If you want to be a better swimmer, try a weeklong swim 'bender'

Credit: Mike Hewitt/Allsport

A long time ago a preacher asked me a rhetorical question: "Do you know the secret of how to stop being a sinner?"

I wasn't sure whether in fact I wanted to stop, but I was still interested in the answer. "Okay, sir, how do you stop being a sinner?"

"Stop sinning."

Simple answers have an elegance to them. One often finds that the simplest truths have at their base a powerful, and portable, theme.

For example: "Want to know how to stop being a swimmer?"

"Stop swimming."

I can attest to the truth in this truism.

Ipso facto, if you want to become a champion swimmer (or sinner, for that matter), practice, practice, practice.

That's where the simple platitudes stop, however. The devil's in the details. Take sinning, for example. I have it on good authority that to be a podium-quality sinner, you've got to perfect the art of the "bender."

A swimming 'bender'

You'll never medal in sinning if you're only indulgent in a modulated ration of occasional drinking and womanizing -- an hour and a half, three times a week, let's say. You've got to occasionally give yourself wholly over to it for a period of time. Get a room for the weekend. Hole up with supplies -- quarts and fifths of liquor distilled in states like Kentucky and Tennessee. Watch bad movies, alone or with friends. Stay at it, morning and night.

This is not a schedule you can keep for very long. You've got a family, you must earn a living, and you've got your health to think of. Moderation is the key.

But only to a point. Every now and then you've got to stop thinking like and age-group sinner, and train like a pro.

It's been my experience that the same is true in swimming. Just add a W to "sinning," and change the Ns to Ms, and the metaphor is an exact fit.

I've always thought that the two best phrases in our sport are Saucony's "Loyal to the Sport," and "Total Immersion's" company name. What perfectly descriptive mottos! In the case of the latter, those two words describe what you know in your heart you must do to become a better swimmer.

The idea of taking a weekend, or a week, and totally immersing yourself in the water with like-minded fanatics resonates with you, even though you probably haven't worked through the cognitive implications on your training. Your gut says, "Yeah, that's right," and your instincts are spot-on in this case.

One can argue whether the actual Total Immersion workshop is of great benefit. My point here is not to argue for or against it. It's to advocate for the concept of a "swim bender." I want to convince you of something: The best way to get faster in the water is to take a week and just swim your brains out.

Before diving in head-first, there are some things that bear mention. A binge or bender is not best executed without having built up one's system. Whether holding one's liquor or one's freestyle, you won't be successful if you haven't built up a bit of an immunity to occasional usage.

The assumption is that you've reached a stasis point. While you aren't getting any faster (drunker) off your three days per week of recreational swimming (drinking) you've built up an immunity to the effects of your current habit.

In other words, you're already putting in 6,000 or 8,000 or maybe even 10,000 yards per week and you can handle that without any problem.

I'm also assuming that you're not swimming by yourself, or just lap-swimming, but that you're in a group or club of some sort. If not, it's a good idea to do so if there's any sort of masters team around you. Failing that, it's often possible to jump into the lane of a kid's swim club. It might feel a bit silly to you, but if they'll let you swim with them, what of it?

When I did my one and only Ironman in Kona in 1981, the only swim team around was my local university's swim team. They only fielded a women's team. So that's who I swam with. They didn't mind; why should I?

My idea of a big swim week is double my normal yardage. So, if I'm normally doing 10,000 yards per week, which does happen to be my current average, then I'll do 20,000 yards. This almost certainly means two things. First, I'll exhaust all my possible team workout options. Even if I do every team workout my schedule allows, I'll still not get to 20,000 yards.

So I've got to find other times to swim during that week. I might have to find open "lap swim" times to get in a workout here and there. I might have to resort to a second pool -- that is, I might swim masters in a pool on the way home from work, but I might need to find a pool close to work in which to swim during lunch. Or a second masters team that has a morning workout, if I'm used to swimming in the evening, or vice versa.

I'll also have to reconcile myself to the possibility of doing more than one swim workout a day. Remember, this is only for a week. So just suck it up and do it.

Simply put, you've got to do more than commit yourself to the idea of swimming a big week. You've got to plan for it.

