Open Water Lessons
By Terry Laughlin
This article is excerpted from Terry Laughlin’s new book, Outside the Box: A Program for Improvement, Satisfaction, and Success in Open Water.
Masters swimmers know the pool. Not just as a place to swim; we also know its lessons, routines and “rules” for success. And our comfortable familiarity with the pool is usually matched by unfamiliarity with open water. This means two things: (1) most of us find open water swimming at least unpredictable, and at times uncomfortable; and (2) instinct and habit lead many of us to apply pool solutions to open water problems. And because the ways we usually measure performance in the pool don’t apply in open water, it’s hard to tell if the solution we chose was the right one.
I’m atypical in that open water swimming has always felt more natural to me than pool swimming. I never swam in a pool until age 12; my developmental swimming experiences were in LI Sound or at Jones Beach. I swam my first open water race 36 years ago and experienced more mojo than in any of the 100+ pool races I’d swum previously. Finally, since 2001 I’ve swum about a thousand hours in open water, most of it in two breathtaking venues – Lakes Awosting and Minnewaska in the Shawangunk Mountains of New York. Those experiences have taught me that the rules for success in open water are different, and, in most cases, are counterintuitive. In this article, I’ll share my top three.
Lesson 1: Mindfulness First
Each time I teach an open water workshop or camp, my opening words are: “The most important thing you will learn here is how to focus.” It’s not that mindfulness is unimportant in the pool; in fact the most valuable habit I develop in pool practices is clear and constant focus. But the primary difference, and source of distraction, most of us experience in open water is the absence of the familiar structure provided by pool swimming, where:
- You have lines and lanes
- You swim a fixed distance and predictable duration
- A glance at the pace clock tells you your pace
- You follow familiar, long-practiced routines
- You enjoy relatively unimpeded visibility
In open water, lacking all of that, the typical swimmer is “out to sea.” In a practice, that may lead to swimming with no clear objective other than to swim some course or duration. In a race, the start can feel like aquatic rugby, the occasional lack of “personal space” can be distracting, and you may see little but a wall of green when you try to get your bearings.
As I tell my students, the solution is: “When you can’t control your environment, learn to exert control over what and how you think about it.” The most purposeful thinking you can do is “focal points” or “stroke thoughts.” One of my favorites is: Extend your arm “through a long sleeve” without bubbles. That will help ensure a longer stroke with less turbulence. Just as important, giving it undistracted attention will help block out the myriad distracting unproductive thoughts that may occur. In a practice or race, your job is to visualize and monitor that action on every stroke (for thousands of strokes) while blocking out nearly every other thought. This kind of focus doesn’t come easily or naturally. You need to practice it in the pool as well as in open water. And, you need to practice it long enough to develop mental stamina, which can be just as hard-won as physical stamina.
Lesson 2: Rethink Endurance
Three major differences in the energy requirements of open water vs. pool races are:
Much greater distances. The longest race in a pool is 1650 yards or 1500 meters, which is the distance at which racing in open water begins and goes up to 10,000 meters (the approximate equivalent of running a marathon), 25,000 meters or 20+ miles.
Unpredictable duration. For over 10 years I’ve swum an ocean mile on Labor Day weekend in Long Beach, New York. My times have ranged from 19 to 36 minutes. I think I swam just as well in my “slowest” race as in my fastest.
Nothing but swimming. When swimming a pool mile, I’ll typically swim 18 or 19 yards, then stop swimming for 6 or 7 yards (turn and push off) then resume swimming again, etc. In other words I need to swim only about three-quarters of the total distance. In an open water mile, I’ll usually take about 1700 (but it might be 3000) strokes without a single interruption.
Instinct tells us we need to train considerably more for distance events, like the 1650, than for sprints, like the 50 or 100. But if you’re already training for pool distance races, where do you find the time and energy to increase your training for the greater energy demands described above? The answer is: you don’t. Instead you find ways to make the same conditioning go farther. One way to do so is by defining endurance more broadly.
The conventional way to think of endurance is metabolic – the capacity of the body to provide energy to the muscles. But that’s just the first of the “3 M’s” of endurance:
Metabolic Endurance: described above.
Motor Endurance: your capacity to perform a precise movement (efficient stroking) endlessly without breakdown, so your efficiency is immune to fatigue, rough water, or distraction.
Mental Endurance: your ability to choose and maintain a focus or specific thought, without distraction, for hours on end. Mental endurance is essential to program your neuromuscular system so thoroughly and consistently that it knows only one way to perform a movement. And in a race, it’s essential to staying “on task” every stroke, for thousands of strokes, regardless of what’s going on around you.
