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Finding Forever
Andrew Wells - Winter 2020

In some ways swimming is a strange sport, it can be gentle, relaxing, but it can also leave you breathless after a couple of minutes. Whatever your aim is for that day adapting your approach to the task at hand will help you reach the best outcome.

The idea of pacing is something we’re all familiar with, for a 100m sprint we can (if we wish) swim faster than when covering 1000m but by how much? Going further still and there will be more factors, feeding/ energy supply, maintaining focus, fatigue/recovery; just how do we find our forever pace?

In the UK most events (with a few exceptions) lie in the range of 1500m to 10km; with all sorts of distances in between. These give stepping stones to increase distance or alternatively allows a swimmer to specialise and work on improving speed.

If focusing on speed you will select your pace to use all your energy during the swim, leaving just enough to flop over the finish line and collapse in a heap (although it’s always best to save something at least until you get to the final sprint).

Going down the distance track things are different, the focus is all about reaching the end, time is largely irrelevant. However, it is still important to get the pace right, too fast and reaching the end may not be possible, too slow and you could be vulnerable to environmental issues or loss of focus.

Building through these distances is an essential part of any swimming journey, they enable you to learn about how you respond to different conditions, what to do and what not to do. Over time you can experience, huge temperature ranges, wind, rain, waves, days when you feel great and days when you don’t.

If you swim enough there may come a point when the feeling of achievement at finishing these events diminishes, tougher conditions perk things up but generally you either need to focus on faster or that little bit further. That step up from 10k is both similar and different.
A few stepping stones remain, Windermere and possibly a couple of others at around 10miles but beyond that the influence of triathlon falls away and most events are traditional only. In this world you can pick the channel, a loch or a trip down a river but whatever you pick it’s going to take a long time.

Apart from the prevalence of tiny speedos, the biggest differences to adapt to are:

Support.

  • Most shorter events have zonal type safety coverage. Observers, kayaks or boats distributed around the course, hopefully ensuring visibility of all swimmers at all times.
  • For longer distances the area to be covered increase and the number of swimmers shrinks sometimes to just one. One-to-one safety is the usual approach. Each swimmer with an individual kayaker or boat guiding them towards the finish; a team is formed. Jobs are divided within the team, the biggest split being the kayaker sets the route and the swimmer holds formation. Sighting forward is no longer required and can even be psychologically damaging if you’re constantly staring at an unchanging distant object for hours.
Feeding
    http://www.howsc.co.uk/findingforever.html
  • For shorter swims, even over 10k, most of the energy you require will have been taken on before the swim. Fully topped up most people have accessible energy for a couple of hours, beyond this you either need to take on more food or rely on longer term stores (fat).
  • For longer swims you need to find an equilibrium where energy used balances the energy you can either take in or release from long term stores.
  • Finding a feeding plan that works for you is the key to longer distances. The horizontal swimming position isn’t best suited to digestion, particularly when combined with rough conditions so the amount and type of food needs careful consideration. Enough to resupply but not so much that you become sick.
  • Resupply of fluids is also essential, without enough water and electrolytes your body will start to shut down. Of course, excessive intake here will also be a problem.
  • A stop every 30minutes seems to be the most common, with most swimmers favouring some form of carbohydrate powder-based drink as the key component.
  • Adding a treat (sweets, other solid food) every now and then is a boost to morale and I think it helps to have a little solid food along with all the liquid.
  • Personally, I tend to stop every 45 minutes and aim to take on around 300 cal/hr

Pacing.

  • Pacing goes hand in hand with energy supply, a constant balance of speed vs effort.
  • A true forever pace should be sustainable over extended periods, balancing your ability to take in/ generate energy and without putting excessive strain on your body.

And then there’s the biggest factor, the mind; you need to stay motivated, positive but ideally also relaxed and able to let the time fly by. For me that first stint always feels long but after that some are long others are like lightning. Some will feel great and others less so but that’s to be expected. Similarly, sometimes you can let your thoughts wander, enjoy the moment, relax, but others you need to dig deep and focus on that dream.

Clearly, if you are taking on a true challenge you can’t guarantee success, there are some dangers to consider, but if you are truly ready you will know you can overcome them.

  • Temperature seems to be the biggest danger for many, often getting too cold, but in different circumstances too hot can be just as bad. Acclimatisation is key. Training at similar or more extreme conditions go a long way to reducing dangers on the day.
  • Energy depletion/ dehydration is another risk. The key here is planning and experience, finding a schedule that works for you, enough calories without digestive issues. Self-awareness is also important to pick up those early signs that a change is needed, by the time things get truly bad it may not be possible to recover

Of course, this is all a fantasy, nothing lasts forever and swims are likely to be significantly shorter still. Given suitable conditions and training it is possible to swim for 10hours, 14 hours or longer; at the extremes 24 hrs, even 48. In the end your brain would have to call a stop, there is only so long you can go before needing some sleep. But when you are ready you know you are going to reach the target first, you can just keep swimming and swimming all day.

Losing Forever

So, you are ready, you know you can achieve your goals, all the plans are in place and the training is done. What about the future, how do you keep things going forward after the first one, two three… ten swims?

Fatigue can be a factor; after months of winter training leading into a string of summer swims you can reach that point where you can’t take more and recovery must be the main focus, maybe a few days will be enough but sometimes longer is required.
Life events can also give periods where you focus levels swimming for a while and levels of training have to reduce, after a quiet month or two you will notice a difference in the water.

For me confidence is a tricky beast, if you know you are going to finish, then finishing doesn’t always feel like an achievement. If you know you could have done better, it’s hard to focus on the positives. Then there are the worse days, cancellations due to weather, a DNF or something more tragic, maybe that’s my chance gone.

Going long is also rather niche, sometimes you need to feel like you’re the elite otherwise how can you belong in this world, but that has its own risks. It’s hard to cope with meeting other swimmers who say those swims you're planning are amazing, I could never do that, but then go on to swim laps round you in the training session or disappear into the distance over 10k. It’s so easy to feel like an imposter, just an imposter than knows a secret…

The secret that so many more could go long if they tried.

Rebuilding

The mind is so important in marathon swimming, if you're confident you want to do the training, you can see those future achievements; they will happen. When things are going badly it’s the opposite you know what is needed but its in the past and moving further away every time you’re in the water.

This is the cycle that needs breaking, the need to forget the past for a while. Take a break, try another form of exercise then rediscover the water; see an improvement from last week rather than comparing to last year. Work is needed, but anything is possible when you’re going in the right way.

Let’s see how far forever is this year.


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