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What's Wrong with Marathon Swimming? A View from the Cheap Seats

September 14, 2011 by Katie

The Open Water Swimming community is abuzz about an article by Scott Zornig, president of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association, entitled "What's Wrong with Marathon Swimming?"  Among other things, he questions whether wetsuits have a place in open water swimming.

He doesn't speak for me.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not interested in swimming with a wetsuit.  But this Purity of the Sport business hurts me more than it helps me.  For two reasons.

Separating Wetsuits from Non-Wetsuits Penalizes Average Swimmers

How can this be?  A wetsuit makes you faster, so it would be unfair to group wetsuit and non-wetsuit swimmers together.  Right?  Makes sense, but that's not how it plays out.

For one thing, wetsuits aren't that big of an advantage in terms of speed (gasp!).  They do improve your balance, especially if your balance is poor to begin with.  But a wetsuit doesn't make a slow swimmer fast.  It doesn't even make him/her average. 

If I can just beat you without a wetsuit, you'll probably just beat me if you put one on.  So?  If I want to win, I should swim faster anyway.  As far as I'm concerned, you're helping me by pushing me a little harder.

(I've never seen a study that quantifies how much extra speed you can get from a wetsuit.  I've also never heard from anyone who's done a time trial on themselves.  Wetsuit salesmen claim it's a huge advantage, but I've never seen any data that bears that out.  So far, my best information comes from my own observations.) 

So how does separating Wetsuit and Non-Wetsuit results penalize me?

When Wetsuits and Non-Wetsuits are separated (as they must be in any USMS-sanctioned event), guess which division the weaker swimmers choose?  The Non-Wetsuit division is usually a small field of fast swimmers.  Plus me, bringing up the rear.

In my last USMS-sanctioned open water race, I came in 5/7 in the 1,000-Meter Non-Wetsuit event.  But my time would have landed me 5/12 in the Wetsuit division.  Bottom third vs. top half. 

Maybe I'll outgrow this point of view if when I get faster.  I doubt it, though.  The top Non-Wetsuit finishers in the race I mentioned were minutes faster than the top Wetsuit finishers in most events. 

More importantly:

I'm in it for the Swimming, not the Battle of Man Woman vs. Nature

I have no interest in using equipment that makes me artificially faster. Even though I'm not very fast, I'm proud of myself.  I work really hard, and I'm improving.  I don't want to dilute that accomplishment by taking an "unfair" advantage.

On the other hand, I have no problem cheating Mother Nature.  Neither do mountain climbers, by the way.  When's the last time you saw a guy climbing Mount Everest in a Speedo?

I think protective gear should be allowed in marathon swims, as long as it doesn't make the swim easier or faster.  A few examples of protective gear:

  1. Goggles (allowed in marathon swimming, even though they're "new" technology).
  2. Sunscreen (also allowed, even though it's "new" technology).
  3. Grease to protect against chaffing (allowed).
  4. Full-coverage suits to protect against jellyfish or UV rays (Not allowed.  Men can't even wear square-cut briefs).
  5. Clothing that adds insulation without adding buoyancy.  Multiple swim caps, thermal rash guards, etc (not allowed).

To protect against the cold, marathon swimmers usually pack on a few (30-50) extra pounds.  Hot-dog-eating champions are leaner than marathon swimmers.

So I should deliberately gain weight?  Come on!  I already look like I was raised by wolves.  For one thing, the chlorine has not been kind to my hair.  Also?  My swim cap leaves a tan line on my forehead.  And my goggles leave marks around my eyes.  Those extra pounds would downgrade my look from "natural" or "athletic" to "slob".

Why is extra weight more "honest" than protective gear?  Am I the only girl out there who's more afraid of the weight gain than the cold, the distance, the fatigue, the loneliness, the chop, or swimming in the dark?

A few of my favorite bloggers have already weighed in on the subject: Freshwater Swimmer and Gord's Swim Log. Those guys are great swimmers, and I'm sure you'll find their points of view to be very professional and without a trace of vanity.

I hesitate to ask...What do you think?  Am I more alone in this point of view than a solo swimmer on the open sea?

 

Comments

I remember reading a summary

October 25, 2011 by Bob (not verified), 2 years 43 weeks ago
Comment: 379

I remember reading a summary of a study that compared wetsuit v non-wetsuit swim times. I tried to find it but could not. The conclusion was that wetsuits do provide a significant speed advantage to less skilled swimmers. High level competitive swimmers did not net much of a speed advantage. No specific conclusion was reached in that regard, although it speculated that excellent swimmers already had a superior body position, whil poor swimmers gain a great improvement in body position due to the buoyancy of a wetsuit. However, I can't speak to the validity of the study.