In 2002 and 2006, I swam the 28.5-mile Manhattan Island Marathon. Though this distance was 1000 percent greater than any race I’d swum previously, I increased my usual 15,000 yards per week of training by only 10 percent, while other entrants did two to four times as much yardage. Further, all my additional training was designed solely to improve stroke economy and deepen its neural imprint. (As Gennadi Touretski replied when asked why the world’s fastest sprinter, Alexander Popov, sometimes swam 20,000 meters per day: “More opportunities to practice correct technique.”) During the race, as I took 25,000 strokes of relatively unvarying efficiency (one third fewer than the 37,000 average for other participants) every stroke was guided by a conscious “stroke thought” of which I alternated three or four as conditions changed. Motor and mental endurance played a much larger role than metabolic endurance in my successful completion of those swims.
Lesson 3: “Swimming Fast” Is Not the Goal
Our brains instinctively translate the phrase “Swim faster” as “Stroke faster” or “Swim this lap (repeat, set) harder.” But neither of those thoughts is sustainable in open water. When you shift from exerting yourself for maybe 20 strokes at a time to perhaps 2000 strokes without a break, velocity has almost nothing to do with how fast you swim. Instead the key factor becomes pace-holding ability. If you replace the phrase “Swim faster” with the phrase “Hold a better pace,” this change in language will lead to a change in thinking – and you’ll probably swim better in open water almost immediately.
Here’s why: After swimming in countless open water races, I know that 70 percent of the typical field (true as well in triathlons) will swim the first 100 to 200 meters at a brisk pace and will swim the rest of the race at a much slower pace. Their problem isn’t that they lack speed; it’s that they can’t sustain their initial pace.
In 2006, I swam the USMS 2-mile Cable Swim in 47 minutes, breaking Bill Braswell’s 55-59 age group record of 47:12. My time averaged out to 1:28 per 100 meters, which few would describe as a fast pace. But it was a record pace because no swimmer my age had previously been able to sustain a 1:28 pace for 32 unrested and uninterrupted 100s.
The following year I swam the same distance in 46:20, an average of 1:26 per 100 (losing the race and record to Bruce Gianniny who swam it in 46:10.) How did I improve my pace-holding ability by two seconds per 100 from one year to the next? Because I’m acutely familiar with the experience of swimming 3000 or more continuous strokes, and because I was a year older I knew that swimming harder wasn’t in the cards.
Instead, I focused on making a 1:28 pace feel steadily easier until a faster pace became almost inevitable. In a repeat set, that often translates to repeating the same time with incrementally less effort, rather than trying to swim faster. This has not only proven to be a more interesting puzzle than trying-harder-to-swim-faster, but by doing so regularly, I often swim even a bit faster while dialing back my effort. I call that Voodoo Speed and value it far more highly than Trying-Harder Speed.
Suit Controvesy in WaPo
Rowdy Gaines also discusses the issue in his blog and brings up some very well thought-out points. For now, the debate continues as FINA works towards a resolution. Expect more decisions and controversy in the months ahead.
The 2009 U.S. Masters Long Course National Championship Wrap-Up
This year will go down as the year of the technical suit. FINA spent countless hours deciding on the fate of the technical suit, Rowdy Gaines commentated on elite athletes’ choice of suit in Rome, and Michael Phelps continued to win wearing the “old” suit. Though the rest seemed to be obsessed with new technologies, Masters swimming (though there was definitely some “suit talk”) continued to do what it does best: encourage all athletes of all ages and abilities to enjoy their time in the water and improve themselves (for some of us this means a faster time on the scoreboard, a higher place on the podium, a lower number on the scale or merely the sensation of “feeling good” as you crawl out of the pool).
The 2009 U.S. Masters Swimming Long Course National Championship held August 6 through August 10 at the famous IUPUI Natatorium in Indianapolis, Ind., was a big success. Records fell, stories were told, sponsors were active, volunteers were hard-working, encouraging and cheerful, coaches were proud and swimmers were successful while having fun.
Participation is the name of the game when it comes to U.S. Masters Swimming events and the 2009 U.S. Masters Swimming National Championship was no different. With almost 1,200 participants, the pool deck was hopping with excitement and buzzing as old friends and new chatted about life, family, training and, of course, competition. “Did you see that race? It was amazing!” and “She swam so well, did you know that she is just now getting back after her illness,” and “Wasn’t that relay fun?! I’ve never swum on a relay before.” Each of the 1,145 participants had a unique background, a different story to tell and was motivated by his or her own reasons, but each of the 1,145 participants came together under one roof, in one pool. Swimming is fun and feels good. Competition, though sometimes scary, serves as a fantastic form of measurement of improvement or just as a great way to cap off summer with friends and teammates. Whether a participant swam to break a record or swam to challenge herself in a new stroke, all of the participants in the 2009 U.S. Masters Swimming Long Course National Championship deserve a high-five for their accomplishments. So, from U.S. Masters Swimming, “Congratulations on your swims. We’re proud of you!”
