Tag Archives: Marathon swimming

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Diana Nyad Controversy, a personal reflection – Part 1- Some History

I mentioned in my last post that this subject was outstanding.

A “review panel” was recently held to consider Diana Nyad’s claimed Cuba to Florida to swim. (On Tuesday 10th September, 2013)

This panel was unprecedented in marathon swimming. I had nothing to do with the genesis thereof nor arranging or my invitation to the panel.

I consider the holding of such a review panel, regardless of the motivation of the organisers, regardless of any future decision or announcement, an actual success for the marathon swimming community. Ordinary swimmers spoke out, and had to be listened to. Consequently I am inordinately proud of the marathonswimmers.org forum and all its members whatever their opinion.

The next morning, a few brief hours after the lengthy call, I left on a flight to the UK and Dover to crew for an English Channel swim. Then a second trip back to Dover after we got weathered-out on the first trip. So for the rest of the week , shrouded as I was in the Channel Bubble, having the craic with Channel swimmers and friends or sitting on Paraic’s Bench in Varne, I had no time to write about the events leading to the panel, the panel itself or the subsequent story.

The time and distance spent with swimmers from around the world in the home of long distance swimming, including crewing for Sylvain Estadieu’s astonishing English Channel butterfly swim, gave me a breathing space sadly lacking in the previous week.  Co-founder Evan Morrison and I were having to spend long hours moderating the discussion on the marathonswimmers.org forum, (for about five days it was taking me eight hours night, finishing at 1 or 2 a.m.) and Evan had to handle all the media requests, I being safely in the despicable land of Old Europe.

Following is my entirely personal perspective. It is not intended to be a comprehensive debate or exploration of the issue but instead to outline the leadup to the panel, and my current thoughts following the panel.

My opinions are informed by my own swimming and crewing experience, a little observing and quite a bit of swim writing by now. And also by discussions with other swimmers and friends from around the world.

While I have written some posts on the forum thread on this subject, a careful reading of the discussion will see it was some time I joined the debate. I’ll explain that below.

The discussion that stirred the press finally, is extensive. It is an order of magnitude greater than most discussions on the forum and will take hours if not days to read. It is technical, passionate, occasionally adversarial or personal, and highly recommended.

Finally, I want to explain in my opening that I’ve chosen to write here for three specific reasons:

  • My blog allows me the latitude of length. I can explore issues as I see fit without a word constraint.
  • Diana Nyad doesn’t look to marathon swimmers. She looks to an uncomprehending general public. LoneSwimmer.com reaches a more general audience than the forum, but it is still a specific audience.
  • As forum co-founder, I actually try to separate the functions of Administrator  and Moderator from my personal opinions. The behind-the-scenes moderation during the height of the controversy was considerable and I tried to be balanced. But on LoneSwimmer.com, I can explore and outline my own thoughts unconstrained by the role, even it is only to myself and Evan that this distinction is important.

*

Diana Nyad was a long distance swimmer in the 1970’s. Her swims included Around Manhattan and Lake Ontario. She was also unsuccessful in three attempts in the English Channel. In 1978 she attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida in a shark-cage and wasn’t successful. She retired in 1979 and spent a career as a successful journalist and author and latterly a motivational speaker. None other than Jim ‘Doc’ Counsilman, a legendary coach in swimming and the man most associated with the scientific study of the sport, famously said of Diana Nyad: “a very mediocre swimmer with a very good publicist”. I’m a mediocre swimmer, though I usually use the word ‘average’, so I don’t take that as an insult necessarily.

I was mostly unfamiliar with her except for her Bahamas to Florida distance-setting swim in 1979. My immersion, excuse the pun, into Channel and marathon swimming culture and history has been gradual. Like many Channel swimmers, in my early open water swimming days I knew little of the shared history, and few of the great names of our sport, though Diana Nyad was certainly not one of those, except maybe in her head or that of her supporters. There was also a rumour I’d heard that her Manhattan Island swim wasn’t entirely kosher, and we’ll return to this subject later.

