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History’s Hardest Swimming Workouts

Some benefits of writing for the Daily News of Open Water Swimming and the monthly Open Water Swimming Magazine is talking with some of history’s greatest open water swimmers. In the course of these conversations, these luminaries in the sport have discussed their hardest pool and open water swimming workouts over the course of their careers.

I have always been impressed and inspired by their dedication and work ethic,” said Steven Munatones. Some of the hardest workouts that have been discussed include:

1. When Kimberley Chambers started her workouts in San Francisco Bay on Friday nights after she got off of her pressure-packed workout in Silicon Valley and then swam through the night and until sunrise on Saturday morning [read here].
2. Christof Wandratsch would swim a fast set in a warm pool in Burghausen (Bavaria, Germany), run outside, and swim fast in water between 1-5°C…and then repeat.
3. Allison Wagner did a non-stop 8000 meter individual medley (or 2000 meters butterfly followed by 2000 meters backstroke, 2000 meters breaststroke, 2000 meters freestyle) in a 50m pool.
4. Lexie Kelly did a set of 100 x 100 five days in a row…several times.
5. Diana Nyad’s 18-24 hour non-stop training swims in a pool and in the ocean.
6. Paul Asmuth 20,000 meter workout followed by 10×75 at extremely fast intervals.
7. Penny Dean swam a 36,000-meter non-stop pool workout averaging faster than 1:20 pace per 100.
8. Jack Fabian asked his swimmers to do sets of 200s followed by pull-ups at the side of the pool instead of resting.
9. Thomas Lurz did a tough morning workout followed by a fast 60 km bike ride and dryland training followed by an afternoon pool workout.
10. Greta Andersen did 10 km kicking with a kickboard in the ocean followed by 10 km pulling with a pull buoy in the ocean.
11. Cork Distance Week in Ireland with Body Brain Confusion Swim where a team of coaches go out of their way to remove any mental comfort that the swimmers may be experiencing during training. The total amount of training time remains unknown, the swim course is never straight, and the feeds remain infrequent as every possible high mileage and significant psychological stress in 10-13°C water is tossed in the swimmer’s way to prepare them to handle the unexpected during their English Channel swims.
12. Battle Training in Germany with Trent Grimsey, Chad Ho and Thomas Lurz with coach Dirk Lange.
13. HITtheWALL in Ireland with Pádraig Mallon of Infinity Channel Swimming or 4 days of swim endurance, night swimming, cold water tolerance, fatigue, time trials, distance, sea, lake, fire walking, physiological and psychological challenge all built in to 96 hours within the Carlingford lough.

Of course, any workout can be judged to be difficult relative to the swimmer’s age, the water temperature (hot vs. cold), pace/intervals and various other factors: pool vs ocean, freestyle vs. butterfly, altitude vs sea level, waves and turbulence vs. calm water, number of days in a row, etc.

Stéphane Lecat of France did 25 km in a 50-meter pool, negative split, second part faster than the first in 4 hours 56 minutes where the first 12.5 km was swum in 2 hours 29 minutes and the second 12.5 km was swum in 2 hours 27 minutes and the last 100 meters was swum in 1:01. He stop to drink every 2.5 km for 3-5 seconds.

Richard Broer of the Netherlands remembered some of his toughest workouts. “The toughest one I did myself was a training with the Dutch national swim team in 1978-1979. The national coach at that time was Bert Sitters who asked us to do the following set within 3 hours:

· 16×50 start every 40
· 8×100 start every 1:20
· 4×200 start every 2:30 or 2:45
· 2×400 start every 5:00
· 1×800 start every 9:30
· 1×1500 – 20 rest
· 1×800 start every 9:30
· 2×400 start every 5:00
· 4×200 start every 2:30 or 2:45
· 8×100 start every 1:20
· 16×50 start every 40

I remember the last 50’s were partially without rest, paddling on with no energy left. We did not have sports drinks in those days; there was no time to pee, but nothing to pee either.

Edith van Dijk did high-altitude training where she swam almost twice every day during a 3-week period. One session was 10-12 km, but sometimes it was 15 km. She asked me not to publish these workouts at the time so her competitors would not know what she was doing.

6×2000 meters was one easy to remember. 15 km non-stop for time too. But usually her workouts were more complicated and more varied. The 15 km swim was programmed: I asked her what her predicted 1000m times would be. The time scheme would reflect the tactics for the next big race. She was able to keep to that schema being no more than a few seconds off during both times I witnessed her workouts.

I like a training in open water of more than 10 km which I did frequently. I did as many as possible 1000m in variations:

· 1000m whole stroke
· 1000m pulling no paddles
· 1000m kicking no streamers
· 10x100m whole stroke
· 1000m pulling with paddles
· 1000m kicking with streamers
· 5x200m whole stroke
· 1000m whole stroke with streamers
· 1000m whole stroke with paddles
· 1000m whole stroke (varying swim speed)
· 1000m whole stroke with paddles and streamers
· 1000m whole stroke cooling down

I have a nice place in a lake with virtually no (shipping) traffic and no other swimmers with a possible lap of 500m and another of 100m. It was lovely to do when the sun is out with four active 18th century Dutch windmills.

