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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

How Do You Prepare For An Open Water Swim?

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

As the Big Chillswim Winter Swimming Gala in Windermere, England, we asked athletes about how they prepare and feel ready - especially mentally - to compete in their winter swimming discipline. Some athletes meditate, some athletes listen to hard rock music. Some athletes gain weight, some athletes gain muscle. Some athletes taper, some athletes do not.

Lewis Pugh, the famed cold water swimmer, explained his mindset. "I cannot emphasize how important it is for an athlete to feel great. You’ll be able to perform at the top of your game."

During his speech at the World Open Water Swimming Awards, Pugh mentioned that building muscle is important in cold water swimming.

He should know with pioneering swims in the North Pole, Mount Everest, Antarctica and various winter swimming competitions. "I think muscle is better than fat. When I am big and strong, and have done lots of weights, and weigh about 95kg - I can withstand the coldest oceans. When I am 105 kg - but there are no big muscles - physically I am not good in cold water. And mentally I do not feel like an athlete and therefore cannot perform at my optimum."

Comments from other renowned open water swimmers around the world include the following:

1. Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How do you feel ready to compete in an open water competition (winter swim, marathon swim, channel crossing, ice swim)?

Capri Djatiasmoro (New York): With proper training. If I can swim one-third or half the race distance in training, then, I am ready for competition. That being said, my approach is more mental than physical. If you set your head, then hopefully, the body follows. I think athletes in general are diligent in the physical training, but most overlook, or do not give full credit to, the equally important mental training.

Rob Kent (Canada): Outwardly, I'm a pretty calm guy, but before a big swim I can get pretty wound up. So the key thing for me before a big swim is getting a good night's sleep. Sounds easy and obviously important, but I often get so wound up the night before that I can't sleep. Before the Ironman Canada, I only got 1 hour sleep and it didn't go well. So I always have 2 beers. Not enough that I'm going to hung over, but just enough to take the edge off. Alcohol isn't usually a good idea before an event...but it is the lesser of 2 evils. That - or no sleep.

Barry O'Connor (Ireland): When I get to a level with the cold water where I feel somewhat comfortable and have a sense that it is possible. At the beginning of the season, it can feel like the impossible challenge.

Jason Malick (Florida): I feel ready only after I've dove in and thus eliminated some of the butterflies in the pit of my stomach and the jitters leading up to the swim.

Ori Sela (Israel): When you have a little kid, you are always ready and not ready, sleeping is one of the most important things to staying focus and hot during the winter competition, so I would say 78% ready.

Ildiko Szekely (Hungary): For me, open water is more like a breath of fresh air from the pool. I don't need to prepare the same way. I actually don't prepare for it at all, knowing that my training in the pool prepared me more than enough for it. That being said, I would never do more than a 2-mile race.

Lisa Hertz Malick (Florida): Since I have some chronic health issues, I have to be sure that I am ready; otherwise, I'll really go backwards, healthwise. I feel ready to compete when I consistently hold my goal sets and intervals and my body feels rested and tapered from hard yardage.

Simon Dominguez (Australia): For me, I feel ready to compete in an open water event when I have done the right amount of training. I know there are two ways to do a big open water swim – train really hard for the months before the event so that you can enjoy the fruits of your labor on race day or don’t put in a lot of training and know that the swim itself is going to be harder and more painful. I definitely subscribe to the first method. Pain is your friend in training.

Anne Cleveland (California): Although the swims get easier with experience, I found that I was more able to give my early swims my all - I was filled with enthusiasm and the prospect of testing myself this way was new... a daunting challenge which I thrived upon.

2. Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What makes you feel mentally prepared to perform at your highest level?

Capri Djatiasmoro: Physical training, as well as mental training and visualization. If possible, I like to swim the course before race day.

Rob Kent: Just knowing I've done the work.

Barry O'Connor: My belief in myself and my knowledge that I can last in cold water longer than most.

Jason Malick: Knowing that other swimmers have achieved great success and the mentality of Napolean Hill of 'Quitters Never Win, Winners Never Quit'. Of course, I've had my share of failures, but we learn best from our shortcomings. As Fred Astaire once said/sang in the movie Swing Time, 'Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, try all over again.'

Ori Sela: Knowing that I swam the distance and completed at least 1 swim in the sea and 2 in the pool.

Ildiko Szekely: I will relate this question to the pool. I prepare myself mentally every day when I train. When it gets tough and painful, I think of how much it will hurt during the race, and embrace the pain. The more painful it gets during the training, the more I accept it and embrace it, so when it comes to competition, the pain is nothing new.

