Category Archives: Training

Aspects of my training

Measuring life in metres

In the original Star Wars A New Hope movie Harrison Han Solo Ford famously said that the Millennium Falcon had “made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs“. I still remember how annoyed I was, because even as a kid I knew a parsec was a measure of distance, not of time. (No thanks, I don’t need any tortuous post-hoc technobabble explanations of why this may make sense).

I seem to be oscillating in and out of some kind of swimming burn-out for about a month now though it’s possibly just the annual end-of-summer slump.  I still love the sea, still get excited or interested in swimming a couple of hours somewhere new by myself, or looking forward to maybe one more long open water swim before the end of season.

But I hate the pool even more than normal, and have repeatedly found myself unable to swim a simple thousand metre warm up and when I can, I swim slower than I’ve swum in years. I’ve had shoulder pain worse than I’ve had in four years for a week and after eight consecutive years, I cannot find any reason to swim the Sandycove Island Challenge or justify the relatively high cost of entry, though it’s usually the mile distance highlight of the Irish swimming calendar. I even missed a Sandycove night swim that I’d suggested and a Ballycotton to Capel Island first time swim with Eddie Irwin, Carol Cashell, Finbarr Hedderman, and Liam Maher two days later, the first time I’ve ever missed one swim, let alone two, due to injury or illness (not that I haven’t swum while ill or injured).

A casual comment by another Channel swimmer led me back to my other magnum opus. Not this blog, but my training log. I’ve been logging all my swimming and related data into a spreadsheet since 2008. Each year I add something new, it’s got multiple sheets and fields and even some charts but at its most basic and original it’s a simple record of how far and how long I’ve swum.

I looked at the cumulative distance since 2008, and discovered that I was just a few tens of thousands of metres short of 8,000,000 metres. It was such a simple thing that I’d hadn’t thought to check.

  • 8,000,000 metres.
  • Eight million metres.
  • Eight thousand kilometres.
  • 800,000,000 centimetres.
  • Eight billion millimetres.
  • Four thousand nine hundred and seventy miles.
  • 8.0 × 1016 angstroms.
  • Fifty times around the diameter of the Death Star (apparently, I looked it up).

Since 2008, I’ve never swum less than one million metres per year. (Before 2008 I was using my old running notebook, long lost but I’d  be certain I swam another million in the three preceding years, as I recall swimming about half a million on 2007). Usually I swim 50,000 to 150,000 metres over target and going almost 500,000 over the mark in 2010. At over 850,000 metres so far this year, I’m over 100,000 ahead of the 2014 target (but dropping fast due to the current lack of swimming).

Yearly swimming metres totals chart 2008 to 2014By the end of the year, I’ll have swum the equivalent distance from County Kerry on Ireland’s south-west coast to San Francisco.

You think I’ve have something useful to say after all or about all these metres. Apparently not today. I guess this site will have to substitute as some evidence instead.

The longest time off I’ve has been after my Channel injuries in 2010 when I was (mostly) out of the water for about six weeks but I still wanted and managed to swim the Island Challenge with a barely functioning left shoulder.

So I can’t be overtrained, since I’ve been doing this for years and I’m well adapted. Some weeks later now, I’m finding it hard to motivate myself to swim much at all, except a few three or four kilometre easy sea swims a week.

Which brings me back to Han Solo’s Kessel Run. A long time ago, in a life very far away,  I objected because George Lucas incorrectly measured time using distance.

Does it make me the Han Solo of open water swimming if ironically,  I now find I can do the exact same thing?

I’m not sure I could even tell you why, if you were to ask.

Somehow, my life has become measured in metres.

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.

HOWTO: Discussing Zone Training

In HOWTO Write a basic training system, I said we would progress from the structure of a simple one hour or more training system to devising a more comprehensive swim training plan.

A long time ago I wrote a post on introducing interval training to swimming and another on heart rate zones, that one really only included the chart below with little further explanation.

To progress in this area, we need to talk about the different types of training. The Zone System in the chart mentioned above is one way of categorising training types.

There are four or five zones depending on your preference or how you categorise them. First below is the five zone system.

Heart rates and rest intervals increase with Zone number and set distances decrease.

Zone 1: Aerobic, sometimes called endurance or even recovery. This is where swimming can be maintained with available oxygen and only low levels of lactic acid will be produced with which the body can cope or dispose. To complicate this mess of terms, Zone 1 is further subdivided into three types, recovery, maintenance and stimulus. The different types are defined by heart rate below maximum heart rate, from 70 to 30 beats below maximum. For distance open water training, e.g. training for a first 3, 5 or 10 k swim. For simplicity it’s easier to divide aerobic into recovery (easy, 50 to 70 beats below maximum), and endurance, (30 to 50 below maximum). A majority of swimming is done in the endurance zone. Strictly however, recovery is the lowest rate of aerobic training, what an experienced swimmer would categorise as very easy, or easy, at 60% to 70% maximum heart rate. Rest intervals are short and set distances can be long.

Zone 2: Anaerobic Threshold. This is where lactic acid (lactate) accumulates more quickly than the body can dispose of it. Heart rate is higher, 20 to 30 beats below maximum.

Zone 3: High performance (or Critical Speed) Endurance. This can also be called heart-rate training. It’s usually marked by increasing effort through the set, not starting too high but increasing in speed and intensity. This is the origin of a typical descending set, where times reduce and speed increases through a set, like Paul Newsome’s Red Mist set of repeating 400s. Rest intervals are longer than anaerobic threshold, from 20 to 30 seconds with heart rates 10 to 20 beats below maximum.

Zone 4: Anaerobic. Also known as race pace training, and not to be confused with Zone 2. This is commonly known also as lactate training. For most open water swimmers, this training comprises longer distances and requires longer rests. You should realise that race pace is NOT the same as sprint. The body is learning to tolerate lactic acid, and also to delay its production.

Zone 5: Sprint. This is maximum speed training and can only be performed over very short distances with long rests to stop lactate building up otherwise it becomes Zone 4. Heart rate is maximum.

One thing that can easily be noticed is the lower the zone number, the longer will be the swim distance, and the shorter the rest interval (swim long, rest short is the maxim). Obviously sprints are short distance, and long distance must be sustainable.

Using heart rate to control exercise
Using heart rate to control exercise

An alternative to the five zone system is a four zone system. This is essentially the same and just uses easier to communicate names and is based more on RPE, which is the swimmer’s Rate of Perceived Effort. Some coaches will explicitly tell swimmers to swim a set at 75% or 85% or 90% RPE. 

I’ve found when explaining this, that it is important to explain that really easy swimming is about 65% of maximum heart rate. People new to exercise often think that really easy effort is more like 10% or 20%. If you use a casual ambling walk for comparison, that will still be 60 to 65% of maximum heart rate.

Your maximum heart rate drops with age, and a rough rule of thumb, (which can be justifiably criticised) is that 220 minus your age is your maximum heart rate. There are many individual variations to this.

Recovery Zone: 60% to 70%. Lowest heart rate training. This maximises fat burn and comprises long unbroken sets with short rest intervals. This is basic endurance and heart rate training. It is  also used to recover from racing, sprinting or higher level exertion.

Aerobic Zone: 70 to 80%. This zone is where much of your endurance and cardiovascular fitness comes from. Some fat is used for energy in this zone.

Anaerobic: 80% to 90%. Long distance swimmers will do a lot of training in this zone, which build up tolerance to lactic acid. However lactate buildup will eventually overwhelm the ability to perform further. Also, all energy is coming from the body’s ATP (glycogen) system and is therefore time limited.

VO² Max (Sprint): 90% to 100%. This area is for pure speed only and in only possible for a short time. The first few seconds of sprint are partly powered by creatine produced in the body, which only lasts for effort under less than 10 seconds.

In spring 2013, Evan Morrison and I collaborated on some training tips specifically for triathletes. Amongst his many excellent points, one that Evan made and noticeable in many pool lap swimmers, was that many people just swam continuously at one speed.

A rounded swimmer, or one training for an event, should be training in all different zones and at different speeds.

In the next part we’ll look at combining the different zones into a larger plan.

 Related articles

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?

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.

Illness and injury breaks – Do we ever really learn?

I did a 17k pool swim with Gábor at the end of April. It went fine but the next day I developed a head-cold. I doubt they were related as I’ve never been sick after a long pool swim previously and I’ve done quite a few over the past three years, but it was co-incidental, I think.

Inhalers_MG_3667-resized-resizedI’ve mentioned previously that I have asthma, which could be considered mild in that I have a generally good understanding and control of it and the triggers, and make sure to use a steroid preventer while pool training. I very rarely get a head-cold, maybe once a year. Not so mild however  should an asthma attack develop. Like many asthmatics (I hate that word, it leads people to make incorrect assumptions), a head-cold or ‘flu may lead to a bacterial chest infection, which always signals trouble for those with asthma. This inevitably means a drop in lung function and aerobic capacity, and therefore swimming capability. And I did indeed develop a chest infection within three days of the head-cold. A course of antibiotics swiftly followed, I recognise the symptoms by now and don’t hesitate. Swimming was out for over a week. But when I returned the first day, I felt fine. However I deteriorated again within a few days, my lungs feeling like they were full of broken glass.

The symptom for me while swimming is always first a light tickle in my throat, then a mild cough, which will increase in intensity and urgency as I swim further and longer, until I am coughing underwater and struggling to take in enough air to breathe. It’s always a losing battle so I’m better off to just stop. I almost never do this in time for some stupid reason.

