This Summer I have several clients all going for big open water challenges, each about to create great stories of their journeys. Some have come for one to one sessions to work on technique, others are being coached through the year for a range of great events and adventures. I recently put together a general ZigZag Training Guide to give them all a structure for the coming weeks and months of preparation.

Start of the Brighton Tri Club organised Paddle Round the Pier

Start of the Brighton Tri Club organised Paddle Round the Pier

With tide and time flowing, the sea not quite warming up yet but certainly a little more welcoming and exciting events ebbing closer, I thought I’d share here just a few of the elements in the Guide.

Before any of that, though, what amazing stories the ZigZag swimmers are creating for themselves!

Epic Tales in the Making

The last blog post mentioned one of these: a woman completely new to open water swimming who has been cajoled into entering an amazing midnight 3k swim in the Arctic Circle. The route passes from Finland to Sweden, crossing a time zone so that the swimmers should finish the day before they started. How about that!

We did a one to one session focused entirely on technique and since then she has been working on regular swims, as recommended in her Swim Forward Plan (which comes as part of every one to one session). We’ll be following up with an open water session to build up confidence and practise some key skills such as getting into a steady rhythm through the swells, sighting and drafting.

The Bantham Swoosh: photo by Tim Bridges, OSS

The Bantham Swoosh: photo by Tim Bridges, OSS

Two other swimmers also deserve special mention. Both are on the twelve month Coaching Support Programmes and so are being coached for swimming alongside other big events and adventures. And both only started swimming pretty much from scratch with me a couple of years ago. So how amazing: one is lining up for the wonderful Outdoor Swimming Society’s Bantham Swoosh, 6kms down a beautiful river in Devon in July; and the other, having completed Ironman Wales last year has opted for the famous Henley Swim Marathon in August, 14km in the Thames, with the Dart 10k as a cool down in September.

Needless to say, all three events are a long way beyond what either have done before - even the Ironman 3.8km swim last year, momentous at the time, will feel like a bit of a warm up for Henley. And though the Bantham Swoosh might seem short in comparison, it also represents a big step up in our swimmer’s experience of 1.5km swims in triathlons.

So without further ado, what is going to help all these and the other intrepid newcomers to the world of open water swimming? The following just picks out a few key points from the Guide. First up…

Put the Distance in a Box

If you’re making a big step up in the distance you are going for it’s very easy to get fixated with the number of kilometres or miles.  Some people feel they have to prove themselves over that particular distance in the build up – so for example throwing in a mammoth swim covering the whole distance some weeks before, then feeling disheartened when (inevitably) it proves to be a struggle.

We certainly need to build up the endurance fitness and the distances but it doesn’t help to approach an event by setting yourself a series of trials.

For a long swim like the Dart 10k or Hurly Burly, which for most of us are significantly longer than our regular swims, I think it is more helpful to start from a rough idea of for how long you expect to be in the water on the big day.  Then plan out the training to build up gradually through the weeks to get to the point where your longest training swim, a few weeks before, is about 75-80% of that time.  No more.

Having said that I also believe there is a natural cap on the maximum duration, beyond which you are more likely simply to accumulate fatigue without really adding any fitness benefit. In marathon running I set the cap at two and a half hours, following one of the most respected run coaches Dr Jack Daniels. However, we also put in moderately long sessions the day before - maybe of half the duration - so that the longest runs (swims and bikes too) are off the back of the previous day’s session with just one night’s sleep in between.

Watch out for the story coming soon of a runner I coached to a tremendous run in the London Marathon last week, using this approach.

Back to the swimming (though the following applies just as much to training for any endurance event), it’s consistently putting in regular swims – ideally a minimum of three a week initially, adding in more later - that gets results. Fitness is all about regular, consistent exercise – not one-off, isolated attempts to test yourself over a distance.  A bit like quietly putting savings into a bank account, day by day, week by week, building up your reserves.

Elements and Phases

The world leaders in swim coaching, Swim Smooth identify three key elements to swim training:

  • technique

  • endurance fitness

  • open water skills

You want to make sure each element is covered, giving a higher priority to some at certain stages or phases in your build up to the event.

