Practicing for the Chesapeake Bay Swim "Different Strokes for Different Folks"

by Nick Olmos-Lau, M.D.

The 4.4 mile Great Chesapeake Bay Swim has become one of the most popular open water events in the Washington Metropolitan area. It is a well organized race in beautiful surroundings, with a great atmosphere and a festive feel. Because of its popularity, the race has been limited to 600 entrants. It usually fills up within a few days of the opening registration date in early February. If you visit the web site right now (March), you will find that the 4.4 mile event is already closed. You can probably still enter the 1 mile event, which can serve as a qualifier for next year's event.

Training for the 4.4 mile open water event requires additional time in the water and longer training swims than those completed by the average competitive masters pool swimmer. For those not accustomed to this type of extra yardage in their training program, the introduction should be gradual in order to avoid injuries. Each adult has physical limitations that will determine his or her tolerance to repetitive stress. In addition, other metabolic and physical attributes may determine if a 2 hour swim practice or a 2 mile lake swim will bring a person to the edge of his or her comfort limit. Individual constitutional features can determine a person's propensity to excel in either longer or shorter events. Some of these features include predominant muscle fiber type (fast or slow twitch), aerobic capacity, and maximal oxygen uptake by the lungs (VO2 max).

Although these structural and physiologic features can determine whether or not you are suited for longer events, you can always increase the limits by training. However, major orthopedic limitations, joint injuries, or health attributes such as an obstructive lung problem (COPD), a restrictive lung problem (asthma) induced by either cold temperatures or prolonged exercise, heart disease, or anaphylactic (severe allergic) reactions to jelly fish stings, should all be considered seriously. These may, if present, impose limitations to prolonged open water exposure.

One element that is not often recognized as a limiting factor is a person's level of confidence or fear in the open water and around marine life. The lack of walls, a floor to stand on, or lines to grab may induce serious psychological distress in some people. In order to undertake the open water challenge, a person must feel confident in rough conditions or when there is no other swimmer present nearby in the water. For many people the 4.4 mile distance of the Chesapeake Bay span might seem daunting. For others, however, it may be a healthy and reasonable goal in swimming. It is always important to listen to your body and to know your limits.

How do you know if your background or training is sufficient to consider the 4.4 mile Bay challenge? The answer may seem obvious for an experienced swimmer. However, for someone having recently started a Masters program it might be more difficult to determine. To begin with, there are certain minimal speed and endurance requirements that are mandated by the event organizers. You must be able to swim a mile in open water in 40 minutes or less. If you have not had this experience, you must have been able to swim 3 miles in a pool in 2 hrs and 14 minutes or better, having done so within the previous 2 years. There are rules dictating a time limit for completion of the Bay swim, because safety is of the utmost importance in outdoor swimming. If you don't think you can complete the distance of your outdoor swim in a pool within the maximum time designated, it would be imprudent to attempt the swim in open water until you've done some additional training. It invariably takes a considerably longer time to swim a given distance in the open water than in the controlled environment of a swimming pool.

So, what do you need to do to train and prepare yourself? You should begin with the regular 3-practice-per-week regimen of 1 - 1.5 hour practices covering about 3.5 km each practice, plus necessary sprints. You also need to do additional longer swims. These longer swims should be done on 1 or 2 additional days, brining your pool time up to 4-5 days per week. The long swims can be done in the pool during the winter, but they should preferably be done in open water when it becomes warm enough in the Spring. The object is to gradually increase the distance you cover either as a long swim or shorter repetitive swims at a faster pace. The yardage you cover in each long swim should eventually add up to the distance you intend to swim in the event you are training for.

About 2 weeks prior to the Bay swim you should to be able to comfortably complete at least a 4 mile swim simulating the event, with either no rest or one rest for a drink in the middle. This will give you time for a 2 week taper prior to the event. If you are unable to accomplish this, it does not make any sense to attempt the race in open water with all the associated dangers and potential complications: current, wind, surf, and foul weather. It is best to duplicate the swim in an open water location before the event. But please remember the cardinal rule of open water swimming: always have a training partner. Follow the buddy system and avoid swimming in open water by yourself. There is no justification for placing yourself at such a risk.

Open water swimming requires different skills than are necessary for pool swimming. Navigational skills are essential. For example, you must learn how to sight and swim simultaneously. Learning how to take advantage of the swells and surf for propulsion is also important. Having the flexibility to adjust your breathing pattern bilaterally according to the changing chop or swells of the water may be essential on a rough day with variable winds. These skills are best acquired by practicing swimming in open water. Expertise can also be gained by participation in shorter events or training swims of 1-3 miles either in the ocean or in lakes. The shorter swims will give you the confidence and experience to cope with the two major obstacles in open water: dehydration and hypothermia.

There have been years in which the Bay swim takes place in water temperatures in the upper 60s F. For a swimmer with a very low amount of body fat who is not accustomed to such low temperatures, even a wet suit may not be protective against this possibly life threatening exposure to cold. Hypothermia is extremely dangerous, and it is important to recognize the onset of the symptoms of this condition. These include uncontrollable shivering, fatigue, heaviness of the limbs, numbness in the hands or feet or around the mouth, lack of coordination, confusion, and slurred speech. These symptoms are aggravated if a person's body temperature falls below 95 F. At this point, cardiac arrest and unconsciousness could be imminent. A swimmer must be pulled out of the water before this occurs in order to prevent drowning. If you experience the early symptoms of hypothermia, such as uncontrollable shivering or numbness, talk to someone in a kayak or boat around you. If they make the decision to pull you out, certainly don't argue. Your life may be at stake. Remember that there is always next year.

Nutrition and hydration are vital in longer events. During your training for long swims it is important to hydrate with a sports drink every 15-20 minutes. For the Bay swim, you should hydrate prior to the race by drinking 4-6 oz of a sports drink during the waking hours of the day prior to the race. You should also drink 16 oz of fluid half an hour prior to the onset of the race. Consider stopping in the middle to drink 4 to 6 ounces of a sport drink. If done properly, this brief break should only take about 30 seconds, and it may lower your overall race time by enhancing your endurance, energy, and sense of well being.

The Chesapeake Bay waters can be very rough at times, and some people can get sea sickness, as manifested by nausea and diziness. If you have this problem and are considering using a sea sickness medication to prevent it, be sure to use it during a training swim to see if it affects you adversely. Do not try to use it at the time of the race for the first time.

Open water swimming offers a totally different perspective on our sport. Once you have completed your first open water swim, you will join a tight-knit club of happy and eccentric souls. The difference between pool and open water swimming is analogous to the difference between running on a treadmill and running in a forest. What a feeling! As far as I'm concerned, there is nothing in the world like it. Go out and enjoy yourself, safely.