Category Archives: Pool

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.

Checking my Stroke Rate during a swim (including poll)

We’ve spoken before about the importance of stroke rate in open water swimming, especially in cold water to maintain body temperature through thermogenesis and to help in rough water, where a slower stroke rate can be overwhelmed.

It’s also the case that realising that stroke rate was important was something that didn’t happen immediately for me, and though I had been swimming open water for four years, the first time I became aware of it was during my participation in a two-way English channel relay in 2008. Even then I only realised because the Official Observer was checking stroke rates. (As an aside, we had two Official Observer’s, being a two-way. For one of them it was her first Channel trip in choppy water and she was utterly debilitated for the entire twenty-four hours, leaving the other to carry out all Observing duty).

My solo English Channel reports shows I was 70 strokes per minute., +/- , with most right on 70. Consistent. I sometimes check my rate, but usually only after about an hour. So I decided to do a three-hour swim for a more comprehensive check as those occasional observations had led me to believe it may have changed this year, especially as two recent two-hour swims hadn’t gone well and I needed to regain a bit of confidence.

The conditions for the day were cloudy, with very light Force Two breeze, mixed water surface and swim direction, both against and with the small swell, and water temperature of 14.5 Celsius. Good conditions for requiring a consistent stroke. The route was the Guillamene to the Beach to 300 metres outside Newtown Head. I had one feed at two hours at the Guillamene, then swim to under Doneraile Head and back to the Guillamene.  I planned to check stroke approximately every 30 minutes.

Billy Kehoe, President of the Newtown & Guillamene Swimming club.
Billy Kehoe, President of the Newtown & Guillamene Swimming club.

Stroke rate at 10 mins: 74. I waited until I’d settled down before the first check.

At 30 mins: Just after turning back into waves from Tramore beach; 72

At 60 mins: Passing Comolees, in almost glassy water for next fifteen minutes; 72

At 85 mins: Three hundred metres past Newtown head, just before turning back; 72. Swell had risen from half a metre to two metres and gotten choppy also.

At 90 mins: Swimming back with 2 metre swell behind; 72

At 115 mins: Just before feed; 72

At 130 mins: 10 mins after feed, swell dropping while swimming across waves to out int he bay; 74

At 150: Doneraile Head, heading back out, one metre choppy; 74

At 180: Swimming across swell to Guillamene, just before end of swim; 76. I nearly always up my rate at the end of a swim.

Newtown head from the sea
Newtown Head from the sea

So this did seem to confirm my suspicion that my stroke rate has shifted up by two strokes per minute. A point that may arise is my observational bias or confidence in the readings, but I before each measurement (full 60 second count on my watch, rather than ten second count multiplied by six) I would become more aware of my stroke, and make sure I wasn’t adjusting tempo.

The relevant question would be as to why it has shifted upwards.

Seeing my stroke on video during the SwimSmooth clinic back in February was a shocking. I hadn’t seen any video of myself in a couple of years, and there are speed and technique downsides to swimming by yourself most of the time. My stroke looked terrible. For the next two weeks I reintroduced a lot of technique work and after that I went back to basic principles and make sure to that one day most weeks is mostly technique and drill work. There has been an improvement.

When having my stroke filmed I asked Paul Newsome to shoot both my cruising stroke and my faster stroke. My cruising or open water stroke is a bilateral-breathing stroke and it was fine. But the most significant discovery was just how much technique I was sacrificing in the faster stroke for not a lot of time benefit. A crossover had crept into my left arm, and I was losing a lot of pull in my catch and pull phase on both arms. I’d also developed a slight thumb-first entry on my right hand. And all this was only gaining me maybe one to two seconds per one hundred metres. All surprising and disheartening developments when I didn’t think I exhibited any of these problems. I made a common swimmer’s mistake of being sure I was in tune with my stroke.

So I began working on all these problems with various drills, the toolbox of all swimmers. I might go over the drills I have been using just for general interest in a follow-up post. Along with drills I have stayed in the pool this summer, whereas in 2010 to 2012 I abandoned it for almost four months for open water, (not just for this reason). This has led to me retaining a higher anaerobic capability or threshold capacity.

Finally, within my pool work I have reduced the number of repeat 100s, so common to distance swimmers, and I am instead doing more repeat 200s and 400s (well, every distance swimmer loves 400s anyway, so that’s no sacrifice). And I’ve been doing more timed 1000′s. Not so much 1500s. All this has led to a (currently) improved stroke. The biggest change has been that I am retaining my bilateral stroke while swimming closer to my threshold.

