the Northern hemisphere open water season getting underway, and temperatures in many locations edging around the magic number, (10C/50F) , open water related questions inevitably arise as each year brings new swimmers and more triathletes.

A common question is some variation of:

I want to swim 1.5k/3k/3k/10k, can I do it or what should I do to prepare?

There are different answers for this depending on many factors:

  1. What is your swimming experience?
  2. What is your current swim training?
  3. What is your open water experience?
  4. Wetsuit or not?
  5. Sea, river or lake?
  6. How long do you have to prepare?

I have covered many aspects of these questions, such as getting started, essential rules of cold water swimming, basic skills, swimming in different conditions, etc. (The How To category has more of these).

  • To swim any significant distance in open water the first requirement is regular swimming every week. This seems obvious but some people seem to think it isn’t. For almost any distance from 1k up, you should probably be swimming a minimum of three times a week. If your intended swim is over 5k, three times is probably not enough. Less swimming experience means that building up to regular swimming should be a longer transition as sudden increases will lead to a) injury and b) burnout.
  • The second most important requirement, and one of the biggest mistakes beginners  make, is to not get sufficient or even any open water experience before the actual event. Open water is De Facto not like a pool. Every day is different: Winds blow (or not), from different directions at different speeds in different weather conditions. Water conditions change dynamically, even during events. **You MUST get appropriate experience beforehand**. You must practice your skills, especially sighting and navigation, but also pack swimming, rough water, fear, contact with other swimmers.

* **A wetsuit is NOT A SAFETY AID**.

Many experienced open water swimmers feel very strongly that people substitute wetsuits for training and experience. A frightening video that was pointed out by Evan on of 2012’s Escape From Alcatraz. Watch it. Experienced open water swimmers view this video with genuine amazement at the ineptitude on display both of swimmers and safety crew and logically therefore of the organisation. This is a lumpy day by OW standards but certainly manageable for experienced swimmers. Even has also previously discussed the matter of wetsuits and safety in open water swimming and made the excellent point that while a wetsuit may confer some protection for INDIVIDUALS, in a GROUP of swimmers the use of wetsuits lessens overall safety because organisers use them as a safety crutch, so to speak. See also Phil’s comment on this point in the comment section below.  Swimming in rough water is something that requires practice.


Just because an event allows you to enter with your limited experience means nothing. Some just want your money. Events which have real qualifications requirement are not elitist. The organisers are experienced and aware of the dangers and attempting to reduce risk beforehand. As I’ve said before, safety decisions are best made outside the water. These are the *good events*. We all have to build up through various qualification levels to get into longer swims. This is the smart way to do it and organisers that understand this are to be trusted. Faking your qualification puts you and others in danger.

* You cannot safely swim 1k this week, 10k next week and do a 15k swim in the third week. Increases in training should be limited to an average of 5% per week. You shouldn’t go above this unless you have previous experience in ramping up swimming volume. That means if you swim 5,000 metres this week, in a month you will be swimming barely over 6,000 metres. You can prove me wrong, maybe, in the short-term, but in the long-term to do otherwise will lead to inevitable injury.


There is no simple answer. However…

Endurance swimmers and athletes have a few rules of thumb:

  • You can swim in a day what you swim in a week.

This is a reasonable guideline for medium to longer distances. I find it is most used from about 20k to 45k distances. If you are swimming these distances then you likely have your own opinion and may disagree with me. This is absolutely fine, since you know what you are doing and we all are different and I’m not trying to give an absolute rule. If you don’t have experience however, this is a reasonable rule.

This rule breaks down at the lower end. If want to swim 1k open water, you should be able to swim 1k in the pool without any difficulty and you should be swimming at least three times a week and more than 1,000 metres. If you struggle to swim 1k in the pool, you shouldn’t be swimming open water at all.

  • You can swim 4 times longer than your longest training swim FOR ONE-OFF EVENTS.

This is a very old rule. The last part means that doing this in the absence of regular training means injury is more likely. You may get through it on grit but you won’t do it regularly.

So, I haven’t given you a clear answer. That because there is no single formula.

Open water requires training, experience and a realistic approach (because it’s dangerous and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong).

Here’s a very loose training guideline that should help you swim your events comfortably, assuming you also have the open water experience. All of these assume one day of swimming open water per week from spring to your event. This is a much larger subject and this is very brief thumbnail sketch.