Bob, thanks for the comment. 

October 28, 2011 by Katie, 2 years 43 weeks ago
Comment: 397

Bob, thanks for the comment.  I'm sorry for the slow reply--for some reason it got caught in my spam filter.

If you ever find the study, I'd love to see it.  I've been paying attention to my friends' wetsuit/non-wetsuit times lately, and I'm finding an unbelievably wide range.  I've notice two guys in particular who get a 15-20s boost per 100 yards.  I was amazed at that.  Based on that (very limited) sample set, I'm guessing that tall men with poor balance and a decent catch get the biggest boost.

katie, you seem to be hooked

September 16, 2011 by either or (not verified), 2 years 49 weeks ago
Comment: 294

katie, you seem to be hooked on speed. fair play. not every one is though, and the big deal with wetsuits in channel swimming is the thermal insulation and jellyfish protection.

A can of worms :)

September 15, 2011 by Bubbles, 2 years 49 weeks ago
Comment: 292

Hmmm, I agree with most of what Scott Zornig wrote. However, I believe wet suits do have a place in open water swimming. I just think they don't have a place in sanctioned ow marathon swimming. I think a lot of people are reacting to the "purity" argument. I wouldn't put it that way, sounds smug and snarky to me. I'm not a speedster and don't plan on competing, so any speed advantages a wet suit might offer don't matter to me. Advantages regarding body position and/or reduction of fatigue do, as does warmth (since I swim in water usually in the 50's F). I don't use a wet suit mainly because I don't like the feeling of being encased while swimming. I like to feel the water, even if it's cold. I do tend to lose heat quickly (I don't have a high functioning furnace), so acclimatization is key for me. I just don't think it's a level playing field (as much as it can be, given differences in bodies & water conditions) when wet suits are in the mix. You bring up good points, K. If I were competing, I might feel the same way as you do. Not sure. I don't scoff at people who do their ow swimming in wet suits. Do what you want, and have a good time. They're still swimming in the elements, and who am I to tell them what to do or what's best? But if they do a marathon swim in one, don't expect me to recognize it as I do those swims made w/o the neoprene.

Thanks for the comment,

September 16, 2011 by Katie, 2 years 49 weeks ago
Comment: 293

Thanks for the comment, Bubbles.  I'm with you 100% on not wanting to be "encased" in yucky neoprene.   What do you think about the use of protective gear that doesn't provide extra buoyancy?  Would you be willing to gain weight for a marathon swim?

Tomorrow is the first race of the Fall open water season .  It's cooling off here (lows in the 70s, highs in the 90s), but the lakes are still pretty warm (78-80?).  It will be interesting to see how many people wear wetsuits.  The OWS community here in AZ is made up 90-95% of triathletes, so most of the participants in the OW races are doing it as a training swim.  Because of that, they usually want to wear their wetsuits so they can get used to swimming in them.

Protective gear? Hmm...

September 17, 2011 by Bubbles, 2 years 49 weeks ago
Comment: 295

Good question re protective gear. I do use goggles and a swim cap. I would use sunblock too (mine does not have chemicals & is safe for me & for the water) -- there's not much I can do, as a pale Caucasian, to acclimatize to the sun enough to tolerate hours in the water on a sunny day. I wonder if lanolin protects against the sun? That'd be one stinky way to go "natural", lol. Rash guard? No, I don't think so, not in an "event" swim (and I don't think it should be allowed in a sanctioned marathon swim). If there are jellies or other bothersome creatures, well that's part of the deal. We're in their environment. I have the same opinion about shark cages and shark shields. No, no, no. [You know what? I have a thermal rash guard I used at the beginning of this season when the water was 53-54 degrees. It gave me maybe 2 degrees F, but more importantly it gave me a mental assist. It surprised me to realize that it was a bit more mental than physical (both the "protection" and the dread of the cold). I stopped using it at the end of May mostly because I don't like even a rash guard between me & the water.] I would definitely be willing to gain weight for a marathon swim, if it would help. Before I did that, I'd see if I could improve my own heat production. Maybe a combo would work! BTW, how do I add returns so my comments has paragraphs instead of one big block?

I made you a power user, so

September 17, 2011 by Katie, 2 years 49 weeks ago
Comment: 296

I made you a power user, so now you should have access to a nicer editor, as long as you're logged in.

