To a pure pool swimmer a middle distance event is over in about five minutes, yet to a triathlete a sprint event is going to last for at least an hour. As the number of open water events continues to grow and as these two groups of athlete mindsets collide there are more opportunities to take those ultra-distance skills to the ocean and leave the bike and shoes behind. Whether you have your sights set on an Olympic distance open water 10K, the English Channel, or something in between, completing and even thriving in a long distance aquatic event taps mind, body and planning skills that endurance land athletes may already have and that pool swimmers can easily master. Whether you have your sights set on an Olympic distance open water 10K, the English Channel, or something in between, completing and even thriving in a long distance aquatic event taps mind, body and planning skills that endurance land athletes may already have and that pool swimmers can easily master.
Most triathletes have been asked by friends what they could possibly think about during all those training hours, and marathon swimmers are no different. Perhaps the biggest barrier to any multi-hour event is maintaining a focus on a goal that often is not even within sight until the final few minutes. With long distance swims there is rarely the visual feedback that land athletes receive with the scenery flying by, spectators cheering and a computer telling you how far, how hard and how fast you are moving. Long distance swimmers are left with their own thoughts, blackness below and maybe a friendly kayaker a few feet away. The best way to prepare for the really long stuff is to start small. For most, the best starting point is a 5K that can take from one to two hours. If you are trapped in a pool, the best preparation is tackling long sets with swims of 500 meters or more. In pool preparation for a long open water swim it’s not just about focusing on a split or an interval. The mental goal is to focus on how you feel and what maintaining a pace and tempo feels like when fatigue really settles in. Strokes per minute is the marathon swimmer’s version of a cyclists wattage output or a runners heart rate. Tools like Finis’s Tempo Trainer can help you translate pool times to open water feel. If you can keep count for a set of thousands while remembering how you feel at various points along the way, tapping that experience in the open water will help you correct and refocus when you feel that same level of fatigue creeping in.
Physical training for hours in the water is not too different than training for a similar duration event on land. The first question is always how much and how often, and the answer varies tremendously based on the swimmer, the race and who you ask. According to open water expert, Steven Munatones of Open Water Source, the yardage for something like the US Masters 25K National Championships would peak with a daily yardage average of 7,000 yards and the longest, continuous open water swim would be roughly 15,000 yards with several 8,000 and 10,000 meter swims in the six month build-up period. Those with channel crossing goals who may be facing 25+ miles in cold water have been known to log several six, eight and even ten-hour swims in preparation. In cold water venues, where channel rules restrict the use of wetsuits, acclimating in advance to the conditions is as critical as conditioning the shoulders. The longer the swim the more triathletes may find they have an advantage over their traditional, single sport swimming peers. There is nothing like the knowledge gained from watching the sun rise and set during the course of an Ironman or the intimate understanding of what that second “Wall” feels like when the bike is over and the half-marathon is just starting. When a long distance land athlete faces the aquatic version of an Ironman athlete’s survival shuffle, they may discover a wealth of experiences to draw on that will help them keep putting one hand in front of the other.
When the race venue does not include curbs, lane lines, buoys and aid tables the planning and logistics become exponentially harder. One of the biggest causes of DNF’s in first time long distance swimmers is a failure to plan for what the ocean or waves may throw at you. If proper nutrition is critical to a triathlon PR it may actually determine your survival in a marathon swim. A runner can spend a mile munching on an energy bar, but try doing that while you swim even ten yards. For feedings in anything much longer than an hour, liquids and gels rule, and they have to be married to a fast delivery system handed or tossed over from an escorting kayak or support boat. For some, a cup at the end of a stick works, but in rougher conditions a bottle on the end of a thirty-foot rope may be the only thing a swimmer can reach. The anti-chaffing creams that work for fifteen minutes in saltwater often won’t hold up to endless hours even under a wetsuit. In England channel swimmers grab special channel grease with lanolin, but if international flights aren’t on the agenda then A&D or Bag Balm stays on the best. Knowing the course in a long distance swim and having the right support is perhaps the most critical of factors. In the mid-1950’s it took Col. Stewart Evans over twenty hours to cross the Catalina Channel, but today thanks to GPS, tide and current charts, and experienced boat captains, the crossings in the last few years range from eight to fourteen hours. Even planning long open water training swims requires a monumental effort to collect support crew and local knowledge. The longer the swim, and the more remote the waters, the greater the risk can become. The safest swims are those where local knowledge is married to a seamless flow of communication between the athlete, support team and boat crew. From hypothermia to wildlife to broken boats the challenges can be immense, but so too the elation at reaching that first marathon swim finish line.
Whether the aquatic venue is a lake, river, ocean or bay, the waters around us offer an incredible opportunity to discover something new about ourselves while gaining a respect for an environment that many view as something merely to be survived until the bike and run. It was probably the challenge of a new adventure that put us on that first bike or led us to our first pair of running shoes. For those that have mastered terra firma and are looking for an even bigger venue for adventure take the first step, and leave the shoes behind.
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Bruckner Chase is a triathlon and swim coach, ocean lifeguard trainer, endurance waterman and ocean advocate whose marine and community endeavors have taken him to waters around the world is places such as Australia, American Samoa, Denmark, Greece and Poland. He is a global ambassador for the Lifesaving World Championship 2018 organizing committee, and he is the Technical Director and Media Ambassador for the Red Bull Surf + Rescue Championships. Closer to his home in New Jersey he is a member of the Sea Girt Beach Patrol and the founder of the Ocean City Swim Club. He is a professional member of the US Lifeguard Association, the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Swim Coaches Association.
Bruckner’s athletic career spans the most challenging events on water and land. He competed as a professional triathlete, and he continues to be an elite level competitor in every endurance sport he takes on. On the water Bruckner has completed multiple ultra-distance swims and paddles in some of the harshest conditions imaginable: a record setting no wetsuit swim in Alaska, a 22-mile swim of Lake Tahoe and historic swims between the islands of American Samoa. Bruckner competes in professional surf lifesaving sports across multiple aquatic disciplines. He is the fifth American in history to compete in the iconic Coolangatta Gold Surf Iron Man in Australia, and in 2016 he became the only American to finish the event three times and the first to earn a spot on the winner’s podium.