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by Marcia Cleveland

April 14, 2009

When I was 21, I started swimming in open water. That was 24 years ago. At 45 now, I'm no longer the speed demon I was due to natural aging and the fact that I put a whole lot of time and energy into things other than swimming, like my husband, our two children, and my job. Maybe I'm a tad bit wiser these days since I'm no longer constantly looking for sharks even in freshwater lakes. It took me a long while to get to this point.

We reside in suburban Chicago now, after living only in New York and Connecticut up until 2003, so most of my training is done in the pool from October to May. Even in the summer months, I'm only in "The Lake" (aka, Lake Michigan) two to three times a week since my life is dictated by our 11- and 8-year-olds' schedules. When we're in town, I'm faithfully at Ohio Street Beach at 6 a.m. on Saturdays to swim with a group of fellow enthusiasts (come join us!) and will lead USMS clinics there most Saturdays in the summer from 8to 9 a.m. On Sundays, I usually swim at Tower Road Beach in Winnetka from 6:45 a.m. until about 8 a.m.

In the swimming part of my busy, busy life, this is an "off" year for me, meaning no major marathon swims planned such as the English Channel, Catalina Channel, the Chicago Shoreline Swim or others you may check out at my website, I focus on shorter races, ranging in distance from 1 to 5 miles, and maintain my fitness by swimming three to four times a week (for a total of about 15,000 yards), a little running, lots of stretching, some dryland work and taking care of and goofing off with my family. When it's an "on" year, my weekly swimming yardage is about 30,000 to 35,000 yards plus all of the above.

Swimming at Ohio Street Beach in the summer is an ideal set-up for the annual Big Shoulders race in September. On September 12 this year, it will be the USMS 5K Open Water National Championship and the finale of my open water season.

Because of my busy race and clinic schedule this summer, I have a very specific plan for keeping my fitness level up. (Notice I said "up" and not some word like high or peak because I live in the real world.) By swimming three to four weekly pool workouts of 3000 to 4500 yards or meters each, plus one to two days of 1- to 2-hour swims in open water, I do a mixture of long swims and short sprint sets to balance my endurance with my speed (what's left of it...). Such a set might be: 3 x 50 @ 90%, going on a consistent interval that gives me about :10 rest, then 2 x 500 @ 80%, on an interval that gives me about :30, followed by 3 x 50 @ 90% at the same interval as the first. My intervals would be :45 for the 50s and 7:15 for the 500s, but adjustments are made liberally.

In each and every pool workout, I do at least 200 of drill work and plenty of kicking. Since I am a Masters swimmer over 40, I love my pull buoy and my fins and use each responsibly, but not to excess. I am a lifetime member of the Bilateral Breathers of the World, much to the chagrin of those I swim with as I pleasantly hassle them to enlist now! Bilateral breathing is very important to open water swimming because it helps to balance my stroke, it eases and better distributes the stress on my neck and shoulders, and best of all, I can see where my fellow swimmers are out there in the big pond. No sneaky swimmers sneak by me on my "non-breathing" side. Water and weather conditions such as waves, wind or surf often necessitate that I breathe to either side or my "wrong side." Having this be automatic makes my races that much more enjoyable.

One of the most important elements in open water swimming is being able to sight well, so I often incorporate several sighting methods into my training, all of which emphasize focusing on something at the far end of the pool, such as a water bottle, a starting block, the exit door, etc.... We use several styles: for example, looking forward quickly as the next entry arm passes the shoulder in freestyle stroke. Another way is "alligator style," in which the eyes are just lifted up out of the water as one arm is outstretched in front and one is extended fully back, and then probably my favorite, head-up swimming (water polo-style). A typical set of 10 x 50 on :60 would have me doing the odd 50s as 25 sight forward/25 alligator, and the even 50s as 25 head-up/25 regular swim. For every lap of head-up swimming, it only counts if my head is PERFECTLY STILL. In addition to developing efficient sighting skills, since I have had the pleasure of redoing many a 50 due to my "head thrash," this set supplements dryland core work quite nicely. When I'm actually racing, I sight no more than every 20 strokes, just to make sure I'm on course, but it really depends on the immediate circumstances of the race. With any of these techniques outdoors, I use large objects to sight on, such as trees, buildings, bridges, etc., and not boats or people-they move.

A typical week right now for me looks like:
Monday: Swim 4200 yards in the morning with distance pull and swim set.
Tuesday: Run 2 to 3 miles in mid-morning.
Wednesday: Swim 3900 yards in the morning, focusing on non-free sets (usually 50/100/200/400 stroke and IM sets), kicking and pulling.
Thursday: Swim 3400 yards in the morning (distance and sprints blended together), followed by 30-minute "chat and run."
Friday: 4000 yards (2500 of it with fins!!!). Usually it is sprints, but occasionally it's a long straight swim.
Saturday: Run 4 to 5 miles (possibly a swim workout if my kids don't have anything going on).
Sunday: Put on workout clothes with the greatest of intentions....
Dryland: Stretching and core work about three to four days a week (realistically).

In the summer, I would be swimming on Saturday and Sunday mornings, so two of my weekday mornings would probably be slothful.

I have spent a great deal of time freaking out in open water and dealing with the elements outdoors; it has taken me nearly a quarter of a century to CALM DOWN in the big pond. Maybe this is self-preservation or dumb luck, but safety is and always will be my first consideration. With a few rare exceptions, I have swum safely for most of my open water career, and this has to be the first and foremost thought for anyone in open water. Whether it is the chaos of pack swimming (think NYC subway at rush hour), marine life, Mother Nature, panic or the most significant factor-the mind-safety is the number one consideration for all open water swims. If Big Shoulders was my first open water swim, I would try to get into the open water at least two times beforehand for about the amount of time I think it would take me to swim the event. I would also give myself a serious talking to about whether I honestly feel I could get into water (possibly much) deeper than I can stand, (possibly) not be able to see the bottom, be thrashed by my fellow competitors and be able to get back safely under my own power. Once nerves are under control, the training has been done and every safety precaution has been met, you'll be ready for the race. See you on the beach!


Click here for more information regarding the 2009 USMS 3-6 Mile Open Water Championship (Big Shoulders)

For more open water information or training guidance, you can contact Marcia through