Past the age of 60, Diana Nyad returned to distance swimming and an unsuccessful attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida in 2011, two attempts in 2012, and her most recent swim in 2013.

A search of my site will illustrate the change in my opinions. I went from being very interested and a mild fan, through disillusionment and disinterest, to an active contrary stance, before ultimately saying that I was done with any further comment. My opinions didn’t matter, I still don’t think they matter outside the swim community which is all I’m interested in. I am just a swim blogger and hype is always better than truth.

When I first posted about Diana Nyad out of interest, I had reached the dizzy heights of maybe 30 people a day reading the blog. By the time I’d become more antagonistic, I was reaching maybe 500 people a day average. That number hardly changes the world but I didn’t care about the world, the people read loneswimmer are the ones I care about and have written for, not the Diana Nyad fans, not for the public. But I really did mean I was increasingly disinterested and antipathetic. In the end I wanted to leave Diana Nyad to her own devices.

I want you to be clear that I am not veiling my opinions, not sucking you in with a link-bait title to take advantage of a story for site hits, nor do I care about increasing traffic outside my target area of open water swimmers. I’ve been vociferous in my opinions on the subject now for some time.

I don’t buy the hype. I don’t buy the empty exhortations. I don’t buy the story and I literally don’t buy any of the merchandise. My life is full of swimmers I’ve met whom I admire, who feats astonish and inspire me. I’m supportive of these people, so for me to develop such a strong adversarial opinion is in itself unusual.

And you know what? This my blog. You come here. You don’t like my opinion, that’s fine. But my opinion is free. I don’t charge you for it. So in that way, it’s worth exactly what you pay for it.

But if you come here with some stupid empty threat that I couldn’t do what Diana Nyad did, nor swim what she swam? That’s true but sod off because Diana Nyad couldn’t do what I did. I and my friends don’t take money from anyone to swim, we don’t twist the truth about swims, and as a consequence we can walk into any group of marathon swimmers in the world with our heads held high. If you are new here, looking to argue with me, you better be prepared to step into my world. My opinion shouldn’t matter to you but if you come here for it, it is a valid experienced opinion. Vacuous insults and treats (treats would be nice!) threats mean less than nothing to me and the mere fact of them only colours my opinion even more, because such behaviour is utterly at odds with almost everything I’ve experienced about the sport, which is usually open, welcoming, friendly, supportive and collaborative.

Right up front I want you to know my opinions and you might as well have them raw.

I had four main objections that had developed to Diana Nyad’s swims:

  1. Deliberate misleading of the public and supporters by not publishing any rules or guidelines before any of the swims.
  2. In the absence of published rules, seeming disregard of established and rules. Diana Nyad’s team’s use of the phrase English Channel Rules is deceptive to the general public because they never explain that English Channel rules are used worldwide.
  3. Obfuscation of actual events during swims. Briefly mentioned here, much more detail can be found on the forum.
  4. Online attacks of experienced marathon swimmers. This refers to the invitation by Diana Nyad of myself and others to respectfully take part in an online discussion of a proposed heat device. Those swimmers who took the bait were respectful, yet were treated with utter disrespect. I’ve noted Diana Nyad’s repeated masterful use of the word “respectfully” to imply that we are the one who lack it.

All four opinions were to later inform my reaction to the 2013 swim and the review panel so I will very briefly explain the context.

In the attempts of 2012, on both occasions Diana Nyad exited the water onto a boat. Prior to either swim I myself had never seen any mention that getting on the boat would be allowed.

The rules were never clarified, but it was mentioned by swim promoter Steve Munatones, AFTER the exit, that the swim would change to stage swim rules. Governing Rules for the swim were never actually explained before or after any of her swims, even as I write this over two weeks after the panel. Any claimed achievement without guiding rules is meaningless. It is akin to setting the world’s record for standing on one leg, but without rules which specify actually only using one leg … and instead using two legs.

