Thursday, September 19, 2019

Sarah Thomas' Incredible Feat Of Endurance

You've probably read in the news about an incredible swim that took place this week:

Starting in the early hours of Sunday morning, Sarah Thomas from Colorado battled through the harsh currents, weather and cold water to break a new world record by swimming four times non-stop across the English Channel! That's 209km, 54 hours and (only!) 1 jellyfish sting - a truly astounding achievement!

Considering your own long distance swim? Would just like to improve your stamina a bit in the pool? Distance swimming is both physically and mentally demanding. Sarah Thomas claimed that ‘every length had something hard about it’. Therefore, both physical and mental preparation is key to ensuring success in these type of events.

You can read Sarah's full race report here.

The English Channel did not make the life easy for Sarah with each lap presenting a new challenge to overcome. In the first and second lap, nausea set in and eventually led to sickness. Despite this, Sarah's mental strength shone through. Her goal, in the darkness of the second lap was to keep swimming and 'make it through until daylight'. After the turnaround, the sickness escalated and was now a certainty after every feed. The crew on the boat were instructed that if the sickness didn't subside, Sarah would have to be pulled out of the water. Unaware of the severity of the situation, Sarah was given anti-sickness tablets in her next feed and carried on swimming, 'daydreaming about being dry, warm and asleep'!

With the sickness under control, the final challenge (if there wasn't enough already!) in lap four presented itself - the early change of tides. Sarah was instructed by her pilot to crab across the current with the hopes of breaking free to the other side. As you would expect from Sarah, she did it, but at the cost of a huge time delay. Fortunately, she had support in the water from her friends, Craig, Elaine and Karl, in the final 4 hours of the challenge. She even managed to sprint to the finish and was welcomed on the shores by crowds, champagne and M & Ms! Sarah describes it as one of the hardest mental challenges she has ever overcome - "I wanted to quit - and had good reason to do so. Yet, somehow, my crew gave me the strength to keep going!" Her focus, determination and perseverance throughout the swim is incredibly inspiring and highlights the importance of mental control during long distance events.

Sarah Thomas had her crew supporting her the whole way - even at the end!

Swim Smooth’s Paul Newsome has first hand experience of the mental challenge of long distance swimming as he took on the challenge of swimming the channel himself in 2011 and since then has completed several other long distance swimming events. How did Paul prepare for this and keep motivated during the whole event?

Paul immediately before starting his channel crossing in 2011.

Paul: I think the most important thing about a long distance marathon swim is to break it down into much smaller component parts. Whilst Sarah had the goal of swimming 4 laps of the Channel (unprecedented in the history of the sport), on the day, I’m very doubtful if she would have allowed herself to think that far ahead.

If you’ve ever swum for 1hr continuously you’ll know how daunting and challenging that is. Imagine getting to the 1hr mark and someone telling you you still have another 53h10m to go! Psychologically that would be hugely difficult to deal with, but if the goal were just to swim for another 30 minutes until your next feed, then suddenly that starts to become more manageable, such that, rather than thinking too much about the stress and strain of what your imminent future holds, you can try to remain in the present and even break it down so granular as to just visualise keeping each stroke balanced smooth and efficient in that particular moment.

Whenever I’ve personally thought too far ahead I’d get daunted by the challenge and start to lose motivation, but I can specifically recall when swimming 46km or 28.5 miles around New York (where I am right now), all I was saying to myself was “bubble-bubble-breathe” (seriously!) and eventually this became “just focus, stay focused now, concentrate, concentrate, concentrate” when I eventually took the lead at 2.5hrs in and went on to win the race.
It gets very lumpy in the middle of the channel!

Giving yourself or your swimmers something simple to focus on here and now in the present is absolutely essential to stop that drift of focus into the “what if” future. When we swam around Manhattan, Adam clocked my initial stroke rate as 88-90spm which I knew in training wasn’t sustainable, but I knew 81spm was. As soon as he fed me back this data, the next 30 minutes was all about falling back into this predetermined feeling and gaining confidence that, whatever happens to the other competitors, I know that this is what I can personally sustain. So I doubled down on that and eventually it all came good.

Sarah's swim from her GPS data: England -> France -> England -> France -> England!

I would imagine that Sarah knew exactly what pace she could hold and dialled into that. This is evidenced by the fact that, acknowledging her favourable conditions on the day, the first 3 GPS traces describe a very similar sine curve pathway, indicating that she was getting pushed equally left and right (east and west) with the changing of the tides as she progressed forwards. In lap 4 (which no one has ever done before), she starts to drift a lot more left and right with the tide indicating that her speed has dropped considerably, but when you turn around for your 4th lap after 37hrs and face the impossible or literally the final frontier where no person has gone before (for you Star Trek fans) then this is to be expected. She’s essentially been swimming for 2 continuous days at this point without sleep and so it’s no wonder that she would slow down. The point is that she made it through and it was all that savvy pacing, focus and will power in the first 3 crossings that enabled the impossible to become possible. Truly amazing stuff!

If you are interested in completing your own long distance challenge (in the pool or open water) head to our Long Aerobic Interval sessions on the SwimSmooth Guru, designed specifically to physically and mentally prepare you for long distance open swims.

If your goals are a little bit more modest then what can we take from Sarah's stunning achievement? Well perhaps take inspiration from this extreme display of endurance and push your own regular swim sessions a little bit longer. Swimming 2km right now? How about a 4km challenge this weekend? If that's too easy, perhaps even 6 or 7km? Sometimes the barriers in place are more mental than physical - give it a shot and when you're feeling a little tired, stay in the moment, ask yourself can I do one more stroke, and then one more lap, and then one more 100...?

Swim Smooth!

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