If I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me, "How do you train for something like
that?" I could probably buy a new car. It's a valid question and one that I find myself struggling to answer sometimes. Training for an Ultra isn't something that allows one to just follow a black and white plan to be successful. When it comes down to it, it's about turning down the fear voice and turning up the perseverance and mental fortitude.
I've found that the ultimate fear in most marathon swimmers mind is: Did I do enough training? The simple answer to circumventing this anxious, back of your mind feeling is just simply do the work. But it’s not always that simple. What some people don’t ever realize is that, at some point, you’re going to have to get up and just do it. There will be days when you have no one to swim with you and you’re just going to have to get out there and get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Side note: I actually really hate that quote “become comfortable being uncomfortable” - what does that actually mean? I think it’s over used and it’s actually starting to feel bland. So I’d like to officially replace that phrase with this one:
Allow fear to move you forward.
When I was training for my very first Ultra, I had about four weeks where my training partner wasn’t going to be around. So I had to show up and do the work by myself. I had never done that before and I was petrified. My stomach was in knots and I felt queasy the whole time. My eyes were darting every which direction and I kept thinking that I was going to somehow die in some insane freak accident or something was going to come up from the deep and swallow me whole. My mind went absolutely WILD with all the imaginative reasons why I should stop swimming. I checked my watch after what felt like an hour and it had been less than 10 minutes. My heart rate was through the roof that day.
In the end, I had two choices, swim or quit. I swam. That's what makes me an Ultra swimmer; Pushing through even when you're afraid or, better yet, despite being afraid. Personally, I embrace all of my fear and that's what gives me the courage to take another stroke. I imagine fear as a dim light hovering around my chest. I close my eyes and I picture the light actually being absorbed into my chest, making my chest glow a bright, warm color. I imagine that the light traveling through out my body and calming and relaxing me as it reaches each part of me. Then I focus on my breathing pattern to bring my heart rate back in sync. I use my imagination and the control of my breath to transform fear into power. It has taken a lot of practice at night before bed to teach myself how to visualize like this and physically calm myself down and refocus. It's the best tool I've ever been taught. I could write pages and pages on how I practice this and when I use it. These are just the cliff notes.
When you’re facing an Ultra, it’s almost impossible to never have a solo training day. Looking back, I think my ability to adapt and train solo is what has made me so successful. Because when you’re out there, swimming in the middle of the night, nothing feels more lonely. You're in your own head for hours and hours while simultaneously pushing your body past the limits that your brain tries to set for you. I once read somewhere that your brain only allows you to go 40% before it tells you to quit. So when you feel like you're at your limit, you actually have another 60% left in the tank. I always keep that little nugget in the back of my mind. It sounds a bit like:
Brain: "Hey, we're getting tired. We should stop soon."
Me: "That's cool, Brain, but I still got 60%, let's go!"
Ultra swimmers also have this crazy ability to adapt. We adapt to conditions, temperatures, time, pain, personalities - you name it. We have to. When you’re swimming the only thing you can control is your mindset and if you can’t control that or feel that you have to somehow control the boat, the crew, the conditions...then don’t even try to be an Ultra swimmer, because you’re just stacking the odds against yourself. I've watched some swimmers just completely destroy themselves because they're unable to push past fear or adapt. In contrast, I've trained alongside and been coached by some of the best Ultra swimmers in the world and realized that I had a thing or two to learn myself.
What I’m getting at is that the x’s and o’s are actually the easiest part to figure out, even though most swimmers aspiring to swim an Ultra will agonize about this the most. I follow a building program that plans a month of building, starting over each month, building to a higher weekly/monthly total than the previous. This allows for rest, recuperation, technique and good old fashioned “pound it out” workouts. This isn't a strict plan, you can add/subtract but this is generally what it looks like for me, minus a few unforeseen rest days that I will add in when I feel like I need it. My 5-Month plan looks a little something like this:
So, I assume that your next question is, "How exactly does that break down?" To be quite frank, if you need someone to answer that question for you then this is probably where you need to hire a coach. There is an incredible amount of intention that goes into why I wrote that chart out the way that I did. I factored in specific training milestone swims that would be necessary to hit each target, when you need to add doubles, when consistency and routine is most important, which weeks you can use as "rest" weeks etc. Also, this is for a 50k+ swim (30 miles). Not everyone is going to swim 30+ miles, so this could even be edited and molded to your specific goals.
Another important role of a coach is for emotional support. You need someone in your corner who knows what it's like to get through this type of training. It's a grind. It's painful. It's hard as hell. But it's hands down the most rewarding thing you will ever do. I could have never gotten to where I am in my mental toughness game with out coaches, mentors and experienced training partners. I strive to surround myself with positive, bad ass swimmers and coaches every day.
If you think that you want to seek out a coach, mentor, training plans etc - reach out and I'd be more than happy to help you find a coach that is going to work best for you. That may be me, but it also might not be me. Some people need a coach who can physically come to training sessions and others can do virtual plans and over the phone coaching. Either way, I have the resources to help you get started.
To answer the umbrella question: Training for an Ultra is incredibly personal, emotional, and technical. If you're not sure what you're doing, reach out to a coach or a mentor. Find some training buddies and start tackling your fears. A yardage chart won't answer this question completely, but it does help to know what it looks like.
I will end with this: Completing an Ultra is the most gratifying feeling in the world if you do the work on the inside and on the outside.
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