In the Netherlands a new tradition is starting to emerge: 100x100m training sessions.

We do them after Christmas. We call them oliebollen-training. After a somewhat greasy treat we have on New Year’s Eve, the swimmers swim 100 x 100m with about 5 to 10 swimmers in a lane. The swimmers swim in the lane they choose with starting every 1:20, 1:30, 1:40, 1:45, 1:50, 2:00 and 2:15.

The swimmer chooses the challenge in advance and the organizers distribute them in lanes with the same rest. Within the lanes, there is some organization by the swimmers: 5 or 10×100 in the lead and then the next swimmer takes over the lead.

Edith van Dijk and Maarten van der Weijden swam 100×100 swims at a 1:15 interval. Maarten stayed under 1:10 every 100m. They did some extra to finish with the other swimmers. This is done preferably in a 50m pool, but Dutch swimmers do these sets in 25m pools too where their knees and feet hurt more.

This year in the Netherlands, we had an explosion of organizers. I think we had 7 or 8 public 100x100m training sessions. There are usually additional oliebollen-trainings during the rest of the year like at the opening of the outdoor swimming season. During the festive period around Christmas and New Year’s Day, doing 4 or 5 sessions of 100x100m sets can be planned if you have the time.

In this trend a 5-10km challenge like 5000 + 2×2500 + 5×1000 + 10×500 + 25×200 + 50×100 + 100×50 to be finished in a week’s time is also a challenge.”

Leading up to his Molokai Channel crossing, South Africa’s Toni Enderli did a 24-hour pool swim [see above] and has plans in 2018 to attempt crossings of the North Channel in June, the Catalina Channel in July and the Tsugaru Channel in September.

Dan Simonelli of California recalled a tough 6-hour ocean training swim in December 2015 for his 13 hour 31 minute Catalina Channel crossing on January 16th 2016. “It was my last chance to get in a long training swim with Kevin Eslinger paddle support due to our tight schedules. So the day was the day. Our plan was to start at 2 am.

The air temperature dropped precipitously that night and was high 30°F’s and with some wind. Water temp just happened to drop some too, lower than it had been all along around 16°C, down to 14-15°C.

First thing I noticed was inhaling the cold air. I was OK for first hour or so, adrenaline I suppose. But, sucking in the cold air started taking its toll, and in the third hour I remember thinking I’m not even halfway, how can I do another 3+hours!?! And, I could tell Kevin was cold too, shivering on the board even covered in full neoprene head to toe.

But he’s one tough [guy] and he wasn’t gonna quit, so I kept pushing. I continually tried different things to generate internal heat, primarily increasing pace, kicking more. But sucking in the cold air certainly didn’t help. And, the higher pace/effort and constant physical and mental focus on the cold kept me from being able to relax and get into normal relaxed pace and mental zone.

That definitely caused early fatigue.

Cold, tight, anxious…all made it so much harder.

I was able to persevere until the sun came up. We went out farther, well over a mile offshore, so that the La Jolla hills wouldn’t be blocking the sun and it helped a little bit. Still, the air temperature was the major factor, and since we had started so early, we didn’t get much of the early morning sun warmth. Excruciating as it was, we finished at 6 hours 1 minute. Kevin is a master navigator and we hurriedly shivered to the car, cranked the heat, and sat there for over a hour.

I got out and walked around a few times just to stretch out and get the blood flowing more. But otherwise, we were zombied in the car, laughing between chattering teeth at what we had just done and the ridiculousness of this sport.”

When Bill Goding‘s best swimming friend Rick Heltzel turned 50, they decided upon a long-term challenge. “We decided to do 50×200 freestyle in a 50m pool in Honolulu. That may not seem too hard, but we did the 200s on a 2:50 minute interval. That is pretty challenging. We continued that challenge in 5-year intervals. He is now 60 and I am 64 and our challenge has been kept. 60×200 long course on 2:50 interval. He still makes it, I have to use paddles and pull buoy about halfway through. He’s tough.”

For his upcoming English Channel attempt, Jim Barber of Indiana and his training partner did a 2-person relay for 24 hours: 1 hour on followed by 1 hour off in a 50m pool holding 4500 meters per hour.

Eney Jones of Colorado remembered two tough workouts in particular of her career with Craig Beardsley and Keith Dickson. “On 1980 New Year’s Day at the University of Florida at the Swamp outdoor pool, we started a warm-up with 120×25’s underwater on 30 seconds followed by 6×1000’s on 12 minutes in a 25-yard pool.

Then I did an open water swimming workout on Siesta Key Beach in 1984. It was a 1-mile swim and a 1-mile run back, then another 1-mile swim and another 1-mile run back, then a 500-meter swim and a 500-meter run, then a 200-meter swim and a 200-meter run.”

Sal Minty-Gravett MBE of Jersey has done 100x100m – twice in 2013 and once in 2016. “IF we had outdoor pools, I would train in them regularly; the first time I was truly so nervous of it.