Following all this, I need to reiterate that 70 or 72 strokes per minute is my rate. It’s not a target. We all have our own rate and you should seek to establish that rate and determine from there whether it is your normal rate, or whether you may wish to increase it. It’s even possible that if your are just wind-milling your arms with a poor stroke, if you address stroke issue you may actually even decrease your rate.

What’s your stroke rate?

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)

Should slow swimmers have the right of way in lane swimming? Really?

A long time ago I wrote a couple of posts about lane swimming and lane etiquette. They regularly pick up ongoing viewers and have been read and maybe even used by a share of swimmers.

Furious BobRecently Simon Griffiths, editor of H2Open magazine, dropped the links into H2Open’s weekly email newsletter. He shortly received a Mr Angry from Tunbridge Wells type response. From Bob. Bob is furious. We know he’s furious because he says so right at the start. Bob is furious at H2Open. Bob is furious at me. Bob is even furious at you by default. Furious Bob.

H2Open was attacked for not catering for ordinary or slow swimmers just because it linked my posts. It should be noted, no comments were left here on my blog where the articles appear.

Anyway, Furious Bob’s letter is worth reading with the insults before I get to my response. There’s no option for me to comment over there by the way.

Furious Bob fails dramatically on a few points.

At no point have I ever claimed to be a fast swimmer. Regular and even irregular readers will know I describe myself as an average swimmer. With training, and doing it as a time trial, I can do 1k in 14:30 to 15:00 minutes, on the right day. I’ve hit 3k in 45 minutes and never hit 4k in an hour (but I got close). Hardly ocean-shattering performance. Respectable. I’m not a teenager and I’ve put in my miles and my years to even get as far as I have. What performance or ability I have comes, like all swimmers, at the cost of training and time. I’m not stopping Bob or others doing the same. In fact, as you will see, Furious Bob would surely improve if he embraced some of the most common precepts of swimming.

It’s useful here to understand both my speed and Furious Bob’s for context: A world class distance swimmer like Chris Bryan or Trent Grimsey swims five thousand metres per hour. I swim about three thousand six hundred. Furious Bob swims two kilometres per hour. The point isn’t to embarrass Furious Bob but to contextualise this properly before progressing. In swimming there is always someone better than us. Always.

Since he makes that invalid assumption about my speed, he implies that I’m advocating that everyone moves out of the way for me. But I apply those rules to myself also. As every experienced swimmer does.

I get out of the way for faster swimmers.

I/we can swim comfortably with swimmers of all speeds who understand basic lane etiquette. Furious Bob equates driving a car to lane swimming, and says they are virtually identical. Of course it’s a false assertion. Driving a car is a civil matter bounded by legal rules and laws, optimised for the efficient and safe running of everyone doing so in what is a potentially lethal environment. Swimming though, is a sport.

A better analogy is to compare swimming therefore to other sports.  If you are playing golf, and someone joins you who is using a baseball bat instead of golf clubs, Furious Bob’s analogy would be that you allow them to play with you. Or maybe a baseball bat is too extreme. Maybe they just have a putting club/thing (whatever they’re called, I don’t play golf!). But hey, that’s ok, we’ll all just use our putting club. And maybe you’d do that. Most wouldn’t. You can substitute almost any sport as more relevant analogy than Furious Bob’s assertion that lane swimming is like driving a car.

The fact is that most people try to recognise a shared set of sporting rules for every sport. It doesn’t mean you agree with them all, but you stick to them. I didn’t invent lane swimming etiquette, nor a single one of the guidelines, I just wrote them down that way (as others have done, and others will do). (In fact, I instigated a discussion of those etiquette guidelines on a swim forum with about 5,000 members before writing the article. Swimmers of all levels agreed).

Eetiquette cartoonFurious Bob is furious because he want to play with Furious Bob’s Special House Rules. In Furious Bob’s Special House Rules, you check over your shoulder and look behind you five metres from the end of the pool! Then you make an immediate assessment of relative speeds and vectors, during this instant, before deciding on the next action. Furious Bob considers this a reasonable request! Less ludicrous than allowing a faster swimmer to pass by at a turn!  

Do you think Furious Bob has done a lot of lane swimming based on this? Or in fact, any? The problems with this are so obvious that I can’t understand how anyone with any swimming experience would think them more workable than simple universal lane etiquette.