I've tried visualization, but that makes me more nervous and does more harm than good. I focus on breathing - taking deep, calculated breaths before racing, even as far as days prior it it. It relaxing my muscles and calms my nerves. I also think of a race when I did really well, and make myself think of how great it felt during and after. I acknowledge negative self talk, and replace it with positive ones.

For open water, because it's so different and I have plenty of times to qualm nerves during the race, I never feel anxious.

Lisa Hertz Malick: Having the support of my husband, JC Malick, my family, and my swim family. My swim family and husband have done so many amazing swims and always know the right thing to say. It's easy to listen to them because they've been there and know what they're talking about. When I was getting used to swimming in colder water, I'd get concerned when I couldn't feel my toes...stuff like that can go to your head. Mark "Magoo" Smitherman would assure me that my toes wouldn't fall off, and then I'd be okay to continue...it's weird the little things that can psych you out.

Simon Dominguez: For all these big events, you really need to want to be successful above all else. You need to set the goal and stick to the path. For me, I find telling people what I am doing is good as it puts pressure on me to be successful - as I don’t want to have to tell people that I was not successful. I know that not everyone likes this sort of pressure. I do.

Anne Cleveland: Knowing that I've done everything I can do to prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best. One of my favorite ways to train my mind was to do long training swims with irritating swim partners. Forcing myself to stay in with them inured me to mental discomfort.

3. Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What worries you when you are preparing for your competitions?

Capri Djatiasmoro: I do not train enough. I do not train like others. I need to train much more than I do.

Rob Kent: Despite what I said above, not much. When I can't sleep it is more just being wound up, rather than an actual, rational worry or concern. By the time I get to the starting line, I've either figured out all the assorted variables in my head and found an answer or realized that it's out of my control, in which case there is nothing to worry about.

Barry O'Connor: Will I go off to fast and kill my ability to breathe?

Jason Malick: Fear itself. But in reality, what the weather and conditions will be like.

Ori Sela: Nothing.

Ildiko Szekely: Not tapering well. Calculating and hitting the taper is difficult, especially when negative self-talk gets in the way. Again, I would never taper for open water. My biggest concern would be the cold and too much salt.

Lisa Hertz Malick: I'm always concerned about my health being good before, during, and after a race. I have severe asthma and have spent a lot of time in the hospital with it. I always worry that all the work will be in vain because I'll have to pull out of the race...that's happened a few times.

Simon Dominguez: Injury is my biggest concern followed by am I doing enough training. I think I almost over-trained for the English Channel, but I didn’t train enough for the Farallones last year. I have learnt from both plans and will be doing things differently this year in my training for my next swim in June. I am always worried about my nutrition plan as well. After a bunch of long open water swims, I don’t feel like I have nailed my feeding strategy perfectly yet.

Anne Cleveland: I always approached the rough and tumble open water starts with a bit of trepidation.

4. Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What do you think about, do or listen to right before you walk to the start?

Capri Djatiasmoro: All the training and preparation is done … right up to race start, I am a bundle of nerves, but it all goes away as soon as I get in the water and start swimming.

Rob Kent: This is a common question, but I find that for the whole thing I'm in the moment. I can only think about 10 seconds ahead or 10 seconds behind. Having said that, the worst is if you happen to have just heard a crappy song just as you are about to dive in. So I deliberately get just one song in my head before the swim. On my 21-hour Lake Ontario crossing, I recall walking across the parking lot with my crew and my iPod on singing out loud, "Save me San Francisco" by Train, so it would be locked in for the swim. It worked and is still a favorite song.

Barry O'Connor: I count out the race into turns. For a 1 km, I have 20 turns. I am thinking out the race in quarters and how I will deal with each quarter.

Jason Malick: How badly I want to succeed and try my best. Also about not letting down my crew.

Ori Sela: I can say I am meditating and very focused. If it’s a long distance swim, I wake up early or don’t sleep at all. I like to sleep, but I’m thinking about the swim. I try to eat a big sandwich before, 30 minutes of warm-up outside, 400m swim to feel the glide and speed, get out to meditate for a few minutes just looking at the sea. The sea relaxes me a lot. I take 1 energy gel before and drink ½-liter of water. For 10 km swim, I take 2 gels with me; for 21 km and above, I try not to take gels at all.

Ildiko Szekely: For open water, I think of breaking up the distance and pacing. I think of pulling away from the crowd right away. For the pool, I think of maintaining my tempo, using my hips when I get tired, and bringing it home on the second half of the race.

