How do swimmers train and prepare for 8 Bridges?

By Liz Morrish

The 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim is certainly an event for the experienced marathon swimmer. I was curious about what level of preparation and training the participants were undertaking. I received some very detailed training diaries which gave me a picture of just what it takes to approach a very testing swim series like this. Remember, some swimmers are entering all stages of the swim, others are swimming one, two or three stages.

The average training distance seems to be 30,000-40,000 meters per week. A lead-in of 12-15 weeks seemed usual, with distance gradually increasing from 3-6k per day. On the longer side was 50,000 meters per week for 12 weeks, including an 8 or 9 miler on the weekends. Another swimmer is reaching 45,000 meters per week and will build up to 60,000. A week of 100km in end of April will be part of this individual’s preparation. In the pool, there will be interval training as well as long training swims of up to 5 hours before the event. The experienced swimmer will also focus on technique and efficiency as well as speed and endurance.

While working out 3-4 times a week in a pool, some prefer to swim alone, others enjoy the company and support of doing masters workouts. Surprisingly few swimmers mention coaching as part of their preparation. This was typical “I swim 2 days a week on a Masters team and 2 days a week on my own to train for this event.”

Actual open water preparation has largely been dependent on geographical location. Not everyone is as fortunate as this person, “I swim around 5K every morning with the Bearcat Masters of New York, and I take part in a 10K race every month in the Caribbean.” One swimmer in Massachusetts was itching to get back into open water, but in April it was still in the 40s F (4.5-9.5C). Others alluded to more improvised solutions such as cold showers and baths to aid acclimatisation.

As well as spending long hours in the water, most swimmers will turn to other forms of exercise – cross training is a common feature of preparation. Alongside 3-4 days per week swimming, we see incorporation of roller skiing, running, cycling/spinning, yoga and of course weights into training regimes. Some will have injuries to rehabilitate: “cross training: running, biking, weight training for shoulders to increase stability and avoid injury.” Only one respondent mentioned taking regular advice from a nutritionist.

In terms of previous marathon swims, the SCAR events in Arizona have been a popular foundation for 8 Bridges. These are a series of four, consecutive-day, ‘visually spectacular’ lake swims of between 9-17 miles. However, many of the participants are also veterans of the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, Key West and several other classic long-distance swims.

Due to the tidal nature of the Hudson, each of the 8 Bridges stages demands an early splash time. The early starts will not hinder this enthusiast: “Swim many hours on the weekends. Get up at 4am to swim 2 hours before work 2 days/week, swim less on some other days”.

Although it is more of an individual challenge than a competition, this swimmer has thrown down the gauntlet and has huge expectations of themselves and the experience: “Well, first of all, I’ve been studying the competition. I think knowing the rules and the place can really help me to prepare physically myself. And then I’m picturing the whole thing so I can prepare myself mentally. Testing my limits and knowing my boundaries through the process can make me not only a better swimmer but a better person in this challenge and every other one”. Another view sees this, not as a new and exceptional departure, but almost as a lifetime’s project “I believe your preparation/training starts with your 1st swim lesson when you were a toddler and, in the course of the 7 days, you will call upon each and every day of those many years of training to successfully complete all 7 stages”. Both of these visions are equally valid, and the swimmers will all encounter new and unpredictable challenges and draw on old, practised resources. The week will provide some compelling stories which I, and the swimmers, will be documenting on this blog.