The next two weeks were typified by feeling recovered, going to the pool and then deteriorating in the next day or two and then having to break again. it also led to a second course of antibiotics and oral steroids.

This isn’t to share my medical history but is just a long intro to the short lesson that like a lot of people used to training, and maybe especially swimmers, the thing I often struggle the most with, is taking a necessary break for illness or injury. Whereas at other times when I am actually healthy, I might not feel like training at all.

I have gotten used to both training hard and needing and taking weekly rest breaks. I think rest breaks are the most difficult thing for athletes to learn and taking breaks because of illness and injury, like on this occasion, are the second most difficult. (Overtraining is a whole other subject, and one that is too often invoked). I took my initial enforced break because I actually couldn’t swim. I had thought I got the timing right of returning but when I did return and that didn’t go well, that’s when I made the mistake trying to continue training. At that point, it was difficult to know how much more time to take on the second or subsequent break and consequently I probably prolonged my recovery. I know I lost at least 60,000 metres from my target over the course of those three and a half weeks, which is how long it took before I was sure I was recovered and could start swimming properly again.

And then when I could swim again, my conditioning felt like it had reverted to that of early winter. Not really because of the break, but more because of the deterioration in lung capacity. And therefore needing to repeat all the winter work required to get fit once again, not a pleasant prospect.

One of the reasons we struggle to take a break is because it’s tough to look at what training you’ve already completed and know that you are going to lose some or maybe even a lot of your gains. I don’t think I have any particular advice here, just that even with experience, getting the timing right can be difficult as illnesses can take individual recovery trajectories and it’s sometimes very difficult to estimate the time off and the recuperation necessary.

That’s the thing isn’t it? We all keep making mistakes, and we all keep learning.

Review: One Day Swim Clinic

In late Channel season 2011 I was in Varne Ridge to crew a solo. Present for that tide were a bunch of Channel Aspirants from Western Australia, advised by seven-times world open water champion Shelley Taylor-Smith. They had had a long wait with bad weather. One of the swimmers was UK-born but WA resident Paul Newsome, the coach behind the popular swimming website and we got to chat the day after his Solo, which had been in very challenging Force 5 conditions, (making him, like me, a member of the unofficial Force 5 Channel club).

swimsmooth swimtypesSwimSmooth takes the rational approach that there isn’t a single style, that in fact there are different ways of swimming, especially for new and intermediate swimmers, and that there are appropriate progression paths for those styles. It doesn’t try to squeeze everyone into the same (useless) mould. SwimSmooth sets out six initial styles but the coaches aren’t tied into insisting that everyone is one of the styles, as people can demonstrate aspects of different styles. SwimSmooth also specialises in open water swimming, realising that there are many other aspects of open water swimming outside just the stroke that affect swimmers. A well-known aspect of SwimSmooth is their use of technology, (driven mostly by Paul’s SwimSmooth partner, Channel crew and swimming coach, Adam Young). These include their famous Mr. Smooth animation (at which I’m sure thousands have stared for long periods), the integration of Paul’s Feel For the Water Blog, and the thorough use of video comparison technology for stroke analysis, that previously would only have been available to elite swimmers. Video analysis is probably the most powerful technique tool of all apart from having your own elite coach. SwimSmooth doesn’t engage in Trademarking of well-known swim drills as some others have done. Instead a small selection of appropriate drills are used to address each swimmer’s deficiencies, something many new swimmer’s have no idea how to approach.

Mr. Smooth
Mr. Smooth

Unlike Total Immersion, of which I’ve already written some (but not all) of my criticisms, Paul has walked or more precisely, swam the talk. He took on the Channel in Force 5 winds and prevailed, still achieving  a fantastic time, better than most on a good day.

Last week I saw on Paul’s Twitter feed that he was heading for the UK’s swimming centre for excellence in Loughborough (pronounced Luff-burr-o). Last week he tweeted that he was also coming to Ireland for Coach and swim clinics and needed some guinea pigs for video analysis. I saw the Tweet too late and responded but I’d missed the opportunity. I also told Paul I’d hoped to add his autograph to the bookBut it all worked out because two days later Paul offered me a cancellation place on the March 17th St. Patrick’s Day swim clinic.

The University of Limerick Pool is one of Ireland’s only three 50 metres pools, and one of the two High Performance Centres, where Irish International Marathon Swimmer Chris Bryan trains, along with some of Ireland’s Olympic swimmers and hopefuls. Paul made the point that the Perth centre alone where SwimSmooth is based has three 50 metre pools, and over twenty 50 metre pools to serve its population of 1.2 million. The almost total abandonment of our sport is of course something most Irish swimmers feel keenly. For example Waterford Institute of Technology, (the nearest college to me), has been building a large Sports Campus. A Sports Campus … with no pool. But instead of a pool there’s a (now abandoned) business conference centre.

UL Pool SwimSmooth clinic IMG_20130317_112030
UL HPC 50m pool.

The twelve swimmers on the course arrived at the pool at the 10 a.m. opening (St. Patrick’s Day, national holiday) and met Paul and his SwimSmooth partner Adam Young, UK Swim Smooth coach Emma Bunting, and another twelve coaches who were on a three-day SwimSmooth Coaching course, which included English Channel relay swimmer and Solo Aspirant? Jill Bunyan. The swimmers were from around Ireland but the coaches were more geographically diverse, including Jill from the Isle of Man, coaches from Ireland, UK, Scotland, and as far as Hong Kong.

We spent about an hour on introductions, everyone speaking  about their experience and their own stroke problems.

As I’d said to Paul earlier in the week, I have no local club to swim with, and no coach. Since swimming is really a two-person sport, the swimmer constantly requiring the intervention of a coach, I knew my stroke would have problems. Though I didn’t say it, in my own mind, every single aspect of my stroke was likely to have issues. All the training I do only reinforces any poor technique where I am not aware of it. And most swimmers are not aware of their technique problems. We were also quickly introduced to personal swim coaches from those on their coach’s course, my coach was Cassie.

There followed a quick discussion of stroke, deliberately short so Paul would not be putting clutter into people’s minds just before swimming. We also saw some fantastic video that Adam and Paul had taken of Becky Adlington’s and Shelly Taylor-Smith’s strokes.

I warmed up, enjoying the luxury of the 50m length, since I’d be one of the last recorded, while Paul videoed each swimmer using a remote camera on a boom, recording front, side, over- and underwater angles.

Example of the video stroke analysis during the clinic. Neither of these swimmers is me!
Example of the video stroke analysis during the clinic. Neither of these swimmers is me!

After a working lunch, (there was no wasted time in the entire day) Paul started stroke analysis of each swimmer’s video. The last time I have video analysis of my stroke I felt terrible embarrassment when I saw myself. But I prefer to improve more than I care about embarrassement. I hoped there had been improvement since then, and there was in some areas, but other areas had deteriorated. My cruising open water or long pool distance bilateral stroke was okay (later in the pool Paul said it looked smooth and like I could go for ever, which is what I train for and which was a relief) but the video of my single-sided “speed” stroke showed ( I asked him to do both) appalling and multiple stroke errors.

Paul made some suggestions. I could already see, based on all the EVF work I’ve been doing for the last year, how in fact I’d caused the other problems, and some problems were utterly invisible to me (such as a slight left arm crossover when breathing right) . On Paul’s YouTube Channel there’s a good example of his analysis and tools in a long video.

I don’t have Paul’s coaching experience obviously, but I have enough swim experience and coaching knowledge to analyse someone else’s stroke. This is the irony of swimming, that what we see in others we can’t see in ourselves. For an experienced swimmer, seeing their own stroke says more than any words.

Donal, underwater
Donal, underwater

Paul also spent some time on open water skills and advice, addressing such issues as turning, rough water, and anxiety.

Cassie & Donal
Cassie & Donal (& Trish, elite pool swimmer in the foreground)

Next we moved back to the pool and did a range of drills, none of which were new to me, but some of which I hadn’t done in a long time and which were good to revisit. These drills were chosen by Paul to address the issues of the range of swim abilities present on the course. That range of abilities never became an problem, spread as we were across three 50 metre lanes, and we all had a chance to work more with our individual coaches. The drills included using Finis Freestyle and Agility paddles and pull-buoys. Already being a paddle addict I was hugely impressed by the Agility paddle, (which I’d planned to try anyway after Evan recommended them). I’ve since bought a pair.

One of the swimmers on the course, Trish, is an elite swimmer, in time and stroke, and I certainly have plenty of open water experience, even if my swimming speed is average. Yet neither of us felt that anything we did was a waste of time, or in any way dumbed-down, and the time didn’t drag. To satisfy relative beginners through intermediate level, to advanced and elite levels, all in one course, is no mean feat and usually only comes in a squad with time. Swim ability questionnaires filled out by the other swimmers beforehand certainly facilitated this and assisted the excellent organisation on the day.

Due to the public holiday UL were keen to shut the pool early so there wasn’t a lot of time to chat.

We  each came away with a stroke analysis from our coaches, an individual DVD that Adam had generated for each swimmer which included not only the video of our own swimming, but also all the comparison videos, the computer notes and audio from the analysis, and specific drill and swimming advice for each swimmer dependant on Paul’s and the individual coaches assessments. Oh, and a SwimSmooth open water swim cap. (Find the cap).


I’ve recently seen someone pay for video swim analysis in which they were only recorded from the side and front from above the water, and the remaining time was spent by the “coach” and swimmer talking on the side of the pool.

The SwimSmooth one day swim clinic is so far beyond that as to be almost like comparing two different sports.