Etiquette that has been written about by Mauritio Emily, Evan and some well-known others. By breaking away from this etiquette, which works when everyone adheres to it, Furious Bob is essentially saying that instead the slower swimmers get to dictate how swimming session should be organised. lane-racing postcard Let me give an example. I’ve written about the long pool sessions that take place in Source Pool in Cork, which started the year I was training for the Channel with the rest of The Magnificent Seven. We would also be joined by other local distance and actually fast swimmers such as Eddie Irwin, Ned Dennison, Carol Cashell, etc as well as a range of other speeds and abilities. Source keeps two lanes open at all times, a fast and slow lane. These 10k to 20k sessions still occur if someone organises one.  The group ranges from 3k per hour to 4k+ per hour and we all swim in the fast lane. Carol, Eddie, Liam or Ned lead out so we are not in their way. We try to hang on to each other in descending speed order. Then Furious Bob joins. We never stop swimmers like Furious Bob joining, we just continue on, after all he must be able to assess speed from simply watching us for a few seconds, right? Furious Bob will soon have two to six swimmers completely disrupted. Everyone will be looking behind them right at the point where other swimmers are breaking out from a turn.

What effect do you think “simply looking behind you” will have in a multiple swimmers situation? Especially on everyone holding a straight line? Have you ever “simply looked behind you“?  Some swimmers will have to decide which side they are turning on. Chaos. Furious Bob however will assuredly be happy. Until he is not, because then he’ll likely come up with another of Furious Bob’s Special House Rules for when his first ones don’t work. Why should that one swimmer have the power to dictate everyone else’s swim? Which is exactly what Furious Bob wants; the power to disrupt everyone else even if it’s not an overt statement or even conscious desire.

My title is editorialised, Furious Bob isn’t directly calling for slow swimmers to have the right of way. But that’s the consequence of his proposals. There’s a hint of his disdain for swimmers when Furious Bob says that “fast swimmers can cause major problems in lanes if they are swimming “sets” because every time they stop, they break the pattern. In other words, in Furious Bob’s view, not swimming up and down at two kilometres per hour is somehow wrong. Furious Bob doesn’t seem to know that all swimmers should be swimming intervals. He did say he was a swimmer, right? Furious Bob (he’s like an avatar of the swimmers who can’t understand all this) says that for a slower swimmer to have to pull over for the faster swimmer is sheer arrogance, conceit, ignorance and utter selfishness by those of us who who try to communicate correct lane etiquette.

Furious Bob says that slower swimmers are just as entitled to their workout. No-one has ever said otherwise. (Once again I’d point you to the fact that is a speed-agnostic site. I write for swimmer’s of all abilities, except those really fast swimmers!). Furious Bob seems to entirely miss the logical point that one slower swimmer has a far more negative effect by disrupting multiple faster swimmers, than visa versa. In fact on the day that I write this, to use Furious Bob’s own driving analogy, United Kingdom police have announced the introduction of penalties (point and fines) … for drivers going too slow on motorways

Furious Bob also mentions driving on a single track road, (what we call a Primary or Secondary road in Ireland). If I’m driving slowly on one of those (I’m a slow driver funnily enough), what I actually do is try to move over the side just so those faster vehicles can pass. I don’t want to disrupt others because I drive slowly. I suspect Furious Bob’s driving awareness and swimming awareness and sense of entitlement are on a par. I don’t have to pull over, but then I never said a slower swimmer has to “pull over”, only that they let faster swimmers by on the turn. 

As I said, I reject the analogy even if it does actually suit me better than it does Furious Bob.

Faster swimmers generally don’t get into lanes of slow granny-stroke swimmers. I certainly don’t. But one person in lane tootling up and down? Sure. One thing is not the same as the other. But even if a swimmer was to do this? Lane etiquette still applies.

Swimmers regardless of speed who understand this etiquette aren’t making up their own rules. They are implementing rules developed and understood by competent swimmers around the world. It’s a global and communal and indeed often unspoken set of guidelines, which is why I and others I wrote them down in the hope that they would help some people.

I’d respectfully suggest that some more time swimming with a swimming or Master’s group would help Furious Bob’s (and of course other’s) appreciate of why and how lane swimming etiquette works.

All of this is of course illustrative of different mindsets. I get the pool to train and since there is no local Master’s club training happens during public lane swimming. The original online discussion of and subsequent posting of those guidelines, lead to pretty universal agreement from swimmers.

call these characters the Who the f*ck do you think you are Brigade. Because when you try to either help them out with stroke or training in a polite unobtrusive way, or point out that maybe not turning just in front of a faster swimmer would help both of you, that’s sometimes a response.

(I’d also point out, that I’ve never once had that response from a woman. and thanks to the Who the f*ck do you think you are Brigade, I long ago stopped offering help to anyone). You have got to for it. Furious Bob came to this blog, then decided on his Who the f*ck do you think you are Brigade response.

I’ve previously said that lane swimming could be condensed to one golden rule; that you should be aware of what’s going around you. If you are an experienced swimmer, you’ll have noticed how the Furious Bob’s seem to dismiss this simple fact. We’ve all been stuck behind the person who is doing head-up granny-stroke, and is pretending to be utterly oblivious to you trying to turn and avoid them, yet they are sometimes actively trying to impede you.

