Tag Archives: Safety decisions are best made OUTSIDE the water

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

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

A common question is some variation of:

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

There are different answers for this depending on many factors:

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

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

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

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

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

YOU CANNOT SUBSTITUTE A WETSUIT FOR TRAINING AND EXPERIENCE.

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

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

BUT HOW MUCH DO I NEED TO TRAIN?

There is no simple answer. However…

Endurance swimmers and athletes have a few rules of thumb:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lough Dan Ice Mile Swim Attempt

Late last week the opportunity to make another Official Ice Mile attempt was offered by Dublin and English Channel swimmers Fergal Somerville and John Daly, this time the attempt to be made in Lough Dan, up in the Wicklow Mountains. Since the previous attempt I had already turned down another opportunity the previous week in the Kerry Mountains, (a report of which I’ll have for you soon).

I told Fergal I wouldn’t be able to make it, and that was still pretty much the case only 24 hours beforehand. However, after a night with four and half hours sleep, lying awake at five a.m., I decided I’d at least attend, and maybe consider it. And so it was that Dee and I left at seven a.m. for the estimated two-hour journey up. Passing Hollywood, (not quite like the better known, younger and more brash American version) we rose gradually up to the Wicklow Gap, and minus four degrees air temperatures with two inches of snow, staring down the long miles of the Wicklow Way to the dawn sun briefly breaking the clouds and shining on the distant Irish Sea. It was stunningly beautiful of course, and nerve-wracking to drive. We were driving almost an hour from when we encountered the first snow and ice before we arrived at Lough Dan just before nine-thirty a.m.

The Wicklow Way and the Irish Sea on the horizon
The Wicklow Way from the Wicklow Gap with the Irish Sea on the horizon

Lough Dan is a Scout and hiking centre and site for overnight camping in the snow, so there were many people about and most of the swimmers and crew were already present. One swimmer from the previous attempt would not be with us, having decided to attempt it by himself, and instead Carmel Collins, a Sandycove swimmer, joined us. We moved the cars down as close to the lake edge as we could, about a hundred metres, and proceeded to check the temperatures.

Lough Dan_IMG_1304.resized

3.7C
3.7C

The tiny bay from where we had lake access was about only ten metres across, and half-covered in ice. So it was immediately obvious the temperature wasn’t too high this time around. And there was no wind, which is important. My first measurement in the shallow water indicated the horrifically low reading of 1.4 degrees Celsius. I moved out along the rocks delineating the east side of the cove to get to deeper water and took a long measurement which read 3.7 º C.

Ice in Lough Dan cove_IMG_1309.resized

An Official ice Mile, as you probably know, requires water temperatures of 5 º Celsius or less, measured at three different locations, by temperature probes reading 30 centimetres below the surface. 

The swim course would be a 400 metre loop, beginning at a pontoon about 50 metres off the shore, and leading down into the lake and back, with four full loops required for the pre-requisite 1650 metres, with a little extra distance padding built-in for anyone swimming the full course.

RIB going in through ice
RIB going in through ice

We had a RIB (rescue boat) and a kayaker, a doctor and plenty of other helpers. Irish English Channel record holder and paramedic, Mr Awesome, Tom Healy, and his partner Rachel were also on-hand for extra safety along with others including Vanessa Daws, artist, open water swimmer and video documentarian of the Irish open water swimming scene.

(Note: I only met Tom for the first time in Dover when both he and Alan Clack were preparing to swim their respective solos on the same day). I met him and Rachel again the day afterwards, and I rubbed the tattoos on his arms. “No. they don’t come off” he said. “Actually“, I said, “I was checking if the awesome would rub off on me“).

Ice in Lough Dan cove
Ice in Lough Dan cove

We had to wait a while longer than expected before we could start, (and why that is, is a story I hope to return to soon in a separate joint-authored post with Finbarr Hedderman). I thought about the swim, thought about how little sleep I’d had in the previous 48 hours, about how my weight is only one kilogram higher than it was for the previous attempt, thought about how the water was colder than I expected or hoped, (4.9 to 5.0 would have been my preferred but difficult to achieve temperature). I thought about the 40,000 metre training week I’d just completed, without expecting this as the end and even the fact that I hadn’t been in the sea for almost two weeks, my longest absence in a year. I thought about my distracted mental state. And I thought most importantly about whether I wanted to actually to attempt the full swim, and decided I didn’t. I realised I was not capable of it that day. So I decided I’d (almost) certainly only do a half-mile. After all, it would still be a decent swim, in water colder than I’d ever had an opportunity in which to swim.

