Thursday, September 18, 2008

Clara the Polar Bear's Helpful Tips for Swimming the English Channel

It's been nearly two months since Mallory and I completed our channel swims, and I thought I'd write down some advice based on our experience. I must stress that this advice is based on the experience of two people, both college-aged girls and life-long competitive pool swimmers, so you will have to decide for yourself how our experience would apply to your own attempt, if you are reading this to get advice for that purpose. I think there are definitely some things that are universally good advice, and I was certainly happy to get whatever advice I could while in the planning stages. So, that in mind, here we go:
  • It doesn't matter how much you train physically if you aren't mentally ready. It is possible to make it with minimal or spotty training if you can tough it out mentally, but it's impossible if you don't think you can make it.
  • That being said, make sure you train! The more you train, the faster you will swim, and no matter how mentally strong you are, there is a minimal amount of fitness you will need to get across. I would think that level of fitness would positively correlate with speed of recovery afterwards. Also, I think the minimum amount of fitness necessary scales with proficiency at swimming: very strong swimmers will not tire as quickly and can get away with training less, but weaker swimmers will probably need to be in very good shape.
  • I don't know how to know if you are mentally ready. I think you probably can't know for certain, but you can do things to increase your mental toughness. Make yourself do a long, boring, grueling, repetitive set in the pool, or swim for many hours at a time outside. When race day comes, do whatever it takes to make sure you stay in the water. For me, that was thinking about all the people who helped me out along the way, and not wanting to let them down.
  • Swim in open water as much as possible, especially if your open water experience is limited. If you are land-locked, get to the ocean as much as possible, because it's totally different than fresh water.
  • There isn't one tried-and-true training program that works. Marcia Cleveland, who wrote Dover Solo, had a high yardage-based training program. Mallory and I worked a lot more on quality interval training and cross-training. We rarely got above 7,000 meters in a day, and on days when our dryland training was particularly rough, that number dropped significantly. (Note on cross-training: make sure you ease into any new kind of exercise to prevent injury, especially if you have a recurring one that might flare up from new stresses!)
  • Don't underestimate the power of cold. Along the same lines, do your qualifying swim as early as possible, so that any unforeseen complications (like not realizing how bad the cold can be) can be worked out before the real thing.
  • Practice swimming in the dark. Preferably with a buddy.
  • All the usual logistical advice: book everything early, be there early, be ready to be flexible on your time slot, etc.
  • Go into this knowing that it's not a sure thing. You could do everything perfectly -- the training, the mental toughness, the cold acclimation -- and still be dashed by the weather. Mallory and I had tried to schedule in August and ended up having to move to July for better slots. We had perfect weather, and the poor folks who tried in August were dealing with storm after storm. So, be prepared for this to happen, and have a plan B. We didn't, and we should have, and if we had been more on top of our stuff with scheduling, we might have needed it.
  • Finally, when you get the opportunity, GO FOR IT. But, go for it within reason. Don't do something ridiculous like drive 6 hours straight and jump in the water straight-away with little sleep and little food, and, also, be reasonable about your abilities. If the weather is borderline, and you are a poor swimmer, maybe it's not the best idea (especially if the weather looks good ahead). That said, if you hesitate, the opportunity may disappear, and, especially if you're foreign and have a limited window of time, it may not come again. And once you're in the water, don't waste the chance: there is NO guarantee of another good opportunity later in the season, as a number of the swimmers this season found out.
As a parting thought, I guess what I most want to get through is that you can really handle a lot more than you give yourself credit for. When I started out on this, I thought I was going to need to be in the best shape of my life to have any shot at making it. Don't get me wrong, being in the best shape of my life definitely would have made the whole thing a lot easier and more pleasant. My course of crash-training last minute left me with a nagging shoulder injury and a lot of worries, but I made it anyway. So, I guess what I'm saying is that it's okay if your preparation is not textbook or up to the expectations you set for yourself. There wasn't a single point leading up to my swim that I felt prepared. You can do it anyway.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your tremendous accomplishment!
I'm so thankful that you kept this blog of your swim and find the information helpful. I have joked about swimming the English Channel but now am starting to train. My goal is to do it in 2014. I swam distance in college (although that was only the 500yd, 1000yd, & 1650yd swims), but finished 5mos ago, and was working nearly 60 hours a week (including a pt job as a masters coach but wasn't able to swim myself), so I've just started to build my endurance back up, but that's one aspect I feel I have control over. Cold (finding open water places to train & compete that aren't so expensive), nutrition, and finding the finances are going to be the tough parts. Do you have any suggestions? Did you find that the water ever wasn't cold anymore? My bmi is less than 20, am I going to freeze even if I try to find places to train in cold water as much as possible? Did you have hypothermia? I'll check back here or feel free to e-mail me at Thank you!