Every pool has a Furious Bob. Every swimmer has encountered someone similar. We bite our lips, try to swim around them, and get on with our own stuff. After-all they’ll usually be gone in a few minutes. Furious Bob, should you be in the fast lane? Furious Bob, did you miss the last point on this list?:

  • You think that when someone faster than you passes you, they’re being rude.

Finally, I’d like to say thanks and no hard feelings to Furious Bob, he gave me something to write about. I find it an strange viewpoint, one I don’t understand. I might change my name for the Who the f*ck do you think you are Brigade to The Furious Bobs.

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

More coming in Part 2 in a few days.


Over the past few years, the first proper long pool swim of the winter usually turns out to be tougher than expected, and almost always with some discovery or other, though I’ve long been of the opinion that every single long swim teaches you something, even if that is only a re-affirmation of the difficulty, or your own strengths and weaknesses.

I did a 5+ hour swim over the weekend in the Watershed in Kilkenny, my favourite pool (for the size, lane control, low-chlorine and low temperature and not least the professionalism of its staff and management).


On last year’s first (and a couple of subsequent) long swim I discovered a muscle issue, never previously present, that only manifested once I was swimming longer than three hours. That took about four or five massage sessions to fix and it has returned this autumn when I’m walking and standing around.  So for the part week I’ve been spending ten minutes a day lying on a tennis ball to get at it. And that seemed to work because it never flared up during the session nor required a painkiller to alleviate like last year. Variable. Lesson learnt.

Alan Clack shipped a rather surprising amount of feedstuffs over for his English Channel;s wim. Some was used, some was left in Varne Ridge for this year’s Malaysian swimmers. And some remained in my house , amongst which is a tub of Maxim Electrolyte (not Maxim CarboLoader). I thought I’d give it a go for the long pool session, that’s the best place to do a new feed test. It is a Lemon and Lime flavour, which I usually like in most things, with only 100 Calories per 750ml. I took three pre-mixed bottles and I really didn’t like the taste. I finished two bottles and couldn’t face the third swapping back to water. At three and a half hours, I started to feel nauseous and it continued until the end, and during the second half of the session, I’d been borderline cramping a few times. (You swimmers will know the feeling of feeling those muscles in your feet or calves just about to cramp, but not quite). I can’t be sure the nausea and the Maxim Electrolyte are related but I think that’s the end of the road with maxim Electrolyte and I, and I’ll revert to Zyn zero-carb electrolyte. Variable. Potential lesson learned.

When you are testing a simple system for improvement or decline, the easiest way is to change one parameter at a time. For complex systems this may not be possible, as the variable parameters may be interacting with each other non-linearly. So for measurable complex systems mathematical models like Four-Corner Testing have been devised. But a human has too many analogue variables even for this. You can’t be certain what the cause of most things is beyond reasonable doubt. Correlation does not equal causation, as it is said.

Three weeks ago I changed my diet for a while for the start of winter weight drop. I removed all gluten and starch (essentially eliminating grains and potatoes) and confectionery and dropped almost four kilos in that time. So I’ve been on a lighter G.I. diet going into the swim, except for a bowl of porridge in the morning. Could the diet also have been contributory to the nausea with the Maxim Electrolyte? Variable. Unknown.

What I did discover, is that my usual slump between three and four hours as I transitioned to ketosis never arose. I drank half a bottle of Hammer Carbo Pro, the very last of Alan’s Hammer from 2011 distance Camp. And the two 650 ml bottles of Maxim Electrolyte, for a total of about 350 calories. And… my swim times seemed to stay ok. Though to be completely honest I was never pushing myself, and took it easy in the first hour. Actual weight loss, first time I ever measured it pre- and post a pool swim was 600 grams. That lack of a perceived slump though, that’s interesting. There has previously been discussion of low-carbohydrate diet on While the science was interesting, my problem with it is trying to use where the water is always cold and bioprene is required. I can drop some weight during winter training  but should I continue the dietary change I would lose all the requisite fat that I need to protect me from cold, as acclimatization by itself is not sufficient. Variable. Unknown.

So another long pool swim, more things to ponder, maybe even something learnt.

Lane direction signs

Swimming through it – the value of long swims – addendum

Something was niggling at the back of my mind last week when I wrote the article on  the utility of doing longs swims, and what I’ve learned from them. I felt I’d forgotten something but couldn’t place it.

A question this week prompted me exactly what it was. Amongst the reasons for doing long swims is to get used to knowing how you feel after said long swims, and to understand and improve your recovery process.

