Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Care & Feeding of a Channel Swimmer

As per a special request from our gracious host, the Koz, I am writing koz-hawaii readers on how I prepare for a channel swim.

It’s possible that you are considering swimming a channel. Maybe you googled up this article hoping for some tips and tricks on how to prepare for your journey. In that event, I should let you know that context, and self-assessment is everything. Who you are, where you are, and who is supporting you, should really govern the starting point of your training.

I am a thirty-eight year old male lifetime swimmer. Ironically I learned how to swim in the middle of the Arabian Penninsula. I was a hyper-active six year old who wasn’t any good at soccer. I started swimming “age-group” within the walls of a US government military-residential compound. Fast forward twelve years, I was a distance butterflier for the Penn State University swim team.

After I stopped swimming for the University, I was mentally over it. I vowed I would never swim again, maybe not even get wet. Fast Forward ten years. I am fifty pounds heavier, and three years into starting an electronics manufacturing business. The stress of being a newlywed small business owner is magnified by the disgust I have in my physical condition.

I got back into Masters swimming about 1998, I started swimming about 2,500 meters once or twice a week. Since then I’ve been swimming with Masters swimming groups, working up the yardage, consistency and workout frequency each year. Currently my pool yards are 4k three times a week.

Currently, I swim for University of Hawaii Masters swimming team. Masters Hawaii swimming, more than any other group I’ve seen in the nation, is a group of “soul-swimmers”. People who swim for all the right reasons: personal challenge, peaceful solitude, and an appreciation of vast blue ocean water and the abundant life it nurtures. I fit in well with this group. I swim to keep my sanity, to deal with life, and to do something that is actually worth doing.

I haven’t swum a single race in a pool since I left Penn State. I deam that pointless. I have found that true accomplishment in swimming is leaving one body of land, swimming across the blue alien divide and arriving on the other side. Sometimes, laughing, sometimes crawling up the beach.

It always ends the same way, I get out of the water turn around look back and point at the horizon where I started. Mentally, I think my middle finger is extended. Swimming respectfully, but arriving defiantly. Accomplishment so great, sometimes you can’t see across it, even with nothing in the way. THAT is living! That, is being alive.

My situation is a little different than some of my colleague-heros: Bill Goding, Linda Kaiser, Mike Spalding, (and now) Penny Palfery. I am in the working years, the prime family building part of my life. My household depends on me to be the best at my job, and work full time at it. My three children expect Sue and I to help them with their homework, swap their barf buckets when they are sick in the middle of the night. We take them to the park, play games with them, cook for them, and try our hardest to provide as many great memories as we can cram into their grinning heads. My most cheerful child (thankfully) also has his own unique needs. Nate is an autistic, he needs more patience and time then any other three children put together. He pays us back every day with full body hugs and excitement relayed in his constantly cracking voice.

So how do I train for a channel in this environment? For the most part the answer is draconian but simple. I take the time that no one else wants. It starts three days a week at four twenty in the morning. As I get closer to a challenge I also do ocean swims on weekends.

I get to the University of Hawaii pool at a quarter after five. Coaches usually have a workout waiting for us by the time we are ready to swim. The advanced work out is typically four kilometers or four kiloyards depending on how the pool is strung that day. A quarter of the workout is usually in the warm up, sets are usually middle distance, and the last set is often pulling (wearing a pool bouy and paddles).

To make the most of my workouts, I go back to roots. If you want a 4k workout to sting, try doing about a quarter of it butterfly. A healthy ration of butterfly makes the workout ‘feel’ like about 6k, and saves me precious time.

The workout technically ends at around a quarter of seven. If I'm parked in a place where I won't be ticketed I might do twenty minutes of weights in the UH weight room. Otherwise I sprint from the pool to the cold showers and then run to my car in the fifteen minute window before ticketing starts.

On these days I'm at work about a half hour before the office opens for business. This is good as I also often have to leave work a little early to cover the kids on the evenings when my wife (Sue) works. Think tag-team parenting.

Swimming Division I in college really took a toll on my shoulders. I need my strong shoulders to last through my children's younger years. I never want to miss out on giving shoulder rides, monkey bar aiding, or (my favorite) lift and squeeze hugs when I get home from work. In my case the trick to doing something well is not doing it all the time. For athletes specifically this means “cross training”.

