Featured,  View from the Water

You get what you train for (mostly)

Last weekend was the infamous BLDSA Champion of Champions in Dover Harbour. I took part for the second time and would like to be writing a different piece about the event. However, this time I didn’t complete it. Still, every swim, and especially a failed swim, is a chance to learn something.

The CofC, as it’s affectionately known, is the event that swimmers love to hate – or should that be, they hate that they love it?

It has a compellingly grim format. Firstly, it takes place relatively early in the season so the water can be cold. This year it was marginally above the historical average at somewhere between 14 and 15 degrees. Secondly, it takes place in Dover Harbour, which despite being the second home of many long distance swimmers is not the world’s most scenic spot. Sorry, but if you do this swim you will spend a fair amount of time looking at rusty sheet piling. Thirdly, you have to swim five miles, followed by a short break, three miles, another break, and then a mile – a non-trivial total of nine miles all swum on an 800m triangular circuit. The amount of time you have to warm up and recover between each swim depends on your speed but a good number of swimmers were still shivering when they entered the water for rounds two and three. Nobody looked happy (until the end), a good number pulled out, and yet the event reached capacity within a few days of entries opening.

I would have liked to write today about how it’s perfectly feasible to train for sprint events in the pool and still be competitive over long distances in open water. Unfortunately, I was one of those swimmers who retired this year as I suffered from cramp after about three miles.

Last winter I made a deliberate decision to train for the European Masters Championships, which took place in London in May. I swam a couple of 50m sprints in relays and the 100m, 200m and 400m freestyle. The latter seems like a long way in a pool. I did all of my training in a heated pool and have avoided cold water since last September.

Pool swimming is a strange thing: you can feel insanely pleased with yourself if you beat your expectations by a fraction of a second, and bitterly disappointed if you don’t.

In principle, I think working on speed through improving technique and incorporating high intensity work into your training is no bad thing for open water swimmers. I was very happy with my results from the Europeans and that speed also carried over into the open water when I did 5k at the Great North Swim two weeks later, but that was in a wetsuit in 20-degree water.

Nine miles in 14.5 degrees with no wetsuit is a very different prospect. The last time I had done anything similar was the 2015 version of the race, which I did manage to finish (and I have the certificate to prove it proudly pinned to my wall).

I had a little less than a month between the Europeans and CofC and I’d hoped to do some acclimatisation swims in that time but I was too late. The lakes had already warmed up and I hadn’t factored in the time to drive down to the coast. Nor had my training over the past six months included any training sessions of more than 90 minutes, and within those sessions the longest distance I regularly covered without a break was 400m. Consequently, I was inadequately prepared for the conditions and distance and I paid the penalty.

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Swimmers getting ready for the three-mile swim

Could I perhaps have added some longer distance open water swims to into my training prior to the European Championships and increased my chances of success? Possibly, but I suspect my pool speed and results might have suffered. It would have meant sacrificing pool training time and cold water swimming takes a lot out of you (it takes a lot out of me anyway), so it has an impact on your other training and how much time you need to recover.

There are also no guarantees in swimming. The best we can do is to talk in vague terms about probabilities. There was certainly a chance I could have completed this year’s CofC – and I thought I would, otherwise I would have offered my place to someone else. But, by not training specifically for cold and distance, I decreased my chances. I gambled and lost.

One thing I love about the BLDSA is that they will never criticise your decision to stop swimming. They use the phrase, “if it’s not your day” a lot, which I like. You’re not a failure if you don’t finish a swim, it just wasn’t your day. No lesser swimmer than Howard James, who a few weeks ago set the record for the earliest ever English Channel crossing, also pulled out. He wasn’t feeling right so did the sensible thing. We both sat out the three-miler and then decided to jump back in for a one-mile sprint at the end, which was fun.

Swimming is a fantastic hobby as it offers us such a range of activities from sprinting in the pool to racing in wetsuits, exploring the coastline from the water and challenging ourselves over long distances in the cold. The basic skills are transferable from one to the other but it’s really hard to be competitive over a 50m sprint and capable of long distance cold water swimming at the same time.

The important thing is to recognise what choices you’re making in your training, accepting that you can’t train for everything and being realistic about the outcomes. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a go at anything you like, but you might want to leave yourself a little more than three weeks to make the transition. The European Masters in London was a one-off opportunity so that was my choice this year. CofC will be there another year. It’s brilliantly organised by Mark Sheridan and a large group of volunteers and I definitely want to have another go.

The video is of swimmers entering the water for round 2, the three-mile swim.