The clinic offered time-efficient, personalized and top-class stroke analysis, expert coaches, specific open water and drill advice, and stroke remediation, for all levels of ability and experience. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Alternatively, if you are not in a location where you can participate in one of these clinics in the foreseeable future (but remember I’m in the middle-of-nowhere, so you never know), the SwimSmooth blog, has some excellent free technique and drill resources for all levels, and there’s the SwimSmooth DVDs and books, also highly recommended.

Paul & Donal. Not only is he faster, he's younger and better looking.
Paul & Donal. Not only is he faster, he’s younger and better looking. And now finally added to my marathon swimmer’s autograph book.

I expect a Top Five and very possibly a Top Three place for Paul in this year’s MIMS when the large Irish and Aussie contingent will account for over a third of the entire field.

One week swim diary experiment: What happens when I increase swimming mileage suddenly

I’ve been swimming a moderate amount recently, about 20 to 25 k per week, 23 k the week before this experiment. Enough to stay fit, sufficient for a good swim base, and just about in line with my minimum annual target of one million metres.

And then I thought to myself: what would happen if I went from low 20’s to 40k, in one week, without doing it in one big session? I’ve done 20 or 25 k, then done a 15 or 18k long sessions, I wondered how different doing it daily would feel. And last year I went from 35,000 to 50,000 metres on one week, which is a volume jump of about the same amount though a much lesser percentage increase. It really didn’t seem hard, I’ve swum 40 to 45 kilometres per week for months on end, but having ramped into it and I’ve swum irregular long swims, where you only have to get through them. I do enjoying treating myself as an experiment at times, it sometimes gives me subjects to write about.

The normal course for increasing swimming volume, and which I counsel others all the time, is to increase total distance by about 5% per week. If you have plenty of swimming then 10% is probably okay. To do more is to invite injury and burnout. So yeah, that seemed like an idea. I’d be aiming at 8k per day for 5 days. That’s an increase of 3+ kilometres per day, with no ramp. An increase of 66% in one week. That should fine, right? I’ve swam at least a million metres per year for the last five or six years, sometimes significantly more, 1.3 million metres last year in 2012, 1.5 million in 2010. But a million metres breaks down to a mere 21k per week over 48 weeks. An extra 3k per day, that’s not hard, surely? Right?

 Monday. Target 8000 metres.

Normal resting heart rate. No real breakfast as usual. First 5k session went well, knocking out ten 400s readily, descending on the second five. Second session 3k, cruised through it. Normal eating and appetite. Maybe I’ll bump up the target later in the week, if I can find a couple of hours extra. Target achieved.

Tuesday. Target 8000 metres.

Forgot to check heart rate. Woke a bit hungrier than usual so had porridge for breakfast.  I usually have to have a reason to eat porridge. I ate a lot of it during Channel training. 5.4k in the morning, nothing to report, main set 20 x 200s, holding time. My face felt a bit warm during the afternoon. The 2.6k in the evening session was a little bit of a struggle and I felt sluggish. I started thinking of food while swimming, which is unusual for me in the pool. I’m used to swimming enough normally that at 4/5 k per day I don’t feel the need to eat more. By the end of the second day my appetite has already increased. Still hungry after dinner, eating a lot of junk/carbs also. Only 24 hours ago I was thinking maybe I should raise the target. Now I’m wondering if I’ll hit it. Target achieved though.

Wednesday. Target 8000 metres.

Feeling tired on waking. Resting heart rate is elevated, 18 above normal. Bagel BLT for breakfast, along with other bits n’ bobs. Started fine on alternate kilometres of 100s and 200s but started to feel really sluggish at about 4k. Ground out 6.4k, the last kilometre a trial, and I was noticeably slow. Eating more afterwards again. My face felt warm and flushed all day (though it wasn’t visibly so), a real sign of tiredness for me.

For the evening session I only needed to do 1.6k. My left shoulder was achy and stiff and took a kilometre to loosen but otherwise felt surprisingly spry, so slipped in an extra 800 metres, and the times were fine. Had to make a sandwich almost immediately after dinner though, not to mention all the chocolate & biscuits I also ate. Last week I swam 23k in 5 days. Only 24.6k done so far in three days but feels like more. Went to bed an hour early. Target exceeded, 9140 metres.

lane lines-exif-resized

Thursday. Target 8000 metres.

Felt better than Wednesday morning after waking. Resting heart rate only 8 bpm above normal. Still hungry. Orange juice, natural yoghurt, an orange, a chocolate bar and decaf coffee and a rasher and pudding sandwich for breakfast. Don’t judge me. 6.2k, 1800 mixed paddles warm up, then 2×100 + 600, 200 + 400, 400 + 400, 400 + 200, 800 + 2×100. The second of each pair should have been faster but I just held normal 100 base time. By 4,000 I’d finished a full water bottle already and needed a refill and started thinking about food. My biceps, triceps and lats are all noticeably achy. However, I’m also starting to feel better and push a bit harder as I realise the hump is behind me. I finish the last pair going hard and the last two 100s on sub 1:30. I round out the session with back stroke as I usually do. I’d fallen off a ladder the previous Sunday and the bruise in the middle of my back is really tight and sore after this session, though it hasn’t noticeably affected me otherwise. Seven sessions done. The extra time in the chlorine is starting to really dry out my face.  I eat more, ham and cheese sandwiches, another orange, the last of the grapes.

Later, 2.4 k, a mix of paddles and pull, and 6 x 200s with an extra 10 seconds rest interval over usual. All going fine, feeling pretty decent. Didn’t have time to do any more. Ate a dinner large enough for three hungry people. Target exceeded, 8,600 metres. 

Swimmers love looking at other’s training logs and comparing and contrasting. I am currently enjoying Jason Connor’s English Channel training log on his excellent blog (which gives me design envy). Jason calls himself average, but look at his times. That’s what living in Australia does for you, where swimming isn’t a second-class sport.

Friday: Target 6,300 metres

Despite a broken night’s sleep, I had gone to bed early, so woke with heart rate only about 8 bpm above normal, pretty good. Early session, 4,400 metres. Since I haven’t deliberately done a real recovery session earlier in the week, today is the day. Though I fudge a bit, starting with 1.5k pull & finger paddles, followed by 1.5k pull and power paddles, which turns out to be a real slog. Then a 1k swim followed by backstroke to the end. Nothing too strenuous. After this session I’ve developed an itchy patch of flaky skin over my chin. That damn chlorine. Today’s easier swim has meant my appetite has abated again.

Evening session: 1.7k. Easy stretch out and recovery swim. Job done, 40,000 metres in 5 days. You’ll notice I didn’t go over as I’d mentioned as a possibility at the start of the week.

Analysis: It was odd how the worst was earlier in the week than I expected; Tuesday, and Wednesday morning. Once I reverted to big mileage eating and sleeping patterns learned previously, the experiment became slightly easier. I swam backstroke every session, slightly over 5% of the week’s total about on target and from only one week didn’t notice any impact on my shoulder past the stiffness. It was only 40,000 metres which is big enough but nowhere near my highest ever of 112,000 in 9 days, or the week after week after month of 45k plus during Channel training. I have no idea if I learned much from it, other than it is possible someone who is swimming regularly and has swum it previously to return to it.

Time Trial Tuesday

Amongst  the essential aphorisms of swimming are; that you need to start swimming properly before the age of 16 or you will never reach your maximum genetic potential, (as Swim Ireland put it), which means fast; and that you need to train with others to get fast.

That’s me screwed then. I didn’t start swimming seriously until about seven years ago and I am a lone swimmer, meaning I have no-one to train with except maybe a handful of times per year.

One of the misconceptions about those of us who are not the fastest, is that we care less, maybe even train less. Speaking for myself, neither are true. I try hard to eek out whatever improvement I can in the absence of external input. Lots of drills, lots of interval work, lots of mixed sessions, lots of long sessions, never less than one million metres a year for the last five years (usually well over).

Autumn and early winter see me return to proper pool training and the first four to six weeks are spent getting rebuilding the aerobic and anaerobic capacities. Endurance and sprint, or what passes for sprint with me.

Six weeks ago, the first four weeks or so done, and starting to feel like pushing a bit, I was dampened by a lack of a planned big swim for next year, not being able to afford any of the ones I’d love to do. This meant I haven’t much reason to train big distances so I just decided to work on shorter distances for now. Tuesdays in the local pool are time constrained I have just under an hour available, so it became Time Trial Tuesday.

I’m not fast. I’m not slow either, just swimming along there in the middle. Very occasionally win a category in an open water race, more likely to be second or third or fourth. Do my repeat 100s on 1:40, and 1:35 when I feel like killing myself. For reference my 1500 SCM time is about twenty-two minutes flat-out on a good day when I don’t do anything wrong. I’m a Channel swimmer so I can live with my average times. But I still try.

And I decided that for Time Trial Tuesday I’d shoot for a sub 45:00:00 3k time.

I’ve chased 4k in an hour before, and the closest I got was 3,950. So close and yet 50 metres too far. I have broken 3k in 45 minutes and 4k in 60 minutes, but that was training with The Magnificent Seven and chasing Liam and Eddie Irwin. Last winter I was  doing a 10 x 1000m  timed session after chatting with Páraic about it, and on three of the 1000s I went well under 15 minutes. But I was getting a break after every kilometre.