On the other weekdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’ll try to get in at least one four mile run over lunch. I am a horrible runner, my break-neck speed is about a nine minute mile. Fortunately, the hardest workout you can do is one you suck at. Enter running.

On these days I might also surf the dawn patrol before work. Surfing is the freedom of free falling into blue without ever hitting bottom. It is the sweet payback for putting my childhood on alter of age-group swimming. I can paddle strong enough to catch just about anything. Swimmers are surfers waiting to happen. Surfing can also help swimming, I find it’s good for the back and shoulders and encourages you to swim with your elbows poised instead of dragging.

My training changes a little when I get about two months out from a major swim. I'll start swimming outdoors consistently, add more yards in the pool, and try to make the thirteen mile bike to work about once a week.

When I swim outdoors training for channels I'll pick a course between three and six miles depending on how my shoulders are feeling on Saturday mornings. Usually it is somewhere along the North Shore, something between 3 and 6 miles. This works best if you have a friend to go with. That way you can have a car at the beginning and end of the course. A typical swim might be Sunset to Waimea, a long swim would be Waimea to Haleiwa. One of these days I want to swim from turtle Bay to Haleiwa, any takers?

If I'm training outdoors to get ready for a local open water swim like the North Shore Swim series. It's not uncommon for me to make the drive up to the North shore and swim a course before work instead of my usual pool swims. I get in the office later than usual, but it's worth the experience.

When I'm doing yards in the pool during this time, I will up the distance, and do fewer sets. Last year my pattern was to swim three kilometers on Monday, five on Wednesday and seven on Friday. There isn't as much point in swimming with the Masters team when I'm just doing straight yards. It's a different kind of swimming. Pay attention! Focus on a fast, steady, constant rate of speed. Know how many strokes you take in pool length. Practice closing your eyes and see how straight you can swim. You are going to need these skills in the channel.

I should pay more attention to what I eat when I'm training. My target weight for swimming channels is under one hundred and eighty five pounds. During the year I may drift up to nine pounds more than that. If I need to lose weight before a channel I do it before I start upping the yards. It's very hard to cut calories and swim distance at the same time. An interesting note here, the lighter I am the less shoulder trouble I have. It's true, if you are having recurring physical problems in your sport, try adjusting your weight.

When losing weight I target to lose either one or two pounds a week. I figure when I want to be at my target weight and work backwards. It's a math game here's how it works. Get an iPhone program or set up a free account at ( or a similar site. If you expend five hundred calories more than you consume in one week you will lose a pound. A thousand for a week, two pounds. Don't try to lose any more than that. It's not healthy, and it won't stay off. Now listen, if you don't write down everything you eat, it's not going to work. Don't try to wing it. You will fail. Be your own best friend, plan for success.

I make a point to eat half a power bar before I practice, and finish the other half afterwards. In the channel. In the channel I need to consume about forty grams of carbohydrates an hour. That is about as much as there is in a power bar or about four or five cliff shots. Water is very important too. If I don't get enough fresh water digestion stops. I drink about a small water bottle (three hundred milliliters) an hour when I'm swimming, that seems to keep things going.

You may have noticed from reading over my training regime that I have a lot of guidelines, but no hard and fast rules. There's a reason for that. Let's face it, although the pool is a great place to work on your technique, swimming laps is boring. Cross training is your friend, and a great opportunity to work on muscles you didn't even know you had. Often too, strengthening these other muscle groups seems to help with weak spots I have in my range of movement. Life is an adventure, train for the unexpected, mix it up. Keep looking for something new, intensify the fun!


Koz said...

Thanks for the post Quinn. I looked at the blog last night and wondered what was taking you so long. Sorry, I do know better. Two of our three are on their own with one teenager left. I do know what it's like and feel that I need to warn you that the teenage years are even harder.
The most memorable swim experience of my life was the time a friend and I swam from Sunset to Haliewa on a gorgeous late spring day stopping every few miles to warm up on the sand and swap surf stories.
I'll have to wear fins to keep up but after Penny's swim, sure I'll go.

Quinn said...

I meant to go back and clean it up, perhaps make it abstract to another koz page. It's something I do though, the project gets grander and grander and as a result I never finish. So... I figured it was better to post this than fall victim to analysis paralysis.

Perhaps I'll clean it up add a pic etc. For now, I'll leave it open.