Participation By the Numbers:
- 1145 (total participants)
- 680 (male participants)
- 465 (female participants)
- 37 (different states represented)
- 7 (different countries represented: USA, Russia, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Canada and Dominican Republic)
Competition, as always, was hot at the 2009 U.S. Masters Swimming Long Course National Championship. Records fell left and right and sometimes more than once in a single heat. 116 National individual and relay records and 55 world records were broken during the five day event in Indianapolis. Click here for a complete listing of record-breaking swims raced in Indianapolis earlier this month.
U.S. Masters Swimming welcomed seven of its Gold Level sponsors to the 2009 U.S. Masters Swimming Long Course National Championship: Nike, blueseventy, FINIS, Kiefer, TYR, Speedo and Kast-A-Way. Like old friends, U.S. Masters Swimming’s partners have come to know and love all of the U.S. Masters Swimming members. It was not uncommon to venture to the North Concourse and see Patti Kast fitting a member in a Speedo suit while asking about his or her granddaughter’s graduation party, or to hear Megan from blueseventy say, “It is so good to see you again, your last suit was a 28, right?” The U.S. Masters Swimming sponsors and vendors are not only business partners, but have also become part of the family. In Indianapolis, seven different vendors were ready, willing, and happy to help zip up your suit, open the case to your new set of goggles to get you to your next race on time, and explain the difference between lycra and polyester suits. U.S. Masters Swimming values its partners and looks forward to their participation in future events.
The 2009 U.S. Masters Swimming Long Course National Championship upheld the prestige of its predecessors. Next year, U.S. Masters Swimming will celebrate its fortieth anniversary at the 2010 U.S. Masters Swimming Short Course National Championship scheduled in May, to be held in Atlanta, Georgia. Click here for more information about U.S. Masters Swimming national events and to learn more about the much-anticipated fortieth anniversary National Championship.
Single Arm, Extended Arm
Try it out next time you are focusing on fly or IM.
Swing into Fall
Swing into Fall with Arizona Masters Swimming. You are cordially invited to come out and watch an Arizona Diamondback game in the comfort of the Miller Lite Diamond Club with all your friends...
Location: Chase Field
Date: Sunday, September 13, 2009
Time: 1:10 PM
Game: ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS vs MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Location: Miller Lite Diamond Club
The Miller Lite Diamond Club is located in Right Field, above the bleacher seating (Sections 100-105).
To access the Diamond Club, walk on the main concourse level to right field where you will seea set of stairs leading up to the club. If you are unsure of being in the right place, simply look above the seating area and find the over-sized Miller Lite bottle that is positioned directly above the Diamond Club. There will be an attendant at the entrance stairs to check your ticket before you can enter the club.
We have reserved tickets and they are going to sell out fast - so please sign up ASAP if you are interested!
For everyone at Arizona Masters to order their tickets for your September 13th game in the Diamond Club they must:
Go to: www.dbacks.com/groups
Login ID: swimming
Come out, watch a game in comfort with your friends and family…and meet some new people as well! See you at the game.
An Almost-30-Something Plea to U.S. Masters Swimming
I joined Masters almost five years ago. I had been a swimmer in high school. I moved on to running after high school and all during college. I ran a marathon and was training for a second one in the summer of 2004. During my running training, I began having chronic back pain. Wanting to still train, I decided to swim as a way to continue working out. I thought swimming would be good for my back and maybe I might be able to do triathlon, or possibly even swim a meet from time to time.
It is now five years later. I have yet to enter a triathlon, but I have swum in countless swim meets. I have competed in two Masters national championships. I am planning on attending a third this summer. And most importantly, swimming has given me a social network with lots of new friends.
I clearly remember my first practice with my current team. Honestly, I thought I'd swim with them for a while and then, eventually, switch teams or lose interest. My first practice was, let's just say, unconvincing. When I arrived, everyone in the pool was at least 10 to 20 (or more) years older than I was. It didn't seem like they were thrilled to be welcoming a young buck like myself into their practice. Nonetheless, I went back to the pool the next day, sore and ready to keep working. I am not sure what changed, but each time I went back to the pool for practice I found myself talking to more of the other swimmers. I started developed relationships and making friends, and that initial feeling that this was a temporary team dissipated.
