I am often approached by swimmers thinking about preparing to swim a much longer distance than they have done before – like 3.8K (Ironman tri), 5K, 10K or 20K, or even 40K (for the English Channel). I receive this question in various forms, and it essentially asks this, “How little training can I get away with for this event I want to do?”
It don’t think it is asked because the athlete is lazy, but because they have a lot of other responsibilities in life, with work and family and such, and they see there is limited time in the budget to train for this event. Their goal is important but must subordinate to other life values.
Yet, behind the question there may be doubt that the amount of training they have seen associated with this event is really necessary. They may also be aware that there are debates going about how much (young) elite swimmers over-train or swim excessive volume each week – this massive-meters (or yards) approach is traditional but science is not certain it actually contributes to better performance for certain kinds of events. So there is reason to be skeptical.
Hence, this is an important and honest question to ask.
What Result Do You Want?
This first thing I want to get across in answer this question is that there are different results according to different levels of investment in training. You can…
- Hardly train and then not be able to finish the race.
- Train a little and barely survive the race.
- Train a fair amount and swim that race comfortably.
- Train a great deal and be competitive in your age group.
The ‘amount’ of training I am talking about here is not only in terms of time spent in the water, but about quality activities done in an appropriate range of intensities and challenging water conditions.
Photo used under license with 123rf.com
When you train too little for an event, you just might be able to finish it, but it’s going to be unpleasant mentally, it’s going to be stressful on your body, your risk of injury is going to be much higher, and your recovery afterward is going to be long and problematic.
Think of this like trying to run a marathon you haven’t trained for. You start out running strong, feeling fine, but soon you are walking more and more as your breathing labors and heart pounds too hard. Then your body crashes at Mile 20 and find yourself hobbling painfully across the finish line, if not crawling.
When you train a fair amount, then you will not only be able to finish the race, you’re going to enjoy it. It will feel fairly good inside the body, though nicely fatigued at the end. You will have trained in such a way that risk of injury is low and your recovery afterwards is surprisingly easy.
Think of this like jogging that marathon, moving continuously, but moving at a steady and sustainable pace to the end. You did not push your limits and finished feeling great.
On the other side of the comfortable line, when you train a great deal (and assuming you will train wisely too) you can possibly swim fast and competitive for your age group. However, competing means you enter into a higher level of stress because you are working at your body’s performance limits, just as your competitors are. As a prerequisite, you’ve gone through the stage of training that would allow you to swim this event comfortably, and then gone much farther to increase your power and speed capabilities. Racing near your performance limits will not be so pleasant, and your recovery will not be as easy as it would be if you just swam comfortably. But you did your training in such a way that your risk of injury is low so that you could safely handle much higher training stress loads. And this gives you a mental boost, even in the midst of the discomforts of the event.
Think of this as running that marathon at the edge of your trained capabilities, restrained just enough in the first half so that you did not fade in the second half. You crossed the line just as the fuel runs out, well done in how you distributed effort to finish at your fastest possible time.
You Must Pay
The bottom line is this: if you don’t pay the price to train adequately to the point you could swim that race comfortably, you will pay for it somewhere, usually at a higher interest rate, during the race and afterward. But, you must pay.
[For a little background music you can listen to an old reggae favorite of mine David Lindley’s Pay The Man.]
There is a corollary: if you’ve been swimming a long time, with a history of working at the intensity level required by this event, then that is like having a big savings account in the bank that you can withdraw from to pay for some of the stress of this new challenge. It makes a big difference if your body has developed its strength for swimming over a decades and your neural patterns for swimming are deeply embedded by years of intentional practice. For those without a long history of swimming, without a big savings account to draw from, the bigger the challenge you aim for, a much higher price (compared to the experienced ones) you will be required to pay to do it safely, to do it in a relatively comfortable way.
But how much is enough to be comfortable? Good question!
Let’s talk about that in the next and final part…