Marathoner in the water

How to train for a marathon… that is the question.

Surely a marathoner must run, and run far; but an endurance athlete needs to train more than his or her body. We need to train our minds, to test and strengthen our resolve, and perhaps even to test and improve our character. We need to become aerobically powerful, physically strong, and (perhaps most importantly) strong of spirit and character. If and when things go wrong—and things will indeed go wrong—we need to decide who we are, and then to reach towards that ideal, that reality.

This day, I was reaching out far as I rolled my hips, tasting precious air before rolling to the other side rhythmically, strongly, smoothly. I’d made a journey to the far side of Richmond (only my GPS knows precisely where), to a lake where 25-30 other swimmers, former marathoners, triathletes, aquabikers *, and multisport adventure racers from novice to highly competitive had gathered for a Friday evening. These people were friendly… and some of them were crazy fit. One guy looked like he’d robbed a couple of trees of their trunks and stuck them on his body where his arms should have been. Another looked like he could swim or bike or run or do just about anything fast, and efficiently, and forever. I took what comfort I could from the fact that his name was also “Daniel.”

Very quickly, I learned a few things:

– Swimmers do things differently from runners. One way to do a workout is to count strokes, for example, “Swim 200 strokes moderate, then 100 strokes hard, and alternate until you hear the whistle or hit 7 minutes.” And here’s another difference for those without fancy swimming-specific GPS watches: One newbie asked, “How far is it to the buoy?” Answer: “About 9 minutes for the average swimmer.” Next question: “Yeah, but how FAR?” Answer: “About 9 minutes for the average swimmer.”
– We probably covered 1 ½ – 2 miles swimming, some of it at a brisk pace. Discovery: I can handle more than I might have imagined. All I needed to do was to allow the body to reveal its potential. I suppose that’s true for all of us—and that’s one of the joys in physical training.
– We swam 7 minutes out, then back, for the warmup… the turn-around buoy just in front of us, taunting us. It was a joy to actually reach it on the third circuit of the workout. It’s the little things that bring joy and satisfaction, sometimes.
– The motions of distance swimming are different from running, but the mental training is the same: Focus, breathe, relax, eliminate tension, calm the monkey mind, be aware and present, believe in yourself.
– Drafting (the art of slipping into another swimmer’s slip-stream, thereby decreasing your own energy expenditure) isn’t a myth. I’m no master of it, but I actually felt a little of the effect.
– At one point I was actually racing a little… and that was new. I’ve swum hard in the past, but I finally felt that racing in the water, and taking some measure of aerobic risk in water, is possible. Again, a joyous discovery of what gifts my body will yield if allowed, and trained, along with my mind.
– It was FUN to swim in a pack, comfortable, settling in, moving naturally… just another fish in the school.

I exited the water, feeling satisfied and not as exhausted as I might have feared. I’d like to end this blog post here… but wait, there’s a bit more. I saw something on my arm, and immediately recognized it as a leech. I removed it, and his (her?) cousins. It was then that I noticed the large turtle in the lake. Hm… I’m glad I didn’t know any of this before I leapt in. I’m also grateful that I swim with goggles. I’ll leave that thought there.

We finished the day with cross-training: Shoveling mulch onto a trail to “pay” the park and association our “dues” for using the lake. It was good to be a part of a group of diverse endurance athletes, joining together to make the park a better place. The mosquitoes were present, but after the leeches they didn’t seem as threatening as they might have. It had been a good day, and a fine way to cap off a week of training.

Marine Corps Marathon, this runner-swimmer is headed your way!

Happy running, my friends.

-Daniel A. Shaye, D.C.
“The Runner Doc”

Dr. Daniel Shaye is a Certified Chiropractic Sports Physician, Acupuncture Fellow, and clinic director of Performance Chiropractic. An accomplished runner, he is a USATF Level 1 Certified Running Coach.

* Aquabike is a relatively new phenomenon in which people do the swim and the run portions of triathlons… then stop, and don’t do the run. Often they have running backgrounds, and their bodies (often knees or hips) won’t tolerate the impact.