Training in preparation for swimming the Channel
Open water preparation and six hour swims.
It is probably most useful to consider this backwards from where you should be in your training just before your swim and then consider how you might build up to that point. The main focus in the two to three months prior to the swim should be on sea swimming. The key thing here being acclimatisation to the cold but also swimming in the sea in general. For someone used to the fairly calm waters of the pool it can be quite a transition to open water swimming where you are essentially swimming in something living with all its waves, seaweed, fish, birds and murky depths.
The holy grail of Channel preparation is the six hour swim and the authorities require you to have completed this before they will allow you to register. This is really only the start and to stand a realistic chance of making it across the Channel you have to be able to do two six hour swims, back to back, on consecutive days. This mimics a realistic total time of twelve hours for your swim and gives you a chance to complete the distance in training, albeit with an overnight rest. Fast swimmers may be able to complete the swim in less than twelve hours but the average time taken is around thirteen and a half hours, with many swims taking sixteen hours or longer. Having achieved two six hour swims on consecutive days this should be repeated a minimum of three times and most swimmers will do this over three successive weekends.
When I first started doing the Channel I did all my sea training in Dover harbour and, due to the logistics of getting there from Scotland, started the sea training about six weeks before the planned swim date. I’ve known people coming from Europe who, unable to come and go and having to stay in Dover right up until their swim, managed on less than six weeks but I don’t think this is advisable if it can be avoided. Swimming in the sea is so different from the pool that it is important to start getting used to it as early as possible. Even the relatively calm conditions in Dover harbour may not prepare a swimmer for the open sea with its inevitable waves and turbulence. It always used to surprise me how even on the calmest day the water could be get quite rough with the effects of light winds against tide and the wash from all the shipping moving up and down the Dover strait.
Now we have to consider how you will build up to your long six hour swims. The ideal scenario would be to start with short sea swims two to three months before your planned swim date. This way you could start with short experimental swims to get used to the cold and build up until you could swim for around an hour non stop. The transition would then be up to two hours, from there to three hours and then some longer four hour swims. You could build up the time by doing back to back swims in the same way that we were considering above, in other words build up to two hours by doing a one hour swim on two consecutive days and so on up to back to back two hour swims. If you cannot start your sea swimming early in this way and do not have the chance to build up like this, then you will have to start on your six hour swims fairly quickly but will still need to build up from one hour to four hour swims for a week or so beforehand in readiness for the six hour swim.
The pool swimming prior to the start of the sea swimming will depend to some extent on how early you can start the sea swimming. Working backwards again, it would be advisable to have completed a number of three and four hour pool swims before you head for the open water. Clearly if you are able to start in the sea earlier in the season, as we considered above, then you will have the opportunity to do a fair number of these three and four hour swims in the sea. If you cannot start until later out in the open water then it will be important to make sure you have done these swims in the pool.
Time and distance
So far in the training I’ve only discussed the time factor and have not looked at distance at all. For the sea swimming I would not be calculating distance at all, partly because this is harder to assess accurately if you are just swimming up and down in Dover harbour or alongside a beach, and partly because on the Channel swim I feel the time factor is the key element. In the pool, however, because after every length you have a clear idea of your total distance, you can easily keep track of it. I used to consider the three mile pool swim as being my staple bread and butter swim, more than just a short dip but not quite into the realms of being a long-distance swim. For swims of longer than three miles I combine time and distance in a way that made the training more palatable and more interesting for me.
My cruising speed, that I was able to keep up for quite a long time, was approximately twenty-eight minutes per mile. If I really pushed it I could get down to twenty five minutes (or a little less for an out and out sprint mile where I was not continuing and further). So when I swam at a good average speed I would be taking twenty-eight minutes for my miles and if I swam a little faster might be completing them in twenty six or twenty seven minutes. However, for swims of two hours or more I would consider a mile to be equivalent to half an hour of time (so following this logic a two hour swim is the same thing as a four mile swim). So when doing a two mile swim, if I finished my four miles in less than two hours (for example in one hour fifty two minutes at the above pace), then so much the better. This is very good for your mind because it means that rather than being stuck with an immoveable two hours there is some chance that you can lessen it a little by swimming harder. It just gives you that tiny bit more control over the time factor making it less rigid and a little less daunting. The same would apply to doing a three or four hour swim in the pool and on a twenty eight minute pace would mean you could actually complete your four hour pool swim (calculated as eight miles) in three hours forty five minutes. Although this may sound a bit obscure I found it an indispensible way to help my mind battle with the thought of having to be in the pool for such a long time. If you found yourself outside the thirty minute per mile pace, so that the eight miles (four hour swim) was taking you longer then that would count as a longer swim (say four and a quarter hours or however long it took you). If this were to be the case it would be good to take note that you were perhaps falling a little outside idea minimum Channel pace (which I take to be thirty minute miles) and need to do some speed work.
