Channel swim training the wrong way – January to June 2020

Channel swim training the wrong way – January to June 2020

Now, a lot of people already know that I’m going to swim the Channel in September 2021, so it’s time for me to share my training progress.

The beginning

At the end of 2018, the idea of swimming the Channel during a working holiday in 2021 appeared in my mind. It would be a fun and extraordinary thing for me to do, to make my working holiday special and unregrettable. Morever, at that time, there weren’t any Hongkongers who had swum the Channel yet, if I got it across before anyone else I would make history and I would be proud. As Channel swimming isn’t a thing that should be taken lightly, I dared not commit myself to that yet despite pilots normally take booking 2 to 3 years ahead. Instead, I wrote the following:

While for swimming, I have a very ambitious goal which I don’t know if it is achievable or not – swim the channel in 2021, during a working holiday that year. In order to know if I am ready for that challenge, I would like to try the cold half (a 15 km open water race in Hong Kong in winter) in 2020, if I can complete it that means I am ready for that challenge. Therefore, I need to train a lot in 2019, eventually build up to 15 km without wetsuit by the end of the year.

Everything went well in 2019. I complete the race January this year, although it was not as cold as I expected. Initially I had a bit of self doubt after my race, but I got over it soon after taking a week’s break:

However, judging from my feeling after the race, I really doubt if I should continue my plan or not. My plan was to sign up for a channel swimming spot in late 2021, and to do a 21 km lake race in Sweden, “Vidösternsimmet“, in August 2020 with expected lake temperature 18°C, to further build up my distance combined with an orienteering trip to Poland. This race was an easy race, nothing was challenging. The water was warm (19 – 20°C) and the sea was calm most of the time. However, despite of that, my fatigue started to built up just after 7 km, and after 10 km, every km was a struggle for me, and it was only my mind keeping me going, counting every half km in the way from Round Island to the finish to end my suffering.

I found a good September 2021 slot with a CSA pilot after the race. I sent the deposit on 31st January, just 12 days after my race. Then I signed up Vidösternsimmet just a few days later. I made a training plan which consisted of 3 training blocks:

  1. February 2020 – June 2020: I would do swim lessons with Chung Ho to correct my technique, and train for speed when the swimming pool was still cold enough. Starting from April, gradually shift my training focus from speed to distance such that I would be ready for 21 km by June in order to do Vidösternsimmet. As it was a lake race, the time I got would provide a good measure of what my ability was because there would be no current and tide, and I would use that time as a basis to estimate what was my sustainable speed over a long distance, and to plan my further training.
  2. November 2020 – March 2021: I would leave my job at contract maturity in October. Then I would dedicate myself for my training. I would build up from the 21 km foundation done in the previous block. I would train in various environments like swimming in swells, currents and chops, at night, in cold weather, alongside a boat, etc., in order to get me ready for the Channel. I would do a rehearsal swim of about 30 km in February, when the sea temperature would be about 16 – 18°C, in a protocol as similar as a Channel swim to judge my readiness to swim the Channel, or alternatively, do my other dream swim (45 km round Hong Kong swim) as well. In the same period I would get ready for my working holiday, apply visas, etc.
  3. May 2021 – August 2021: After I departed and started my working holiday, settle down in a coastal city ASAP and find a software developer job. I would join a training group there and continue swimming under the support of the community. The focus in the final months would mainly be acclimation to the environment there, and to improve my endurance, i.e. getting used to the Channel distance without undue fatigue. I would also do marathon swimming races in Europe in the season as well.

Swim total for January 2020: 50.5 km

February 2020

At the time I made the bookings, sports centres and pools were closed as a precaution to a possible COVID-19 epidemic. At that time the epidemic was still mainly happening in mainland China and no one anticipated it to shut the whole world down. Squad training was moved to the beach and I was still joining. I swam about 12 km per week in early February after the post-race break, but because the pools were closed and I was not able to speed train, I didn’t have much motivation. By the end of the month I was swimming about 15 km per week only, consisting of 2 squads session mid-week, and 2 weekend swims, all in open water. It was a warm winter and the water temperature in that month was around 17°C – 19°C, a bit warmer than my training target (16°C).