The two other recent Cuba to Florida swimmers, Penny Palfrey and Chloe MacCardel, had both very clearly and transparently discussed their plans and the rules they would use before their respective swims. Penny even initiated a discussion about the use of stinger suits before her swim.

During the 2012 second attempt, the fourth overall it became clear from her own video by her own team that Diana Nyad held onto the boat. Along with this was the exiting of the water onto the boat.

In Part 2 I’ll explore the context of the panel some more and the events and questions before the panel.

In Part Three, I’ll discuss the panel, mostly my own input and interaction and in the final Part 4 where the post-swim and panel events have led me.

For transparency for visitors, below are links to three previous articles I’d written in 2012 on the subject of Diana Nyad.

Two Golden Rules. I’ve said that you can follow whatever swim rules you like, and that there are only two golden rules you need to follow. Publish the rules beforehand, and have a trusted reputable independent observer. Curiously, once again in the 2013 swim, Diana Nyad followed neither.

This post has been approved by the sport of open water swimming. Diana Nyad has made repeated statements that imply she has the blessing or approval of this mysterious organisation.

Comments on Diana Nyad’s heat drip device. A discussion of a questionable device and the treatment of swimmers by Diana Nyad.

Post Diana Nyad swim. The point at which I lost interest.

Comments are disabled for this post. If you really can’t wait until this series closes to insult me, the comments on About page is my preferred location. However unless you can add intelligence or relevant experience to the discussion, don’t expect your comment to see the light of day. 

Limiting Factors in Marathon Swimming – Part 3 – Psychological Factors

The previous two posts dealt with the physiological and environmental limiting factors of marathon swimming. As noted in Part One, non-swimmers and those unfamiliar with the sport tend to see the physiological factors as the greatest hurdles for swimming further distance, often imagining that marathon swimmer’s have some physical capability beyond the average person whereas the Environmental Factors in Part Two are possibly more likely to be a governing factor.

Assuming a swimmer has done the training, for unsuccessful swims the environmental factors are more likely to cause a swim to either not start at all or to be abandoned, and of those weather will always be the swimmer’s greatest challenge.

Experienced swimmers however will generally mostly agree that marathons swims are “more mental than physical”. And because of the complexity of individual psychology, these factors are not as easily codified or itemized, and what I may consider the greater challenges may be not such an important item for someone else, but some can be identified.

Waiting

Alan Clack at Varne, waiting for the word and the weather
Alan Clack at Varne, waiting for the word and the weather

Of all the aspects of marathon swimming that I feel are most misunderstood, this aspect may be the least appreciated. It is very difficult to explain the psychological pressure endured by a swimmer who is waiting for a weather window to open. The swimmer may have invested two years of their life and a not-insignificant amount of money, only to find they don’t even know if they will swim. Depending on the person this can lead to stress and lost sleep. While this occurs prior to the swim, assuming there is a wait period, it’s impossible though to know if or how many swims may have been unsuccessful because of the pre-swim stress affecting the actual swim.

Other swimmers, having waited a lifetime for an English Channel solo in particular, can make poor last-minute decisions or changes regarding crew or feeding. Others feel that having waited those years, they must take chances. Probably the most likely impact of waiting is the decision to swim in a marginal weather opportunity that they would otherwise not have swum in. It is very easy to say this from the outside, much much less so from inside the bubble of the waiting swimmer in a marginal situation, when the pilot isn’t giving a clear indication and the decision rests with the swimmer.