The first week I didn’t try very hard. That alone is symptomatic of not being fit, being unable to push yourself. The second week wasn’t much better. The third week I was just over 47 minutes. Not great. On the fourth week I gave it a good shot, with almost a minute drop in time. Week five I was on the edge. I swam well, did everything right and on the first kilometre I was two seconds under 15 minutes. I got excited, starting thinking that I might make it. I dropped fifteen seconds on the second kilometre and almost the same again on the third, finishing in 45:35. I was disappointed to finish so much over 45:00. I hadn’t made any real mistakes. I wasn’t sure how much further I could go.

tempotrainerEnter the Finis Tempo Trainer (TT), dragged from the dark recesses of my swim bag. Almost unused since I had bought the most recent two years ago.

I set it to 1:30 and timed it to start with the lap clock. The TT would give three quick beeps every one minute and thirty seconds. A quick 200 metres warm-up with power paddles. TT under my cap where I would hear it clearly, yet would be inaudible to anyone else. Then I pushed off. A slow start left me two seconds behind by 200 metres. I upped it slightly and was on target by 400 metres. One side of my goggles leaked in the first kilometre and lost a couple of seconds trying to clear it. It immediately leaked again so I decided one eye would be sufficient. Luckily it was my left side that leaked,and since I was going all-out I was breathing every second stroke on my right for the entire trial. I reached the first kilometre at two seconds under according to the beeps.

I had gone into it thinking I could afford to lose ten seconds that I would make back in the last kilometre. I realised this was utterly wrong. I have been slow to start previously and had worked on doing a faster first kilometre, hence the essential short hard warmup. I knew I would have to stay within a couple of seconds of the 1:30 per 100m target.

The second kilometre was tougher, but I held on, slipping a second twice and making it back twice. I tried to concentrate on every metre, making sure that I dipped my right hip and get my right arm fully extended, key for me to stay on time, so easy to forget on every stroke.

English: A stopwatch is a hand-held timepiece ...

I reached the 2k mark one second behind target, and pulled it back by 2100. Then lost it again. Then regained it again. Then lost almost second each 100 for 300 metres, leaving me two full seconds behind with 400 metres to go. From 2100 metres I was starting to get tunnel vision. The sides of the pool when I breathed had disappeared. Those were long minutes, the beeps inexorable. I knew I could give it everything from 400 metres out. I went, and went and went hard, a very short dolphin out of every turn. I was on target at 2900 metres. I  thought I’d have a sprint in me for the final 100 metres but I didn’t. I touched the wall just before the first beep. 44:59. One second under.

I don’t know if I will go lower. If I do it’ll probably be a function of increasing fitness rather that any stroke improvements. Not that my stroke couldn’t stand intervention, it’s just not likely that is to happen. But I’ll keep trying.

Time Trial Tuesday chart

It’s good and it’s chastening. Good to break that target, chastening that 15 minute kilometres are easy for fast swimmers to repeat. To be competitive in a 1500m requires a 19 to 18 minute time, three to four minutes faster than I can go.  Trent was swimming 1:12 at the end of his world record English Channel swim. I will never get any faster easily, somewhere in the not-too-distant future I will start to slow down, despite everything.

But for now, it’s still three kilometres in 45 minutes. And that’s enough.


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.

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.

Chris Bryan2

Guest Article: Chris Bryan, Irish International 10k swimmer

Guest articles are one of the huge joys and honours for me in writing loneswimmer. I always feel lucky to feature one of them and privileged when people agree and I to get to read them in advance.

Chris Bryan is from Shannon, Co. Clare (west of Ireland, origin of the Irish Coffee!) and is Ireland’s first international  5k and 10k open water swimmer. His training base is the High Performance Centre [HPCUL], University of Limerick Arena  in Limerick, one of the two High Performance swimming centres in Ireland. He’s in his fourth year of college studying  Sport and Exercise Science and was born in 1990.

Chris is on Twitter and Facebook.

Results to date:

FINA World Championships 2011, 5km, 8th place
LEN European Championships 2011, 10km, 11th place
First Irish man to qualify and compete for European Championships (2010) and World Championships (2011) open water.
LEN European cup 5km, Turkey(2011): 1st
LEN European cup 10km Israel (2012): 3rd

A minor one, but if I’m not mistaken, I think he also holds the lap record for Sandycove Island, has been unbeatable when he has raced it.

Draft remaining 2012 Schedule:
Olympic Marathon 10km swim Qualifier- Setubal Portugal June10th. That’s next Sunday folks!)
Great East Swim- Alton Lake, Britain 16th June
German Nationals- Großkrotzenburg, Germany 28th and 30th June
Olympics 10km, London, 10th August
Belgian Nationals- Hazewinkel,Belgium 26/27th August
European Championships- Piombino, Italy 12-16th September
I3 swim series- Kilaloe, Ireland 22/23rd September

I’m delighted to contribute towards [not as much as I am - Donal]; hopefully it will help me to reconnect with all the real open water swimmers at home. I’ve currently fallen out of the Irish national circuit as sadly most races I have had my eye on seem to clash with my international commitments.

Training Program:

I’m currently training in the High Performance Training Centre in the University of Limerick under Coach Ronald Claes. The centre is broken into development squads which hope to feed swimmers into the main ‘Elite Squad’ in which each athlete has the opportunity to compete at the highest level internationally.

The Elite squad program involves up to 10/11 swim sessions on a regular week.
Training starts in the morning on deck at 5.10a.m., where 20 – 30mins of dry land work is done.

Dry land involves:

  • Skipping (used as a warm-up).
  • Sit ups, back ups and plank variations. (To increase core stability strength and endurance in the pool to provide optimal streamline).
  • Shoulder endurance exercises and push ups.
  • Hand paddle stretch cord work. (Technique focus and strength endurance / power work).

Then to the pool! In the morning this can be from 5/6km up to 17/18km, all depending on time in the training cycle & season and the week intensity! Of course all swimmers in the squads are broken up into their groups based on their race distance. (Sprint / Middle / Distance / OW)

In the evening we begin at 2pm if we have a gym or circuit training, or 2.30pm if we just have a choice of land warm up/loosen out before the swim session. We begin in the water at 3pm. Distance in the evening is usually less ranging from 3 to 7km.


Post all swim sessions a certain amount of ‘pre-habilitation’ is always carried out such as flexibility and general stretching, muscle control and core strength. Of course this includes shoulder control and stability work. Swimming is not a natural movement! We were not designed to rotate our arms thousands of times a day above our heads! (On average we’ll say 35 strokes a length and for 14km/280 lengths a day, in other words 9,800 times! And that’s a relatively low estimate personally)!

I do a lot of Internal and external rotations with a theraband twice a day after every session,

3×10 reps each arm working concentrically for 2 seconds and eccentrically for 4 seconds.

For me personally I find that if I go a few sessions without this I get a constant ‘niggling’ in my shoulder which is just something I can’t afford to worry about.

The Elite Squad is supported by a coaching, sports science & medical team:

  • Full time coach
  • Dietician
  • Performance analyst
  • Chartered physiotherapist
  • Sports psychologist
  • Sports physiologist
  • Strength & conditioning
  • Medical officer

All areas which are of importance to high performance sport and development. Some support is used more than others but they are all vital ingredients on the way to success at the highest level.

I am very privileged to have such a structured and fully supported set up, I have been to many world-class squads over the past few years and have seen the training base of some of the world’s best and I can confidently say that in UL through the support of the Sports council, Swim Ireland and the University of Limerick we have the facilities to compete with any one of those international set ups.

Still there are no short cuts to success – only hard work and attention to detail and “Without self-discipline, success is impossible, period.” (Lou Holtz)

Having confidence in your training regime and confidence in the staff is essential, it’s hard enough getting up at 4.35am without having to ask if I’m really doing the right things in training, it’s a blind faith in my coach that I need. Studying Sports Science does gives an extra insight into my training and often helps me get that little more out of myself when I know ‘this I what I need to do to succeed’ , but it also raises many questions and doubts, but I very much have to emphasise that just a little bit of information sometimes can be a bad thing. So I leave the worrying up the coach and blindly follow!

One question I often get asked is about the major differences between pool swimming and open water, they both can be broken into 2 main areas in my opinion:

Stroke: A higher and more relaxed stroke is essential for the open water. In the pool stroke length is of huge importance for swimming fast and count strokes per length cannot be under estimated, for open water the focus on training a higher rhythmic and comfortable stroke rate often out-weighs the need for stroke length based on the constant changing environment of open water.

Race perspective: In the pool there are 8 lanes all the same length, same width and with the same amount of water in each, really from a purely physical aspect it is non-contact and nothing the competitor beside you does can affect your race, this is a constant environment. In the open water every race is different, competitors, course, temperature, chop. This constantly changing dynamic environment makes things a lot more uncertain and ‘race smarts’ become very important. There is of course always going to be a little bit of luck to each race, but the thing I find about luck is that, the harder I work the more I tend to have of it! It’s also not by chance that the best guys always seem to come out on top!

The basics of both in and out of the pool though are not so different, the technical aspects of the stroke, the physical conditioning, and fast swimming! The 10km marathon event is the Olympic distance and on average the pace would be 66-68 seconds per 100 m long course [Donal's added emphasis]. With the last 1000m being the fastest and the last 400m being about 4 minutes at the top level.

I have always considered myself a hard worker and am a very driven person but one major lesson I have learned over the past two years is the importance of smart training. It is of course to train hard and to the best of you abilities but if there is no structure or no time for your body to adapt and recover from the training it doesn’t matter how hard you train!

I find the above graph very important, training isn’t just about what you do in the water or in the gym but what you do outside of training is just as important! It’s a 24/7 career, if you don’t recover appropriately then all the hard work will never be as effective. I try not to obsess about this but rather make sure to follow a few rules of thumb:

  • ‘Golden Window’ Within 30 mins of post train need to eat a snack including carbohydrate and some protein (banana and a yogurt drink.)

