Tag Archives: problems with marathon swimming

Total Immersion in marathon swimming

I mentioned T.I. in an email to a well-known record-setting swimmer and we thought I might write a post on it. When someone who has set a new record thinks it’s a good subject, you write!

Many of you will be aware that Total Immersion, (T.I.) is a method of teaching swimming developed by Terry Laughlin, which focuses on long strokes and gliding through the water. Swim like a fish, is the motto of T.I..

When I’ve occasionally helped swimmers, especially triathletes, I’ve used some drills that apparently have come from T.I.. T.I. is particularly popular amongst triathletes worldwide, because of its focus on energy efficiency and gliding, so triathletes can use T.I. to finish the swim leg having expended as little energy as possible to be more ready for the cycling leg (triathlons are rarely won or lost on the swimming leg). (T.I. got some extra attention last year in a TED video by Tim Ferriss.)

With triathletes especially it’s best to reduce the flailing, to try to get them conscious of gliding through the water and of relaxing, rather than fighting the water. Pretty much what all swimmers learn, but in a more compressed time.

But one consequence of T.I. is a reduced stroke count, which is imparted, it seems to me, as the most desired result, at least this is how those people I’ve met who have learned T.I. impart it to me. Having read some of Terry’s many thoughts on T.I. and this subject, it seems that he himself is not as rigid as many of the people who go through T.I. training here seem to be, when he himself advocates having a quiver of responses ready for varying open water conditions, something I’ve said myself previously about for example, breathing patterns.

It should be remembered as very important that many or most triathlons (all here in Ireland and the UK) require the triathletes to wear a wetsuit. Indeed Alan Smith, Waterford local multiple Ironman triathlete and Channel Aspirant told how just a couple of weeks before his Channel attempt he was forced to take the black and wear a wetsuit for a paltry short swim of about 1k because the rules required them.

Some months back I discovered (too late) that one EC Aspirant, whom I was occasionally advising through email, was actually using T.I., as the athlete had come from a triathlon background. With very little time left I had to stress they dump the T.I. approach immediately.

Why? Simply, it would not keep them warm in the Channel. Let me give an example, again I think I this mentioned it before.

Guillamene steps from the rocks below

Some months ago I was walking down the steps at the Guillamene, when I saw someone coming in from the Pier, rare enough. And I immediately noticed they had a very low stroke count, so low that I stopped to count (which I’ve never done before). I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was in the 40s. I was concerned for whomever it was, because a stroke rate that low, unless they were a large person with lots of experience, was looking at getting cold very quickly. And it turned out to be a friend, whom had been advised to reduce their stroke count to extend the glide on the extension. Someone experienced who never previously got cold, got really cold that day and it was a warmish summer day (by Irish standards). it was incorrect advice from someone who didn’t know, whose open water experience came from a book. It wasn’t exactly T.I. but quite similar.

At the weekend, indeed I was talking to the swimmer who had given that advice, who was wearing a wetsuit, and in winter pool training was focusing exclusively, as I expected, on stroke count reduction by increasing distance per stroke.

Oh, I just remembered, Penny Palfrey, probably the best (non-FINA) marathon swimmer in the world right now, apparently has a stroke rate of 80.

Triathletes using T.I. have a wetsuit to cushion this effect of slower stroke rate to keep them warm. Removing a wetsuit and keeping a low stroke count is a recipe for hypothermia in cold water. More than anything else in cold water you must be able to maintain a steady consistent stroke rate. A 10% variation in a marathon swimmer is a big variation. Most of us won’t vary by more than about 5%. I’ll use again the example of my E.C. I was 70 strokes per minute almost every measurement , never dropped below 68, never went higher than 74. An old S.I. article on Doc Counsilman’s EC solo in 1979 (from Evan) mentioned his metronomic pace of about 64 (same for example as Ned). Gábor stayed at 68 if I remember correctly, after he settled down after the first two hours (he was up toward 80 at the start, excitement and the effects of tapering priming him for a nervous muscular explosive start).

