By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Today we begin a new series that looks at “Outside The Box” training methods. These are methods that venture outside-the-norm for swimming. Each month, we’ll interview a swimmer or coach about their individual experiences with some unusual training techniques. As always, some of these training techniques are not intended for everyone and should be conducted under a safe environment with supervision. If you have unusual training techniques to share, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last weekend at the Open Water Nationals, we saw an abundance of the toughest, fittest, strongest swimmers on Earth. To swim a 10k requires not only peak physical condition of an Olympic athlete, but also the mental strength of a Buddhist Monk. Isolated, alone, engulfed with cloudy waters for hours on end, open water swimming is not for everyone. These athletes are not made on race day. They are chiseled and honed through years of grueling and exhausting preparation.
Erica Rose knows preparation. World champion in the 5k by age 15, Rose has been one of the most dominant open water marathon swimmers in the past fifteen years. She has competed in numerous 25k+ marathon swims throughout her career, and recently won the Manhattan Island Swim around New York City (47k!) back in 2011.
Rose cites one particular and very unusual training technique while swimming at Northwestern University under head coach Bob Groseth.
“When I was training for some of the longest races I was doing, definitely for the 10K and some of the longer ones, I would come in every Saturday morning and my coach would put me on a tether,” Rose said. “He tied a rope around my waist and attached it to the diving platform. He had engineered it so I couldn’t reach the opposite wall. I would watch the clock and count my strokes. I would do it for two, three, four hours at a time. I would work on my tempo and stroke rate.”
The purpose of such an exercise was to keep Rose horizontal (without flip turns) for extended periods of time. Races like the 10k, the 25k, or even longer require the body to be horizontal.
“When you swim in open water, you don’t do flip turns,” Rose said. “You’re in a horizontal position. It can be straining on sets of muscles. It was training my body to be horizontal for four hours without bending.”
Through this, Rose became so in-tune with her body that, after a while, she would know her tempo without even looking at a clock. She had found an exact stroke count ideal for her marathon swims, so that any variance in tempo meant something was wrong.
“When I got into a race and my stroke rate was less than 80 strokes per minute, something was wrong. I was tired. I was dehydrated. Something was wrong. If my stroke rate was higher than 84 strokes a minute, I was spinning my wheels. I wasn’t being efficient. I’d have to guess my stroke rate and not look at the clock. It taught me to be very in tune with that part of my stroke.”
Rose explains that not all of the exercise was purely for its physical benefits. Being strapped to a tether every Saturday morning for hours on end is also a mental exercise. It trains the mind to be OK in situations of extreme isolation and boredom.
“The second reason is that it was incredibly boring,” Rose laughs. “I was counting strokes and looking at a clock for four hours. When you’re in a long open water race, it can be really boring. It was just as much mental training as physical training.”
Occasionally Rose would strategically change her stroke count during workout, creating “sets” of 10 minutes where she would purposefully increase her stroke count to 90 or 95 strokes per minute.
She became so used to the tether technique that she would bring the tether to international races and warm-up with it for 10 or 15 minutes the day before, just to make sure her stroke rate was on. (She explained that this could only happen if the pool had a starting block.) She would use the tether then swim a few laps in the pool.
“It’s not helpful unless you can translate it into your swimming,” Rose said of the tether technique. “I’d do several hours on the stretch chord, then I’d do a few hundreds with regular swimming, or try to keep that stroke rate, so it would help my body learn to translate what I was doing on the stretch chord into regular swimming.”
Rose explained that swimming on a tether for four hours once a week is the equivalent to running a marathon on a treadmill. Because of that, Rose also notes that this type of training is not for everyone, or even for swimmers who don’t swim longer distances than the mile. But Rose did state that, for her, the training was incredibly effective.
“It’s a different challenge than 10x800s,” Rose explained. “You can do 10x800s or you can swim on a tether for an hour and a half. I don’t think for a 1500 swimmer, I would recommend it every week. But once a month, if a coach wanted to throw it in there, it’s a great way to spice up training and measure performance in a different way.”