Target event: 1k. Swim 2k at least three times a week.

Target event: 1.5k/1 mile. Swim 3k at least three times a week, or 2k four times a week.

Target event: 3k. Swim 4k at least three times a week, or 4k three times a week

Target event: 5k. Swim 4k at least four times a week. Swim 5k once per week.

Target event: 10k. Swim 5k at least three times a week, but swim at least 4 times a week. Weekly target of 15k minimum.

Target event: 15k. Swim minimum of 20k per week.

Target event: 25k. Swim minimum 25k per week. There’s more variation here. Some  experienced swimmers like to train less for marathon swims. I’m not one of them and my own experience and what I’ve seen of others means I believe strongly that in marathon swimming you have to be trained for when things go wrong.

How To: Using Tide Tables

Because I live and swim in Ireland, I am constantly made aware of the large tidal range here.

I’ve written extensively about tides previously because I feel they are an aspect of open water swimming not appreciated by enough swimmers and because global variations can mean that many people never see nor even realise the apparent extremities of a higher tidal range in other locations. I therefore think a better understanding of tides is important for open waters for safety reasons.

To understand tides better is to increase your knowledge, your range of options and responses and locations and therefore your safety around the coast. Combined with this is that tidal knowledge is sometimes incorrect, that people make very basic incorrect assumptions, that the tide goes directly in and out from the shore regardless of the coastal position, is amongst the most common misconception (which is only true in some locations).

Because of this North East Atlantic tidal variation, most experienced Irish and United Kingdom sea-goers are used to checking tide times when the sea is not immediately visible to them daily.

You can revisit some of the more detailed tide articles I’ve written but for a brief recap let’s remember that each tide is about six hours and fifteen minutes, which means that high and low tide times change each day. A practical consequence of this is that Sandycove, which is usually swum above half-tide, usually only swim times designated for group swims every second weekend. (I am luckier at the Guillamenes as it is deeper water and can be swum on any tide).

Let’s a look at some graphs and data of a daily tide cycle, for the week I’m writing this. This data comes from MagicSeaweed’s Tramore tide report.  The undulating sine wave indicates the rising and falling tide. You can see that there are four tides in each 24 hour period and that each tide on this current cycle varies from just under six hours to about six and a half, with rising tides being longer than falling tides. On each chart you can also see the tide heights of high and low tide. As the four days pass the range between high and low decreases, and the high tide gets lower as the low tide gets higher, all indicators that the tide is moving from a Spring tide to a Neap tide, this pattern of changes from springs to neaps and visa versa repeating every two weeks.

tide graph 2

Tide programs and applications are usually similar in this presentation and a good understanding can mean a quick glance at a tide table can tell you a lot. Since I know that spring tides here are over 5 metres, I can tell immediately from this where in the lunar tide cycle we are. Lower tidal range means lower tidal currents, (not usually a concern for me anyway), important information for some locations.

The other usual tide tool, which I prefer myself, is an annual national tide table. These are currently about €3.00 for the pocket-sized book and I keep one in the car. There are two types of tide table books. Those often issued by the local port or regional publishing company, and a national one. Ireland is small enough that a localised tide table is too specific and of little utility if one is visiting the far side of the country.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI find physical Tide Tables more utilitarian. Always to hand when needed, and useful for longer term planning many months in advance. Free and online tide apps usually don’t provide future tide times.

More importantly in Ireland, the island nature of the country makes the tidal situation far more complicated than many people realise, with the tides washing around the coast in diverging or even opposing directions. Therefore the Tide Table is sub-divided into five regions with further tide time offsets (delays) to even more localised ports. This provides a level of forecasting that gives a far greater level of accuracy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe detail is of the same type, date and day, high and low water (tide), with tide heights and in this case, moon phase to indicate more easily the spring and neap tides. On the page above can also be seen the variation of other locations from the Cobh location, Cobh being the Standard (reference) Port, i.e. the main tidal location, for the south-west to south-east Irish coast. A fuller list of Secondary Ports for each region is also included.

What’s equally important about these tide tables, and hidden in a note inside the back, is that the data is compiled from the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office, which, bizarrely and which I haven’t mentioned in a couple of years, owns the tide data for all of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and from which it must be licensed. Not that I am in favour of this arrangement, but it does mean you can be sure of the table accuracy, unlike with many free tide applications where license fees haven’t been paid.