In 1975, I clocked up over 800 miles of pool and sea swimming. I was way overtrained. I could not move my shoulders after my first English Channel swim for 4 days – and I was only 18. So I was never overtrained since.

But I always stayed swim/fit and cross-train until I could get in the sea on a regular basis – and then I build up my hours in the sea. My late Da always said that as a natural swimmer, my fitness transferred over to the water – and I believe him.

I have never had a problem with my shoulders since – even after my 36 hour 26 minute two-way English Channel crossing. I could lift my arms above my head immediately and had no shoulder issues afterward – at all.”

Vasanti Niemz of Germany had several Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team swimmers trained with Dutch coach Corrie Dixon before Freda Streeter and the beach crews’s time. “Her husband Ray was an English Channel boat pilot, either in Dover, starting 1985, or using her weight training program at home.

Swimmers used to come to Dover early for sea training and acclimatizing. English Channel waters were much cooler back in 1985 – like 13-15°C in early September and Corrie would hand out 3- or 4- or 5- or 6-hour swims building up day after day, usually watching and offering black tea with fruit sugar, swiss rolls or Mars Bars to her swimmers personally at each hour. But at least one time she packed a swimmer’s clothes in her trunk and disappeared with her car for a while, so the swimmer who did not like the allotted amount of time could not get out early. In those times qualifying swims for the Channel were 7 hours, not six.

The double solo crossing of Lake Zurich to Rapperswil and back in 1986 by Prafulla Nocker, right after her failed attempt at the English Channel could be seen as a long training swim leading up to her successful English Channel solo in 1987. From this double crossing, the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Swim Rapperswil-Zurich came into existence.”

Dr. Peter Attia’s favorite workout was when he trained for his Maui double-crossing and was living in San Francisco so he needed mostly pool water in order to get used to warm ocean. “On Saturday and Sunday, I would do 10×500 descend, plus 1×16,000 holding the exact pace for entire 16,000, which I would aim for 1:23-1:24 per 100, then 6×600 fast broken at the 225, 175, 125, and 75.” Then he would repeat the workout the next day.

Evan Morrison of California created a 25,000-meter pool workout for his summer of marathon swimming in 2011 when he did a 25 km set of 1000 + 10×100 + 1000 + 5×200 + 1500 + 5×300 + 1500 + 3×500 + 2000 + 4×500 + 2000 + 5×400 + 1500 + 5×300 + 1000 + 5×200 + 1000 + 10×100, all at a 1:30 per 100m interval.

Darren Turner of Australia described his Hell Week that included 113 km over 6 days of two workouts per day that included weight training and running. “We often would start each workout with 1 hour straight band only (i.e., legs tied without a pull buoy) followed by some respite of off stroke and then back into longer interval swims. The swimming session were up to 13 km.

Every Friday afternoon session included 16×400 freestyle short rest usually around the 5-minute cycle.

The drag sock also played a part in these workouts and there was always a 100×100 set during the Hell Week.

What cannot be quantified is the intensity of the workouts, and the calibre of the other swimmers in the lane during these workouts. If coach (Dick Caine) thought you were not having a go or potentially not listening, the penalties would applied – usually 1-hour straight butterfly. You were expected not to ever miss a workout. If you did, you would be called by the coach’s wife and had 30 minutes to be on pool deck – or never return.

My coach Dick Caine was old-school hard work and respect a coach who had no formal qualifications or affiliated was with Australian Swimming –
Dick had his own unique approach. Dick was also a horse trainer. We would often pile into his horse float/truck with some 20-30 kids in the back to be transported like horses to the surf for additional training.

One of his theories for recovery was that if we consumed a glass of stout beer, this would aid in our recovery by replacing red blood cells.”

Bob Placak, founder of the RCP Tiburon Mile, did 83×100 on 1:05 when training at University of California Berkeley, but also did 10×500 on 5:15 and ripped off a very fast 500-yard freestyle on the 10th 500 in 4 minutes 33 seconds.

In the 1970s, former Harvard University coach Joe Bernal challenged his 16-year-old swimmer Bobby Hackett with a set of 100×100 on 1:00.

In 2012, Scott Zornig organized a 100×100 ocean workout in Laguna Beach, California with the Oak Streeters. “We started in chest-deep water right by the lifeguard tower on Main Beach and headed straight out to the outside buoy. This is 100 yards to the buoy, 200 yards round-trip. We tried to swim back and forth 50 times to get in our 10,000 or 100×100.”

Pam Lazzarotto of Canada did a birthday set when she was 50 years old: 25 x 200 in a pool at a 1:10 base followed by a 50-mile bike ride and a 5-mile run on Pacific Coast Highway. At 52 years old, she is 52 x 25 meters butterfly on :30. “But everyone’s workouts all sound incredibly difficult & hard to top. I think the really wicked workouts I have blocked out of my memory, but I remember in my teens we were doing 10,000 meter workouts twice a day plus running and doing weights. A friend and I would finish with 5×200 butterfly.”

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