With six months to go until my North Channel Swim between Ireland and Scotland I am starting to up the training level and intensity considerably!
Unlike many other extreme long distance swimmers I prefer not to waste my days plodding up and down the pool at a steady pace for hours on end in order to build my endurance. I have a very short attention span and find swimming up and down for hours on end utterly tedious so I prefer to opt for high intensity interval training. I find that with this kind of work I am able to swim for hours on end when I do my distance swims by using the base I have built. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a term usually associated with personal trainers and circuit classes and involves sprint and stamina training at a high intensity with small amounts of rest over long steady endurance work. This idea fascinated me as it seemed very sensible to maximise time and fitness. Rather than a 5000m steady plod I instead would do a 500m warm up, 10 x 200m, 10 x 100m and 10 x 50m with some 25m sprints and a swim down to finish. My heart rate goes through the roof with this kind of work and I can feel myself getting stronger and fitter in record time. I still cover the distance required for success but get so much more out of every session and find it far more motivating! Basically I get the same results as the swimmers who plod up and down for hours in a fraction of the time by getting fitter faster!
Going from being fat to fitter than I have ever been in the space of 18 months has been quite a journey and it is wonderful to be back where I was when I first swam the English Channel in 2006. One of the most effective ways I have managed to get my fitness and ability back is by doing at east 30% of my training with other people. I swim with my local triathlon club in Cambridge three times a week (even though I never do the running and cycling!) and I have found it very motivating. When I first turned up to the first session I jumped straight into lane 1 expecting to be as fit and fast as I was as a teenager. How wrong I was! I was missing lengths regularly and was out of breath within minutes so I swallowed my pride and dropped to lane 2. To by disbelief exactly the same happened in there so I dropped to lane 3! I felt quite humiliated and annoyed with myself for losing so much fitness but it fired me up to try harder than ever to get back where I was to reach my goal of being Channel Swim fit again within 2 yrs. Now 18 months later I am leading lane 1 and my co swimmers constantly comment at how quickly I have progressed through the ranks! It is all due to the way I train which is in short bursts of intense work.
I am a great believer in the minimum effective dose when it comes to training. By that I mean getting the maximum results from the smallest investment of time. This approach has served me very well in business and helped me to build up a very effective swim school (www.eliteswimmingacademy.co.uk) without all of the stress that many professionals feel. If it works in business why can it not work in fitness? By applying this approach of high intensity work in short bursts I am able to get all of the benefits of an intense training regime in just 8 – 10 hours per week compared to 30 – 40 hrs a week that some of my co-distance-swimmer put in. I am just as quick as them and can swim just as long as them but I have time to enjoy life and have a social life in the process which is much more my style.
The above method works perfectly for me to train for extreme distance in the pool BUT it does not help a great deal with sea swimming which is very different to indoor swimming. Sheer cold, jellyfish, currents and the elements are the real challenges of marathon swimming and there is no way to truly synthesise those with indoor training.  (The closest I have been able to get is swimming at the local leisure centre next to the morning aqua aerobics class which synthasises the waves I encounter in the open ocean! )
The real challenges of open water swimming can only be experienced in open water .  Many of my friends swim outdoors all year round and regularly break the ice in the river in the depths of winter. This however does not appeal to me in the slightest! As I am sure you can gather by what I have told you so far, I prefer to go down an easier route for the same results and for me that involves only acclimatising to what I need to which is 10 – 12 degrees. I have no intention of getting used to 2 degree water so my open water training will be starting at the end of March with a swimtrek holiday in mallorca! More about acclimatisation next month but in the mean time I will be hitting the pool hard for the remaining weeks to continue to build my stamina base.