After I wrote the article I happened to be checking something else in my swim diary/log, (which now has about five years of detail) and I noticed that almost exactly two years previously on the same weekend, 30th April, 2010, the Magnificent Seven did our toughest ever training session. It was to be a 30k in the pool followed by a trip to the sea for a swim. We completed about 28 kilometres in nine hours (including breaks) before The Boss left us off the hook, finishing strongly with 400 I.M. and at least as I recall, Liam, Eddie and myself ending with butterfly. My training dairy notes show I felt “strong and good”. And then we all decamped to Liam’s House at Ballycroneen for a sea swim taking about an hour to get dressed and get there.


For the Aspirants complaining of the cold this year … the water that day in 2010 was 7.5°  Celsius with onshore wind and overhead waves, and we’d come from the warm pool in Source. We changed in Liam’s garage and walked down wearing coats and I was quickly in the water, no point hanging around, having looked carefully at the breakers and headed straight for a Wave Channel I could see at the west end of the short beach. Eilís was watching on the beach, unusual for her to go near the coast.

I swam through the inside channel gap and duck-dived the outside waves and very quickly I was out back, beyond the breaking waves. By this stage I realised no-one had followed me. I played around body-surfing in the waves for a few minutes and headed back in. A couple of the guys were in shallow water, the rest were out, and everyone was shouting or giving out to me, all having thought I’d been lost at sea!

Ever since, Eilís has been suffering a type of cognitive dissonance, on the one hand knowing I understand waves and tides very well and  on the other, thinking I can’t be trusted around the water. Attempts to explain were ignored; that this was completely normal for my usual training since after all I had no-one to train with, that I made a point of understanding what I doing, and that getting through waves is easy if you understand the principles and that I had been a surfer for years, all were wasted. And the fact that there were six other extremely strong and experienced swimmers present that day was also lost on her. Ever since it’s been the day Donal could have drowned. :-)

But I digress, as usual.

The cold swim that day helped to loosen tight muscles but recovery from the long swim was slow over the next week. I wrote sometime back in 2010 that local Sandycove English Channel Soloist Danny Coholane had identified that every hour training over eight hours added another week to recovery, and we were all agreed on this (having previously swum six, seven and eight-hour training swims).

Swims of five to seven hours took about five days to a week to fully recover. The two training swims of eight hours that year took almost two weeks to recover.

So what do I mean by recovery? As I described in an email during the period there’s a feeling of having little energy or ooomph when you are swimming. Times drop away, swims become much more physically and mentally challenging, you feel like you have nothing in the tank. It varies of course for everyone, but I generally feel okay for a couple of days afterwards and the slump comes for or five days after the swim.

One thing I noticed this year is that extending the time above six hours to eight hours was no longer accompanied by an extra week increase in recovery, the slump lasted about the same time.

So feeling this slump is not the direct value of the long swims, but a side effect. The actual value is in knowing that this feeling is normal, and that you are also Training To Recover.  Too many people don’t seem to consider this aspect. Why go so far into your reserves for a Channel or other swim that you are done with swimming for months or up to a year afterwards?

Related articles

Swimming through it – the value of long pool sessions (

24 miles in 24 hours (

relentless lane-lines

Achievement unlocked: The Cube, 100 x 100 x 100

100 x 100 is probably the most famous of all distance swimming sessions. Metres of course, for my measurementally-challenged American friends. Systéme Internationale anyone?Ten fingers, ten toes, ten …. :-)

Anyway the elegant variation is 100 x 100 x 100, that is, one hundred metres, one hundred times, each time on one hundred seconds, i.e. starting each one hundred every one minute and forty seconds. So you finish before the one hundred seconds to get a quick rest.

100 x 100 x 100

Looks beautiful, doesn’t it? And intriguing if you haven’t done it. Elegant, like a great mathematical formula:


Recently Mark Robson, Evan Morrison and Steve Munatones have all discussed it.

I’d never done it. (Sharp intake of breath). Solo, that is, without someone to share the workload with. I have done it with others. I’d done 100 x 100 by myself (though not in two years). I’ve done 10 x 1500. It was in fact a bit of a bugbear for me. It’s not that big a deal doing it with others who are around the same pace as me, (Rob, Danny, Ciaran, Jen, Lisa etc).

No, it was that final 100 that bothered me, the one minute forty, repeating and repeating. The first time I read about it was my second year swimming, about five years ago. (Remember, I’m not at this swimming lark a long time). It seemed immense and, for me, impossible. Now, it wasn’t that I thought about it much. I moved on.

Over the past few years, when I start back pool training from the sea every autumn, I discover all the long sea swims have taken what speed I have away. I’m swimming repeat 100s usually on 1:45. Within a few weeks, as I feel the fitness return, I’ll start doing mixed 100s: 4 x100 on 1:45, 4 x100 on 1:40, 4 x 100 on 1:35, that type of thing.

