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Many people ask me, “How do you train for a marathon swim”? A marathon swim is any distance over 6.2 miles (which is the equivalent of running a 26.2 mile marathon). Over the years, I have steadily increased the distance of my races. My first open water swim was a one-mile swim in Lake Amy Belle (WI) back in 1997. I did a few swims after that and did not know anything about marathon swimming. In 2006, I decided to try a longer swim, 5-miles in Minnetonka, MN. I finished 27th out of 99 swimmers with a time of 2:17:51 – not too bad for my first long swim. In 2009, I swam 8+ miles in Lake Geneva for an event called, “Swim for Freedom.” I really cranked up the distance in 2011 by swimming the 25K (15.5 miles) in Noblesville, IN. This was almost double my previous record distance. That was a tough swim and I was very sore afterwards. But, I finished even though their 10 hour limit was reduced to 8 hours because of storms. I finished 26th of the 27 who were able to squeeze in the time limit. The other 39 swimmers did not finish in time or were a DNF (did not finish).
By the end of 2011, a friend convinced me to compete in a 27-mile river swim in the Red River in North Dakota. This was a huge undertaking for me, so in preparation, I spoke with a marathon swimmer and a marathon runner for advice. The advice was: 1) spend more time in the pool training, 2) peak at the right times prior to the event and 3) straighten out my nutrition needs.
When training for your marathon swim, you should be swimming the distance of that event in a week for at least a few months before the actual event. For example, if you are swimming a 12-mile swim in the beginning of June, then you should be swimming at least 12-miles in a week starting in February. Then I begin to add more distance each week until the taper. Also, you should try to have one long swim at least half the distance of your event about a month prior to the swim (when you should be swimming the most distance). In the above example, I would try to do a straight 6-mile swim in May. This is not always easy to do. You might have to do this in a pool or you may be fortunate to find an escort and swim in open water. This is a good way to practice your nutrition plan for the swim too.
Since I have always kept track of my daily swim distances, I plotted those numbers for the training I did for the 25K to use as a baseline (of what not to do). From my figure, you can see in blue the training I did for the 25K, plus 3 other swims (12+ miles or more) I have done since then. You can see the peak around 4 weeks prior to the swim and then the taper begins. Recently, I have been tapering closer to 3 weeks before the swim. Of course, there can be highs and lows due to normal life stresses and sickness.
Speaking of nutrition, I learned that for my nutrition needs during the swims, I definitely need caffeine. I am not a soda or coffee drinker, but found out that it really gives the body a boost during a race. Feedings are every 30 minutes. For a longer swim, I start off with my custom endurance drink that is loaded with protein, electrolytes and calories. I will drink this for the first couple of hours. Then I switch off to my custom caffeine drink. After I have a couple feedings with caffeine, I switch back to the endurance mix. When I did the Three River Swim in Pittsburgh this past fall, I had a couple pieces of toast loaded with peanut butter before the swim. Then all I had for the entire 9+ hour swim was the nutrition drinks. I really was not hungry even a couple hours after the swim.
Knowing there was a current in the Red River was helpful, and I felt very good throughout the swim. The Red River was a success! I finished 3rd place of the 12 swimmers, coming in at 9 hours and 23 minutes (first was 9:11 and then 9:15). I felt great after the swim, just a little sore as expected, but good enough to find a bar where we could enjoy a nice cold beer and share our experiences. I found my passion for marathon swimming. I enjoy the swims because I learned how to prepare for them.
Since 2011, I have swam in various states: 10-mile swim in the Tennessee River Gorge (2012), 12.5 mile swim around Key West (2013), a relay swim for “Swim Across America” across Lake Michigan (from Chicago to Michiana, Michigan) (2013), 12-mile Swim Around Charleston (2013), SCAR Challenge in Arizona (2014) – completed 3 of 4 lake swims for 30 miles in 4 days, 10-mile USMS Championship Swim in Minnetonka, Minnesota (2014) and one of three swimmers to test the 18+ mile course for the Three River Swim in Pittsburgh (2014). I am always looking for a new challenge, and the world has no shortage of lakes, oceans, rivers, bays and channels to swim.
Now I know you are thinking, “How can she swim that much – that has got to be boring!” I would say that I am more focused once I have an event on the calendar. I know what distance I want to accomplish prior to my morning swim. I swim a long warm-up including drills and a kick set. At the beginning of the week, my main set usually starts off with a shorter number of sets with longer distances and as the week progresses; I increase the number of sets and decrease the distance. For example, as I approach my peak, I might start the week with 2*2000, 1500, 1000, 500 and at the end of the week it might be something like 6*600, 500, 400, 300, 200, 100. I always do descending sets because it helps me see the light at the end of the tunnel. I also decrease the times for each swim set. These types of training sets seem to work for me. After reviewing the results from the 10-mile USMS Championship swim (2014), out of the 25 swimmers that completed the 10-mile swim, there were no swimmers that had a negative split, but I was the first swimmer with the shortest split between the two 5-mile swims (2:10.45 first 5 miles and 2:14.25 for the second 5-miles). I must be doing something right!
To help with the monotony of long swims in a pool, I have my FINIS Neptune. I call this “My best friend in the pool.” I have been using the various different versions by Finis since they started making the product in 2005. I rely on my music to get me though my swims and I am bummed when I forget to charge it the night before. Most official events do not allow the use of these types of products for racing due to safety issues, which is understandable. I have no problem not using the Neptune, but swimming is so much better with the music.
I am fortunate to be able to swim once a day. The Wisconsin Athletic Club where I swim opens at 4:00am and I can come into work late in order to finish my training. Sleep is very important and I go to bed early, sometimes as early as 8:00, in order to get up at 3:00 so I can be at the club by 4:00. I beat all the traffic getting my 30 minute drive in to the club (which is right across the street from work).
With any endurance event, the amount of time you train is critical to the event. You have to put the time in your training, in order to be successful at your swim. After following my graph and peaking at the right time, it works for me. Since the 25K where I felt awful afterwards, I have had wonderful experiences with all the swims since then and enjoy every one.