More people than ever before are taking on extreme open water swim challenges ranging from their first mile in a lake right through to swimming between countries. Open water swimming is a sport that anyone with a basic skill set in swimming can participate in at their own level and this has opened up a whole new set of personal challenges for many aspiring individuals looking to push the limits and do something amazing with their lives. Those of us that take to open water regularly understand the amazing sense of freedom and achievement that comes from completing that next milestone and the feeling of knowing you are doing something that 99% of people can not comprehend. Why do we go for these extreme challenges and put ourselves through sheer cold, massive distances and dark deep waters? The reasons vary from person to person but the kind of people that take on these challenges always stand out as wanting to enhance their life experiences by doing something special and worth while.
In this increasingly connected and busy world though how is it possible to train for such an extreme challenge with so many distractions in life such as work, family life, personal commitments and lack of time?
For a solo English Channel Swim the recommended amount of water time varies from coach to coach but the average is 25 – 30 hrs a week at the peak, often much more! Unless you have unlimited amounts of free time, energy and money this is very difficult to commit to in addition to having a full time job and a family. How then do people manage to keep a busy training schedule without negatively affecting their home and work life and eventually burning out through exhaustion? Most unfortunately do not. Many people take on an extreme challenge like a Channel swim never to return to the sport after completion. The feeling of completing such an extreme challenge is amazing but the memory of tedious hours spent plodding up and down pools outweighs the high of reaching the goal for many people. If only there was a way to train for an extreme distance swim without dedicating your entire life to training! Well it turns out there is. Train smart by maximising your time and efficiency in your training.
Ramp it up!
Coaching science has come a long way in the last few years alone and there is a great deal of evidence to support the theory that high intensity interval training (HIIT) can massively assist not only power athletes but endurance athletes. This type of training involves bursts of intense effort with minimum amounts of regular rest, pushing the body outside of the comfort zone considerably. Lets take a 2k swim set as an example. Swimming this distance at a medium intensity would take an average swimmer 30 – 45 mins. The heart rate would increase, the muscles would work hard but at the end of the set most swimmers would not be overly exhausted as the distance would be more of a plod and not really put the body under major stress. Now lets take the exact same distance but break it into a HIIT set of 20 x 100m off 1 minute 45 seconds. This set would take exactly 35 minutes and involves swimming 100m twenty times at a faster pace using whatever time is left in the 1.45 to rest. Anyone from a competitive swimming background will be very familiar with this kind of work but most open water swimmers are not ex club swimmers and simply plod for hours on end to train. We have just covered the exact same 2km in potentially less time than the plod but what has happened to the body in this time? Rather than sustaining a set workload over the 2km the swimmer now has to work much harder to make the time. They also need to learn to pace themselves effectively ie swim every 100m at the exact same speed in order to make the time and get a set amount of rest. This is amazing for fitness as if they slow down the rest will decrease. This now starts to push the body way outside of its comfort zone by creating a sense of urgency and more stress. The muscles and heart work much harder and the body starts learning to work in an anaerobic environment (without oxygen). HIIT training gets you fitter quicker!
Mix it up!
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”
The body is fantastically efficient at adapting to its environment. It is how we as a species have survived all these years. If you practice the exact same thing over and over again it will become easier and easier. This may sound like a good thing BUT if you are wanting to get super fit super fast it is very important to mix up your workloads and continually put your body into different situations to work it hard! The 2km set mentioned above is a great framework to use but as with any set it could become easy and tedious the more you do it. Play around with mixing up the rest time, distances, speeds, and you will have endless possibilities and combinations to create a totally unique session to stretch yourself.
Before all of the veteran channel swimmers start objecting to this method as fantasy let me be very clear with something. It is still vitally important to do your distance sets if you are undertaking a distance swim… just not all the time. Personally I find plodding up and down a pool training for hours on end at the same pace utterly tedious. It bores me whereas a properly structured swim set is vastly more interesting and keeps my attention. It is however important to understand that a bit of extreme distance training is still very important. Personally I will only do this training in the final months leading up to an event and even then 80% of my training is still high intensity work. If it was 100% high intensity though then the body would not be prepared and conditioned to cope with the continuous working element of a distance swim hence why it is important to do the plod sets as well every now and then! The closer your event comes the more you should ramp up the distance on these sets to push your boundaries. The more HIIT work you do though the easier these swims will be as your muscles will be able to work for longer without getting uncomfortable.
Using this method alone you can condense your training into a fraction of the time that you would need if you were doing distance swims alone by getting much more out of your swim sets.
Heat it up!
HIIT training is all very well for your pool training but what about acclimatisation to cold water that any distance swimmer needs to contend with? Well there are ways to speed this process up too!
Remember how we spoke earlier about how efficient the body is to adapting as a survival instinct? Well this applies to temperature as well as workload. Many people who undertake their first cold water swims get utterly obsessed with the acclimatisation element ie how they will handle the cold. They start swimming in extreme cold conditions before they are ready and this can be a recipe for disaster.
Acclimatisation is of vital importance for success in a cold water distance swim. However unless you are training for ice swimming there is technically no need for you to acclimatise to extreme cold temperatures of less than 10 degrees for this fast track approach. Most cold water swims will take place in water of around 16 degrees and the body is capable of acclimatising to this temperature much quicker than most people think. I always start my acclimatisation work in late May for a swim in August. I always plan my swims for August as it is when the water is likely to be at its warmest but depending on where you are planning on swimming in the world you can of course adapt this. That allows me 3 months to acclimatise and I do it gradually. I find an unheated lido or swimming lake and jump straight in! The shock to the body can be intense for the first few times but with a bit of fast swimming and regular submersion you will adapt very quickly. Winter swimming, ice baths and cold showers certainly have their place in the acclimatisation world but not in my fast track approach for quick results. Obviously the colder the conditions you acclimatise to the easier your actual swim will be so if you are someone who feels the cold more it would be wise to start your acclimatision work early as if the body adapts to super cold temperatures, by the time your event comes around it will feel much more comfortable and sustainable.
Training for any event should be fun! Unless you are trying to break a world record you do not need to let it take over your whole life. Never forget the important things like family and friends. Training smart will enable you to achieve your dreams without sacrificing your life to the cause.
Written by Edward Williams – Founder of Elite Swimming Academy Ltd
Follow Ed’s Irish Channel swim training at www.edwardwilliams.org.uk @EdWilliamsSwim
Contact Ed for private coaching at www.eliteswimmingacademy.co.uk @EliteSwimming
Design your own HITT set
Designing your own distance swim set is easy. Get in and swim for hours! Designing your own HIIT set to maximise your time takes more planning so follow this template:
- Decide how much time you can afford for the session
- Decide how much distance you can swim in that time
- Write it out! (vital to stick to the plan)
- Complete the whole set.
Every set should be structured as follows:
- Warm up: a gentle low intensity continous swim to warm your muscles through and get you ready for hard work.
- Sub set A: The hard work starts! Choose shorter intervals of 50m or 75m and do speed work with generous amounts of rest.
- Main set: The super hard work starts! This is where the majority of the session should take place. Choose a set to keep your attention and keep you motivated. It should be at a high intensity throughout and push you to your limits.
- Sub set B: Take a rest after your main set and crack straight on with a smaller high intensity set. I like sprint work in this section of 25m blocks at 100% effort.
- Swim down: If you just get out after what you just did you wont be able to move without whincing by mid day. Ease the lactic acid out of your body by swimming at a gentle low intensity for 150m or more. Remember to stretch too!