  • Have a main meal within 2 hours post session. (Carbohydrate focus)

  • Morning heart rates. Can be a great indicator of over training or oncoming sickness before it’s too late and you can quickly adjust intensity.

  • Pre-habilitation. (As discussed above.)

  • If you’re not in 100% fitness you won’t be able to train 100% . Cut your losses and adjust intensity.

First we make our habits, then our habits make us.

This year is an exciting year obviously being an Olympic year, especially for me as it is probably as close to a home Olympics that I’m going to get. The qualifying procedure for open water is a hard one and slightly complicated.

Olympic Games: 25 athletes for Male and Female

Olympic Qualifier, race 1 of 2: World Championships 2011, 10 athletes qualified, the only opportunity for 2 athletes from one nation to qualify, 2 athletes from both Germany and Russia made it in the top 10. The average age of the Top Ten was 28 years.

Olympic Qualifier, race 2 of 2, Portugal June 10th: There are 15 more places up for grabs. A Top 9 finish guarantees qualification (only 1 per nation). There is then one spot allocated for Great Britain and then one place (5 in total) are allocated to each of the next highest placed competitors, one from each continent after the 9 already qualified. In the case where there is more than one per nation in the top 9, the second place will be reallocated to the 11th place finisher and so on (per continent).

There are 62 entires for the race at this point and a lot to play for. Training has gone amazing this year and I’ve left no stone unturned and have made sure to put myself in the best possible position, so now I just have to be confident in my preparations and know what I’m capable of and if anyone else thinks they deserve to qualify ahead of me they sure as hell are going to have to work for it! Qualifying won’t be easy for anyone in this race no matter if you’re World 25km or 10km Champion, 1500m Olympic Champion, English Channel record holder, they are all in there, but for me I can’t possibly imagine anyone wants it more than me, or has worked as hard or as smart! “There’s only one way to succeed in anything, and that is to give it everything!’

I hope to continue in this chase to pursue the chance to reach my utmost potential. After this year I hope first to finish my college degree and manage to juggle my training and athlete lifestyle around it. Even though my schedule is a hectic one, I am someone who loves to have structure to my life and I will always have goals and certain aspirations in which I will strive to achieve, be it academic, sporting, family or business. This sport of swimming has already afforded me so many positive experiences and has made me into who I am moulded me to become the best I can be in all aspects of my life. It’s given me contacts, friends, colleagues, the opportunity to travel the world and meet and talk to some truly inspirational and amazing people. Ever since I was young I dreamed of being able to compete with the best in the world and always knew I could. It is that deep self-belief that keeps me going through disappointing results, and grows from the good. I hope to continue to achieve and compete at the highest level and by no means intend to sell myself short. Who knows what the next few years will bring if by Rio de Janeiro 2016 I’ll be challenging to achieve at the pinnacle of my sport.

Reminder again of Chris’ Twitter and Facebook accounts. And everyone? Let’s all wish him the best for next Sunday’s Olympic Qualifier and the London Olympics.

There is a link broadcast of the race on Portuguese tv, but there is also an internet link and this one

What is post-exercise fatigue?

Edit: For all those of you who got this by email, WordPress just completely dropped all the formatting, for no reason I can understand, (but it happens occasionally), and you got a giant wall of text. Sorry!

It’s with trepidation I approach this subject. I don’t have the medical background that seems essential in trying to understand all of it so bear with me and any potential mistakes I’ve made.

Years ago I discovered the best questions were the dumbest questions, the ones where you are almost embarrassed to ask, but when you do, you discover more than you hoped to find.

After the two recent posts on the value of long swims and the post swim fatigue caused, I asked myself just what was the fatigue we all experience for a week or longer after long training swims (six hours and greater). It was such an obvious question I felt stupid by framing it to myself. What I found, in as far as I can tell, is that this is an area that is still very much being researched and not all the factors are known. Quoting this abstract on physical fatigue, “physical exercise affects the biochemical equilibrium within the exercising muscle cells. Among others, inorganic phosphate, protons, lactate and free Mg2+ [magnesium] accumulate within these cells. They directly affect the mechanical machinery of the muscle cell”.

As you will see, we could consider this one side of fatigue, that of muscles and the causes of muscle fatigue.

We know that endurance exercise requires energy and for distance swimmers this means first using the glycogen stored in muscles, blood and liver, and after that’s consumed, later switching to ketosis and starting to use fat stores. So there is an initial fatigue or tiredness caused partly by energy depletion. But 24 hours later, the body’s glycogen stores are pretty much replenished (but not entirely, depending on food type High Glycemic Index food replenished stores faster, type of sugar has an effect also, maybe even that the Golden Window oft referred to, isn’t relevant, and various other factors).

We also know, I think, that carb-loading works, and various strategies for carb-loading are better than others. On long swims, depending on effort, type of sessions and previous training, we may experience muscle soreness. Generally, if you are trained enough, this isn’t too common a problem and muscle soreness is a sure obvious sign of over-work. Part of the fatigue and recovery process is for muscles which have been worked to the point of breakdown to recover and the micro lesions get repaired. This is how muscles get bigger and/or stronger. When the exertion is enough, this may result in DOMS, delayed onset muscle soreness, that can last for a few days. DOMS is a whole subject onto itself, and it’s not what we’re concerned about here, but similar long-lasting effects without the soreness.

Muscle work is done by a process called the Excitation–contraction coupling mechanism, whereby an electrical discharge at the muscle initiates chemical events at the cell surface, releasing intracellular calcium, which causes calcium sensitive proteins to contract using ATP (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate, produced from glycogen or fat) ultimately causing muscle action. Lower ATP is part of the post-swim energy depletion mentioned above. However for long-term fatigue, the problem is not a lack of phosphate, but an impairment of the excitation–contraction mechanism, and possible other causes. This article, which is based on some actual studies such as this and this, says that part of tiredness, the inability of the person to make the muscles work to what they had previously, is actually also related to changes in the brain and communication between the muscle itself and the intra-cortical area of the brain. It seems like, (if I am reading it all correctly), there is a negative feedback loop operating between the two, with responses from the muscles during a tiring activity signalling the cortex to reduce the force (contraction) that can be applied. That mean it’s not just the muscle’s inability to function but that there is a central nervous system (CNS) fatigue also (whereas the muscular aspect is metabolic fatigue) and it seems that the CNS fatigue is the one that takes longer to recover from, that makes us feel low after long swims. On one study I read, (I seem to have lost the link for that one), it was found that immediately after stopping due to perceived exhaustion (on a cycling stress test), the muscles were still capable of exerting three times the work necessary for the test.

As this study says, “Fatigue from SDE [Short Duration Exercise] may arise primarily from metabolic mechanisms, whereas fatigue from LDE [Long Duration Exercise] involves an additional slowly recovering nonmetabolic mechanism that may arise from impaired activation, beyond the cell membrane, at the level of excitation contraction coupling”. Symptoms of CNS fatigue include lack of motivation, poor mood, impaired cognitive ability and incorrect perceptions of exertion levels –  where we think we’re exercising/swimming harder than we actually are. Sound familiar? The body needs rest and we need to avoid injuring ourselves. Fatigue cold (and has been) even described as a brain-derived emotion that regulates the exercise behavior to ensure the protection of whole body homeostasis. If we didn’t have fatigue feedback, we’d overuse muscles and probably injure ourselves but at the same time, endurance performance itself is limited by perception of effort as the primary reason for stopping. (More to come on this in another post,as so often happens when I start one of these science-based posts). Possible causes of fatigue, long-term and short-term:

  • DOMS
  • CNS fatigue (neurotransmission problems)
  • Insufficient hydration
  • Low insulin
  • Increased ammonia in blood
  • Disturbed hormone and electrolyte levels
  • Other nutritional (vitamin or trace element) deficiency
  • Low glycogen
  • Tryptophan depletion

This isn’t a comprehensive list, just what I’ve come across. I had to stop at some point. :-) I’ve found some impossible to understand (for me) speculation about potential mitochondria damage, and I’m sure there are other possibilities that are completely mainstream. This is all very well and interesting, you probably won’tsay, but what does it mean in terms of recovery? How can we shorten recovery or do it better or differently. Is there anything that helps? I think we’ll stop here, more study is called for, maybe we’ll return to this at some point. :-) There are no smilies in scientific papers.

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 (

Two distance swimmers meet on St. Patrick’s Street in Cork …

Swimmer 1: Well, how’s the training going?

Swimmer 2: Meh. Ok, I guess. Getting sick of it.

Swimmer 1: I know. Week after week of the bloody chlorine box.

Swimmer 2: How’s the shoulders?

Swimmer 1: I’ve got some twinges but they’re holding up. Had pain in the good one a couple of weeks ago, got a bit worried but seems ok again. You?

Swimmer 2: Yeah, the same. Dodgy shoulder is … dodgy, but holding. I’m on massages every two weeks to keep ‘em going. Fell like I’m losing my speed though.

Swimmer 1: All those bloody 400s, I know what you mean. It’s like crawling through the water by now.

Swimmer 2: I just want to go, you know? I just want to get on with it. It’s one thing while you are building up, it’s another thing staying there. I can smell the chlorine off myself before I open my eyes in the morning.

Swimmer 1: How are you doing versus the target?

Swimmer 2: I’m a bit off. Not far enough to worry, I hope. I got sick in …

Swimmer 1: … February?

