On the flight back from Tel Aviv in the spring of 2008 I decided that for my next adventure I was going to swim 5.25 miles in the ocean. I had no idea how but I knew there were people I could count on to help me through. My own ego and force of will featured prominently in this decision, too. Now April, I had 14 weeks to learn to swim 5.25 miles non-stop in the ocean by mid-July. In pool terms, that is 324 25-meter-pool-lengths or 162 laps. When I made the decision I could do only one without stopping.
One Down, 161 left to Go.
The stroke of choice for long distance swimmers is American Freestyle. In New York where I grew up learning the stroke, it is referred to as ‘crawl.’ For the sake of this blog assume that these terms are interchangeable.
Crawl is difficult. Disconcerting for beginners, your head is in the water so that your face is down. You breathe by rotating on your body axis trying not to get a mouthful of water. This is very difficult if you aren’t what I call ‘swim flexible.’ Also complicating matters is the fact that you can’t really see straight ahead to where you are going – in the pool you must rely on bottom markers to know how close to the wall you are. Finally, crawl is very easy to do if you are efficient and have excellent form. It is exhausting if you are not. The more tired you get, the worse your form providing an asymptotic decline in performance.
The first thing I needed to work on was my breathing. After 1 lap of crawl I was panting for air. A decade of bench presses left me muscle bound – not muscular but literally inflexible to stretch well enough to rotate and breath. I practiced stretching constantly. In the pool, out of the pool, morning, noon, and night.
In the ocean I assumed that I would need the ability to breath as well on my right side as well as my left so I would alternate lengths of the pool breathing on my right side with a length breathing on my left. This also forced my to work both my right and left shoulders evenly further helping me strengthen the muscles around the previously torn rotator cuff.
5.25 miles is a long, long way. Especially in water when you can do only 1/162 of the distance without stopping. I created an incremental improvement program to get better.
I knew that a mile was 64 lengths of the pool. I was determined that no workout would ever be less than one whole mile. My first sets of workouts were dividing that into 7 sets like I would in the gym. My first 6 sets would be 10 lengths of the pool. Not much but better than 2. At the end of that, I would rest for a bit. The rules were simple, do 10 laps, of any stroke, kick board or not without stopping. I think my first workout took my entire night.
Once my body adjusted to swimming for a mile a night, every other night, I stepped up the intensity. Breaststroke has always been very easy for me as is sidestroke. I would swim one set with only crawl and breast stroke and the next set after a short rest with the kick board and sidestroke. The focus was on getting as many laps of crawl in as possible.
After I knew that I could swim a mile without issue, albeit very slowly, I eliminated all rests between the sets. Now I was doing 64 straight lengths with no stopping. My next step was to eliminate the sidestroke and kick board laps making the entire workout only breaststroke and crawl.
At this point I would alternate every length or every lap of crawl with breaststroke. Eventually I was able to be more consistent with my freestyle numbers. I would swim 1 lap of crawl for every 1 lap of breast, then 2 laps of crawl for every one of breast. I had worked up to 5 crawl laps to every one breast when I decided to go for broke and do 8 laps of crawl – the equivalent of a quarter mile without stopping. I was overjoyed when I realized that I could! I remember the rest of my workout being an absolute joy I was so proud of myself!
After that progress came quickly. A quarter mile of crawl became a half mile of crawl. I would alternate a ‘fast quarter mile’ with a long, slow quarter mile. The night I did a full mile of freestyle without stopping I was criminally insane from the effort and oxygen deprivation but I grinned ear-to-ear! I think I told everyone about my accomplishment that I could reach via cell phone. I slept the sleep of the dead that night.