We love to hear friends tell us they’re inspired to start swimming. We were especially thrilled when we got an e-mail from Mark entitled “Some serious questions” in which he told us that he considering the challenge of swimming the Strait next summer.
I wrote this post in response to Mark’s request to share with him some basic information on our training for our Strait of Gibraltar swim this past July and thought I’d share it with a wider audience in the hope that someone will find it relevant in their training.
10 month training stats (Sept 12 – Jun 13)
Our training principles
1- If you’re gonna get wet, swim at minimum 3km.
2. Do at least one longer swim per week – “Longer” was initially defined at 5km and then grew to 10km.
3. Always try to do more than you initially set out to swim. Get used to over delivering
4. Push your limits at least once a week (either distance, or speed, or external elements).
5.Train in ocean as much as possible and in a variety of conditions, the tougher the better.
6. Train together as much as possible, both in pool and ocean.
Open Water Training to Prepare for the Worst
At least 70% of our swimming in the last 10 months was in the swimming pool. The pool was fundamental for strength, speed and distance training in a controlled environment, which allowed us to test things out and understand the impact.
Our approach for the physical preparation was not to simply be able to swim the 18-20km Strait of Gibraltar distance. The distance itself was within the reach of the three of us, and in itself did not represent the greatest challenge. Our physical preparation consisted on “expecting the worst” on the day of our swim, on being able to make it across on the worse possible swimmable conditions. And this is where ocean training came in. Swimming in the ocean also allows you to train aspects that are impossible to train in a pool. One example is navigation, an essential skill because the fastest way to get from point A to point B is still a strait line.
One of the unique aspects of ocean swimming is that you can swim the same route 20 times, and every time will be different. Each time you will face a different set of conditions – wind, current, waves, marine life, tides, water temp – that forces you to adapt. These set of conditions can make the same swim anywhere between a breeze to impossible depending on the day. A marathon runner can have good or bad days, but his ground does not move in different directions, the topography does not change every second, and he is generally not running against flying creatures ready to sting him. He is not being toppled and does not need to accelerate in order not to move backwards. If the runner runs at a pace of 13 km/ hour, he will cover a distance of 13 km in the next hour. An ocean swimmer can swim at a maximum effort for long periods of time and not move forward an inch. Strangely, this unexpected nature of ocean swimming is also one of the fascinating aspects of this sport.
Nature plays a leading role in this sport, and we just needed to get our homework done to try to adapt as good as possible to what nature threw our way. Swimming as many km as possible in the ocean and in as many varied conditions as possible is the only way to have the physical and mental strength to face the unexpected. We gradually learned to adapt our swimming to the ocean conditions rather than forcing ourselves to the ocean. The swimmer will always be the weak link of the swimmer/ocean tandem, and as such, it is better to learn how to dance with the ocean instead of fighting it. All of our OW swimming was in the Mediterranean, not the definition of rough conditions. But whereas before we only swam in the ocean in calmer and warmer waters, we made a mental switch to swim year round and to embrace swimming in rough conditions.
And by unexpected, I mean unexpected. I never trained to head butt a boat, but this happened in the middle of the Strait. This incident threw my swimming and focus off. What allowed me to recover was the confidence developed during training, and also the support I got from Susan and Emily when they saw that my swimming was off.
The power of teamwork also applies in OW swimming. The three of us had different swimming characteristics and by swimming together hundreds of kilometers we learned to know each other well in the water and adapt our swimming accordingly.
What can seem for an outsider as three people swimming along and minding their own individual business can be in the reality three swimmers that are keenly aware of each other, trust each other, and are able to quickly adapt to the benefit of the group. During our Gibraltar swim, we almost instinctively changed swimming positions and strategies according to the circumstance. The trust and team element of this sport is something that I discovered during the last year, and it has made swimming a more rewarding experience for me.
Developing a sense of trust and teamwork in the water comes also as a result of building a good dynamic and a strong sense of team out of the water. For this reason, a few gin & tonics made it to our training plan.
We would love to hear from you if you have any questions, if you have a different view, or if you want to share your own advice.
Thanks, and happy swimming.