Swimmer 2:  Just about, end of January. Chest infection. Didn’t swim for six days, got a bit panicked. Bloody antibiotics left me feeling knackered. You?

Swimmer 1: Middle of Feb. ‘Flu. Missed a week, felt crap for another week.

Swimmer 2: How are the rest of ‘em?

Swimmer 1: Good. Not all training in Source, but everyone has been showing up for the monthly meetings. You know what they’re like.

Swimmer 2: I loved the meetings. Despite seeing the month’s plan, I always felt more energised afterwards, good to sit and talk shite with the gang. Though I made a knob of myself at least one.

Swimmer 1: Nothing new there I guess?

Swimmer 2: No, I have a knack for it. Are you holding weight?

Swimmer 1: Just about, I’m eating like food is going out of fashion. Started on the ice-cream before bed.

Swimmer 2: Danny Walsh once said to me he was on his home for dinner, and he had to stop for dinner, on the way home.

Swimmer 1: Sounds about right. Weather sucks. We get a good week, get all excited, and forget we’re living in Ireland.

Swimmer 2: I’m looking forward as always to getting away from the pool. Ned’s 3/5/9 list starting filling up early. Then the weather went back to normal.

Swimmer 1: How’s herself?

Swimmer 2: Pain in the arse, you know how she is. She has a thing for repeats at the moment. Endless 100s and 50s. She made me do 200 50s one day! I thought I’d go insane. And no toys allowed. Haven’t used a paddle or pull-buoy in weeks.

Swimmer 1: I meant your wife.

Swimming through it – the value of long pool sessions

It’s over two years since The Magnificent Seven did our first 8 hour pool swim. It seems longer. Early in 2010 Coach Eilís started adding regular big long pool sessions for Aspirants and The Magnificent Seven were the first test pilots. That year we did, I think, five pool sessions of at least six hours.

By now I’ve done at least twelve pool sessions of six plus hours, maybe more. (How did that happen)?

The most recent swims have been with Gábor, the Flying Hun, and there hasn’t been anything specific worth writing about and guest-starring many of the usual suspects, Lisa, Eddie, Rob, Karen, Ciarán, and some of this year’s Aspirants, Padraic, Carmel, Catherine. On this swim Lisa was in the next lane having started an hour before us, starting a 15k swim herself, having swum 17k …THE PREVIOUS DAY!

All six-hour swims are difficult for varying degrees and often, or even usually, for different reasons. You may be more tired starting, you may have been ill recently, you may develop shoulder pain or stomach or even leg cramps, or like a few weeks ago,  you may spend two hours in hell chasing Eddie Irwin who is holding 1:30 intervals per hundred easily. The point being that these swims are never easy. They are just varying degrees of tough and each usually teaches one something.

The most recent 20k with Gábor solidified many of the lessons.

Neither of us wanted to do a speed set so I took a set from marathon swimmer Mark Robson that he had posted on Animal Set thread and adapted it. The Animal Set thread is both a great resource for finding new ideas for long punishing swims and for feeling small because no matter what you’ve done there are probably other sets in there that you’ll find horrifying.

Mark posted up 1 x 1000, 10 x 400, 2 x 2000, 10 x 400, 1 x 1000 for 14k. I’ve used this set before as a good base that’s flexible and easy to change and adapt.

This time I changed it to: 
  • 2 x 1500
  • 10 x 400 on 6:45
  • 2 x 2000 as 1st paddles & 2nd pull
  • 500 b/c
  • 10 x 400
  • 2 x 1000 as 1st 1k paddles & pull, 2nd 1k swim
  • 4 x 500
  • 500 b/c, making up a 20k session

Plenty of rest on the 400s but still making good use of time by doing 8k as 400, and a few long sets.

View Visio v200mThings were mixed early on. Swimming was fine but I was cursed by a host of minor issues. On the first 1500, my nose clip kept slipping off, I was obviously having a greasy-nose day. My Fully Sick googles, which are now my firm favourites (and not available anywhere in Europe :-( ) have been solid for 6 months started leaking and I couldn’t get them cleared no matter what I did and ended up switching back what now seems like huge Aquaspheres. I got cramps in my foot on the first 2k set (after 7k), something that hasn’t happened six months so I obviously wasn’t drinking enough, then I started to get hints of stomach cramps. All minor, but cumulatively throwing me off and taking away that sense of easy swimming that should have been prevalent early on.

While the times on the 400s were fine, doing an easy 6:45 to give us plenty of rest each rep, they weren’t exactly fun and I’m didn’t know why, since repeat 400s are bread-and-butter in my training. The first difficulty really hit on the 2k with paddles, with developing foot cramps, and then my left shoulder started really hurting. This shoulder is my good one, as almost all distance swimmers have a shoulder more prone to injury, and it’s a problem that’s only arisen this year, when my good (left) shoulder started hurting from paddle work, so I’ve reduced power paddle work by about 75% from my normal. (I used to like paddles). Pull sets are fine with me, as I don’t have a big kick so I am less affected. After finishing the first 500 back stroke, we were at 11.5 kilometres done. Three and half hours in. And that was the easy part.

The slump nearly always hits me at this point. Back to another 10x 400s and by this time the pool got very busy, with people coming and going into the lane for about an hour, Lisa being pushed into joining us, all different speeds, etc. It was probably a good thing because it helped to distract us as Gábor and I were taking turns leading out. Talking afterwards we both hit the real slump at the same time, at 11.5k and both of us struggled for the same duration of over an hour. Despite feeling worse the second 400s went quicker. At the end of the 400s we were at 15.5k and started the 1k pull and paddles, which we cruised through. Starting the next 1k straight, we were both still moaning. Gábor said he was going to take it easy. I zoned out for the first couple of lengths, and was slipping back when I noticed Gábor dolphin-kicking off the wall. Did I imagine it? At the next turn he did it again…

We were back. That kilometer was a race, ending with a sprint finish (him, by half a body), going into the repeat 400s, ending again with a sprint (him by a finger, each time I couldn’t make an attempt to pass until the last length and I was coming back from behind and he’s usually faster than me so that was ok). But that’s not the relevant point. What was relevant was the gradual recovery, so when we decided to up the gears again, the bodies responded. By we were both sore and tired. (Sore shoulders are a rarity, especially when you are swimming all the time).

All this is by way of explanation and scene-setting and context.

I’m trying to analyse this swim, and the other long swims I’ve done and extract some useful lessons on the value such sessions.

  • All long pool swims are difficult. The reasons change.
  • Feeding during pool sessions may not be completely applicable to open water.
  • But you will get better figuring out when you will run out of energy and what that feels like.
  • Long pool sessions can be used to figure out some other stuff like preferred analgesic/cramp intervention.
  • The session structure is less important than just putting in effort and time swimming and hitting that wall.
  • The post-slump improvement is gradual as your body adapts to ketosis and you don’t get a sudden sense of feeling better.
  • The glycosis to ketosis transition can vary by person and time and swim.
  • Post-swim recovery, immediately after the swim, and over the subsequent days, are important parts of long swims and the more long swims you do, the quicker and better you get at recovery.
  • The most important lesson: You can swim through it. Whatever it is. This is what makes a distance swimmer. Everything is secondary.

I hope for a future guest post on this subject and I can think of NO-ONE better qualified than Lisa to write it. Let’s everyone ask her nicely.

Related articles

Guest post. Jennifer Lane’s 12 hour overnight swim report: Hydro Nervosis

Jennifer is one of the 2012 Sandycove Channel Aspirants. This year’s Aspirants recently took to the water of the Source pool under the direction of Cork English Channel supercoach Eilís Burns for an overnight swim as part of this year’s training and Jen provides us with a fantastic and honest swim report.

There is often some bravado associated with Channel swimming, it is in fact often necessary, but I have always felt it is vitally important that we swimmers be completely honest about the difficulties of training, lack of sleep, weight, food, the exhaustion, the relentless mileage and grind of a training schedule and frequently training and swimming on day when you are mentally or physically ill-prepared.  Profuse thanks are therefore due Jen for her super and honest report. You can follow Jen on her blog. And I both wish her the best and am fully confident of her ability to triumph in the English Channel.


Hydro Nervosis

That was my mother’s astute diagnosis of the evening’s symptoms when I described them a few days later. Hydro Nervosis. It did seem to fit – I had finally developed the long anticipated allergic reaction to pool swimming. We were talking about my disaster at Eilís Burns’ all-night-torture-and-head-wreck-athon, as I affectionately referred to it. Not its official title, it was more like Endurance swim in aid of the Moses Foundation. However, being my selfish self, I didn’t consider its (hugely successful) charity aspect until well after the final curtain.

By the way, hello, I’m a 31-year-old from Cork and I’m hoping to get away with swimming the English Channel this summer. My training regime began with Eilís seven months ago and I’ve gone through a meltdown or two since then, one of which I’m going to talk about here. However I have to say I’ve found her training though on the surface insurmountable, with the right attitude doable and my technique and stamina have improved hugely because of it. I just wanted to put that out there before I start this tale of woe.

