This follows and amplifies my previous blog touting the greater health benefits of endurance swimming compared to endurance running. It’s excerpted from the final chapter of my next book, Outside the Box, a TI guide to open water swimming, to be released in early July.
Chapter 26 Marathon Swimming: The first mile is the hardest
Do you have a Personal Everest? For many people, that might be swimming their first nonstop mile – usually in a pool. Swimming a mile in open water would be another milestone and a worthy one. Where do you go from there? After you swim a mile, I’d urge you to consider training for a real endurance swim – perhaps even a swim "marathon." Marathon running has never been more popular. The largest marathons– New York, Paris, London, Berlin-draw 35,000 to 45,000 participants.
In 1976, 25,000 people completed a marathon in the U.S. In 2007 there were 412,000 marathon finishers. These larger fields are running at more modest paces with average finishing times in 2007 of 4:20 for men and 4:49 for women, compared to 3:32 and 4:03 in 1980. While runners at the front are faster than ever, just 1.6 percent of all finishers broke the vaunted 3-hour mark. This suggests that many more marathoners are more interested in completing, rather than competing in, the race.
The marathon’s mass appeal reflects its transformation from a mere athletic event to a quest, done as much for transformation and personal validation as for health and fitness. Completing the entry form shifts you from active to athlete. Completing the distance can produce an enduring sense of empowerment.
As quests go this one seems particularly inclusive. While running your 26 miles, you’ll have plenty of company, to help you stay on pace and bolster you during the tough spots, and-if you’re running in a major city — spectators cheering you every step of the way. If you tire, you can walk, or even sit in the shade for a bit.
Even so, running 26.2 miles imposes significant physical stresses. Even seasoned and well-trained runners typically experience aching muscles, digestive problems and deep fatigue for days after. One runner said, "Running a marathon teaches you to suffer, to push yourself to – or beyond – your physical limits."
One issue that concerns race directors is that an initial goal of just finish becomes must finish along the way. Dr. Jeffrey L. Brown, a Harvard Medical School psychologist who evaluates participants in the Boston Marathon, said that, for many recreational runners dropping out "is not something that is on the checklist."
It seems nothing short of amazing that in 2008, among 36,000 New York City Marathon starters, only 416 dropped out. (One of those who did finish died of a heart attack afterward and two of the dropouts were felled by heart attacks while running.) Race Director Mary Wittenberg told The New York Times she would prefer to see more runners drop out. "We probably have more people who hang in there and shouldn’t," she said.
If you exercise for the health benefits – yet also wish to test your mettle – what can you do that always leaves you feeling better than before you began? If you guessed swimming, you read my mind . . . or at least my book.
Why Swim a Marathon
Distance swimming is perhaps unrivaled as an "athletic quest" and can bring you a greater range of health benefits, while minimizing risk of injury or physical stresses. Here are five good reasons to consider training for one:
1) Marathon swimming offers true distinction. If you’re seeking a sense of accomplishment, no test of endurance will offer you more such opportunity than distance swimming. If you’ve thought that conquering Everest is the ultimate demonstration of human endurance, consider this: Since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were first to gain the "top of the world" in 1953, more than 4000 others have followed them. Since Matthew Webb was first to swim (using the breaststroke, for 21 hours, over a wandering course estimated at 39 miles) from England to France in 1875, just 1000 individuals have matched his feat.
In 2008 just 29 individuals swam the English Channel and just one in ten who stepped off the beach in England, touched the shore in France. A large number of the 90 percent who couldn’t complete the swim had already swum for 12 or more hours, and gotten a tantalizing glimpse of the French shore — when they ran into the infamous currents and swam several more hours without making progress. In degree of difficulty, this is beyond Everest, yet far less perilous, without the often-fatal consequences of failure.
Swimming the English Channel is the most challenging of all widely-recognized endurance challenges simply because man wasn’t designed by nature or evolution to swim – 25 yards, let alone 25 miles. It’s not just an endurance feat, but a skill that must be mastered. And among all endurance feats, if measured by those who’ve mastered it, marathon swimming is perhaps the most rarefied.