A local sources of tidal information if you are unsure or without any better information is to check any RNLI  or local inshore rescue stations across Ireland and the United Kingdom which at least usually display the month’s local tide times on the outside of the stations. These always use the accurate UKHO (below) tide data. Some broadsheet newspapers can carry the information also in the weather section.

The important points therefore are:

* Tide tables are essential for coastal safety in area with high tidal ranges, such as across the continental European coast.

* When using tide tables note the tidal height as well and high and low tide times.

* If you are using tide prediction tools, safety is important and to this end, the origin of the data is vital.

HOW TO: Open water breathing patterns

The variety and utility of different breathing patterns for open water swimming is a subject of different concerns to pool swimming, as with so much of our side of the swimming sport. I once read an US coach who said about breathing patterns; “if they gave medals for bilateral breathing, I’d coach bilateral breathing“. I thought it was a great and illustrative quotation of what are often the differing concerns we have. Bilateral breathing is a regular subject for discussion amongst open water swimmers, usually between those who do, those who can, and those who don’t or can’t.

Let’s look at the common breathing patterns and their advantages and disadvantages.

Breathing every arm stroke. This is often called Head-Up freestyle or Tarzan stroke. This is generally a beginner’s stroke where the person is unable to swim without putting their face in the water to exhale. It is actually much more tiring than regular front crawl and can stress the arms, shoulders, necks and lower back. However, it is also a pattern that more experienced swimmers should be able to use as it can be useful in circumstances such as rescues of other swimmers, allowing fairly constant eye-contact, or where a swimmer is swimming into land over or through rocks or obstacles and visibility is most important. More experienced swimmers should ensure they can still do this for short distances. Inexperienced swimmers who only use this pattern should work with a stroke coach to develop proper front crawl

Breathing every second arm stroke (once every full arm cycle): Most experienced swimmers will have this in their repertoire and use it when they are swimming faster. However it can also be used at lower speed and for some swimmers this is their preferred breathing pattern. Its disadvantage can be if the swimmer is unable to maintain this pattern on either side. And with all single-sided breathing patterns the swimmer will have more difficulty keeping a straight line. Professional marathon swimmer Mallory Mead, coached by English Channel two-way Soloist Anne Cleveland recently pointed out on the forum that it is due to swimmers having a longer (delayed) stroke on their breathing side. Other concerns include possible compromise of breathing options in rough water (you may not want or be able to breathe into a sideways wind with spray or chop). Navigation and communication can similarly be difficult. Stroke imbalance can be exaggerated and lead to shoulder injury for the less experienced or those using it for very long swims. And finally single-sided breathing can allow a blind spot in races of which competitors can take advantage. 

Breathing every third (or fifth) arm stroke: Usually called bilateral breathing. There are significant advantages to bilateral breathing for open water swimming:

  1. It’s easier to swim in a straight line as stroke and breathing imbalances are evened out. 
  2. Navigation is easier if the swimmer can see on both sides.
  3. Communication with kayaks and boat crew can be easier.
  4. The swimmer’s options for positioning in rough water are increased.
  5. Swimmers can more easily see attempted passing moves in races.

If the swimmer can retain this pattern during maximum speed it doesn’t have any real disadvantages. (I can’t myself, and must switch to 2-stroke).

Breathing on fourth stroke: Like breathing every second stroke, this is single-sided breathing with the same advantages and problems, though swimmers who are more comfortable on a fourth-stroke pattern will usually be very smooth and more efficient swimmers. Bilateral breathing offers an open water swimmer more flexibility that in rough water and bad weather this can be significant. However I have seen and know very fast and excellent swimmers, faster and better than me, who can only breathe on a single side and it has not been a huge problem for them. I’ve seen English Channel swimmers who were forced to swim on the rougher windward side of the boat because that was the only side on which they could comfortably breathe for long periods, some were successful, some not.

All of the above are regular breathing patterns. However a swimmer can also use an:

Irregular breathing pattern. Is a bit more difficult to quantify as it in personal and well, irregular. It might be a combination such as 3,3,3,2,2,3. Another could be 2,2,2,3,2,2,2. I know myself that when in a steady bilateral 3-stroke cycle, I will occasionally slip in a breath on a 2-stroke for that little extra oxygen. This can occur subconsciously as the swimmer wants a little extra breath, a better view, adjusting to conditions or is just more comfortable doing this. I seem to have developed the bad habit of sneaking an extra breath before a tumble-turn in the pool, which has filtered back to the sea. An irregular pattern may allow the swimmer the advantages of bilateral breathing combined with at least some of the speed advantage of single-side breathing. It may also allow the swimmer to partly ease built-up tension in the neck and opposing shoulder. As Mallory Mead pointed out, being able to breathe on both sides is important, being able to breathe bilaterally is not, a subtle but important distinction.