I don’t actually have a problem with T.I., it has its uses, I like what I’ve seen of the drills and some of its ideas, and when I read it, I also like Terry Laughlin’s own blog and his thoughts on the mindfulness of swimming, something I think any distance swimmer can appreciate. I like his meditative frame of mind and consideration of swimming, after all many times myself I’ve compared the purity of night swimming in particular to meditation or how we operate mentally on long swims, something I have a post planned on again.

After years of open water, I know my stroke is 70 +- 4 spm. Anytime I check it in the water, it’s 68 to 72, unlikely to outside that unless I am increasing speed or slowing down. I can just feel the rate by now. This is a vital skill and very different from pool swimming. I know people who have come from a competitive pool background and never once thought about stroke rate. Your SPM might be 58 or 64 or whatever, it’s your stroke rate, the one that works for you as a consequence of your fitness and size and training and background. I’ve noticed bigger people tend toward lower stroke rates but I don’t think that’s a rule or anything.

T.I. might teach you to monitor your stroke rate very closely, but it won’t teach you to increase it to keep your internal heat production high enough. Maybe it’s fine in warm water, but at any water temperature lower than about 28 degrees, you are losing heat. You must combat this by internal thermogenesis.

By the way, in winter pool training, (oh, I’m later going back to it this year than ever before, I’m still in the sea), I do actually work on DPS, distance per stroke.

I’m personally wary of any absolutes when those absolutes are just opinions, like one particular swimming style. That’ll come as no surprise to long-term readers here.

Separate from the heat retention aspects, what I find myself is that there are consequences to my stroke that come from open water swimming. If you watch most OW swimmers, you will see that they have a high hand recovery, quite different to pool swimmers, which comes about as a consequence having to lift the hand higher to avoid it crashing into chop. It’s a rare day in the sea that you can have a high elbow recovery. This is sure to also reduce your rotation, which in turn increases your stroke rate. Then there is the effect of sighting, where you have to lift your head, like you never would in the pool, which again, will change your body position and therefore stroke mechanics. At least that’s how it seems to me.

Maybe it’s different in warm water, (apparently there are places in the world with warm water, it’s been reported), where you don’t have to worry about cold. But remember, at any temperature below about 24° Celsius, eventually, you will become hypothermic. For those  of us for whom 24° C is much warmer than we ever get, we tend to forget this.

But in cold water you must swim to keep yourself warm, because you are literally swimming for your life.

Choose your weapon. Wetsuits at Dawn?

The online marathon swimming world is buzzing with discussion of Santa Barbara CSA Scott Zornig’s rant discussion on the problems with marathon swimming, with seemingly the majority of the more experienced Channel and distance swimmers in agreement.

I suggest you first read the (longish) article linked above.

To recap his core three arguments and concerns:

  1. The use of wetsuits in marathon swimming events should neither be recognised nor encouraged.
  2. Bootlegging swims, swimming recognised swims without official validation.
  3. The use or misuse or presence of media in marathon swimming.

I’m not going to go through his arguments, you can do that, I´ll address some problems and make some points. 

But I’ll make it simple and do a TL:DR (Too Long: Didn’t Read, i.e. a synopsis for those too challenged to read it all) for you:

All my arguments come down to one name that I want you to remember:

TL:DR – Phillipe Croizon. When you say his name, you know much of what Zornig says is exclusionary elitism. I agree with some other parts.

1. I started in a wetsuit. I dumped it pretty quickly and I discovered the fun (read: pain ) in trying to get better at cold in a cold land. But in Ireland, if non-wetsuit swimming was the criteria for starting, our sport would not exist. Zornig, who lives in a warm location with warm water and clement weather forgets this most basic of facts: all the world is not America.

We’ve noticed for example, that open water swimming is thriving in the cold waters around the Republic of Ireland as it is elsewhere. Why would that be? Two reasons:

  • Because of the possibilities wetsuits allow.
  • And because of acceptance of wetsuits within our community.

