March/April 2007 Issue

The Postal Series is For Everyone, Including You

by Robert E. Zeitner

What does a swimmer do after finishing the One Hour Postal championship swim in a faster time than any of his prior years, at the ripe young age of 65? Commit to the Postal Series, of course! After all, I had the remaining 11 months of the year to complete a mere four pool swims. What does it matter that the distances are 5K, 10K, 3000 yards and 6000 yards?

To refresh your memory, USMS holds five long distance postal championships each year: the One Hour, 5K, 10K, 3000 yard and 6000 yard events. Swimmers who complete all five championships in this series in the same year are sent a participation patch to honor their achievement, and get their names listed in USMS SWIMMER.

Before 2006, I had done the One Hour postal swim several times and the 3000 yard postal swim once. I had also participated in the Big Shoulders swim in Chicago numerous times, both the 2.5K and the 5K swims, and other short open water swims. I had also done many triathlon swims up to 2.4 miles, and once did a 4 mile open water race. My memory of that race was how sick I was at the end.

But was I discouraged? How could I have been when I had Marcia Cleveland, the chair of the USMS Long Distance Committee, encouraging me, and volunteering to count and time me for these swims? If you think it is hard to swim the distances, it is harder to find a pool and the time to swim (more on this later), and even harder to find a timer/counter for the races. Greater love hath no person ... than to volunteer to count and time for a swimmer as slow as I am.

So, after having completed the One Hour postal swim in January 2006, I began in February 2006 to crank up my workouts for distance freestyle. I coach our local Masters team, and the usual weekly workouts are a mix of distance, speed and drills workouts. But I decided that I couldn’t swim 6.2 miles by the summer unless I increased my yardage considerably. Five months sounds like a lot of time, but after having trained for Ironman distance triathlons in that amount of time, I knew that five months would be the necessary minimum. I also decided to swim the 10K Open Water championship in Fort Collins, Colo., on August 12, based on the same training. (But that’s another story, and you can contact me if you want the sordid details of how wrongI was on that decision.)

Training Regimen for the Event

The Masters team I swim with and coach is limited to three workouts per week in the winter and spring. So, I arrived at our pool early and stayed late. This allowed me to begin my warm up, give the team the workout and, on the days that the swimmers present did not need much coaching because of their skill level, I could do a distance set. My personal schedule each week was a distance set, a speed set, and a drill set, this last set being on the day when the more “ready” swimmers were present. This meant that my workout consistency varied quite a bit.

The schedule was to do the 5K swim in early July and the 10K swim in late July. That would allow me to do the 10K open water swim in August. I also planned to do both the 3000 yard swim and the 6000 yard swim in November. I kept to that schedule with just one adjustment.

My distance sets began with an 1800 yard main set. There is no way that I know how to keep track of 1800 yards - I can’t even keep track of 300 yards - so I decided to swim broken sets, but to build my endurance by swimming continuously. My first main set was 3 times 6 x 100 yards, each 25 kick and 75 swim, timing each 600 yards. This allowed me to rest my arms on the kick length and to swim continuously as I planned to build my endurance. By the end of May when our pool time expired, I completed 9 times 6 x 100 yards as a main set. I dropped my 600 yard interval time from 13:00 to 12:18.

I started my speed sets with 6 x 100 on a 2:30 interval, swimming at 85% effort. (I said I was slow!)  By the end of May, I completed 18 x 100 on the 2:30 interval. I dropped my 100 yard interval time from 2:05 to 1:46, and I had delusions of maintaining those times in the longer swims. My drill sets ended up being what I worked on with workout swimmers. It ended up being mostly backstroke, not a bad choice.

Nutrition and Hydration

I played around a lot with nutrition and hydration during the distance sets. This is an absolutely essential part of training for distance swimming like the USMS Postal Series. I had done a lot of experimenting and refining during my training and racing in longer distance triathlons, but ended up discarding most of it with this distance swimming. I finally decided on a liquid-only program since there was no way I could reasonably think of digesting a gel or energy bar during a pool swim, much less an open water swim. All of the training I was doing also had my 10K open water swim in mind.

In the pool workouts, I used Gatorade Rain, which is milder tasting than the regular Gatorade, and easier on my system. I eventually gravitated to Accelerade, a 4/1 carbohydrate to protein mix. I had no problem with this choice in any of the races, although I had at least two different flavors available so I wouldn’t get bored. I hydrated before my warm up, and then after each 1200 yards.

During the winter and spring, I also cross-trained, both running and/or cycling once a week, since I was also planning on doing several triathlons during the summer. I did weights twice a week, which I highly recommend, especially for us “young” Masters old folks. If you don’t know it already, you can get bored doing only long distance swim training.

