I finished my 3000 yd swim last night with a time of 55:47:44, not exactly world-beater time, but pretty significant for me.
Last year, I wasn't able to do the 3000 yd swim due to an injured left arm. I lost my balance going down a flight of stairs (one of my feet folded under me and I started to pitch forward) and had to hang on to the railing for dear life with my left hand while I righted myself. The result was a torn biceps muscle and a strained tendon that took the better part of four months of rest and PT to heal completely. I was able to do the hour swim in January, completing 3150 yards, which I felt was pretty good, all things considered.
But this year, I wanted to do more. My best result in the hour swim was 3220 yards, from 2010. My swimming has improved a lot since then, and it's frustraing that my results in the 2011 and 2012 hour swims didn't show it. This past year, once the left arm healed, I've noticed a definite improvement all the way around--not one huge breakthrough, but definitely improvements in all aspects of my swimming. My strokes feel cleaner and more efficient; I'm swimming further and faster with less effort; I've mastered butterfly well enough to cobble together a decent 100 IM. My flip turns are still touch and go (due in large part to sinus issues that cause a lot of disorientation when I somersault), but I've worked on tightening up my open turns. My feeling there is that if I'm going to get an extra breath at the wall, I damn well should be able to not breathe from the flags to the wall and from the wall to the flags. I've been working on a strong push-off, good streamlining (or as much streamlining as my tight desk-worker's shoulders will allow), at least 3 SDKs, and not breathing at least until the second or third stroke.
My standard interval on 100 yds of freestyle has been streadily dropping. It was about 1:55-ish when I first began master's swimming in the fall of 2007. At that point, I'd been lap swimming on my own for 20 years, and my technique was **horrible**. It's better now, somewhat, but back then it was really, really bad, and my coach has spent the past 5 years trying to help me undo my bad habits. The work has paid off: my SI dropped from 1:55 to 1:50 to 1:45, and in most classes now, I can hold a 1:40 pace pretty consistently. So my technique is better and my endurnace is better, too (I really feel like learning fly and doing IM sets has helped with the endurance).
So last night, it was incredibly gratifying to finally see some results in a long swim: not only did I beat my 2010 3000 yd swim time by a full minute, I also set a new personal best 3000 yd time (previous best was a 56:02 that I clocked during my hour swim in 2010)--by about 15 seconds.
I've discovered that there are other things I need to do to get ready for a long swim. I've learned these things over time via haphazard trial and error, but they do make a big difference. Namely:
1. Rest. This seems to be more important than anything. I typically have a looong day (2 hour commute, 8 hour workday, 2 hour commute), so taking a day off for the long swim means I'm fully rested, I've had enough sleep, I'm not dealing with job and commute-related stress. I usually try to complete the hour swim on MLK Day. Yesterday I had the day off for a medical appointment. Also, I find it helps not to do any kind of workout in the 24 hours before the swim--no weights, no swimming, nothing more strenuous than a 40-minute walk. The day of the swim, I try to stay off my feet as much as possible.
2. Eat enough, but not too much. In the past, I've eaten too much before the long swim, or eaten too close to the swim. I've learned that a small meal (one piece of baked chicken, about half a cup of pasta), about two hours before the swim, seems to be optimal. Also, I've found it helps to skip vegetables entirely the day of the swim, in order to avoid painful abdominal gas.
3. Hydrate. Yesterday, I kept drinking water, stopping about 45 minutes before the swim, limiting water intake to a few sips during the warmup to keep my mouth and throat wet. I brought Gatorade with me to drink AFTER the swim--it seems to coat my throat and make my mouth feel even more dry. This worked out incredibly well: I had much less of a problem with a dry, scratchy throat during the swim, but I also didn't spend the last 15 minutes of the swim desperately needing to pee.
4. Stretch. Before I left the house, I did some back/hip stretches recommended by my physical therapist. When I got to the pool, I ran through some of the shoulder stretches recommended for swimmers, and I stretched my hamstrings/ calves against the side of the pool. This made a HUGE difference in terms of not cramping up during the swim or swimming the last 15 minutes with my back killing me. I did have some issues midway through the swim with minor heart palpitations and near the end, some foot/calf cramps, but I was able to work through both problems and they didn't impact my time. Both are signs that I need more potassium, so I have a mental note to take an extra potassium supplement before the hour swim in January.
And last but not least
5. Count laps. This helps keep my mind focused and (as my coach says) keeps me from drifting out into la-la land. I think of the 3000 yd swim as a 6 x 500, so I count down from ten to one, six times. I must've gotten off count somewhere in there, because my timer yelled to me that I had 100 yds left when I thought I had more like 200 left (let me tell you, that was **awesome**).
I also found it incredibly useful to practice with some long sets, so in the last couple of months, I've been doing things like 4 x 500 with a minute of rest between each 500. Last weekend, I did 3 x 1000 in my Sunday workout. This gets me in the habit of counting laps, and more importantly, of swimming through discomfort--so that when I'm doing the actual event, I'm better able to deal with my dry mouth and throat, my tired arms and shoulders, my cramping feet, and the need to use the bathroom.
Hour swim, here I come!