Wetsuits allow entry, but acceptance of wetsuits facilitates the building of community, it allows people to operate at their own level and maybe later to progress beyond that. I have talked to enough swimmers to know that same level of acceptance does not exist around the UK, for example. But if someone does not desire to shed the neoprene, that does not make them less a part of our group in Sandycove. Of course those of us who swim without suits, who put the effort in, may mentally make an adjustment. But that’s up to us, without imposing our will or judgement on others. Maybe some of this is perceptual. As a Channel swimmer I get as annoyed as others at stuff like the Jamie Patrick swim and I’ve written about my thoughts about The Swim, and I was as irritated by some of the nonsense surrounding those as it was possible to be.

But here’s the kicker: nothing anyone else does has any effect on what I or my friends have achieved. Ronan Keating wearing a condom AND flippers and getting more media than any of us, does not lessen how I feel about my own or my friends swimming.

My sense of self-worth is not invested in someone elses results, even if the sport as a whole is demeaned. That is a powerful lesson I learned from the Channel.

Let me point out something: In Zornig’s article he mentions SBSA, CCSA, and CSA. He doesn’t mention CS&PF. I’m a CS&PF Channel swimmer. But that’s just coincidence Donal, you say. Is it? I’m not a Channel swimmer. According to the CSA, that is. The CS&PF recognises CSA swimmers, the CSA doesn’t reciprocate. Only the CSA authorities, and no actual CSA swimmers I’ve met, think this makes sense. So the world of associations isn’t untarnished.

Evan Morrison makes the point about marathon swimming’s heritage. As I sit here in Dover at the centre of the marathon swimming world, I have no doubt that the continuity of that shared tribal history continues. Our rules exist. They will never change. No-one outside of our group, except other extreme endurance athletes, WILL EVER UNDERSTAND what we do.

Irish SeaIf we could explain it, we already would have, and since we haven’t and can’t, we use all the other methods and clichés and analogies. But only our peers understand. So when Jamie Fitzpatrick is claiming X or Y, the people who matter, the only people who should matter, marathon swimmers under Channel rules, will know the truth. In the interim, why should we care that he gets recognition? Yes, I’m far from Buddha, I’ll be irritated, but it has nothing to do with what we do.

Last week’s The Swim Irish Sea relay had a similar impact in Ireland and the UK, we were all annoyed, mostly that the real swimmers like Colm O’Neill hardly got mentioned and it was all about a bunch of celebrities.

But I read the wall in The White Horse and I am both re-assured of the future and the continuity of the past as it remains the greatest achievement to write your name on the wall.

2. I’m not aware of bootlegging as a problem here. I completed my Project Copper swims solo and unaccompanied. You can choose to believe me or not. I claim nothing about them other than written here. Of course, I have a reputation, by which I only mean I am known in a small circle of people; my friends and you guys reading this.

Unless you are intimately involved with open water in Ireland, you are unlikely to know about our biggest bootlegging problem, where a high-profile swimmer claimed to have swam the Mouth of Hell while on a training session. No observer was present, the media interviewed the person. In a brave move, one of Irish Open Water’s most recognisable and high-profile people called the swimmer on it publicly, legal letters were sent, etc, but eventually the claim was retracted. By then every open water swimmer had seen the pictures and knew the claim was bogus.

How do you address this concern? There is no way. People will go outside the organisations. There is room in the water for everyone. One local newbie, from a pool background was going to try a local swim and claimed that it would be longer and tougher than the English Channel. The only effect was to alienate the entire open water swimming fraternity in Ireland from the person. The person could have done the swim (they failed due to poor planning) but it wouldn’t have meant much to any of us (none of us were fooled either in believing it was remotely comparable) since there was no observation or validation.  Balance was restored to the Force

What matters, what has always mattered, is validation. A SWIM is a validated swim. An officially observed swim. No issue. Once again I refer you back to the difference between the CSA and CS&PF. If we have an organisation which claims primacy and sole validation English Channel swims, which fails recognise other Channel swimmers, then we have a problem internal to marathon swimming, so we can hardly throw stones. I know I’m not supposed to talk about this publicly. The last time I alluded to it, I was privately chastised.

