If you share my passion, you will understand my madness
October 5, 2019, just past 1:30pm is now pressed indelibly in my mind. I exited the water and dashed to the finish line. I had just swum 16km around Perhentian Island. The memory remains as vivid as if it were yesterday – the soft sand, pristine water, blazing sun… and deafening cheers of my swim squad mates.
In my sports of choice (running, triathlon, open water swimming), I go by the moniker Apek Pacer. As a medical practitioner with a sub-specialty in spine surgery, I believe it’s only fitting that doctors walk the talk and stay healthy by leading an active lifestyle.
I wasn’t always like this. I learnt to swim as a child at a local swim club… and never swam again for the next 30 years.
Three years ago, I found myself in my first open water swim (OWS) event in Port Dickson. I struggled the entire 2km course.
Afterwards, I discovered Coach Shauqie Aziz (dCoach) and his squad, and decided to join them. This eventually led to my signing up for the Perhentian Round Island Challenge Solo 16km swim (P16). My preparation started in early 2019.
Training for the P16
I am old school. I believe in maximising training volume. The body must be able to endure, while my tenacity and stubborn personality will do the rest on race day.
Training volume is the single reassuring factor that would give me rock-solid confidence.
I was the only one in the squad doing the P16, so I had a different goal than my teammates, most of whom were training for the much shorter triathlon swim distances.
Because I wanted volume, I started swimming a lot on my own. I was obsessed with hitting a weekly mileage of 30-35km per week.
I would swim daily from 5:45am to 8am to ensure the minimum required volume was achieved. And with our swim squad’s flexible schedules, I had options to also swim with the squad from Monday to Friday.
I even experimented with swimming twice a day for a while, but with time constraint and unpredictable work commitments, it became a battle. I was overcome by lethargy and exhaustion. My body and mind needed 24 hours to recover adequately.
Tools of the Trade
In my obsession to clock mileage, I resorted to using tools. I would use a pull buoy and Finis Iso/Freestyler/Agility paddles when training by myself, thinking this would develop the upper body and shoulder girdle better.
I also thought swimming with pull buoy and paddles would spare my legs and keep them fresh for run and bike sessions, which I did intermittently to vary my training.
Hitting the Wall
I soon realised my folly. The mileage I gained from using pull buoy and paddles did not translate to actual performance during the swim squad sessions.
I could deliver the required 5-6km distance per session, but was unable to maintain the target swim speed.
That’s because swimming is a complex product of coordinated muscle groups working in synergy. Training the muscle groups in isolation was not the answer to a successful volume training. The movements of the upper and lower limbs, and the rotations of the shoulder, trunk and pelvic girdles are all linked in a rhythmic fashion.
I suspect dCoach noticed my frustration and customised 5 different swim menus for me with distances ranging from 4-6km each. These required the use of a tempo trainer.
I found the menus to be helpful as I could feel the quality being added back into the quantity of my swims.
As my fitness and muscle conditioning improved, I found I could swim faster for longer distances, and finally achieved that ‘feel’ of slicing through the water. That was my zen moment.
I also realised I could’ve made the training so much better with more dry land exercises using stretch cords and working the core muscles. Alas, race day was already fast approaching.
OWS is a game of strategy where so many aspects need to be taken into consideration – currents and waves, sighting, hydration, nutrition.
On race day, I was fortunate to have dCoach follow me on my support boat. He was familiar with my strengths and weaknesses, and read the currents and waves to help manoeuvre the boat.
Feeding was once every 40 minutes which, by the second half of the swim, became once every 30 minutes. I alternated between water and protein shakes, and consumed power gels and salt sticks every hour or so.
After the fourth hour, I became famished and was elated when dCoach brought out pizza, which tasted very much like slices of heaven.
I was pleasantly surprised that my physical state stood up to the challenge. I had never attempted this distance and was worried that the wheels would come off prematurely.
True to my nickname, pacing was key. The steady chugging of the boat’s engine provided the soothing mantra to swim to. I let my thoughts wander while my arms moved autonomously like the blades of a windmill being caressed by a steady wind. I was in a good mood all the way to the end. I completed the swim in 5 hours 54 minutes.
Advice to Swimmers
First of all, get a good swim coach. Swimming is very technical. A good coach will make all the difference, especially when transitioning from the pool to the open water.
Also, some people who are strong runners or cyclists think they can just extrapolate their running or cycling fitness to swimming. It doesn’t work that way. Swim fitness is unique to swimming. One has to swim more to swim better.
Is there a difference between triathlon swimming and marathon swimming? Having done both, in terms of training, I find CSS (Critical Swim Speed) sessions to be more beneficial for triathletes, while marathon swimmers gain more from the long and hard Red Mist sessions.
In terms of racing, in triathlon I would instinctively kick less in order to save my legs for the bike and run. In marathon swimming, kicking less is not necessary. Pacing is more important, along with mental fortitude.
Why I'm writing all this
dCoach asked me to put all these down in writing, lest we forget as the fadest ink will far outlive the memories of man. We hope to inspire others to take up marathon swimming. Those of you who already share my passion, you will understand my madness.
7 Nov 2019