How do you train your breathing pattern?

To change an embedded breathing habit is very difficult if at all possible to do so completely. However it will benefit the swimmer to be able to adjust it for periods. The usual way to train breathing patterns is through hypoxic sets, often called lungbusters by swimmers. The simplest is doing underwater lengths (aka dynamic apnea , on a fixed time, increasing the number of repetition and/or distance as the swimmer improves, which allow the swimmer to develop better breath control. Thee other common way is to swim sets with increasing number of strokes between breaths;

Swim consecutive lengths breathing ever, 3, 5, 7, 5, 9, 3 strokes and repeat for 500 metres. Or swim 400 metres breathing every 4 strokes on your bad side, followed by 400 metres breathing on your good side (if you are a 3 strokes per breath person for example).

HowTo: Progressive Overload Training for endurance athletes

Beginning or intermediate swimmers considering a long or marathon swim nearly always start with two area of concern: Worrying about their capacity to endure cold water, and asking what training is required.

I’ve covered cold water extensively, probably more so than elsewhere, and will continue to so do as long as I find things to write about it. I’ve got to run out at some point, right?

But I have been a bit wary about covering training, because there are people out there who can cover it better from a theoretical and coaching point of view, and because, though I haven’t mentioned it in a while, those who train under Coach Eilís agree to keep the program to ourselves (apart from bitching about it to family, friends,  the others in the same group, the Postman, distant relatives, those unfortunate enough to share dressing rooms and beaches, etc).

Swimmers who train exclusively and competitively in the pool usually use a periodization system, the training year is broken down in macro and meso-cycles, and even micro-cycles (for example a season, a month, a week).

For distance open water swimming a Progressive Overload approach seems to work well. 

Progressive Overload is the gradual increase of muscle resistance or stress over time to stimulate muscle adaptation more effectively. It is combined with a predetermined regular reduced stress period.

Lactic production, lactic threshold and lactic tolerance are all improved while still allowing for essential recovery and reducing the chances of over-training or injury.

So how does Progressive Overload Training (POT) work?


It’s quite straightforward:

  • The cycle is usually be three or six weeks long, (four or five are most common).
  • The athlete (swimmer or runner or cyclist) increases the weekly training load by the recommended amount. In swimming volume this is about five percent per week for swimmers, for three weeks (assuming a four-week cycle).
  • On the fourth week, the step-back week, the athlete drops back to the amount of the second week.
  • The next cycle of four weeks starts from the second or thereabouts volume of the previous cycle.
  • The sequence reads as; 1,2,3,4…2,3,4,5…3,4,5,6…6,7,8,9…etc

Each cycle therefore increases on the previous with the final week being easier to recuperate. The step-back final week can be the same as the second or first week, but the next cycle always starts at a higher level than the previous cycle started. 

For example, Week one is 10,000 metres, week 2 is 11,000 metres, week three is 12,000 metres. Week four returns to 10,000 metres. Week five then starts at 11,000 metres.

A key feature that can be missed is in the question of how you increase the muscle stress. For endurance swimmers that typically involves increasing weekly swim mileage. Here’s a reminder again that you shouldn’t be increasing mileage by more than five percent per week to avoid injury. Another key feature of POT

There are some points to note about Progressive Overload Training.

  • The stress increase can be of volume (total distance), intensity (increased speed or reduced rest intervals), frequency (number of training sessions) or time.
  • Adaptation results aren’t linear. Though you are using a linear system for training the product is less likely to be linear, as the body responds non-linearly, more simply in bursts or waves and sometimes you even go backward.
  • A feature of POT is reduced injury risk.
  • Results are more obvious at the beginning or for beginners. The more you do it the less likely you are to notice any significant gains (other than fitness).
  • Progressive Overload assumes you have good or at least consistent technique to begin with.

This isn’t by any means a definitive instruction on How or What training plan you should be using. That’s up to you and/or your coach. But Progressive Overload is a training plan with widespread recognition and scientific validity that may be of use for you.