And I recognise that discussing the issue publicly may cause difficulties for the CS&PF, of whom I’m a member, but despite my regular visits to Dover, I’m a far-flung member. And maybe we need to continue to raise this issue.

As someone I know, again very high-profile, has said; “they (CSA) don’t think I swam the Channel. So fuck ‘em”.

3. Part of the previous of course displays the problem of media. I’m more in agreement with Zornig on this. But it is the nature of the beast. When you lie down with dogs, etc. The media doesn’t understand the difference between anything, and the person or persons with the loudest and best publicity machine will get the most attention. Plus ça change (plus c’est la même chose). I’ve also said, is it that important? I would like to see an educated media, but I’m often told I live in my own imaginary world.

What IS really important, is that media, traditional and web, that talks about swims needs to makes two things very clear:

  • Is the swim assisted or not?
  • What is the position of the media in the actual swim? Is the person reporting or supporting?

But I’m sticking my big ignorant dirty Irish gombeen foot further into this issue:

The biggest problem in open water swimming isn’t any of Zornig’s issues. The biggest problem is elitism.

I’m not a swimmer. What? you say. Yes, so I’ve been told, so my friends have been told. If you were not a competitive pool swimmer at the age of twelve, then you are not a swimmer. Hands up all of you swimmers who have heard this ridiculous bullshit.

I started and moderate an anonymous swimming forum with over 2,000 swimmers elsewhere. Elitism is a bannable offense. I’ve never had to actually ban anyone, because one warning always suffices.

We are swimmers. We swim. We should embrace diverse aspects of our sport, make it accepting and welcoming. It’s pretty disappointing that the elitism in now coming from open water swimmers as well as the people in the chlorine boxes.

Scott Zornig is president of SBCSA, but pretends to write as individual, while still retaining the privilege of that position. I harbour no ill will toward him, I know no more of him that he would of me. I’m just one Irishman with a keyboard and too many opinions and no more important a voice than anyone else.

Your mileage may vary. Objects in the rear view mirror may be imaginary.

Hang on, I’m almost there.

I’ve haven’t had time to plan out this response, unlike the initial post, this is off the cuff.

Philipe Croizon.

We are all humbled. David & Evelyn with Philipe in Varne.

Swam the Channel in a wetsuit. With no limbs. Swam with the CS&PF, (which means incidentally I will remain CS&PF, regardless).

Channel swimming, left to the so-called traditionalists of the CSA, would have dictated that Philipe Croizon would never have swum the English Channel and we would have lost that transcendent vision of inspiration and over-coming adversity.

And forget your special pleading. Forget marginalizing for different cases. It looks in the article that Scott Zornig has decided he doesn’t like something, and much of his response is a post-hoc justification. I remember what I learned when I was in school and they said, if you are not with us, you are against us. I learnt that it was always the only choice to be against them.

Evan, I’m sorry, I say this in respect as you know, but if you say: If it’s impossible to do without a wetsuit (and it’s probably not), it’s not worth doing with one, that would rule out Philipe. And if you say, it doesn’t apply to Philipe, then that’s special pleading. Then rule me out also. I’m with the guy with no arms or legs.

I guess there’s little chance I’ll ever be allowed to swim Santa Barbara now. Before I published this I walked 10 metres and took a photo. Here it is. Top right, bottom left. Proud to be on the same wall.

EDIT: I meant to write Jaime Patrick above. Apologies to Triple Crown Winner Jamie Fitpatrick! (Fitzpatrick is a common Irish name, I didn’t even realise I’d written it).

Sharing a wall with Philipe Croizon


Homer understood;

“For wreaking havoc on a strong man, even the very strongest, there is nothing so dire as the sea.”

But Lucretius was wrong:

“Lovely it is, when the winds are churning up the waves on the great sea, to gaze out from the land on the great efforts of someone else”.

Joseph Conrad saw it:

“The sea — this truth must be confessed — has no generosity. No display of manly qualities — courage, hardihood, endurance, faithfulness — has ever been known to  touch its irresponsible consciousness of power”.