I was also training for my first marathon, Seoul International Marathon, scheduled in March as well. However, after Cold Half and my training break, I felt it hard to get back to running and I didn’t enjoy training at all, when it started to get warm and humid. However, I joined a month of running classes in another triathlon training programme in February.

By the end of February, Hong Kong was still safe from the epidemic, however, it was already spread to South Korea, Iran and Italy, and my marathon due in March was cancelled. I did my last running session on 26 February and I had never run a single km for 4 whole months since then.

Swim total for February 2020: 53.5 km

March 2020

The university pool was opened again early March. However, the squad training was still done in open water. As I prioritised my squad training, I didn’t get back to the pool much. In the weeks I swam for 5 days, I did 2 squad sessions mid-week, 2 open water group swims on the weekend, and 1 swim in the pool. In retrospect I felt it might be a mistake. I kept swimming about 15 km each week.

By the middle of March, the epidemic had already spread to most of the Europe, the USA, etc. It became a global pandemic and the whole world were nearly shut within half a month. A bunch of cases were imported to Hong Kong from western countries as everyone was rushing the deadline before they would be quarantined upon entry. These were called the 2nd wave while the 1st wave were the occasional cases imported from mainland China since 23 January. Pools were closed again. Also, as my office started working from home, I was less motivated to go out and swim. I lived at a place where the water nearby was the harbour, while the place I normally swam in was close to my office. I got 5 consecutive days at the end of the month without swimming, which never happened since I started in 2019. Even before and after my big race, my period out of water was only 4 days.

Swim total for March 2020: 60.1 km

April 2020

I initially placed my hope on summer for the pandemic to be over, like what happened in 2003, and bought the air ticket to Denmark in August in order to do my racing trip.

The work from home policy continued. I didn’t even leave my home for consecutive days. Also I had a skin problem at that time so my family suggested me to move back. At that time I was living in the city and my family lived in a town very far away. As a result I did not swim most of the month. I got 10 consecutive days without swimming at all! In the weeks I did swim, I normally did about 16 – 20 km per week.

Also, I met a group of people who were willing to swim with me. They were mostly the same speed or slightly slower than me. The people I met before in the Sunday group were too fast for me and I had to use fins to keep up, and I often lagged behind in the return.

Swim total for April 2020: 49.2 km

May 2020

I was still having hope in early May so I did a large block in the holidays, nearly 24 km in 3 out of 4 days of holiday. That made my training peak week of 28 km.

The COVID situation in Hong Kong was controlled in May. However, the virus had gone wild in western countries. My first training block had already gone because the pools were closed most of the time. Although I kept swimming in open water, my speed deteriorated as a result of lacking interval training. The hope for my trip to Europe was diminished and I winded down my training after peaking in the beginning of May. I decreased my swimming to about 3 times a week, then 2 times as week, as the sea temperature started to exceed 25°C, making it too hot for me to swim anything high intensity.

The pools in Hong Kong reopened mid-May, however it was already too hot for me to do any intense interval training in pool. As I was looking to improve my technique in my off-season I signed up a month of training in a swim club in June.

Swim total for May 2020: 51.4 km

June 2020

I joined the training I signed up, 2 times per week. However, the training of that club seemed to be for pool races because their training sets consisted of all strokes and they had plenty of rest between sets, which were not like those in triathlon clubs. I didn’t continue in July.

I also trained in my original squad 1 time per week, giving me in total 3 times a week of coached training sessions. Apart from them I also swam open water on the weekend, about once per week. However, as the weather became hot, the length of my open water swim shortened. I no longer did anything longer than 5 km, mostly in the range about 3 km. My average amount per week dropped to about 7 km.

Swim total for June 2020: 34.8 km

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