Uncertain duration

Almost all swimmers step into the water with some target time or duration in mind, even if it never articulated to anyone else. Some of us learn this error the hard way and spend the rest of our swimming lives repeating it. All that counts is standing up in France is my own oft-repeated variation. A number of swimmers have found that their swim due to be two or six hours longer than expected, they have no desire to continue.  (You might recall this was the subject of a question I asked Harley Connolly, Trent Grimsey’s coach, prior to his English Channel record attempt, whether he would continue if he wasn’t on record target). Imagine this extra time extrapolated to a two-way Channel swim or a Cuba to Florida swim, when the estimated time is subject to even greater deviation. Imagine you are expecting to be swimming for 40 hours (40 hours!) and then you are told “no, it’ll be 54 hours“, longer than anyone else has ever swim? That would bring a unique psychological weight. But all additional swim time brings the possibility of being too much for a particular swimmer.

Unprepared for or unexpected events

Many marathon swimmers will go through personal form of visualisation to help ensure a successful swim. Maybe imagining picking up a rock on Vista Point or Cap Griz Nez or returning home successful. Visualisation is a powerful and well-known tool for athletes (and others). For swimmers this visualisation can include the various things than go awry during a swim, such as worsening weather or digestion or elimination issues. But what happens when reality sidesteps your visualised possibilities? Swimmers expecting a usual night-time start who instead find they have a mid-morning start and therefore will be swimming into the night instead of into the day? It is a more difficult thing to have night after ten hours of swimming than to have dawn after six hours. One is a prolonged boost, the other can act as a mental hurdle or even cliff.

Steve Munatones regularly repeats that the most important rule of open water swimming is to expect the unexpected. But while that’s correct and reasonable, it’s also easier said than done when the nature of unexpected events is to blind-side us. Some can be dealt with and the better the training and the more the experience the more likely the swimmer is to have to run into various scenarios. The epitome of this type of preparation surely has to Lisa Cummins whose training included every possible variation she could manage, from deep cold to night swims, to various feeding methods to the Torture swim, this type of training common to Sandycove Island Swim Club Channel Aspirants. All are intended to give the swimmer the broadest possible well of experience from which to draw. But there is always something unexpected out there for every swimmer. How can you prepare for solid fog? How can you prepare for getting trapped under the pilot-boat?

Reasons

It can be said that the question the endurance athlete dislikes the most is Why do you do it? We all have our own particular reasons for swimming, every swimmer’s motivation is a unique recipe which includes some obvious ingredients such as proving something to themselves, looking for limits, fighting the inevitable onslaught of age, or simply loving open water swimming. To these will be others particular to the individual, such as seeking approval, validation, remembrance of someone, or overcoming some physical hindrance or others.

Whatever the unique blend of the swimmer’s psyche they may find that in the heat of battle, those reasons evaporate or are not sufficient or may have been misdirected. This isn’t a criticism, it doesn’t mean those swimmers are missing something. Instead for some swimmers it is in the swim that they discover something about themselves or their motivation which means that finishing a swim is no longer necessary to meet those internal expectations or reasons or that the training or the swim itself regardless of outcome was the real reward. Whichever is the case only the swimmer themselves knows the internal landscape and the rewards and losses and costs of the effort, successful or otherwise.

Self doubt

Made of water
Made of Water

Or should it be self-belief? How I title this section is surely more a reflection of my own mental landscape than any definite assertion. If you read about any adventures sports or know or follow any adventure or top class sports people like Adventurer Dan Martin, Ocean’s Seven swimmer Stephen Redmond, International elite swimmer Chris Bryan or adventurer Lewis Pugh or many others on Twitter, something you’ll notice amongst many (but not all) of them is that they post inspirational quotations. Some come from themselves, some are quotations that come from others that they have found useful or that they appreciate and wish to use to inspire others. In a way these quotations act like a shorthand for the internal mental effort required.

Part of the nature of the human condition is self-doubt and it is one of the most limiting factors of all. After all without wishing to start repeating a lot of those inspirational quotations, the person who believes they can, and the person who believes they can’t are both right. If I quote that, it doesn’t mean that I absolutely follow it. Personally the problem I have with inspirational quotations is that they make me feel inadequate, with all their exhortation of overcoming and victory. Life seems to me at best a series of compromises.