Otherwise, you have to use HTML tags like "<p>interesting stuff i want to say</p>

<p>even more interesting stuff on another topic </p>"

Could be worse

September 14, 2011 by Gords (not verified), 2 years 49 weeks ago
Comment: 284

I'm just so glad the EC rules don't require swimming breaststroke only, without goggles, and limiting feedings to beef stock and brandy. That would really suck.

Yuck!  Hard to say which

September 15, 2011 by Katie, 2 years 49 weeks ago
Comment: 288

Yuck!  Hard to say which sounds less appetizing: the beef stock or the brandy. 

On the subject of "how much"

September 14, 2011 by Evan (not verified), 2 years 49 weeks ago
Comment: 281

On the subject of "how much" of an advantage wetsuits provide... Actually, they're a pretty big speed advantage. But I guess it depends on what you define as "big." My best estimate, based on my own experience and that of my training partner (who's a professional triathlete) is 10 seconds per 100m. Probably even more for a slower swimmer. So, yeah, turning a 2:15/100m swimmer into a 2:00/100m swimmer - probably not a big difference in terms of placing at a race. But turn 1:20/100m 10K swimmer (e.g., me) into a 1:10/100m 10K swimmer, and all of a sudden I go from being a decent Masters swimmer to, well... world-class. If I wore a wetsuit, I could probably keep up with the guys at FINA races. To me, that constitutes a HUGE difference.

BTW, That's about the same

September 15, 2011 by Katie, 2 years 49 weeks ago
Comment: 289

BTW, That's about the same advantage I get from swimming with a pace buddy.  Yesterday at Masters, I swam the whole practice "by myself", (i.e. no one at my level to pace off of).  My best pace buddy was on rest week, so he didn't do the practice.  But, he did a 100-yard sprint with me.  On that one, I was :07 faster than the one I had just done by myself, with no increase in perceived effort (except for the last 10 yards or so). 

"Racing" in a field that's too small (b/c of the non-wetsuit thing) to have anyone near me just kills me--I really need to *see* the other swimmers in motion to get into my happy, easy, fast pace.  Otherwise, I can't seem to find the difference between wasted effort and speed. 

I'm surprised at the 10s

September 14, 2011 by Katie, 2 years 49 weeks ago
Comment: 283

I'm surprised at the 10s estimate, especially for someone of your skill level.  I've never worn a wetsuit, so I can't say for myself, but my training buddies seem to only gain a second or two.  The ones who are normally 10-15s/100 slower than I am seem to gain more than that (with a wetsuit or a pull buoy), but still not enough to keep up with me.

Does a pull buoy give you the same boost?  In other words, can you estimate a wetsuit advantage using a pull buoy advantage? 

I'd love to hear more details about the comparisons you and your training buddy have run. 

p.s. I'm a decent Masters swimmer.  You're an awesome Masters swimmer.

I'd agree that the wetsuit

September 15, 2011 by Katherine (not verified), 2 years 49 weeks ago
Comment: 290

I'd agree that the wetsuit advantage is mostly mental. In terms of speed, you might take off some time because of the physical comfort and buoyancy the wetsuit offers in open water conditions. Back in the day when I swam competitively, so let's round off and say from around 2000 to 2005 when "fast suits" became the norm, I was told by my coach and others at the University of Arizona that those suits (Fastskin and anything pre-Beijing "cheating" suits) maybe gave a swimmer 0.1 seconds advantage, at best. I can't imagine a wetsuit offering much more.

Hi Katherine! Thanks for the

September 15, 2011 by Katie, 2 years 49 weeks ago
Comment: 291

Hi Katherine! Thanks for the comment. How did you find my blog? I checked out your blog (very nice, btw, can't wait to read more), so I can see you're not in AZ anymore. The mental aspect is so funny, isn't it? I feel so happy and so comfortable in the water, a wetsuit would only mess it up. BUT, I'm pretty lost without a pace buddy. Why is one so easy for me and the other so hard? And why would it be the exact opposite for someone else?

Hi Katie, I think I found

September 19, 2011 by Katherine (not verified), 2 years 49 weeks ago
Comment: 297

Hi Katie, I think I found you on Twitter and was directed through there to your blog. I think! Thanks for the nice comment, and though I have been posting rather infrequently, I hope for that to change. My life has been rough/complicated/blah, and things are finally being smoothed out. You're right, the mental aspect of a wetsuit is pretty incredible, and for that reason alone, I'd recommend them to any swimmer on the fence about wearing one. On the other hand, I respect the way that you approach open water, so I see both sides of the debate. You're also right in that wetsuits mess you up in the water. In my few open water swimming experiences, I've never really felt like myself in a wetsuit. I've always felt restricted and a little too tightly squeezed, but I do like the feeling of the added buoyancy and the protection from the cold.

