A personal revolution (one stroke at a time) / by Crispin Thorold

“It will change your life” is a phrase that I have heard several times from English Channel soloists.  The argument goes that by the moment you clamber onto the rocks at Cap Gris Nez, or stumble onto the sands of Wissant Beach, your life will have been fundamentally altered.

Given the reaction of several of my friends to my plan to attempt to swim the Channel, perhaps the shift comes when you make the decision to make an attempt - a sure fire sign of a malfunction in your mental state.  After all why would anyone in full control of their faculties decide that swimming the Channel is a good idea?  Or in the light-hearted words of a medic who recently checked my fitness to train, 'you don’t need a doctor, but if you want to swim the Channel you really should consider a psychologist'. (at least I think he was joking..)

Cap Gris Nez south of Calais - a 'life-changing' target. Photo:  Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

Cap Gris Nez south of Calais - a 'life-changing' target. Photo: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

That consultation had followed a few weeks of medical issues, which were casting doubt on the wisdom of my still relatively light training schedule (15K per week).  After two weeks of tests and an enforced abstinence from swimming I was given the all clear with a hearty pat on the back by a still mystified doctor.  The time away from swimming was incredibly frustrating but this ‘time off’ also allowed me to reflect on the ways that training for an English Channel solo attempt is already changing my life.

A process not an event

Marcel van der Togt, a Channel soloist and long-time open water coach who is helping to structure my training, always talks about a Channel solo swim as a process not an event.  He says that the satisfaction and achievement of a successful solo comes as much through the training, as the swim itself.  

The further into this process I get the more I agree with this. Three years ago I could barely swim a lap of freestyle but through systematic, steady training at first 3/4 times a week and now 5+ times a week, my swimming has been transformed.  The changes have not just been physical – they have also required self-discipline, as well as organisation.

Consistency is king

As a child and later at university I was a crammer who forced as much information into my head, in as short a time as possible.  This ingrained habit was compounded by my journalism training. After all the day-to-day life of a reporter is unpredictable and you can spend long periods of time waiting.  Waiting for a story or waiting for an interview before suddenly, generally without warning, there is a desperate scramble to deliver your report as soon as possible.  Whilst this develops many positive and useful skills, it does not encourage that key to Channel success: consistency.

Now three years in, as I start to intensify my training, consistency is king, and I am finding that this enforced steadiness from swimming is permeating into many other parts of my life, particularly at work.

A marathon not a sprint

Photo: www.therunhome.com

Photo: www.therunhome.com

Of course cramming is all about achieving a lot in a short space of time – it’s about sprinting.  And that instinct to rush has characterised my swimming and much of my training.  All I want to do is to launch myself off the blocks full pelt throwing every ounce of energy I have into getting to the other end as quickly as possible.  This is of course fine if you’re swimming 50s, or 100s or 200s but for a wannabe marathon swimmer it’s a disaster in the making.  After a few hundred metres you are wiped out and a relatively modest set can suddenly seem an impossibility. 

In recent weeks I have made two major changes to my training to try to wean myself off this habit.  Firstly, I have replaced the heavy sprinting training (short, intense sets with long rest periods) with longer, paced endurance and threshold training.  And secondly, I have started using a tempo-timer to introduce some pacing into my swimming.  The changes have been rapid and rewarding – and are well learned for other aspects of life.

Getting back on the horse

And last of all, the most obvious of the lot. If at first you don't succeed then try, try again. 

After my enforced swimming hiatus I am now back into a solid routine of training most days.  This requires me to acknowledge and then reject those negative internal voices that say it would be so much easier to go home instead. 

I am also taking this attitude into individual training sessions.  During a recent ‘red mist’ session I was finished halfway through a relentless 10x400 set and ready to leave on the spot, but rather than give up I allowed myself an extra 30s break, ate a banana and pushed on with the grueling training session.  It lived up to its red mist billing, but I got there in the end and was particularly pleased by overcoming my demons in training - something I will certainly need on the day.  Here’s hoping I have the same spirit in the 80x100 workout tomorrow.

So there you have it a ramble through some of the ways that the lessons that I am learning during my process of training for an English Channel solo are changing other aspects of my life.

Let me know what you have learned through your training and just keep swimming!