In my training, the three mile swim used to have a very distinct shape or feel to it. Everything was based on the mile (thirty two lengths of a fifty metre pool) and this would be divided into four very distinct four hundred metre (eight length) sections. Each set of eight lengths would be broken down so that I would know if I was at the quarter way point (after two lengths), half way (after four lengths) or three-quarters of the way (after six). Based on my twenty-eight minutes per mile cruising pace, each four hundred metres would take me approximately seven minutes, and would mean that even if I lost count of the number of lengths completed I would be able to find out the exact number just by glancing at the watch. Each point of the mile would have very distinct and different components to it, in just the same way as you might say have a certain lamp post, street corner or other physical object at certain distances along your daily run. The half mile point might be anything from around thirteen and a half minutes to say fourteen minutes fifteen seconds. Once I finished my mile then the minute hand of the clock (and this might well just be a visualised clock) would be almost at the six o’clock point. The first four hundred (or quarter of a mile) of the second mile would be at approximately the ‘twenty five minutes to’ point and so on with distinct times up until the clock reached the hour point and started to go around again. So the end of the three mile swim would be a clear circle with another third of a circle on top of it. For some reason this ‘chunking’ of the distances was of significant help to me and meant that as soon as the clock started moving from the half way point back towards the top there would be the sensation that it was just a short hop up to the hour point and from there just another short downhill section to complete the three miles. The hardest thing would be just to get the first mile under the belt and then just to go with the momentum. The last mile would seem much less distance and much quicker than the first mile. From the visual point of view, as you started to go upwards for the six o’clock point of the clock, it would not seem so far to go to reach the three mile point. According to a rigid mental calculation, though, you would only have done a third of the swim planned.
If I wanted to do a six mile swim (or three hour swim) then I would think of it very strictly as two three mile swims. That way I would just do the three mile swim in the manner outlined above with the visualised components and then just do exactly the same thing all over again and lo and behold would have completed six miles. By the slightly curious logic outlined above, that would also be equivalent to a three hour swim and could be completed in two hours and forty five minutes.
These kinds of mind games just came about spontaneously as I did the swims and were not the result of any kind of deliberate strategy. I’ve no idea why they work and it may be just a personal thing, though having said that I have come across quite a few similar methods in other discussions of training regimes. The physical strength necessary to complete these distances is clearly closely linked to the mental stamina required. Part of the mental strength, and I feel this is closely linked to using the power of mediation, is about controlling the mind and not being phased by the long times and distances. If after swimming for five or ten minutes, at which stage the mind is still very active, one is imagining swimming for another three hours, then the mind will just rebel and find a way to stop. Setting out on a three hour swim, if you are just swimming for three miles (the hour and a half component) and the mind is relatively ‘blank’ regarding the second set of three miles, then you can find the strength to complete the full distance. This is an interesting area and probably a lot more can be said about it but it must be connected to somehow gently eroding the rigidity of these physical time and distance constraints and making them more human in some way.
For the longer sea swims I would use some similar tricks. A six hour swim can seem absolutely daunting for the mind and finding yourself cold, tired and bored after only fifteen minutes, the prospect of staying in for six full hours can be a nightmare. As soon as I arrived at the beach I would look at my watch and make that the official start time. Then I would get changed and after about five or ten minutes start the swim. That way I could be very quickly almost ten minutes into my swim (before entering the water!) and would be able to visualise my way through the first hour more quickly. The time ‘stolen’ at the beginning could then easily be paid back at the end of the swim. Having completed the six hours (according to your original timing) it would be easy just to swim around a bit for another five or ten minutes in order to make sure you had actually completed the full time. The extra time would then seem like celebration and easy to add on at the end, whereas the same stretch of time with a whole six hours looming ahead of you might seem like an eternity at the start.
Longer sea swims
When training in Dover harbour I had a very clear route or loop that I would repeat. This would involve swimming from the beach (halfway along the promenade) down to the walls of the Eastern dock and from there all the way up to the walls of the Western dock (passing the beach where I started) before returning to the beach again. I knew this took me approximately an hour and ten minutes and so rather than look at the watch I would use this as my clock. The beauty of this was that the time was not certain and it would vary according to the speed I was swimming and the weather conditions (it might vary from an hour to an hour and twenty minutes). I might confuse things further by stopping for a minute or two at one of the harbour walls. From the mind’s perspective, with the additional slight confusion of the starting time, I might be able to convince myself after one of these loops that I had completed an hour and a half. Then it would not be too hard to persuade myself to repeat exactly the same thing again and know that I would be around the three hour point. Once this point was reached I could somehow reason with myself that all I needed to do was repeat what I had already done over again and I would reach six hours. I don’t think I looked at my watch on any longer swim until I was inwardly sure I was beyond the four hour point and sometimes would only look when I was sure I was close to the end. More often than not I would be within ten minutes of the finish. This can be a powerful technique and really help you through the mental barriers presented by these longer swims. Sometimes it would be so strong that after an hour my mental map of what was remaining would make it seem like an easy distance to cover, just a matter of another hour or so.