Nonetheless a certain amount of self-belief is required for big swims, or anything else. You need the belief that you can keep turning the arms over for the next ten minutes, feed interval, hour, tide, night or day. Some of that comes from training or experience, some of it comes from knowing yourself. Some of it we learn along the way. But we can also run out of it and run up against limits. Almost all of us have some limit to it.

Despite that, I have my own favourites. This Socrates quotation from a long time ago remains a favourite. During Channel training my training log said “Today is the Channel” so I would remind myself of the journey every day. Another is simply; “I do not stop when I am tired. I stop when I am done“. Even if I don’t always believe it, or myself…

This is another of the private internal battles the swimmer must undergo. The biggest difference between the same person who stepped off the beach in England, and who swam ashore in France, is the increase in self-belief, what we usually term confidence.

An extract from Channel Swimmer David Walliams' Channel mental training preparation
An extract from Channel Swimmer David Walliams’  mental training preparation

There are of course the other more mundane psychological aspects of a marathon swimmer’s life: Boredom, worrying about imminent physical problems, regretting missed training, anxiety about water depth or creatures, or ever embarrassment about bodily elimination, these are the ongoing easier understood issues of a marathon swim. But no less important for being more mundane or easier to convey.

Channels swimmers often say it is 10% physical and 90% mental. I prefer to think that it is 90% physical. And 90% mental.

Unlike most of the items in Parts One and Two, these aspects are neither visible, nor particular to marathons swimmers. And yet they can be bigger hurdles for being invisible and private and general.

But the biggest hurdle isn’t necessarily one or the other, but the one that either stops you or took the most to overcome.

Next time you look at any endurance athlete or event and in particular marathon swimmers, I hope I’ve given you some idea of the Limiting Factors with which each and every one must necessarily deal.

Limiting Factors in Marathon Swimming – Part 2 – Environmental Factors

In Part One I covered the physiological limiting factors in marathon swimming.

The various environmental aspects of a swim are not insignificant. They are especially important in that they all lay outside the swimmer’s control and often even outside the control of the support crew.

Water Temperature

Thermometer
Thermometer

This is generally a known factor prior to a swim. Swims are either cool or cold water like the English and North Channels or warm water swims like Maui, Rottnest, Manhattan or Chloe Maccardels’ upcoming Cuba to Florida attempt. A few fall into an intermediate category defined more by the swimmer’s experience, such as the Catalina and Gibraltar Channels. Sudden changes in temperature are rare in marathon swimming and where they are possible they are also understood; such as South Africa’s west coast which is prone to sudden wide water temperature changes, and the California coast where the sudden transition from very deep water to a shallower continental shelf very close to the  mainland can cause cold water upwelling at the end of a marathon swim. Air temperature is obviously much more variable and a condition of the weather but extremes of air temperature are not usual during a swim. A five degree Celsius differential can be significant for a swimmer if such a drop is also accompanied with a breeze or wind which can sap the swimmer of body heat.

Jellyfish

Lion's Mane jellyfish
Lion’s Mane jellyfish

The recent and future attempts at a distance and time records by necessity are held in warmer waters such as Cuba to Florida.  These water are home to jellyfish with debilitating stings such as Box Jellyfish. While the cold waters  of the North and English Channels are home to Lion’s Mane and Portuguese Man O’War’s endurance records are less likely and jellyfish stings in the English Channel are rarely more than intermittent, though the North Channel (the Mouth of Hell) can have miles of Lion’s Mane blooms, part of what makes it the ultimate channel swim. Attempts to swim in these waters divide swimmers in two ways: whether attempts should be made in locations not considered possible without additional protection or exceptions to the usual rules, and if so are jellyfish protection suits acceptable or the thin edge of a wedge that will inevitably lead to more overt (or hidden) performance enhancing suits? (See Evan’s analysis of his survey of marathon swimmers for an excellent overview of the contradictions of divisions and unity in the community).

