Monday, February 1, 2016

Going Long in the Swim

by Larry Creswell, M.D.

I’ve had my eyes open for a longer distance swim race (10km or more) for a couple years. Around this time last year I came across the Henley Bridge-to-Bridge Swim, a 14.1-km swim in the Thames River from the town of Henley to the town of Marlow, about an hour’s drive west of London. Given that I’m not particularly fond of ocean swimming, I figured with this race there’d be no marine life like jellyfish or sharks, no alligators like the typical Mississippi triathlon, and I wouldn’t be more than 75 yards from shore in case my ambition exceeded my abilities on race day.

I registered right away. I didn’t want to be left out.

In all, I made plans for four open water swim races this summer: the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, a 4.4-mile wetsuit swim from Annapolis to Maryland’s Eastern Shore in early June; the Beaufort River Swim, a 3-mile non-wetsuit swim downstream in Beaufort, South Carolina in mid-June; the Henley Bridge-to-Bridge Swim in early August; and the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, a 2.4-mile non-wetsuit swim in Honolulu on Labor Day.

For the past three or four years years, my ordinary swim training routine would include workouts on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, each about 4,000 to 4,500 yards. Even in the build-up to my previous ironman races, the longest workouts were usually no more than 5,500 yards. My longest-ever swims had been two previous participations in the 4.4-mile Chesapeake Bay Swim. And for perspective here, I’ve been about a 1-hour ironman swimmer.

Coach Justin Daerr guided the swim training. We changed the routine for about three months leading up to the Bridge Swim:

  1. Schedule change - We switched to two weekday swim workouts plus eithera long Saturday workout or a combination of moderately long workouts on both Saturday and Sunday. All of the workouts were at the pool.

  2. Build - The long weekend swim became longer and longer, much the way a long run might get longer as a runner approached an upcoming marathon. The longest single workout was 10,500 yards (see below) and all of the long swims had the character of steady, moderate-paced efforts, but with structured main sets. The weekday swims also got progressively longer, to as much as 6,000 yards.

  3. Swim camp - For the two weeks that were about one month before the race, we scheduled a “swim camp,” with five workouts each week totally about 28,000 yards the first week and about 24,000 yards the second.

  4. Taper - There was then a gradual taper in the length of the workouts until race day.

As I look back, this approach served well.

Some Open Water Practice
I had three longer open water swims this year and there was something to learn from each. I raced at the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon in March. The 1.5-mile wetsuit swim took place in pretty tough conditions and a good effort there provided some needed confidence to get the season started. The Chesapeake Bay Swim was around a 2-hour swim, so about half the time/distance for the upcoming Bridge Swim. This swim went well, but I was a bit concerned that after two hours of swimming I wouldn’t have been very excited about jumping back in the water for the return trip to Annapolis! I had problems with neck chafing from the wetsuit during this race and did some research afterwards to find a solution. I settled on a neoprene neck collar (NeckTech, $20,, worn under the wetsuit, which fixed the problem. Lastly, at three miles, albeit downriver, the Beaufort River Swim was my longest-ever non-wetsuit swim. I was surprised by how much energy it took.

I was expecting about a 4-hour effort for the Bridge Swim, so I thought some nutrition planning could be important. Historically I haven’t eaten much, if anything, during swim workouts (or events), so during the long weekend training swims, I did some experimenting with nutrition options. I quickly found that large quantities of sports drink left me bloated and belching, so I decided water was going to be best for hydration’s sake. I tried a variety of snacks -- gels, jelly beans, chocolate candies, trail mix, pretzels, Pringles -- and found that in small quantities all were tasty and welcome. At the race, I’d go with water and Snicker’s bars provided at the aid stations.

The Event
It’s been a couple weeks since the race now, and it seems like the whole build-up and race weekend went by in a flash. It was a very short trip to London for the race -- over on Wednesday night, early to bed on Thursday to catch up on sleep, some sightseeing and short swim workouts on Friday and Saturday, the race on Sunday, and the trip back home on Monday.

The race started in the storied rowing town of Henley, home to the annual Royal Henley Regatta and, more recently, the Challenge Henley Triathlon. The setting is very reminiscent of Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia or the Charles River in Boston. Registration was at the Leander Club, one of the famous rowing clubs. It was inspiring to visit the clubhouse and see the wall of fame for the more than 80 Olympic rowing medalists who’ve hailed from the club.

There were 351 swimmers for the event. There was a mix of men and women, old and young. There were obviously a bunch of triathletes in the crowd, but there were many swimmers as well. The water temperature was a very comfortable 65 degrees, perfect for a wetsuit swim. The skies were partly cloudy with temperatures in the low 70s. The course is downstream, but a series of locks and dams leaves the river more like a series of interconnected lakes. I don’t doubt that there was a bit of helpful current, but as I looked into the water at the start, I was a little disappointed that floating leaves were almost stationary.

I’ve been calling this a race, but that’s only sort of true. The event began with a mass, in-water start and a 4km swim to the first lock, where swimmers exited the water to walk around the lock. At that stop, the organizers grouped the swimmers into pods of about 25 swimmers based on finishing times (for the first 4km). Then, as a group, each pod returned to the water for the next segment after a several minute break at an aid station with food and drink. There would be four such exit/entries, dividing the swim up into five segments of 4km, 3km, 3km, 2km, and a final 2km. Each pod would swim as a group, with a lead and trailing kayak for on-water support.

The swim got off to a rather genteel start. There wasn’t much bodily contact and I just settled in for a very steady 55-minute effort to the first stopping point. The first 14 swimmers were assigned to pod 1 and had already left for the next segment of the course; I joined a group of 30 swimmers in pod 2 for the rest of the swim.

As the swim progressed, it didn’t take long for the pod members to find a comfortable place in the group. I settled into a position about mid-pack along the left side, taking advantage of a draft for most of the swim. The swimmers in my pod worked well together; there was very little contact and the group was able to keep a very steady, brisk pace. The scenery along the way was great -- recreational boaters, rowers of all sorts, an occasional pair of swans, and interesting buildings and farms along each shore. At the last aid station, there was an inspiring greeting from a local swimmer who’d just completed an English Channel swim a couple weekends previously.

The race finished up in the town of Marlow, at the Marlow Rowing Club. I finished the swim in 3:40, and that included almost 20 minutes out of the water during the four aid station visits. was bothered by a bit of stomach cramping once I stopped swimming, but I enjoyed sitting along the water’s edge at the finish, sipping some water and cheering with the crowd for the swimmers from the remaining 10 pods.

It was a terrific day, a fun event, and a bit of an adventure.

Longest Weekend Swim (10,500 short course yards)

Warm up
10 x 100/50 as 100 swim/50 kick, continuous

Main set
200 cruise swim; gear on, then go into:
12 x 100 paddles/pull on 1:20
Gear off
400 cruise swim; gear on
10 x 100 paddles/pull on 1:20
Gear off
600 cruise swim; gear on
8 x 100 paddles/pull on 1:20
Gear off
800 cruise swim; gear on
6 x 100 paddles/pull on 1:20
Gear off
1000 cruise swim; gear on
4 x 100 paddles/pull on 1:20
1500 cruise swim

Cool down
300 kick
200 back or breast

Larry Creswell, M.D., is a cardiac surgeon and Associate Professor of Surgery at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi. In addition to his regular column on Endurance Corner, he maintains The Athlete's Heart blog to offer information about athletes and heart disease in an informal way and to encourage exchange and discussion that will help athletes build a heart-healthier lifestyle. You can contact him at
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