2) Swimming is better for you. It’s proven: Swimmers live longer! Steven Blair, a professor of Exercise Science and Epidemiology at the University of South Carolina School of Public Health, analyzed 32 years of physical exams and behavioral surveys on more than 40,000 subjects and discovered that those who swam for exercise had a 50 percent lower death rate than those who ran or walked. One possible reason is that – because it’s low-impact — it’s just as good for your body as for your cardiovascular system. A study at Florida Atlantic University estimated that a 150-lb runner will experience up to 2300 tons of impact force to each foot in the course of a marathon! And another study, by the National Strength and Conditioning Association revealed that slower runners tend to use a style – landing heel first – that increases the potential for energy. So long slow running, meant to be healthful, can easily lead to injuries that will require rehab and recovery periods (up to 60 percent of runners experience an injury that limits their activities at some point), while swimming for similar duration and intensity, is something you’ll be able to do day after day, year after year, decade after decade. No wonder swimmers live longer.
3) You can do it. As Part Two relates, you needn’t be young, strong or athletically gifted to succeed at distance swimming. Instead you need to become a resourceful problem-solver. You’ll solve one set of problems (physical comfort in terra non-firma and eliminating energy waste) on the way to your first pool mile, another set (psychological comfort in terra incognita, "perpetual-motion" propulsion, navigation) when you begin swimming in open water. That first mile will be the hardest, but each mile you add as you progress from 1 mile to 2, 10, or even 20, should get easier. And the thoughtfulness and purposeful focus that swimming well requires will make every hour more pleasurable.
4) You should get better with age. The oldest man to run a sub-3-hour marathon was 74; the oldest woman, 56. But performances like these, in middle age and beyond are rare and those capable of them are, by and large, extraordinarily gifted athletes and dedicated trainers. Sustaining, let alone improving, endurance performance on land over many years is so difficult because it essentially requires you to overcome gravity with every stride. As age gradually diminishes muscle strength, stride length, and thus speed, cannot help but be affected. In contrast, swimming well is more about cooperating with gravity and avoiding drag. Both are far more learned skills than physical feats, depending on your powers of concentration rather than muscle power. Thus, while your running times will be determined 80 to 90 percent by your physical capacity, your swimming times will be determined 70 to 80 percent by how efficient you are. And, because our natural efficiency is so low — 3% as I explained in Chapter 3, that’s something nearly any goal-oriented adult swimmer should be able to continue improving to age 70 and beyond.
Marathon Swimming: Keys to Success
For new-to-swimming adults, swimming your first continuous mile will be an Everest-quality goal. If accomplishing that inspires you to push on, your path includes two possibilities – swim a faster mile, and swim farther. If you choose the latter, a faster mile will happen as well, even if you don’t make it a priority. When you hold your first-mile pace for two or more miles (by following the suggestions in Part Three), whenever you swim a shorter distance, your pace should naturally, even effortless, increase.
After one mile, as your next milestone, I’d suggest 5000 meters (5500 yards) or 3.1 miles — the equivalent of running’s half marathon. It will take 90 minutes to two hours for most fitness swimmers or triathletes to swim this distance in open water. Beyond that the swimming equivalent of a 26.2-mile running marathon would be a 10,000-meter (6.2 miles) swim. U. S. Masters Swimming offers both open water championships and pool postal swims at those distances. From there, you could consider making the leap to one of the widely-recognized swim marathons:
• English Channel: 22 miles (as the crow flies, but, like Matthew Webb, no one ever swims that way). The fastest ever crossing was 7 hours 3 minutes by Christof Wandratsch. In 2008, the fastest of 29 solo swims was 9 hours 30 minutes, six swims were under 12 hours and 13 were between 12 and 13 hours. I would like to swim the English Channel in 2011, to celebrate turning 60.
• Catalina Channel: 21 miles. There have been only 163 solo swims since the first in 1927, 25 of them in 2008. The record time is 7:15:55 by Penny Lee Dean. I aim to swim Catalina in 2010.
• Manhattan Island Marathon: 28.5 (partially current-assisted) miles. Unlike the two channel swims, this is a race. Virtually all who circumnavigate Manhattan in any given year do so in an annual event sponsored by the Manhattan Island Foundation. In 2009, 25 started and 20 finished (making Manhattan, measured by success ratio, eight times more achievable than the English Channel) with John Van Wisse winning in 7:10.35 and the final finisher coming in at 9:05. I completed this swim in 2002 and 2006.