Sharks

The Man In The Grey Suit is a subject of great concern (and discussion) for distance swimmers. Not of any real concern here in the north-eastern Atlantic, they are a greater hazard in the warmer waters elsewhere, particularly California, the Caribbean, Hawaii, South Africa and Australia. The Cook Strait Channel swim in New Zealand is unique in having a shark evacuation rule. Shark cages have been used for marathon swims in the Caribbean and South Africa at least. Shark cages are however considered swim assistance as they increase the swimmer’s speed through eddy current drag. Other possible control methods include electronic shark repellents (whose effectiveness is not entirely assured or quantified), armed boat crew or armed or otherwise scuba diver outriders.

Tides

These are amongst  the most variable of environmental factors and therefore potentially also the most limiting. Because swimmers move slowly relative to even a sailing boat, we are vulnerable to slight deviations, miscalculations or just insufficient data, the most likely cause. Even in such a well-travelled and mapped location as the English Channel, especially for swimming, pilots will occasionally speak of tides arriving early or late or with a difference force than expected. Tidal currents are understood at a larger scale, hundred of years of navigation have mapped the seas for craft, not for swimmers. Tides act in a similar chaotic way to a weather system, which means that small deviations will always creep in. The only way to improve accuracy of prediction is to improve the data, and this is not practically possible or even desired for small tidal variations. As swims occur in less well-known or new locations, the likelihood of discovering unknown local variations outside marine charts increases. Half a knot current, barely detectable to a boat, is enough to deviate a swim over hours from a projected or necessary course.

Global tides
Global tides

Crew and boat

Any English Channel pilot will confirm that one of the most likely causes of unsuccessful Channel swims is poor selection of support crew. The most likely cause is mal-du-mer, seasickness. For some people seasickness is a completely debilitating ailment that can sap all willpower and strength and there is no way to know whom it will strike. The solution of course is to have experienced crew. Even this can fail because people experienced on powered craft will be at the mercy of the choppy water amplified on an almost stationary craft. Other crew issues can also arise, whether accidents or other illness. Anyone who hasn’t been on a rocking boat looking down on a swimmer is unlikely to understand! And not unknown are mechanical problems on the pilot-boat. Most pilots are by necessity practical mechanics able to address problems as they arise, but not all problems can be fixed with a wrench and hammer while rocking about on the sea.

Channel boat The Viking Princess
Channel boat The Viking Princess out of the water

Weather

Weather changes are the bane of English and North Channel swimmers particularly. Other Channels like Tsugaru and Gibraltar and Cook are also subject to constantly variable and unpredictable weather patterns. If you are used to the predictable weather of the west US coast, with morning offshore and afternoon onshore breezes, knowing your swim will almost certainly take place with a 48 window, the difficulty of allocating two weeks or even long (like the North Channel) and still being completely unsure of getting in the water is shocking. Weather constraints obviously ran the full gamut. In the North, English and Gibraltar channels the main concern is wind (and its effect on the seas). Fog can also be a problem with 2012’s Channel season infamously seeing three solos on one day abandoned within a kilometre of France for the first time in 137 years. I’ve warned previously that fog may be the most dangerous weather condition for swimmers. In warmer humid climes like Round Manhattan, and the Caribbean, lightning storms are a serious cause for worry, a swimmer or boat caught exposed out on the water is in real danger. Having to wait for or even postpone a swim is something many marathon swimmers have undergone and the mental pressure this brings is often not inconsiderable, which I will discuss further in the next and final part.

Coming in part three, Psychological Factors.

 

Limiting Factors in Marathon Swimming – Part 1 – Physical Factors

The northern hemisphere summer swimming season is on the horizon , though it doesn’t feel like it here in Ireland where we’ve been having the coldest spring “since records began” (that phrase we are all familiar with from the past few years).  there will be big swims, both attempted and successful. 

