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Human Interest / Training

‘Tis the Season

Holiday-themed workouts can elevate your spirits and your season

Elaine K. Howley | December 19, 2013

Oh, it’s the most stressful time of the year, isn’t it? With to-do lists as long as our swimmers’ arms, we dash through the snow in our 300-horse-powered SUVs, scurrying to and fro in that time-honored winter activity of gathering things: presents, decorations, and greeting cards, all in the name of winter traditions.

Somewhere amid the hustle and bustle and seemingly endless parties and family get-togethers, we need to keep an eye on our swimming. Not only for our waistlines, which take a beating with each sip of warming eggnog and each bite of Christmas cookie, but also for our sanity. Swimming is well known to be one of the best stress-busters out there, and for us swimmers, hanging onto our watery identities during this hectic time of year can make all the difference between a Bah Humbug and a Happy New Year.

If you’re lacking motivation to leave the yule log and go log some yards, consider some of these festive workouts and special events from creative coaches and swimmers who have hatched feel-good traditions that do good—for swimmers and their communities.

Turkeys Can’t Swim

My own holiday swimming season started on Black Friday. Rather than participate in mass consumerism, I opted for mass yardage during the Turkey Trot (Not), a 100 x 100 swim event at the Wayland Community Pool in Wayland, Mass. The second annual event benefited the Wayland Water Warriors, a free, learn-to-swim program for underprivileged youth. Getting in a great workout—10,000 yards on a challenging-for-me 1:35 interval—in about 3 hours meant I put that extra slice of pumpkin pie from the Thanksgiving binge to good use.

The Grinch Stole my Practice

Fellow marathon swimmer and Turkey Trot (Not) participant, Bill Shipp of Mitchellville, Md., has a special 3,000-yard holiday-themed workout: a fun concoction of swimming and holiday references with lots of sprinting (bah humbug!).

Chestnuts Roasting: 600 warm-up

Grinch’s Lament: “Their mouths will hang open a minute or two, Then the Whos down in Whoville will all cry, ‘Boo Hoo!’”

  • 5 x 100:

»      25 fly, 75 free
»      50 fly, 50 free
»      75 fly, 25 free
»      50 fly, 50 free
»      25 fly, 75 free

Coach Ebenezer Scrooge’s Set: “If they’d rather die, then they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”

  • 1 x 400 IM (rest 5 seconds on each 25 fly)
  • 100 easy
  • 1 x 400 reverse IM (nothing says Scrooge like a 400 reverse IM)
  • 100 easy

Reindeer Games, aka Speed Work: Coach Comet announces, “My job is to make bucks out of you.”

  • 1 x 100 all out on 3:00
  • 2 x 50 all out on 1:30
  • 1 x 100 all out on 3:00
  • 2 x 50 all out on 1:30

When you feel like slowing down, just remember, Santa’s sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second—that’s 3,000 times the speed of sound—to deliver all those toys in one night. How fast are you going? That’s right, not fast enough. Keep going.

Relay Set! During the relay set, which can last as long as your group wants, get creative! Shipp suggests the ever-popular head-out-of-the-water relay, where each participant swims 50 yards while wearing reindeer antlers. At the exchange, each swimmer must pass the antlers on to the next swimmer. Shipp also brings mesh gear bags stuffed with pull buoys as “Santa Sacks” that each swimmer must tow for a 50 before passing it on to the next swimmer.

Bumbles Bounce: Rudolph: “But you fell off the edge of the cliff.” Yukon Cornelius: “Didn’t I ever tell you about Bumbles? Bumbles bounce.”

  • Streamline push off the bottom. Butterfly kick out of the water as high as you can go. Hold it. Repeat 10 times.

Grinch's Reprise: “And what happened then...? Well, in Whoville they say that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!”

  • 300 social kick

Joy to the World: Linus: “And the angel said unto them, Fear not, for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy,” because the workout is over after this warm down!

  • 200 cool down

The 12 Days of Christmas

A particularly diabolical holiday challenge has been hatched by Charlotte Brynn, who swims and coaches at The Swimming Hole in Stowe, Vt. In the “12 Days of Christmas Swim Challenge,” her swimmers start with the simple partridge in a pear tree of 1,000 yards and come crashing into Christmas with 12 drummers drumming in their sore lats and shoulders by the end of the challenge. Not for the faint of heart:

On Day 1, swim 1,000 meters or yards. You could do more, but when you see where we’re going, you might want to hold back.