PS - I gained about 2s/100m

September 14, 2011 by Evan (not verified), 2 years 49 weeks ago
Comment: 286

PS - I gained about 2s/100m with just a tech suit! i.e., no flotation effect, just better hydrodynamics.

10s/100m is probably a

September 14, 2011 by Evan (not verified), 2 years 49 weeks ago
Comment: 285

10s/100m is probably a high-ball estimate... but not by much.

I haven't investigated this scientifically, though I should because it wouldn't be hard to do. 1500m time trial in a pool, one week apart, wetsuit vs. speedo. I'd feel somewhat ridiculous bringing a wetsuit to the pool, though :)

There are some variables that will affect how much a person is helped by a wetsuit.

  • Body type. Less, um, "hydrodynamically shaped" folks will be helped more, because the wetsuit acts like a girdle.
  • Natural body position in the water. Some people have naturally great, high body position in the water. Others (like me) have to work at it. The latter will be helped more by the wetsuit's flotation.
  • Quality of the wetsuit. You get what you pay for. High-end suits are faster.
  • Fit of the wetsuit. Well-fitting wetsuits help more.
  • Saltwater or freshwater? Wetsuits help more in freshwater.
  • Length of the swim. Wetsuits help more in longer swims because it helps you maintain good body position even when you're fatigued.

The typical number mentioned in triathlon circles is 10% (speed advantage). At my speed, that's about 7s/100m.

I'm a swimmer who would tend to be helped more by a wetsuit, compared to others of similar speed - because I don't have great natural body position. Not surprisingly, I've always been a superstar in pulling sets. With pull buoy & paddles, I'm about 6-8s per 100m faster than regular swimming - even more if I'm having a bad workout.

My sense is that a wetsuit helps more than pulling gear, because the flotation is distributed across the whole body, not just the hips.

I was in Santa Barbara for a while recently, before my Catalina swim. During the summer they have a weekly "Nite Moves" race - 1000m ocean swim followed by a 5K run. You can do both or just one. It's a nice setting for an experiment - same course, (mostly) same competitors, (usually) similar conditions. I did two of them - one without a wetsuit, and one with a wetsuit. Almost everyone wears wetsuits in these events. In a speedo, I was ~14:30, 10th out of the water, and 2 minutes behind the winner (who wore a wetsuit). In a wetsuit I was ~13:00, 3rd out of the water, and 20 seconds behind the winner. Same course, same competitors, similar conditions.

Your mileage may vary, of course.

Oh, *please* do the wetsuit

September 15, 2011 by Katie, 2 years 49 weeks ago
Comment: 287

Oh, *please* do the wetsuit trial in the pool!  Triathletes wear their wetsuits in the pool all the time to get used to them.   Plus, people will see you doing it and think, "Hey, maybe if Evan is wearing his wetsuit in the pool, I should too."

Your Santa Barbara test is a :08/100-yard difference--pretty close to your estimate. 

I have really good natural body position in the water.  I suppose that's part of the reason I don't mind competing with people in wetsuits--I feel like it levels the playing field.  BTW, I would think a good body position would be a bigger advantage than it actually is.  I'm in pretty good shape, I'm naturally high in the water, and yet I still manage to swim pretty slowly.

Great post, Katie. I actually

September 14, 2011 by Evan (not verified), 2 years 49 weeks ago
Comment: 280

Great post, Katie. I actually think gaining weight for marathon swims is over-rated - to a degree. Another (seemingly less popular) method for combating the cold is improving fitness so you're able to maintain a high level of exertion (read: stroke rate) for longer. This has the added benefit of making you swim faster - i.e., spend less time in the cold water. Paul Asmuth was perhaps the best marathon swimmer of the '80s, and he was great in cold water. He was also rail-thin. He kept himself warm with an "internal furnace," not external insulation. I take a middle-ground approach. I'm 5-7 & 155, with about 15% bodyfat. Not rail-thin, but definitely slimmer than most marathon swimmers. This provides some insulation, which helps in case I bonk. But I also do a lot of long threshold sets, which helps me maintain my "furnace."

Yay!  I like that idea much

September 14, 2011 by Katie, 2 years 49 weeks ago
Comment: 282

Yay!  I like that idea much better.  Thanks for the comment.

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