Before genuine and extravagant claims are made by ill-informed media covering swims about which they know little and understand less, I though it might be worthwhile to round up the limiting factors for ultra-endurance marathon swims that might help people to apply some criteria to help evaluate some of those swims. Limiting factors which constrain or control a process.

Limiting factors on marathons swims can broadly be said to fall into three categories, with further subdivisions in two of those three.

  • Physical
  • Environmental
  • Psychological

In this first part we will consider the physical limitations.

The Physical Constraints to long swims pertain to the individual swimmer and will be influenced by their experience, training, and preparation.

The god bottle
The god bottle

Energy: Often seen by non-swimmers as the defining criteria, Energy relates to the swimmer’s ability to keep swimming. For experienced marathon swimmers however this is not often the as critical as is seen from outside. Evan and I have covered marathon feeding aspects in the past, from mechanics to content and possible supplementation, but the simple fact is that a tested feed plan, appropriate for the conditions and swimmer, will usually provide the pre-requisite energy. Most marathon swimmers use concentrated carbohydrate as the primary feed, with electrolytes to keep the body’s systems operating.  Changes to this basic plan vary with the swimmer but as long as the swimmer can keep feeding, they will take in sufficient energy.

Digestion: There is often talk of vomiting amongst marathon swimmers. Many, and I am one, think it is worthwhile to get used to being able to swim if or even while vomiting. While many swimmers put the pre-disposition of marathon swimmers to vomit at the door of feed plans and high carbohydrate loads, I think there can be other possible causes, (though the body regardless of size can only process so much carbohydrate per hour). Additionally  there are also the small amounts of salt water that even very experienced swimmers can take in due either to the odd mouthful of choppy water, or salt spray in rough conditions. And which I think is important but unquantified, is the extended time in a prone position which could hinder digestion. Peristalsis, the contraction of internal muscles to move food through the digestive process, has been shown in studies to be independent of gravity for most positions (unsurprisingly, since the intestine leads in all directions). Though peristalsis in the prone head-down position was not shown to be statistically abnormal (i.e. the swimming position) those studies were of short duration.  It is possible, but undetermined, if a longer time period could cause a greater likelihood of digestive problems causing vomiting. Vomiting during a swim usually isn’t particularly energy-consuming , and can even be a relief for once-off incidences. But should the vomiting frequency increase  greater distress can be caused and lead to a collapse in energy.

Nothing_Great_Is_EasyStrength: Like energy, strength is often more considered a limiting factor by non-swimmers. Marathon swimmers don’t often operate on strength alone but more usually on continuous repetition obviously and on technique. Hundreds or thousands of kilometres of swim training act as low-repetition strength training and cause swimmers to have very strong (if not very defined) muscles. A typical training load of a thousand kilometres a year (some swim less, some swim much more) prepares distance swimmers physically. Marathon swimmer’s embrace of the Nothing Great is Easy aphorism is simply one of our ways of explaining that physical strength is not the most important attribute.

Typical English Channel swimmer with salt mouth
Typical English Channel swimmer with salt mouth

Salt Mouth: I’ve written on Salt Mouth specifically as being a serious limiting factor for long swims. In brief it is the build-up of salt in the swimmer’s mouth and throat which can in the worst cases lead the swimmer to be unable to feed or even swallow, and can cause the sloughing of the epidermis of the tongue and throat. It can be extremely painful. Only swimmers who have run into this can understand how painful it can be. With all the talk of stinger suits and shark protection, I think ways this problem is far more important for those willing to risk  extending the outer limits of distance swimming. When evaluating a long swim it is worth looking at the salinity of the region. Kevin Murphy’s record 53 hours in the English Channel was in a region of higher salinity and is one of the many reasons swimmers who understand this limiting factor hold Kevin in such high esteem. Swims in the Caribbean such as Chloe McCardels or Penny Palfrey’s Cuba to Florida swim attempts are also in a region of high salinity. The US West Coast is lower salinity that the US East Coast and the Mediterranean is higher than any of these.