Photo of Hurly Burly by Vivienne Rickman-Poole, OSS

Photo of Hurly Burly by Vivienne Rickman-Poole, OSS

For example, if you’re starting pretty much from scratch its good to have a phase dedicated to adaptation and technique – to adapting to a new watery lifestyle of regular swims and mastering the feel of swimming smoothly and in control.  Don’t worry about distances or times – keep everything light while you find the routine that is going to work for getting in those three or more swims and focus on the feel.  If you’re unsure of your technique, best to get some expert help early on.

Then in the next phase start gradually add in some endurance sessions to work on your ability to keep going… and going.  Here’s where getting into a lido, a lake or the sea comes into its own to settle into a steady, unbroken rhythm - and avoid the monotony of counting endless lengths in a small pool.

And then as the event starts to loom up ahead, maybe around 10-12 weeks out, give greater priority to open water practice, getting used to swimming in the wet suit and acclimatising.  In this event specific phase your key sessions need to connect to what you’ll be doing on the day – so doing the final, longest swims; getting used to take on gels; practising sighting; seeking out conditions that are likely to be similar to what you’ll encounter, such as swimming with or against a current, in open seas or still lakes; being close up to others; getting used to colder water; settling on what kit to use… everything thought through and tested.

There’s more in the Guide about building in rest and recovery, the mix of sessions to be included at each different stage and tapering before the big event. Too often neglected by some, but at the very heart of stepping up to a new, big challenge is the next and final point.

Mental Preparation

It’s been said that doing any long endurance event is 90% psychological – and the rest is all in your head.  That feels about right to me.  How we feel going into a big event, our confidence and sense of excitement and being prepared with strategies for when things get hard (as they will) are as important as the physical preparation.  I spend a lot of time with swimmers (and others) focused on this area, putting into practice and further developing the resources in Confidence Centred Coaching.

The short ZigZag Training Guide highlights just a few pointers:

  • take any ‘top tips of things to dowith a pinch of sea salt: it all starts with our feelings, not things we should do.  One size fits all tips and tricks can trivialise these all-important feelings.  They can also add to a sense of pressure and being overwhelmed.  To overcome our fears and self-doubts we first have to acknowledge and understand, not dismiss them.  Only then can we start putting them in place and addressing what will help

  • move the finish line to the start: getting to the start line, with all that consistent solid training behind you is 99% of the journey.  What happens in the space between the start and finish line is where you can create your own living masterpiece (to use a phrase from top US Sports Psychologist Michael Gervais) – being in the moment of each stroke, breath and movement; soaking in the wonderful natural environment and buzz of being with others; and it all coming together, wrapped up in the excitement of being there, totally present.  The times and positions at the end have a way of taking care of themselves

  • when things get hard: at some point they will!  So it helps to have rehearsed before some phrases or scripts.  I have my coached athletes draw up a grid, built around distinctive key moments we’ve identified, such as on the start line, when it starts to hurt and when the unexpected happens.  For each of these we think about what will help to say to themselves that deals with tactics (e.g. on the start line: “my pace, no one else’s”), motivation (e.g. when it hurts: “this is hard – and I do hard things”), technique (e.g. when something goes wrong “stay calm and solve it one step at a time”).

For me this is one of the most special things about coaching - the combination of all the carefully thought through, rigorous focus on technique and the planning for peak performance on the one hand and, on the other, the attentive care and nurturing of self-belief, being alongside people, understanding their feelings, hopes and fears, so as to help them surprise themselves with what they can do.

Someone’s not phased! At the Raw Energy Pursuits River Adur 5km swim

Someone’s not phased! At the Raw Energy Pursuits River Adur 5km swim

I’m hoping the Training Guide will feed in to the Outdoor Swimming Society’s brilliant resources. So watch out for news of where and when the full Guide will be available - or of course get in touch direct if you’d like help in preparing for your big swim challenge, whether it’s to help with the technique, plan and peak for a specific event or to deal with nerves and anything else that gets in the way of a wonderful experience.

And be ready to applaud our adventurous swimmers! Their stories coming soon.