• Tampa Bay Marathon: 24 miles. Like Manhattan this is a race, held annually on Earth Day weekend. In 2009, there were 11 solo starters of whom 7 finished, with Ramses Rodriguez finishing first at 10 hours, 14 minutes. I was a member of one of 11 relays that finished.
Note: A relay option is available in all these events as a way of experiencing them prior to committing to the full distance. I was part of a relay in the Tampa Bay Marathon in 2009, swimming about 9 miles in hour-long stints. I anticipate swimming the full 24-mile marathon in 2010. In September, 2009 I’ll do an English Channel Relay, to have a Channel experience prior to a solo attempt in 2011.
1. Believe you can. The idea of swimming 3, 6 or 20+ miles may seem outsized when it’s all you can do to avoid struggle for just a few lengths as you begin relearning how to swim. But while humans start out as natural-born-strugglers in the water, the good news for improvement-minded swimmers is that humans are "problem-solving machines." Our DNA has been imprinted by thousands of years of adapting to evolutionary challenges to learn prodigiously for life. Further, one of the primary things that differentiates humans from all other creatures is our capacity to master skills for which we’re not genetically programmed. While our adaptive abilities will never help the vast majority of us dunk a basketball or swim 100 meters in under a minute, a surprising number of us can learn to swim the English Channel. But first you need to conceive of it as possible. The greatest barrier to doing it isn’t the 21 miles of open sea; it’s how rarely people believe themselves capable.
Few undertakings will teach you as much about how to use your inborn learning and problem-solving abilities as the journey from struggler to marathon swimmer. Start by swimming ten effortless and graceful strokes. When you do, you’ll have gained the self-awareness to swim a hundred strokes like that, then a thousand, and finally any number.
2. Take one stroke at a time. As I noted above, your first step on the journey to a marathon is to swim just 10 effortless and graceful strokes. To maximize your chances of success and satisfaction, resolve to never "just get through" any swim, even a single length. As you stand at one end of the pool, preparing for your first training lap, you’ll probably be focused on getting to the other end. Bring your focus back to starting with one effective stroke, then keep it on each that follows. This will begin the process of training yourself to think the same way as you stand on the beach at Dover. Swimming the English Channel takes most people more than 50,000 strokes, the culmination of some 1.5 million strokes over six months. No aspect of training will be more valuable than conditioning yourself to give full attention only to the single stroke you’re taking in each moment. And during each moment, remain ever-mindful of how you’d like your marathon to feel. Strive to make every stroke, length and mile feel that way. To achieve it, you must conceive it.
3. Redefine "endurance." Most people think of endurance in terms of how it’s defined in the dictionary: the physiological capacity to do work. But with 70% to 80% of your success in marathon swimming determined by your efficiency, and as efficiency requires the ability to monitor and maintain it for up to 50,000 strokes and 12 hours or more, you should resolve to build mental endurance first. (A perfect place to start is with the focal points in Chapter Six.) Indeed, more than any other "long-haul" athletes, distance swimmers need three kinds of endurance:
• Mental Endurance – the ability to stay purposefully and specifically focused for long stretches, and attend to each stroke for hours. This helps you build . . .
• Motor Endurance – the ability of your neuromuscular system to execute a stroke of unvarying effectiveness thousands of times, and in all kinds of conditions. And as you execute thousands of efficient repetitions, you increase your . . .
• Metabolic Endurance – the capacity of your cardiovascular and energy systems to provide your muscles with the fuel they require to perform their intended task for hours without fatigue.
While most people think only of metabolic endurance, when I swam 28.5-miles in the Manhattan Island Marathon mental and motor endurance proved far more critical to staving off fatigue – and to holding my form when I did tire. Thus your first goal in any endurance-swimming training session should be to sharpen or deepen your focus.
4. Master open water. Pools are generally better than open water for learning the basics of an efficient stroke – balance, alignment, and fluent movement. And you’ll most likely swim your first mile in a pool. But for a marathon swim of, say, 5K (3.1 miles) or more, open water is preferable. Partly because 200 lengths and turns (5K is 200 lengths of a 25m pool) has great potential for "black line hypnosis" (and therefore mindlessness) but more importantly because the lessons and benefits of mindfulness and efficiency are hugely magnified in open water for the reasons noted on virtually every page of this book.