After I finished my workout this morning, Coach Max mentioned that he has had a lot of people asking how to train for distance swims and asked me how I train. I gave him a basic rule of thumb that I follow but, as I have been thinking about it this morning, there is more to my training than just yardage. I've put together some of my thoughts on distance training below. This is how I train and it works for me, but I'm sure there are more effective and scientific methods and programs out there.
Yardage / Mileage:
My basic rule of thumb is that, at the peak of my training, I need to be swimming my target distance (probably more) each week. As an example, I am going to Idaho this summer to swim the 11 mile Dam 2 Dam swim. At the peak of my training, I should be swimming a total of at least 11 miles each week. I typically swim four days a week, so that comes out to at least 4,840 yards each workout. What I will likely do is train for more than 11 miles and average 5,000 - 6,000 yards per workout. The reason for this is that the conditions can change quickly in open water. If the weather turns bad and the water gets choppy during my swim, I want to be prepared for the extra effort it will take. I also want to feel like I'm swimming strong that last mile and not just doggy paddling.
Long Continuous Swims:
It's not always possible for me to swim my target distance continuously before the event. To do an 11 mile training swim, I would have to find someone willing to support me on a kayak for 5+ hours. Then there is the extra time away from family, finding a good day to swim, etc. If my target distance was 10K or less, I would try to swim that distance continuously at least once. For swims over 10K, I would try to do at least one continuous 10K swim before the race/event. The point is you ought to mix in some long, continuous swims into your training to test your endurance. Swimming 5,000 yards in the pool with rest between sets feels a lot different than swimming a straight 5,000 yards. Long continuous swims will also help with your mental training.
I work on pacing a LOT. My typical workout is to swim with the Fairmont Masters group and then follow that up with distance and pacing work. I like to set a goal time for every long distance swim and then figure out what my pace needs to be to get that time. In the pool, I like to work with pace per 100 yards. In open water it's sometimes easier to work with pace per mile if you know the distance of your swimming route. One of the best training tools I ever bought is a Speedo watch. I can set my target pace, say 1:20 per 100 yards for a long distance swim, and it will beep and vibrate every 1:20 until I stop it. Each 100 yards I can tell if I am on pace if I hit the wall before the watch goes off. You can also just use the pace clock on deck, which I use a lot too. In open water, I will often set the pace on my watch to my target 1 mile pace.
Here are a couple of my favorite distance / pacing workouts:
500 pull (large paddles) @ target pace
500 pull (finger paddles) @ target pace
500 pull (no paddles) @ target pace
500 swim (no paddles) @ target pace
This one is fun because as you lose equipment on each 500, it becomes more difficult to keep your target pace.
5 x 100 @ 1:30
4 x 100 @ 1:25
3 x 100 @ 1:20
2 x 100 @ 1:15
1 x 100 @ 1:10
This set is challenging (especially after doing a tough Masters workout), but I think it's a lot of fun. There is no extra rest between sets of 100. This helps me feel how much effort I need to put into swimming at different paces.
At some point you are going to have to start thinking about nutrition and what you will consume to fuel your body during your swim. I would experiment with different things during your training and find out which foods/drinks work best for you and how often you need to take them. You do NOT want to try something new on the day of your big swim. Personally, I am a big fan of Hammer Perpetuem. I'll admit the taste isn't the best, but I can feel a difference after taking a "feed". For longer swims I also like to mix in some squeezable apple sauce and Achiva Native Energy Chews for something more solid. Sometimes I use gels too, but I have found I have to water them down. Depending on the distance and layout of the course, I typically don't eat anything for the first hour (because I have had something before I get in the water) and then take feeds every 30 to 45 minutes after that until I finish.
If your distance swim is in the open water, you need to spend some time training outside. I don't think it's necessary to do all, or even most, of you training in open water. In fact, many elite open water swimmers do the majority of their training in the pool. The point is that you want to be comfortable in different conditions and acclimate your body to the anticipated water temperature of your big swim.
Again, I don't claim to be an expert and these are just things that have worked for me. I would love to hear how others train for long distance swims.