Training for the challenges of the North Channel

What are the challenges of this swim

I have to be very realistic about my - and in fact any swimmer’s - chances to beat the North Channel: I estimate them at not much more than 40-50%. Most English Channel attempts nowadays are successful due to improved knowledge of training, nutrition and navigation, as well as to much improved preparation among swimmers also since the introduction of a 6-hour qualifying swim. For the North Channel on the other hand the odds are still heavily stacked against the swimmer. In spite of superbly well prepared swimmers (having crossed the English Channel or an equivalent swim is a requirement to be even considered for an attempt by the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association), most attempts fail, due primarily to the cold, and also because of the unpredictable weather and the jellyfish. Even one of the most accomplished distance swimmers in the world, Penny Palfrey from Australia, who has successfully taken on swims three to four times the distance of the North Channel, had to be pulled out with hypothermia eleven hours into her first attempt last year (she will be back for another one this year though). To realise this is humbling, and makes this crossing a mental as much as a physical challenge.

While I have profound respect and fear for the distance of 35 kms, I also feel that that is actually the one thing I can control and train for (as detailed further below).

What I do not fully control is how I will put up with water of 10-13ºC during a prolonged period of time. For the swim to be officially recognized, no wetsuit is allowed, only swimming trunks, goggles, a cap, and grease. The grease is merely to avoid chafing and does, contrary to common belief, not help against the cold.

My only experience so far with water of a comparable temperature was two years ago during a 6-hour training in Dover Harbour, when the water was 12ºC. It was a gruelling experience, but I managed to finish the training. Whether I will be able to handle such cold for twice as long is difficult to tell. The fact that I live and train in the tropics is not very helpful in that respect, even if the temperature of my training pool here at 900 meters altitude in Malawi can go down to 17-18ºC in the southern hemisphere winter. My hope is that I will be able to acclimatize quickly to the much colder water in early July during a 9-day long distance training camp held in Cork, Ireland for which I have been invited.

The jellyfish are also an uncontrollable factor. I have had earlier experiences of being stung multiple times during swims in Australia – once more than twenty times before I was even halfway, which left my face, arms and shoulders a burning mass of pain. There’s really not much one can do about it but to put up with it, and hope the rest of the swim will be better.
Something utterly beyond my control is the weather, which is notoriously unpredictable in the North Channel, even more so than in the English Channel. There is a good chance that the attempt cannot even start if there is no suitable weather during the tidal window for which I have booked a slot with a boat. This realisation adds an element of uncertainty that one needs to handle mentally.

How do I train for it?

I swim year round, but usually not enormous volumes or intensity, especially when compared to more professional marathon swimmers. This is mainly because of work and family, but also to remain fresh and eager in my training, and to prevent (shoulder) injuries due to overuse.

To stay merely in shape in quiet periods I train two to three times a week at 3-5 kms per session, ideally but not always combined with one to three sessions per week of ATB biking, jogging or weights training. I train mainly freestyle (front crawl), which is the style I use during crossings and races, but to keep the training varied and balanced I include quite a lot of the other three styles especially butterfly. Shorter workouts are usually more intensive, with sprint sessions to maintain my speed.

Four months before a big crossing I start cranking up the frequency and the volume of my workouts, alternating high mileage ‘peak weeks’ (30-50 kms) and weeks with more moderate mileage (20-30kms). I will then train 4-6 times a week, with weekday trainings anywhere between 4 and 8 kms. In order to be able to combine training with my work, I usually train in the early morning, starting at 5.30 am, and sometimes around lunch time.

A key element in the preparation of big crossings is the weekly ‘long swim’, usually on Saturday mornings. These get longer as the crossing approaches. As we speak (May 2013) my weekly long swims are now at 15 kms, and I expect to be able to swim 25 kms nearly continuously in early June. The final push towards 30-35 kms, will be done in the second half of June, and during the training camp in Ireland in early July, where I will swim appr. 120 kms in nine days, including two or three races.

A crucial element in the preparation of any long distance event, finally, is the rest or ‘tapering’ period before the event. I have found that for me the ideal duration of that period is between 15 and 20 days, during which I swim merely to recover, 10-15 kms per week, and even less in the last week. The effect of tapering can be quite spectacular as one gets noticeably faster in the water, and jumpy and nervous for the perceived lack of exercise.

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