Lisa Hertz Malick: Even for longer races, I do a warm-up. I have to get my lungs ready to go. The shorter the swim, the more important the warm-up will be. So for a marathon swim, it might be just a quick jog in flip flops to get my heart rate up, but if I were doing anything less than a 10 km swim, I should warm-up for at least 20 minutes. Then I make sure I have everything I need, on me, for after, for right before the start. If the race is for a cause, it's nice to take a moment to remember why I'm there....good to think about the cause when you are ready for the swim to end.

Simon Dominguez: I taper for 2 – 3 weeks leading up to a marathon swim. At the start of the taper, I am terrified about what I am planning to do. This fear then translates into anticipation as I get closer to the event. On the day of my big swims, the nerves are completely gone. I just want to get in and get the job done, knowing that I have done the work to allow me to be successful. I just want to get in and swim.

Anne Cleveland: Staying in the present moment, breathing and enjoying what I've worked so hard for.

5. Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How do you eliminate negative thoughts on race day?

Capri Djatiasmoro: I do not eliminate negative thoughts - they are always hovering. I call them the 'bad guys' - they say, 'You can’t do this' and 'Who do you think you are?' and 'You did not train' … I let them spew their negativity, then I tell them to leave so I can make room to welcome positive energy and thoughts … and I try to hold onto the positive.

Rob Kent: Mostly it's just not in my personality, I've never really gotten negative. Maybe a little frustrated or impatient, but never really negative. I also tell my crew I don't want to hear anything negative on race day.

Barry O'Connor: I make sure to enjoy the event and the spectacle of the event, this seems or work for me.

Jason Malick: By staying focused and positive.

Ori Sela: If I sleep well, I don’t have them. And if I do have them, I think about my team, how I prepared them well, and how I am proud of my swimmers. If it’s a night cold swim, It think about my wife and kids and play with them Lego or Barbie whatever it takes…

Ildiko Szekely: By acknowledging it, and consciously telling myself to quit talking like that. If that fails, I preoccupy my mind with something else... like watching TV, reading, or listening to books.

Lisa Hertz Malick: I usually don't have too many. I'm naturally a pretty positive person. So on race day, I'm happy that I'm there, that I am healthy and able to participate with my friends. What is there to be negative about? All the hard work is done.

Simon Dominguez: By focusing on the goal, all the training I have done and how happy I am going to be when I am successful. I do not think of sharks, cramps, or how tired or in pain I am going to be over the day. It does not help at all. I picture success in my mind. I also know that any feelings I have while swimming will not last long (e.g., if my shoulder starts hurting, it will normally stop hurting after a few hours to be replaced by some other body part or no pain at all). You just never know and have no way of controlling this, so why even think about it - but you do need to acknowledge that it is going to happen.

Anne Cleveland: I allow them to pass through my mind, but I don't invite them to stay for tea.

6. Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How do you promote or focus on positive thoughts on race day?

Capri Djatiasmoro: Sometimes on long swims, when I get tired, I repeat to myself, 'I can do this, yes! I can … what got me through my 11-hour Manhattan Island Marathon Swim was Igor Shoukhardin, my Russian swim coach. I would hear his voice in my head, 'Capri, you think you are tired, but you are not tired!' Anytime I got tired, I would hear Igor in my head … and it is true, I only think I am tired. I have never swum myself to exhaustion; I always have a little something left. I am tired after a long swim, but not to the extent of total exhaustion.

Rob Kent: Typically, for marathon swims at least, it is about staying even keeled. I try to make sure I'm not negative and don't worry about being positive. Minimizing the emotional ups and downs is better than trying to stay perky, that takes too much energy. I let my crew be perky.

Barry O'Connor: I make sure to enjoy the event and the spectacle of the event, this seems or work for me.

Jason Malick: By thinking of sunshine and rainbows. By smiling and thinking of the smiling faces watching over me (crew members).

Ori Sela: I think about life and what I achieved and what am I going to do soon in the future.

Ildiko Szekely: By telling myself that I am more than prepared. If I know I'd put in the work to get there, there is no reason to feel negative. And I tell myself, if all fails, there is always another race.

Lisa Hertz Malick: Breathe. Isn't that wonderful? Extra wonderful if the air is salty.

Simon Dominguez: I am usually itching to get in the water and swim. I know I am ready both physically and mentally. It is a great feeling.

Anne Cleveland: I feel this gets easier with practice. Learning to keep thoughts positive reaps great rewards in physical performance - tolerance of cold, ability to continue swimming with focus, a strong effort and an optimistic attitude. Negative thoughts are really hard to get ahold of when chilled to the bone in the middle of the night in the middle of the ocean between two countries.

7. Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Does sleep or meals the day before impact your mental perspective before your races?