Swim training 14

Then I’ll start doing 10x on 1:40 maybe once a week as part of a main set. The first few of times are a good personal speed and fitness test. It takes six to eight week before repeat 20x 100s on 1:40 feel ok. After that I look for the point where I might feel like cracking, where I am not making the interval. Last week I did 50 x 100s one day as main-set and it was grand. And some of you were talking about it. So I took it back out of its box and decided I’d do it on Week Three of my four-week training cycle, Week Three being the most difficult or longest week.

The whole thing was grand though if you were to use only one word to describe it would of course have to be relentless (I might use “relentless” next time I change the site tag line). Not without difficulties of course. After a very short 400m warmup, I easily cruised through the first thirty, without about eight or nine seconds interval. Then I noticed in the fourth set that my interval dropped slightly. I hit 50x though still holding a five second rest. At that point I had a four-minute toilet and drink stop and half a 650 ml bottle of Maxim. I didn’t want to run out of energy half way through hour three. I was drinking half a bottle of water every 10x also. The sixth 10x weren’t great, a bit too variable. I was aiming for 70x. If I could get to there, it would be downhill and beyond the maximum number of 100s on 100 previously done.

By 70x the intervals were down to three seconds. That is not a sustainable interval if you have to work very hard to make it, but I was okay and not having to kill it to make the interval.

Some of the time loss was losing concentration, when you start to make more stroke errors, in my case these tend to be dropping my elbows, and dropping my left hand instead of holding the extension prior to the catch, and moving my head too much out of breakout.

The eight set was a bit of mix, I made everything but the times wobbled up and down a bit in the first half, but came good before the end.The ninth set brought the worry of cramps at the bottom of my calves from all the tumble-turn push-offs with not a lot of rest. I swam one hundred with toes clenched, slowing me down, to offset incipient cramp, and stopped for a quick drink on another for the same reason. At 90x I knew there’s be no trouble, I could keep powering on, intervals had returned to 5 seconds. Then on the ninety sixth, I started to feel again that I was going to cramp, but made it with one second to spare as a consequence. On 97, someone stepped into the end of the lane, I had to swerve, and when I tumble-turned he was still there and I had to go deep and wobbly. One second left again. Of course I blasted hard through the final 100. 200 metres of backstroke and all done.

Felt absolutely fine. Quick way to a 10k. Not one you want to do a lot though. Good fitness test also. I did however feel more tired the day after.

Now it should be very clear to swimmers that at I am not fast. The top world FINA swimmers are doing 10k in just over two hours, not in three hours. But I was delighted, it was a goal I hadn’t previously reached, though in fairness, I also hadn’t seriously attempted it, and it was less than I imagined it to be, the challenge being as always, mental, keeping the concentration to hold the stroke.

Amazing for me to think that for Jen Schumacher, Evan and others, this is probably an easy interval for them as it is for Ned, Owen, etc. Those guys are amazing. A 1:20 repeat is an aerobic set for Chloe Sutton …

Edit: I forgot to mention again, my primary purpose in writing up something like this, is to demystify them and take the ego out of it.

Review: Biofreeze Gel

Hurley and sliotar

I’ve mentioned before that regular icing is a great way to address the knots and aches that build up in a swimmer’s body when they are doing regular hard training. For myself these start to occur once I start to regularly go to 25,000 metres a week and over.

I’ve also mentioned the tennis ball and tights method, which I occasionally find invaluable for working on inaccessible knots in my back. Someone me told a lacrosse ball works even better, but lacrosse isn’t played Ireland and an Irish hurling ball (sliotar) with its raised ridges is hardly useful. :-)

As swimmers also know the third and most essential step of massage is essential for ongoing maintenance of muscles and to avoid injury. When I started regular massages some years back, my masseuse, Vinny Power, occasionally applied Biofreeze gel at the end of a massage, usually where a particular difficulty arose in my deltoids or neck and I was still sore.

In Ireland you grew up with Deep Heat wintergreen lotion, applied for every ache and the lingering and overpowering smell of it was a giveaway for field athletes and seemingly beloved of older folks.

But we now know that cold is far better for muscular aches by reducing inflammation and may help reduce lactic acid.

Biofreeze is a mix of volatiles that when applied evaporate quickly and the area gets cold.

It works very well for aching arms after a long swim.

It need to be used with a small amount of care. If used for more than about five or six days continuously you might develop a rash, but the products warns against continued use. It is also useful if you don’t want to be applying direct ice late at night in mid-winter! I find the cold sensation lasts for about twenty minutes from a small amount.