Become a swimmer

Here is my next bit of advice. During this week you aren't just working on your swimming. You must become a swimmer. Trust me, you're going to exit this exercise a different athlete than you entered it. But you've got to think swimming. You've got to expect changes in your technique to occur, and be prepared for that when in the water. I've found that adding one element to this exercise is quite helpful: watching good swimmers swim.

Here is an example of what I mean. I once decided to do a big week in the water, and that included one particular workout in one specific pool which started directly after an elite squad of the Irvine Novaquatics did their afternoon workout. These were 16- to 20-year-olds, and they'd do their short course workouts leaving on the 1:05 or 1:10 base (meaning they'd swim, let us say, 10 x 200 yards and come in at 2 minutes or 2:05, and they'd be off again at 2:10 or 2:20). It was like watching a school of dolphins swim back and forth.

There were specific swimmers who were just a beauty to watch, and I found myself coming 20 or 30 minutes early to my workout just to watch them swim. Further, I found myself making visual pictures of their techniques, and incorporating them into my own while I swam. It was part of the process of thinking, practicing, inhabiting, becoming a swimmer during that week.

It will also make life easier for you if you realize that there are certain things you just give up during that week. Cycling workouts take a long time, and therefore I must reconcile myself to the knowledge that a big swim week means I'm very much a swimmer, and to some extent a runner, but I almost certainly won't have the time or energy for cycling that week.

This doesn't bother me, because there are other weeks in which I'll put on my helmet and fill up my water bottles and for three or four days I'll almost never take my cycling helmet off (for everything there is a season).

Common obstacles

There are two or three things that can stop you in your tracks during a big swim week, and if you know to expect them beforehand you can weather them when they occur.

First, when you're in the pool every day, and sometimes twice a day, you're going to feel like you're carrying an extra 5 pounds of pool water inside your head during the rest of your waking existence. I feel like I've got chlorinated water in my ears, in my jaws, in my lymph nodes, and behind my eyes. My head feels like it's in a big pickle jar.

If you know in advance that your head is going to feel like a 6-inch piece of a water-saturated telephone pole by day three, then when it happens you can shrug it off and keep going. One help for this is to swab your ears with alcohol, or a mixture of alcohol and boric acid, to keep your ears from getting infected and to help them dry out in between workouts.

You're also going to notice, right about day three of four, that your arms are tired, and that they're not recovering. That's okay. Just keep going, as long as they're just tired, and not injured. Make sure you take a long time warming up.

Partway through a big week of swimming, my arms are sufficiently sore and still that I might not entirely warm up for 1,000 or 1,500 yards. It's quite okay, and even recommended, that you don't put out maximum effort until you're that far along into the workout.

It is quite acceptable to not see immediate results during this week. You may not get much faster, or any faster, during the mega-week of swimming. You will almost certainly have days in which you swim slower than before you started the week. But after the week is over, and when your arms have had an opportunity to absorb the work, and to recover from it, you'll certainly see that you've made a demonstrable, significant leap in your swim abilities.

There are some other things that often occur after a big swim week. I'll notice a definite change in certain elements of my technique. I'll probably go back to my normal swim yardage with "normal" now being a bit more than it was prior to my swim week, that is, my stasis point -- my average week -- might become 12,000 yards instead of the 8,000 yards it was. And I'll have perhaps moved up a lane on my masters team. Instead of leaving on the 1:40, now I'm leaving on the 1:30 interval. Or the 1:20.

It would humble any of us to know that if you average 8,000 yards per week, and your Big Week is 16,000 yards, that this Big Week total is accomplished in a single day by any of thousands of up-and-coming swimmers around America and the world.

But don't let this bother you. Rather, let it reinforce in you the knowledge that a 15,000-, or 20,000-, or even a 30,000-yard occasional week is well within your capacity. Engaging in a week of this sort every couple of months is like having a crane pick you up, carry you forward, and drop you hundreds of yards ahead of those in your age-group with whom you were exiting the water after the swim leg of your race.

Dan Empfield is the publisher of the online triathlon journal Slowtwitch.com, and is the founder of bike- and wetsuit-maker Quintana Roo.

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