Capri Djatiasmoro: The week leading up to race day, I eat and hydrate in preparation for the race, especially the last two days.

Rob Kent: Sleep is key. Food isn't that big of a deal for me, I've got a bit of an iron gut. On my Lake Ontario crossing, I fed every half hour and only had 1 Carboom gel and a drink...and never missed a feed or had anything different to eat...which means I had 42 gels. They ran out and had to send a boat to shore to get more. I just like to start with a full stomach, one less thing to worry about in the beginning when you are settling in.

Barry O'Connor: Sleep is the key, in my mind, to dealing with the cold. When you are tired your ability the deal with it diminishes significantly.

Jason Malick: No. Generally, I try to eat a hearty, protein-filled meal the night before a swim (or spicy foods before a cold water swim as once instructed by Nuala Moore before my ice mile). Unfortunately, I have a tendency to get little sleep before a big swim as the anticipation is like a robust kid in a candy store or as a kid, eagerly waiting to open gifts left by Santa.

Ori Sela: Yes, very much especially sleep, but I like to be very light, so I don’t eat a lot a day before.

Ildiko Szekely: No, not really. I keep the same sleep pattern. Sleeping more or less would throw me off. I do like to eat carbs before and on race day.

Lisa Hertz Malick: When I was younger, I used to demand exactly 9 hours and 15 minutes of sleep before a swim meet. I've relaxed since then, but I still like my sleep...I just make sure I consistently get a good night sleep. Same with eating...I eat fairly well all the time, especially well during race season, and have a few choice foods for race day. But these may be more superstitious than actually performance enhancing, except for specific fuel products.

Simon Dominguez: Not really as I often find it hard to sleep the night before as I am too excited. Most of my swim start at night. I find that the last meal before a big swim is a team bonding exercise anyway with my crew and family.

Anne Cleveland: Absolutely. Everything we take in - sensory perceptions, food, breath - ultimately becomes our consciousness. Good sleep is essential - although sometimes hard to come by when keyed up for a big swim the next day.

8. Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Please add any more comments that you feel are relevant.

Capri Djatiasmoro: I tell people, 'Do the things that you love. Do what makes you happy.' For me, that is swimming in the ocean. I feel at peace. I started cold water swimming on New Year's day January 1st 2000 with the Coney Island Polar Bears. I was curious and found that I liked it. Now 16 years later, I am traveling the world competing in winter swimming events. I never planned this; the pathways evolved and welcomed me. You never know in life where your passion will take you. So, go exploring and enjoy life. Just do it.

Rob Kent: Probably part of my personality too, and everyone is different, but I feel people often make too much of the mental side. It can often backfire and you can psyche yourself out. I approach it very workman-like or soldier-like. There is a job to do, just do it. I tend not to overthink it, I don't get philosophical or spiritual or try and trick myself or play games. Just shut up and swim.

Barry O'Connor: Racing in waters as cold as we are experiencing is a new phenomenon and we are learning something every time. For example the water at the Winter Swimming Championships in Tuymen [Russia] was colder than Murmansk last year and so the 450m was on a par with the 1 km.

The thing that we are seeing is that faster swimmers are learning to handle the cold and times are falling.

We are still learning about the effects of the cold and how to handle recovery and we must document the learnings gained from every event to help the next one.

Ori Sela: I thinks it is important to meditate and see exactly what you are going to do each kilometer, smile at the beginning and mostly at the end.

Ildiko Szekely: I like open water swims because it is different from the routine. I like the mile the most. It's just long enough to sprint it. Open water is relaxing, because it allows me to get into a rhythm that's not interrupted with constant turns.

I am a recreational open water swimmer. It is an escape from the pool, where nerves don't interplay, where there are no expectations, no pressure. So without all that, I know I will do just fine.

Lisa Hertz Malick: It's amazing how much swimming in anything...cold, far, rough...that pushes you past your limits is so mental. If you think you can, you are right. If you think you can't, you are also right.

Simon Dominguez: I believe that if you are confident that you have trained as much as is necessary, have a great crew and nutrition plan, and a community around you that is very supportive, then you have a very good chance of being successful. What is out of your control is Mother Nature. She always wins.

The fact that you can train for 12 months for a marathon swim, and have everything else in place for a successful swim, then have a storm or bad currents or jellyfish or a shark stop you is why success in this sport is so special. The odds are really against us in completing these swims. So when you can get your ducks in a line, and walk up on that beach or get back onto that boat, it is a magical experience.

Lewis Pugh is shown above in his Five Swims in Antarctica for 1 Reason in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.

Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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