I’ve also found that if applied directly after a pool swim, the residual chlorine on the skin, even after a shower, makes the cold sensation even more intense and possibly very unpleasant for some people. Eddie Irwin, Sandycove swimmer and English Channel and Manhattan soloist, and also a pharmacist, said it shouldn’t be used DURING a swim, because it will cause the muscles to tighten too much.

It’s not cheap in Ireland if you buy from a Pharmacy or Supermarket, where it is an off-the-shelf product and the containers are very small.

However I have found the larger 16oz pump container, about half a litre, for better value in eBay, and the last time I ran out, I bought directly from Vinny since he gets it at trade prices so I recommend pursuing this idea with your physio/masseuse. A 16 oz container will probably last years.


Related Articles:

Magic Cups


Asthma and marathon swimming – Part 1

This post and the subsequent Part Two post should not be construed as medical advice.

This is another example of how I deal with something related to swimming, in which I have made mistakes and learned and adapted and which may be instructive or useful as advice or warning. Throughout the two articles I will reference my G.P. (M.D.) who has a key part in the discussion.

You know the disclaimer of “seek medical advice” and how it can be annoying? It’s still valid, but at least you have some context here. It is also probable that what I write here, relating to my current stable situation is possible or even likely to change in the future, and that I will have to adapt again.

I have asthma. Like quite a lot of swimmers.

In my case the two are not causally linked, because I developed it as Adult-Onset asthma, during my competitive cycling years. There is a feeling amongst cyclists, at least in Ireland, that those two sports are also linked, possibly due to what seems to be a high rate of chest infections developed by cyclists, which we, regardless of any scientific evidence put down to constant exposure to cold and damp conditions, along with crud and literally crap thrown up off the roads. It’s completely common for cyclists here to cycle wet roads with cow dung spraying up from cars and trucks.

Asthma tends to divide into childhood and adult-onset. Childhood asthma often clears in the late teenage years whereas adult-onset asthma rarely clears. Asthma is a shut-down of the bronchials in the lungs, usually due to mucus, stopping your ability to inhale sufficient oxygen.

It actually took a couple of years to diagnose as asthma, during which time I suffered some really bad asthma attacks. Some attacks early on were so severe I was unable to climb a simple flight of stairs.  I discovered personal triggers in smoking, house dust, some chemicals. Nothing unusual. Other people react to animal hairs (I don’t, luckily given the three doglets and cat), pollen

(And as you can imagine, smoker’s claims they are now being discriminated against hold little validity for me).

Once I was diagnosed, I made a few decisions. I would try to control it via exercise. I would not take the daily steroid Preventer, due to a dislike of the idea of taking daily medication.

I had by them stopped competitive cycling and without racing I lost my interest in the long training hours. Within a year I was no longing cycling, so I took up running, which I also needed to address the damage done to my knees during my cycling years.

I would get a few bad asthma attacks a year, using my reliever and get through them. I would get a chest infection of two, which would clear and an asthma attack would follow.
Asthma attacks are pretty nasty. You never have enough air, you feel like you are slowly drowning, (and as swimmers that is a sensation we all think about, and is not an ideal description), and you would give anything for one clear lungful of air. I used to have to try to sleep sitting up a few nights a year.

As I figured out triggers and reacted more quickly, things improved very gradually. Attacks became more rare and less severe.

By then I was swimming regularly. This whole process was over ten years since the first symptoms, through diagnosis. I didn’t think about a link between swimming and asthma. I was in the sea for months during the summer, mainly the pool during the winter.

In 2009 winter Channel training, I started to get more asthma attacks. They would manifest by a gradual feeling of wanting to clear my throat by coughing. This would usually not occur until a few thousand metres into a session and gradually get worse, until I could no longer swim. The Ventolin reliever had no effect and I used 100 to 200μg. The next day I might be fine or I might get another attack. This continued for about a month on and off and I was really getting worried, I couldn’t predict attacks and they continued to occur.

One thing I realised, about which I could do nothing, was that the previous summer I had swam much more in the pool and less in the sea, not taking my usual extended break from the pool.

I had finally started using the daily steroid Preventer (Becotide, 250μg of beclometasone dipropionate), for the first time ever. There was a slight but not sufficient improvement. By February, I was looking at not being able to train at all or attempt the Channel.

I was visiting my GP regularly.

I was worried about having developed Exercise Induced Asthma, from the constant pool and chlorine exposure, but my GP said this was highly unlikely as Exercise Induced Asthma usually occurred within the first 10 to 15 minutes of exercise. (My GP was very interested and supportive of my swimming by the way).