Global ocean salinity
Global ocean salinity

Sleep: If you’ve ever missed a night sleep and spent the next day in an utter daze, one may find it hard to imagine that sleep deprivation in itself is not as much a limiting factor as one may guess. There are studies showing that the sleep two nights before a big athletic event is of more importance that of the preceding night. And the majority of English Channel swimmers start their swim in the middle of the might and will miss most if not all of sleep of the night before. Once actually swimming, and assuming the swimmer has the requisite physical and mental stamina, lack of sleep for a second night does not seem to be the most critical factor. Obviously scientific study of the whole of marathon swimming in low enough given the small numbers involved, but the numbers of people who have swum over 24 hours (the 24 hour club) is very small with no scientific study to speak of, and only inferences can be made. Key is probably the factor that the athletic endeavour of marathon swimming is well below the swimmer/athlete’s VO2 Max ability, (what the athlete is capable of at their threshold limit).

Stroke training
Stroke training

Technique: Marathon swimmers range in style and technical ability. Some are not at really graceful or obviously and some like Evan or Trent are elegant controlled swimmers. Most of us though fall in the the wider intermediate range. We train technique along with all the other aspects and just are there are different ways to skin a cat there are different techniques in swimming from a bludgeoning powerhouse to a smooth FLOWer. Excellent technique in itself is not a determiner of success in marathon swimming, but equally being a powerhouse swimmer isn’t either. Good technique though is much less likely to lead to an overuse injury during a significantly long swim. Slight stroke imbalances when repeated 30,000 times for an average English channel swim, or even more for more epic swims, accumulate tiny stresses in the body of the swimmer, especially the neck and shoulders, that could lead to injury during a swim.

Coming in Part Two, environmental limiting factors of marathon swimming.

marathon swimmers.org cropped & levelled banner

Announcing: marathonswimmers.org

Hello friends, future friends, open water swimmers, readers, Aspirants and marathon swimmers!

For some time Evan Morrison and some others and myself have been discussing global marathon swimming.

Marathon swimming is a tiny but still growing sport. As a group, we wish to see marathon swimming continue to be celebrated and encouraged and confusion with other types of swimming reduced (which intends no disrespect to those swimmers and swims). But Evan and I and many others adhere to 136 year old rules that have derived from Captain Webb‘s first English Channel swim in 1875.

As a step toward fostering and supporting marathon swimming, we’re inviting you to view and hopefully join The Marathon Swimmers Forum at marathonswimmers.org.

We had a “soft” launch last week with a small global invitation list in order to get some people involved before announcing the forum more widely and to test it and see if the idea was valid or potentially valuable, and the thirty-ish people signed up from the invitation list  includes some very successful marathon swimmers and also some Aspirants.

The CS&PF Channel email group, Facebook and various Association’s websites and blogs and email lists already play an important global role in communication, education and  connection. Marathonswimmers.org is not intended to replace or compete with any of those, or any other medium, but is hoped to promote, help and add to our global community.

It is intended to be open, global and to also allow anonymity.

Evan, (who is a committee member of Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association) has registered the domain and there is no cost and no commercial element. It’s a free forum that we hope will become integral to the global marathon swimming community, both beginners and experienced swimmers. We’d love your participation.

We hope it will be useful for learning AND teaching, advice, sharing information and help, volunteering, making connections, encouragement, trackers, cheering, celebrations and congratulations, and whatever else you’re having yourself.

From beginner to the world’s most famous open water and marathons swimmers, all are welcome.

We dearly hope if this is your area of interest you will drop by and make it yours, (not ours).

Here’s to a marathon swimming world.

Please share this if you wish.

Regards
Donal & Evan