From left,Fergal, Donal, Patrick (behind), John, Colm, Carmel
From left: Vanessa, Fergal, Donal, Patrick (behind), John, Colm, Carmel

We had the safety briefing, and just after eleven a.m. Fergal, John, Patrick Corkery, Colm Breathnach, Carmel Collins and myself finally entered the peat-black water with Vanessa in her wetsuit and her trusty Go-Pro. I dislike slow entries, while I also don’t like to dive into cold water I don’t know. So wading out behind Fergal, I got my hands and face in for a good splash, let my breathing settle for a few seconds and then started swimming, while it was still shallow and everyone else started swimming virtually immediately.

Start, wading in, I'm into the water
The start, wading out, I’m swimming. The yellow pontoon was the start and turning point

As you’d expect, water somewhere between three and four degrees really hurts. I hope you didn’t expect me to say something more profound. As with all cold water it hurts most in the hands, feet and sinuses. It just hurts more acutely and more quickly. I seem to have control over the sinus pain this year, (I’ve only noticed in retrospect) and each year I’ve noticed some improved aspect of my cold tolerance. This water didn’t cause any stabbing sinus or face pain. But my hands and feet were immediately painful and the pain didn’t abate. And I was almost unable to kick from the start, as kicking when your feet are painful with cold seems to increase the pain. By not kicking, the blood also flows more slowly in your body. It’s not really a conscious decision, just one of those possibly individual quirks of cold water for me, though it’s then more difficult in the reduced buoyancy of fresh water lake to maintain a horizontal streamlined position.

Once past the left side of the tiny cove, I immediately went too far to the left, while most of the rest went too far right and we met at about 100 metres out half way to the buoy. Patrick, Fergal and I were together to the first turn, with the kayaker providing a watchful eye, with me inside on the turn. I came out of the inside turn somewhat at a disadvantage to Patrick, shall we say. I’m normally up for the full contact aspect of open water swimming, but this swim wasn’t one where I was so motivated. Patrick and I stayed together with Fergal in front pulling a few metres ahead. We touched the pontoon at 400 metres and turned back. Approaching the end of the third leg Patrick and I were still together and I was going to get caught between him and the buoy again, so I dropped back and swam over his legs to his right side to go wide around the turn, which allowed him to open up five metres. It wasn’t relevant, I was heading into my final 200 metres.

Donal finishing
Donal finishing

Approaching the pontoon again, I somehow got a mouthful of water, in flat water! Which made me splutter, and further confirmed my decision that today wasn’t my day. I swung right, and into the cove. It was very difficult to walk over the stones of the hidden lake floor with my painful soles and Tom Mr Awesome Healy waded out to assist my landing, such as it was. Dee and Carmel’s partner Gordon helped me get dressed, and we moved back the car. I’d swum somewhat over 800 metres, I was in the water for 16 minutes. I wasn’t obviously as hypothermic as I’d been after the previous attempt, in fact I was able to kind-of-jog back to the car.

Twelve minutes or so later Colm finished first, as always, followed by Fergal, Patrick, Carmel and John. Since we were back at the car however, we don’t have photos of the rest finishing.

It was a fantastic achievement for them all, and all deserve Congratulations: Fergal Colm, John, Patrick and Carmel. There were different levels of post-swim hypothermia but that is to be expected of course. The safety cover and assistance and help were excellent, top class in fact, with no worries about anyone. I recovered in about 40 minutes, unlike the much longer recovery of the previous attempt.

I have never been so happy with a decision to NOT complete a swim. I’ll repeat my favourite safety aphorism for you again:

Safety decisions are best made OUTSIDE the water.

I’d left myself the small possibility of attempting the full swim but I knew before I started that it wasn’t likely. My weight hasn’t changed much, I’m still lighter than in three years at least, but most importantly, I knew I was unwilling to dig into the mental reserves I knew I’d have to access in order to complete. I know how to find and access those mental reserves for swims but it would come at a physical price. And I also know that sometimes that pushing myself too far isn’t the wisest thing to do. The full mile would have been too far for me. It was a fantastic achievement for the five swimmers, as it is for all ice mile swimmers. By exiting to plan, I didn’t encounter, or cause, any of the safety issues that we’ve seen or heard about on a couple of recent ice-mile attempts in various location. I also had a fantastic experience by reaffirming to myself that I am capable of entirely making my own safety decisions for myself, regardless of what anyone else is doing and as such the day was an enormous success for me also.

You sometimes hear marathon swimmers say they swim to find their limits, and this was one of those times for me. I am very happy with the exploration.

Check out Fergal’s report on his blog.

(On the way home we stopped in beautiful Glendalough, where it almost seemed someone had helpfully placed a single washed-up log, ideal as a photographic focal point!).

Glendalough upper lake
Glendalough upper lake