On Day 2, swim 2,000 meters or yards … On Day 3, swim 3,000 … all the way up to 12,000 yards on Day 12.

If you’re still functional by the end of the challenge, go enjoy all the Christmas goose you want and lots of rum punch. Chances are, you’re going to need it if you’re planning to lift a fork with those tired arms.

One Good 100 Deserves Another (and Another)

Over the past several years, Cambridge Masters Swim Club, a workout group of New England Masters Swim Club, has made a holiday tradition of hosting a 100 x 100 event on New Year’s Eve at Harvard University’s Blodgett pool. The event became a fundraiser in 2010 after assistant coach Marly Pineda was killed in a bike accident not far from the pool. A Smith College scholarship fund was started in her name, and the “Miles for Marly” 100 x 100 event donates proceeds to the fund each year.

Taking the notion of the 100 x 100 to the next level while ringing in the New Year with some serious yardage are some members of Connecticut Masters who swim at the Westport YMCA in Westport, Conn. Liz Fry notes that the swim started in 1984 as 85 x 100, or one 100 for each year of the century, plus one for good luck. Over the course of 30 years, the total number of 100s has grown along with the date: the group will be logging 115 x 100 on January 1, 2014, for a whopping 11,500 yards total. Ouch.

Fry, who uses the big set as a jump-start for her annual January Jam program that encourages swimmers to jam as much yardage as humanly possible into the month of January to raise funds for the Dave Parcells MS Fund, says about three full lanes of participants turn out each year. Most of the swimmers manage to complete the whole shebang. How’s that for earning your wassail and figgy pudding?

New Year’s Polar Bear Plunge

For those looking to get their holiday jollies beyond the confines of the concrete box, rest assured, we have some options for you. Many open water swim locations around the U.S. offer a polar plunge on New Year’s Day to help brave participants blast off the excesses of the night before and ring in the New Year with a gut-punch of white-cold water.

Although many clubs like to start the year off right by throwing themselves in cold water on January 1, the Nahant Knuckleheads in Nahant, Mass., have made an annual tradition of plunging on December 31, to see the year out with a bang. In years past, when New Year’s fell on the weekend, a whole troop of swimmers would slog through the 100 x 100s at Cambridge and trek the 20 minutes to Nahant for the plunge immediately afterwards, followed by lunch at a local restaurant. It’s the perfect warm-up for New Year’s Eve parties, which you can enjoy guilt-free knowing that you’ve worked hard for those bacon-wrapped scallops and champagne toast.

Swimmers in Chicago plunge at The Point, a favorite open water swimming hole in Lake Michigan, in frigid temperatures. Some ice breaking may be required in the Windy City, but that’s not the case for members of the Sarasota Sharks Masters, who go plunging in the Gulf of Mexico on New Year’s Day. Given that the Gulf waters in Sarasota typically hover in the mid-60s, polar is somewhat of a misnomer for this fun club-bonding event that involves spiked coffee and cocoa on the seawall after the swim.

Some swimmers on the West Coast enjoy their polar plunge in the chilly, low-50s water of the Pacific Ocean. Will Swim for Food is an annual 1-mile swim around the Santa Cruz Municipal Pier, started by Nick Alaga in 2010, and it offers just that opportunity while raising funds for a local food bank. During the event’s inaugural run in 2010, Alaga raised $3,200 with five other swimmers. In 2013, 88 swimmers raised nearly $60,000. Alaga offers potential sponsors of the mid-December event the option to have a sponsored swimmer tow a custom-decorated rubber ducky for an extra $150. That’s a creative and fun way to help fight hunger during the holiday season, when everyone should have access to a decent meal.

However you choose to celebrate the end of another year and the coming of a new one, we hope it’ll include some swimming, and maybe some reindeer antlers. Reclaim your sanity and rack up some late-year miles in the pool or open water—it’ll make your eggnog taste better!

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Elaine K. Howley

Elaine K. Howley is Associate Editor of U.S. Masters Swimming. A lifelong swimmer who specializes in cold water marathon swimming, she edits and writes for SWIMMER magazine, USMS.org, and the STREAMLINES eNewsletter series. 

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