For a couple of years I was the youngest swimmer in the group - the only one in the 18-24 age group. I felt as though I'd always be the outcast, the freshman, and then, without fail, slowly but surely more 20-somethings began joining the group. Now we are gradually becoming 30-somethings (I follow them into the 30-34 age group next year, YIKES!), but we still have a kinship to the 20-somethings and welcome them with open arms. We have had many 22- and 23-year-old "kids" join us for a practice or two, some for a few months and some even for an entire season. We now have a very solid core group of younger swimmers that seems to be stable. Our secret to keeping this group going and growing: Friendship. We seek out friendships among our fellow swimmers. We get to know one another both in the pool and out. We make a point to encourage and support one another without regard to age group. We all have days when swimming is the last thing on our minds. We just do not feel like going to the pool. One hundred percent effort seems like an unlikely expectation. But if you create an atmosphere where friendships can develop, meaning laughter and all-inclusive fun, well then you have a key ingredient to creating a successful Masters program. In the water we are all just people who swim. The minute you dive in, whether you are 20-something, 30-something or 80-something, you are able to appreciate your time at the pool and the interaction with your friends.
Growing up, we were offered stability by our age-group or college teams. You become a family of swimmers and you feel a connection with the other members of this family; you share lane space, you are roommates in the dorm and you connect as people. As Masters swimmers we have jobs, families and other commitments that keep us from sometimes establishing these similar typse of bonds. These "life factors" are the perfect reason to not just carve out an hour from your day to swim, but to embrace your teammates, your fellow swimmers and your coach. These people, though they may not be members of the same volunteer organizations, their children might not attend the same preschool and you may not have even been born yet at the time when your teammates' "remember-when stories" took place, share a common bond with you: Masters swimming.
The period after college is often stressful, confusing and, without a doubt, busy. Shortly after graduation, I remember missing college: I was uncertain about what I wanted, who I wanted to be and where I wanted to go. I missed my friends. I missed my college life. It is hard to promote Masters swimming to young people who may be struggling to make ends meet. If your team is mostly 40+ year olds, they probably see Masters swimming as a group of people their parents' age. It is hard to promote Masters swimming to "kids" who are caught somewhere between college life and the real world. But Masters was able to provide a bridge from that life I'd just left to the one I was just coming into. My teammates gave me a place to call home. I had friends, a stable schedule and an opportunity to work hard even when other "life factors" seemed uncertain. Masters swimming has given me the chance to make new friends (of all ages - even with swimmers who are my parents' age). I believe that Masters swimming is marketable to every age group. We need to shout from the rooftops that "Masters swimming is not stressful! There are no expectations! It is a place to make friends! You can stay in shape! And when nothing else seems stable, you are always welcome at the pool!"
To get and keep 20-something swimmers who turn into 30-something swimmers, we need to keep Masters swimming fun. We can also keep it competitive. And we need to welcome swimmers of every age into this family that we call Masters swimming.
Mesa Masters Commercial on TV!
Butterfly - Dolphin Kick, Arms Up!
Try it and see what difference it makes.
Fitter and Faster Tour
If you feel up to the challenge of swimming in Lake Michigan under the skyline of Chicago, go here to find out more information. The Big Shoulders swim is one of the largest open water events in the US with both 2.5 and 5K options. This event is USMS sanctioned and you can download the entry form here or register online. Good luck to all those who swim in this event!
Former ASU swim coach Johnson dies at 78
The Arizona Republic
Long-time Arizona State swim coach Ron Johnson died Friday night in Scottsdale at age 78.
Johnson coached the ASU men's swim team for 18 years (1976-93) and also was co-coach with Mona Plummer of ASU women's teams that won 1977 and '78 AIAW national titles in the pre-NCAA days.
Johnson's ASU men's teams earned six top-10 finishes at the NCAA Championships including a school best sixth in 1982 and seventh in 1983 and '84. He was 1983 Pac-10 Coach of the Year. Andy Astbury and Mike Orn were NCAA champions for ASU in the early 1980s. Andrew Jameson won a bronze medal in the 100 butterfly at the 1988 Olympics.
Johnson was director of the Mexican national swim team from 1967-73 including at two Olympics and recruited many international swimmers to ASU. More than 25 of his ASU swimmers were Olympic finalists including 14 medal winners. He founded the Mesa Aquatics Club.
Johnson was inducted into the Masters Swimming Hall of Fame in 2007 because of a masters swim career that included more than 50 world records. He survived multiple heart attacks including one during a Masters meet in March 2007.
Johnson swam for the University of Iowa and on the 1955 U.S. Pan American Games team. He was author of a recent book Romancing the Water.