Operation Open Water: Learning to Swim a Kilometer

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How to learn to swim a kilometer in open water

We all have some skill we’re actually a bit embarrassed about (maybe many). One of mine is: I’m Australian, and I’m terrible at swimming. I admit it.

I mean, I can paddle a surfboard. I’m fit enough. Why can’t I swim?

This came to my attention specifically when I was in a watering hole in the Northern Territory in 2018. We came to a beautiful cliff-side pool, fed by rainfall over the year, with a 50m deep small lake that was 150m across. I thought back to the last time I had tried to swim further than 50m when I reached the 75m point and just… choked.

Literally. I was gasping for air. I had no idea how to breathe. I backstroked the rest of the way, feeling lucky to have made it at all. And I was EMBARRASSED.

How could this be true? I’m fit enough at 38, with a resting heart rate of 48, regularly placing in the top 10-20% of Rx athletes in the Crossfit Open, which is fine if not record-setting.

“Technique!” they say. Surely there’s more to it than that. Let’s see.

This is an introductory, research post. I’ll do a few more posts before actually getting to the challenge mid next year.

The goal

The goal is to swim an open water kilometer. This will be harder than to swim 20 laps in a pool, though that’ll be the training ground. Specifically, I’ll enroll myself in a competition (something near the sunshine coast) and aim to complete a 1+ kilometer ocean swim by the end of my time in Australia, in mid 2019.

The learning process

I’m following as inspiration Tim Ferriss’ approach, which he learned from Total Immersion. Here’s his article on how he got there. This saves me a lot of effort, because I can see he tried a lot of things and didn’t make it.

His approach is to first watch the Total Immersion DVD, after which I should watch the Total Immersion book. I’m linking them here even though it’s unlikely I can get them while in Australia, since they’re only available on Amazon.

The core thing is that in learning (or re-learning) to swim, if you’re getting exhausted, it’s because you’re working harder, not smarter. I’ll need to slow down and train my nervous system to do something counter-intuitive rather than focus on getting a workout.

Tips on Swimming (abbreviated)

1) Keep the body horizontal, to ensure the least resistance, by rolling your shoulders. Don’t pull more with your arms or kick more with your legs. This is counter to some of the most universal advice for fixing swimming issues.

2) Keep the head in line with your spine — you should be looking straight down. Use the same head position as while walking and drive your arm underwater (don’t swim on the surface).

3. Think of swimming freestyle as swimming on alternating sides. Focus on increasing stroke length instead of stroke rate, trying to glide further on each down stroke and decrease the number of strokes per lap. This is in contrast to how most see it as swimming on our stomachs.

“Actively streamline” the body throughout the stroke cycle through a focus on rhythmically alternating “streamlined right side” and “streamlined left side” positions and consciously keeping the body line longer and sleeker than is typical for human swimmers.

 Source: TI Wikipedia page

This is apparently similar to in rock climbing when you move your hip closer to the wall to get more extension. To understand this, stand with your chest to a wall and reach as high as you can with your right arm. Then turn your right hip so it’s touching the wall and reach again with your right arm: you’ll gain 10-15cm. This distance adds up fast.

4. Penetrate the water with your fingers angled down and fully extend your arm well beneath your head. Extend it lower and further than you think you should. This downward water pressure on the arms will bring your legs up and decrease drag. It will almost feel like you’re swimming downhill. Watch the “Hand Position and Your Balance” video at the top of this page here.

5. Stretch your extended arm and turn your body (not just head) to breathe. Some triathletes will even turn almost to their backs and face skyward to breathe deeply (Dave Scott, 6-time Ironman world champion).

6. Do the hand-swapping drill: The most effective drill from TI is ‘hand swapping’, which obliges you to follow the other rules. It’s described like this: Keep your lead arm fully extended until your other arm comes over and penetrates the water around the extended arm’s forearm. This encourages you to swim on your sides, extends your stroke length, and forces you to engage in what is referred to as “front quadrant” swimming. 

Tim Ferriss’ notes

These are from the picture on his blog. I don’t know what they all mean yet.

  • General tips
    • ‘Ear hopping’ – re-enter hand just over ear
    • Slice in with more energy vs pulling harder
    • Stack shoulders vertically
    • Take multiple breaths on back or side between strokes.
    • This makes swim length easier (fewer strokes)
    • Aim for 20 strokes per 25 meter length
  • Drills to do
    • The purpose of skill drills is to minimize energy cost
    • Hand swapping drill (Russians) – always one arm extended to lengthen vessell
    • Sensory drills – weightless arm –> reach slowly (even while breathing)
  • Kick more effectively
    • Straight/supple leg; don’t kick harder
    • Non-overt kick
    • Roll without using arms (use torso)
    • Work all strokes for most muscle tissue (?)

Gear to get & where to train

Swimmers/togs/bathing suit: I don’t care what it’s called, I have to get something more aquadynamic than just boardshorts. Hopefully by the time I don them I’ll have 12% body fat from the 4HB diet.

Goggles: I’ll get some fancy ones. This will be to help me see in the water. I’ll do a bit of research to see which ones work best, but I suspect it’s best to try them in st

Small pool: I’ll train first in an Olympic pool, focusing on the slow lanes.

Next steps to research

  • Translating the swimming to open water (you need a different style)
  • How to train for swimming while outside the pool – exercises
  • The best ways to train in the pool and not get in people’s way
  • Unusual drills to try
  • How often to train technique and how often to go for distance

Interested in something more? Leave a comment below!

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