After Memorial Day our Masters team usually switches to an outdoor pool. The day the pool was to open was the day the engineers decided to fix a leak in the pool. That resulted in our losing our summer pool. In a way it was fortunate for me personally, since I wound up swimming more open water, but it wreaked havoc on our team.

Our first open water swim in Lake Michigan was shortly thereafter, in 54 degree water. I swam with Marcia, and I did about 3/4 miles. Channel rules applied: swim suit, cap, goggles and a smile!

By the end of June the water had warmed up to a balmy 66-68 degrees. My summer open water workouts are Saturday mornings, but since we did not have pool workouts, I also swam either Tuesday or Thursday evening. We are fortunate in Chicago for having several great open water training beaches. I go to Ohio Street beach, the same location as the Big Shoulders swims. Here swimmers can swim 1 mile along shore and back to the beach, in water mostly about 4-5 feet deep. Ladders mark the way every 100 meters or so the entire way.

Open Water Workouts

My open water workouts began at 1 mile, and lengthened to 4 miles in 1/2 mile increments, so I could hydrate each 1/2 mile. Hydration consisted of a towel on the beach with two water bottles of Accelerade.  Since open water varying conditions mitigate against accurate times, I kept only a rough watch time. My 1-mile times would vary as much as 6 minutes depending upon conditions. I was also more concerned at that time with endurance than with speed.

My 5K swim was on July 3 at the 50-meter pool in Wilmette Illinois, a suburb north of Chicago. My 10K swim was on July 24 in the same pool. I was able to swim with the lap swimmers just after the Evanston Masters team had completed their practice. Fortunately the pool was underutilized; I never had more than three swimmers in my lane. Unfortunately, I forgot to put on sunscreen, thinking it was going to remain overcast since I began at 6:30 in the morning. I forgot how slow I swim and how long I was going to be in the water.

Marcia was just great, constantly giving me encouragement, precisely maintaining my 20-minute feedings, and even getting me to slightly adjust my stroke during the events. I decided to go with timed feeding rather than distance so I wouldn’t focus on the distance. I highly recommend this, because I could break down the entire race into modest times, and focus on the coming feeding rather than the distance still to be swum. Your focus should be on anything but how much distance you still have to swim, which can be humbling.

Also Marcia had me speed up my stroke turnover, and focus on my push-back and follow through. She had noticed these two changes in my technique as I became tired. These suggestions actually caused my split times to drop toward the end of the swim. I would encourage swimmers to practice these two details in training rather than to focus on increasing power, because they allow you to swim faster, longer.

I finished, and I could still move, a good sign. I felt great! Even the rest of the day and the day after, nothing hurt. During the races, nothing hurt unexpectedly from what I experienced during my training, so I was able to continue swimming.

I went to Fort Collins in August for the 10K open water championship, and then continued to swim in Lake Michigan during the following two months, but cutting back to about 3 miles each workout.

Endurance Training Pays Off

After Labor Day we were back in our indoor pool, but I was not able to train on anything approaching a regular schedule. I did manage occasionally to swim a distance set of 6 times 6 x 100, each 25 kick and 75 swim, timing each 600 yards. I also managed an occasional speed set of 12 x 100 on a 2:15 interval, swimming at about 85% effort. With my holdover endurance this was enough to get me through the final two postal races.

By this time Marcia had recruited my wife, Rita, to help out with the timing, and the two of them shared this responsibility on my 6000 yard and 3000 yard swims.

Courtesy of Marcia, my 6000 yard swim was on Nov. 4 at a local club pool. My 3000 yard swim was on Nov. 11 at the Northwestern University pool. I was able to swim in my own lane, and Marcia paced me for some of these swims modeling good, streamlined push offs (I do open turns). My hydration for both races was Accelerade at 20 minute intervals.

In my humble opinion, I recommend swimming the longer distance first for both the 5K and10K postals, and the 3000 yard and 6000 yard postals. There is a positive psychological advantage in having the harder race out of the way when doing the second race of the set. Marcia’s personal order preference is 5K, 10K, 6000 yard, 3000 yard. I also believe the races can be done a week apart, if you train properly and rest well between the races.

You may have noticed that I have not mentioned my distance or times for any of the five events. This is the great thing about the USMS Postal Series; the award is given for completion of the events, no matter the distance or the times.

Occasionally, however, unexpected rewards still happen. When I looked at the results for the 10K postal swim, it turns out I was the only swimmer in my age group to have swum the event. Not only did I earn the Postal Series patch, I also earned a National Champion patch, All-American status and my name in “the magazine.” Winning by attrition! As it’s said about the lottery: “You gotta be in it to win it!”

See USMS Long Distance Postal Series Challenge to view swimmers who have completed all five postal events since 2003.