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by Terry Laughlin

August 17, 2009

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.