The horrible torture fest was scheduled for Friday the 9th March in Source Leisure Centre, and was organised by Cork’s own Iron Lady, Eilís Burns. Swimming would begin at 10 pm and continue through the night until 6 am. Distance wise I knew I’d be okay, but I was utterly clueless how to prepare for this overnight thing. Everyone kept warning me about the hour between 3-4 am, when everything is suddenly a lot tougher than it was moments before. Whatever, I didn’t really buy this. Eilís’ instructions were: train as normal, go to work as normal, don’t try and sleep beforehand, arrive tired. Oh, and her training group had to stick it out for 6 hours, then we were “free to leave”. (Hah! She knew damn well peer pressure would make us stick it out til the sweet and sour end). Again I ignored the advice  – I took it easy all week, left work early that day and napped beforehand. I felt as ready as ever but nervous as hell. Besides the advice, I wasn’t really sure what it would be like. I’d heard rumours that the session would be sets of 100 metres over and over and over… how monotonous, how long, how awful!…I was just praying that wasn’t true.

It was true. Lanes were allotted times to complete the 100s…2 mins, 1.50 , 1.40 and lanes for those insane enough to jump out onto turbo-trainers after an hour, or run around the dark car park like escaped inmates howling at the moon….but I’ll leave that for another guest blog, I can’t even contemplate it.

Full lanes in Source for the overnight swimRight so we’ll set the scene…the charities have given their talks on how great we are to be doing this. Jennifer, standing poolside in her togs, per usual before any gala, race, interview, social interaction even, is starting to get that tightness in her chest, heart inflated to twice its size, pumping self-doubt and adrenaline into her fingers and teeth clamping dread down hard onto her already lacerated tongue. How did I get into this situation? The talking is done and Eilís is telling us to get into our lane-of-choice. I have selected the 1.50 lane as it’s a speed I’m confident I can maintain for 8 hours. But by the time I’ve organised my drink bottles, etc., I notice that the same decision has been made by small crowd of others as well, with only 3 people setting off in the 1.40 lane. Eilís tells me I’d never handle the pace. I get in.

There I was, swimming with the top guns in speed, albeit at the very back, and actually kind of, I’m afraid to say it even now since I know how this pans out but, enjoying the pace. My fellow Channel Aspirant Rob Bohane is in front of me, which is reassuring…not that he’s not Speedy Gonzales himself, but I’ve swum with him before so it’s not totally unknown. Time flies and I gradually move up the ranks with people falling back for a few laps. However, my nerve-anaconda gradually tightens my chest and though I normally have no issue with peeing in the pool, find myself unable, despite the usual build up of downstairs pressure. This becomes quite uncomfortable to swim with yet all I can think about is how I’m going to have to give up soon (my problems, besides anxiety snakes and interior plumbing, were all mental. Fitness and stamina wise, I had 12 years of Eilís experience in Cork Masters and knew I was fine, what was my problem?)

Finally we reached the 10 km mark circa 1 am. Everyone stopped to take a break, refuel, chill out, but not me. I worried if I stopped that would be it, so on I swam, keeping to the times. I didn’t really think about taking a break, I just wanted to zone out and try to relieve the tension in my chest. And my bladder. But could do neither.

About an hour and a half later we were well into the second lot of 100s and I was up near the front. Carol (Cashell), resident speedster, suggested I lead out for 10. I took off at her signal and apparently upped the ante big time. A few pointed out that I was swimming too fast but it fell on deaf ear plugs. I was way too hyped up and thought swimming faster might ease my anxiety. When my ten 100s were done and the next person took off, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t eaten anything, or peed, for nearly 5 hours. It was sometime after 2 am and I was not feeling too hot. I figured it would be a good idea to eat some blueberries that were soggifying in a nearby container. Bad idea.

Suddenly the act of swimming was making me feel ill. A couple of laps later that horrible sickly stomach feeling that I know from solid Friday- night experience (different circumstances) that there was a time limit before everything within a mile radius would be covered in puke. Exit stage left to the bathroom. I’ll save you the details but the result was like a gory scene from the Ribena Chainsaw Massacre. I decided to take a break, maybe eat something starchy like a bagel and try to goddamn pee.

Five minutes later I felt back to normal and ready to swim! Back into the 1:40 lane and belting away, when halfway down the pool I wanted to belch forth with more gusto than before. I got out and repeated the events of Act One. I felt better. I got back into the pool, energised and ready to roll. Start to swim, repeat (literally). I recycled this ritual a few times, wanting to get back to swimming but being stopped by my body reacting this way. Eventually I gave up by moving into the 1.50 lane at about 4 am. Again, as soon as I’d start crawling along (at the back) I’d start to retch. I’d stop and feel better but very queasy. Luckily there was a 15 minute break around 4.30 that saved my ass. It allowed me to calm down and get a grip. Eilís announced that the swim would end at 5.30 so we’d only one hour to go. Never had an hour seemed so long! I cannot even tell you what set we did or what stroke it was. I remember trying backcrawl and breaststroke at different stages to see if that would help but it was worse. Anytime I moved I wanted to vomit. Eventually Lisa Cummins produced some Gaviscon and although this made my stomach feel better, the urge to purge was right there waiting to return with a hearty slap on the back if I so much as floated. It just became a battle of will to force myself to swim and not get sick. I think I burned a hole in my throat. I would have gladly signed up for a unanaesthetised gastric bypass just to make that pukey feeling cease! Absolute nightmare.

Minutes plodded along on club feet. It seemed to be 20 past 5 for an eternity. But finally, joy of joys it was over! People clapping and clambering towards the Jacuzzi and the free food (which I noticed only now for the first time). Sweet thoughts of clean sheets and a warm bed at home… I had made it! It was over!…when I got the feeling of two pairs of eyes looking at me. Who was left behind only Lisa Cummins and Carmel Collins, two girls who this endurance crap for breakfast. I knew what they were going to say before they said it. If this night taught me anything at all it’s that I have a serious ego that needs serious deflating. First I jump in and try and play with the big kids. Now I’m left with an out after the most grueling torture of my swimming life to date, so just because these two nuts want to tough it out til the fat lady sings it doesn’t mean I have to!

We took it handy doing a mix of slow back crawl and breaststroke. I tried swallowing slowly and watching the dawn gently creep into the room. To be honest, this part was ok cause I swam very slowly and stopped a lot. I can’t remember finishing officially, just being in the shower and wishing I was in bed. I felt utterly beaten and dejected. Everyone was delighted they got through, I was miserable I’d messed it up so royally.

So that was it. My mom (who’s a nurse incidentally) tells me my hydro nervosis would have dissipated if I’d just eaten a banana. After I’d hung up the phone I was wondering if she was making up the term or just being a crazily optimistic mom. When I entered it into Google I got ‘Did you mean hydro nephrosis?’, which upon further clicking I find out it’s an early stage of renal failure due to a back up of urine or lack of magnesium (hence the prescribed banana).How scary! Was my body was trying to stop me swimming because I was damaging my kidneys? I don’t really think so, but I do think I need to chill out about the whole endurance/long distance thing. I swam through hours of nerves, stomach retching and an overloaded bladder for I don’t know how long and nearly ended up hurting myself, for what? My ego? My nerves? I know I was a misery guts for quite a while after the swim and thanks to everyone who gave me perspective. I mean, overnight endurance swim? Really not so bad if you just take a chill pill. And a banana.


Related Posts

Pressure to Achieve, Sandycove Swimmers Achievements,

24 hour swim,

Just another 6 hour pool swim.

Anatomy of an 8 hour pool swim,

100 x 100 x 100,

HOW TO: Theraband work for shoulder strengthening

I’ve been picking up pain in my left shoulder for the past couple of weeks again, so I’ve just started doing a little Theraband work, good old swimmer’s shoulder.

Therabands are just large elastic (latex) bands, categorised according to resistance/strength, which can be used to isolate and work specific muscles. The colour indicates the amount of resistance. Their great advantages over using dumbbells or free weights are the muscle isolation ability and not least their portability and vast flexibility in isolating muscles.

I’m just using a medium green band and I’m concentrating on shoulder adduction (inward), abduction (outward), internal and external rotation and rotator cuff. Door handles make great anchor points when needed, and many exercises don’t need any anchor.

Here are some examples of great swimming specific Theraband exercises. One of the great things is you will see the muscles being worked and may find a more suitable way of doing these for yourself.

Rotator cuff strengthening:

External rotation (also for rotator cuff strengthening).

Internal rotation:

Shoulder adduction. You can also reverse the direction of this (abduction) by using a door handle, and going diagonally up and out.

Shoulder abduction.

Triceps stretch (the latter half of the front crawl pull is a triceps extension). Another variation of this is put the lower had as high up the centre of your back as possible and extend the overhead arm.

Shoulder dislocation, one of my favourite exercises, when I remember to do it. I used to do this one with a rolled up towel also.




Related articles:

Shoulders, the swimmer’s bane. (

Stretching for swimming. (

FLOW: the ideal swimming state

Every swimmer knows how the actual act of swimming can be both rewarding and frustrating. I can’t speak how it is for everyone else, but for me most of the time it’s somewhere in the middle, (like most of life). Sometimes the frustration is horrible, getting in the pool unconcerned but then the water feels like it is fighting me on every movement, my (already average) times are down, and I wonder what the hell I am doing wrong.

And then there are other days, days which are rarer. But from conversations with other swimmers, most recognise this state. The rare day is the day when you are completely in tune with yourself and the water and moving through the medium in a different fashion. It’s not specifically about speed, but as swimmers that’s how the feeling often manifests itself. I was reminded of this when I read a Tweet from Evan Morrison recently:

“50×200 SCY in <2.5 hrs this AM. Unexpectedly firing on all cylinders. Frankly, one of the best workouts of my life. We live for such days.”

Now you may know Evan is a ridiculously fast open water and Channel swimmer and Ederle Swim record holder, so don’t get hung up on the fact that most of us will never reach his times. Before Evan responds that he is not that fast, he has done 25k as 250 x 100, all off 1:30. No, the point is how even a swimmer like Evan also experiences this state. (Even Evan has a nice ring, doesn’t it?)