A typical inhaler, of Serevent (salmeterol)
Image via Wikipedia

After three or four visits, antibiotics and decongestants, we changed the Daily Preventer to Serevent, 25μg salmeterol, which is a beta-agonist like beclometasone, but as I understood it, combined a stronger steroid with a bronchial vaso-dilator, and the salmeterol lasting longer than beclometasone, and used for more chronic asthma It took about two weeks to take effect but it worked. At the same time I started using two puffs standard Ventolin (100μg salbutamol) about an hour before training.

The combined result was a success and normal training resumed. I was still on my training target, because any day that I could train, I made every effort to make up for the missing hours or metres, but it was a very, very tough six-week or so period.

Now that I’m back pool training, I find myself remembering this and trying (and so far regularly failing) to remember to take my reliever (now Salamol, still 100μg of salbutamol but CFC-free) before pool training.  In the next part I’ll write a bit more about the practical effects and control in my training and life.

Part Two.

HOW TO make your swimming togs / swimsuit last longer

Courtesy of another question. Though as Julie Galloway pointed out in her interview yesterday on Daily news of Open Water Source, we (Irish) call them togs not costume or swimsuit. And we never knew we were different!

This applies mainly to chlorine, which eats the nylon/lycra mix.

We’ve all been there. One day you are going to put on your togs when you realise the back of it has gone almost transparent, and you wonder just how long your arse has been practically hanging out.

I usually buy Speedo Endurance togs or any togs which are chlorine resistant. In a sale in Dover last spring, I picked up a couple of Slazenger togs really cheap. I didn’t realise they were very narrow on the waist and not comfortable to tie, but well, they were cheap. I’ve only wore each pair maybe 20 times, before they went that transparent way that you have to be careful not to wear. So, false economy I guess. (They didn’t say they were chlorine resistant either).

The simple ways to make togs last longer:

  • Purchase chlorine resistant ones.
  • Shower while still wearing them afterwards. This will get them well rinsed, and the soap will help.
  • Don’t wring them out, just squeeze them.

They won’t last forever but you should extend their lifetime by maybe a third to a half. Maximum lifetime for a pair for me is 18 months, usually a bit less.

Of course, togs for the sea last much long.

HOW TO: Lane swimming etiquette

Following last week’s rant, here’s a quick round up of lane swimming etiquette:

Lane direction signs

Rule 1: Never get in an occupied lane if another is empty.

Rule 2: Never get into an occupied land without letting the person/people already swimming know you are entering.Do this by dangling your legs into the water or standing to the side at the end of the lane when they are turning.

Rule 3: If there is only one other person in the lane, the lane can be split with each person taking half the lane. But you *must* explicitly agree this. Otherwise assume lane/circle swimming.

Rule 4: Once a third person joins, circle swimming must start. Make sure both people know you are joining.

Rule 5: Circle swimming is dictated by the fastest person present, not the slowest, biggest, or first in. Take note of the swimmer’s speeds before you enter. Direction is often pool specific. Check for direction signs or ask.

Rule 6: Tap feet to pass. The person whose feet are being tapped moves out of the way to the corner at the lane end. Do NOT speed up if you are being passed.

Rule 7: Move to the side of the lane end to allow faster people to pass. Allow them to turn at the centre of the lane wall. if there are more than one, allow all faster swimmers behind you to pass.

Rule 8: Do NOT turn or push off in front of faster swimmers. Faster swimmers should allow slower swimmers as much time as possible before starting.

Rule 9: Do NOT start swimming immediately behind another swimmer. They will not know you are there when they are turning. Injuries will result.

Rule 10: Swimmers resting at lane end should stay as far to the side of the lane as possible.

Rule 11: If the lane has a few swimmers doing long-axis strokes (front crawl, back stroke) do NOT do short axis strokes (Breastroke, fly)

Rule 12: Be polite. Communicate. Do your best to explain the etiquette. Remember most lifeguards don’t seem to know these. Most pools don’t have them posted.

Lane rage

Edit: given a renewed interest in this post (again), I realise this is a long list though, and impractical therefore.

Giving it some thought, I wondered what would be an effective but much shorter list of three essential rules? How about these three?

One: Never get into an occupied land without letting the person/people already swimming know you are entering. Do this by dangling your legs into the water or standing to the side at the end of the lane when they are turning. Never stand in the centre of a lane.

Two: Fastest person present has right of way. Note other swimmer’s speeds before you enter. Direction is usually pool AND lane specific.

Three: Do NOT start, turn or push off in front of faster swimmers. Faster swimmers should allow slower swimmers as much time as possible before starting. Don’t turn into oncoming swimmers.

But is even that brief enough?

Surely we can have a Golden Rule of lane swimming. I propose:

Be aware of what is going on around you.

Edit: clarified rules 2 and 3.