We can mostly remember those days for quite a while. A while back, I was doing repeat 200s when I realised I was doing my repeats 10 seconds faster than normal, and yet it was effortless. There really is no better word. It’s not that I was setting speed records, but I was in a different mental place to normal, which manifested itself as a different physical sensation.  I wasn’t even sure when it started, and my first thoughts were that I had been reading the lap clock wrong. I recall an unusual sensation of calmness. I saw the times, was curious, but utterly relaxed, and I didn’t get excited but just stayed calm, without trying too hard. And I held the times. I’ve had good days since then, but not quite as good as that. "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience"-Cover

In 1990, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience was published by psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, a study identifying a positive state of happiness that arose from the pursuit of expertise. He defines it as: a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to absolute absorption in an activity. In the article, he identifies the following factors as accompanying an experience of flow.

  1. Concentrating, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
  2. loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness. Action with awareness fades into action alone.
  3. Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
  4. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
  5. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
  6. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  7. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
  8. A lack of awareness of bodily needs (to the extent that one can reach a point of great hunger or fatigue without realizing it)
  9. Absorption into the activity, narrowing of the focus of awareness down to the activity itself, action awareness merging. Action with awareness fades into action alone.

The author says that not all these factors need to be concurrent for flow to be experienced, but I think, on those rare swimming days, those days that you literally couldn’t pay for, you probably are exhibiting most if not all of the list. In tune, in the groove, flyin’, all are terms we have for the sensation. According to Csíkszentmihályi, Flow state arises as a function of expertise and difficulty, which is ideal for swimmers, who spend years of complete concentration and dedication trying to make minute improvements, (to an extent that non-swimmers don’t realise). When the task is difficult and expertise is brought to bear on it, the flow state can result. Both must match for Flow to result. Now if only the flow state was more readily or regularly accessible. But even if it’s not, the sweet transcendent and rare taste of it, is something that keeps us swimming and pursuing other complex tasks. It’s one of the ineffable rewards of swimming.

Two days ago, I FLOWed. It was good.


HOW TO: Introducing interval training to your swimming

First, Happy Imbolc, the Celtic first day of spring, more commonly known as St. Brigit’s Day and also known as Candlemas.

Pool and marathon swimmers use intervals to train. One of the regular misconceptions we come across is the belief that our training involves lots of slogging up and down the pool whereas we train the same as normal pool swimmers using intervals as the basis for everything.

So, how do you work out your intervals? well, one way is experience, I know the times to within seconds that I want to hit depending on what I want heart rate or perceived effort I want to exert and recall I posted a chart of heart rate last year. But in the absence of that experience, you can use an interval calculation chart.

But first we need to go back a bit. USMS posted a nice fitness pace chart, useful for calculating estimated times from a 100 metre (or yard) time to help establish pace from a known short distance time.

I’ll loosely define Cruise Speed as the speed you can maintain, with a few seconds left over at the end of each repetition.

On the first table, say your 100m Cruise Speed is 1:45. You will have 5 to 15 secs left over. If you have more than 15 secs your cruise speed is probably 1:40 or 1:35. If you have less than 5 secs left over, your cruise speed is 1:50.

Look at the 1:45 row. So for 200 metres, your pace means you should finish within 3:30. For 400m, it 7:00…and so on. A 1:45 swimmer should be able to do 3,425 metres in an hour, cruising.

(This table does not tell you what your time is, you should determine that yourself.)

USMS Fitness Pace Chart

But for actual interval training you need a bit more. A couple of years back I took an older interval chart and put all the times into a spreadsheet to make it more usable, it’s below.

Measure your Personal Best for a distance (e.g. 100m) and let’s say it is 1:45. Look at this figure in the leftmost column. Now look along the row to the right. This means that your 85% (Moderate) repeat is 2:08 to 2:15. which should include a few seconds rest before the next repetition (100m).

Put this together with the heart rate Zone training chart and you have the basis for building swim sets according to requirement, whether speed, endurance or weight reduction.

Edit: I should make clear, this is an introduction to interval. Therw is more the subject than this, particularly session planning.

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.

It’s a drag! The Bucket

Other people talk about bucket lists, I’ll just talk about the bucket.

It can be any bucket, but once you’ve used one, it becomes The Bucket, your own personal torture instrument.

Mine is that 2.5 litre plastic DIY paint kettle from a hardware store, cost about €5. It has a long string tied to the handle and I attach it the label of my togs (swimsuit) with a simple d-clip. Note, the string needs to stretch further than your feet.

I usually swim a continuous 1500m towing it, which takes 10 minutes longer than usual to complete. That’s a pretty drastic time impact. Follow that with 500 or a thousand metres of pull buoy and paddles, then some paddle work and some kicking and you’ve hit a lot of muscles fairly hard with a low total distance.

Lisa told me recently that she was disappointed in me. Shock! I’d disappointed my swimming hero … by voluntarily swimming with the bucket. :-)

I only use it about once a month, partly because of that time impact, partly because I leave it at home and forget and because yes, it is such a pain.

As far as reason? You have to work hard to pull it obviously. But also I find it very useful for training for rough water. Because of the drag, your body is dragged slightly downwards. To overcome this, you must concentrate on pushing your chest down into the water to get more streamlined and horizontal. With all the extra drag, you think more about your catch and anchoring your hands in the water to pull yourself forward. Every time you tumble turn, you have to be careful to go under it, you have a second of release before you hit the extension of the string and the bucket grabs the water, and you seem to stop.

Not something you want to do regularly, but worth trying if you never have. I guess if you are female and want to use one without having a handy waistband to attach to, a simple webbing belt would work fine to attach to.


File> Insert> New worksheet> Name : 2012

There’s a somewhat bitter-sweet aspect to closing last year’s training log. All that swimming and the relevant bytes are now consigned to the position of worksheet from ago. All the locations, times, distances, temperatures, races and screw-ups are past data, now part of a trend. Even last Saturday’s sea swim, the last swim of 2011, feels different, like someone else did it.

I do actually operate two different annual cycles, from January to January for yearly tracking, and from September to September for training purposes. Because, you know, I wouldn’t be happy if it wasn’t complicated. The current spreadsheet holds 4 years, I must bring in the earlier ones. I ‘m pretty sure I said that to myself last year also.

The past two years I didn’t get my first swim onto the books until the 4th January, 7500 metres, this year I started earlier (today, Jan 2nd) but it’s 7300 metres, I hadn’t looked at last year’s numbers before I swam, otherwise I’d have done a few hundred more to race myself, always the best race. Last year the mainset was 500 x 10.  Today it was 56 x 100. In fact, even with all this data, I rarely look back. The important thing for me is, if I do want to, I have a record.

The significant things I do however look back occasionally at are: When did I get sick? What was the equivalent weekly mileage? Monthly mileage? What was the equivalent sea temperature? Weight? Maybe some session ideas. When should I schedule a long swim?

The yearly total is good, but really there are probably only two days in the year that I think about it: when I pass my annual one million metres target, and the day I open the new sheet.

I’ve entered my day’s data now. The new spreadsheet name is Donal’s_Swimming_Log_Jan_02_2012.xls. I’ve backed the past invaluable data up to both Dropbox and UbuntuOne, I won’t rely on any single hard drive to keep it. I really need to back up my swimming photos and videos again, at 40gb I can’t use an online destination.

Looking forward into the year and all those empty cells looks like another huge mountain to climb. Some of those cells will be tough to fill. Some will give me great pleasure to enter, and I might add some colour to the font. Anything over 20,000 metres gets a nice bold red.  Swims in Dover get and the Sandycove Distance Week get blue. Ah, simple pleasures for a simple-ton.

Beyond that, I love having the data.

It feels like something I’m building, building, building,  just me and my arms, metre by metre, and I don’t know what the final shape of that thing, or even what it is, will be. But I sure love building it.





A long training swim in numbers

Location: Kilkenny Watershed, low chlorine pool.

Start time: 9:37 a.m.

Pool length: 25m

Cost: €5

Current pool depth of adjustable floor: 2.01 metres

Time to finish first 3k: 53 mins

Worst period: 4th hour

Duration sun actually shone through cloud: <1 minute

Distance: 20,500

Of which front crawl: 18000

With paddles: 6000

Backstroke: 1000

Kick: 1500

Tumbleturns: 670

Number of lengths: 820

Number of times swimming into wall: 2

Longest break: 5 mins

Number of people who shared the lane with me over the entire swim: 0

Time the pool was empty except me and one lifeguard; 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Estimated total stoppage time including intervals: 30 mins

Full Pool evening lights switched on at: 3.50 p.m.

Sunset 16:17 P.M.

Different lifeguards on duty during swim: 3

Finish time: 16:35 p.m.

Elapsed time: Six hours fifty-eight minutes

Time during which nothing interesting happened: Six hours fifty-eight minutes

Estimated actual swim time: Six hours thirty minutes

Average speed: ≈ 3200 metres per hour

Stroke efficiency deterioration ≈ 20%**

Food consumed: One clementine. 500 ml Swimmer’s Smoothie. 2 packets of maltodextrin Go-Sport. 1.5 scoop of Perpetuum

Liquid consumed: ≈ 3 litres

Liquid urinated: at least 4 litres

Calories consumed according to Swimovate watch: ≈ 5,500

Toby’s level of interest: none

"I don't care"

** Calculated by increase in average stoke count per length over 25 metres of 4 strokes.