How "hard" do you swim long OW distances?

JSwimJSwim western Maryland, USMember

Here’s my attempt at making a clear Swimming Intensity scale loosely based on an article about running Perceived Exertion.

Level 1: floating with some sculling (all I can manage for the 1st 12+ yards after a killer set)

Level 2: swimming very easily, possibly spilling water (the 2nd 12+ yards after that killer set)

Level 3: good stroke, but not pushing it (easy warm up)

Level 4: good, strong stroke, increased stroke rate (late in warm up, or earlier if I just feel good)

Level 5: moderate pace, using more oxygen (solid effort, but still comfortable)

Level 6: want to breath every 2 strokes even if I don’t (might keep up this pace for a long time if I find a good rhythm and stay focused)

Level 7: must breath more, pushing hard (a fast pace for long distance, can maintain for 20-30 minutes, maybe a lot longer if great fitness and mental strength)

Level 8: just off a really hard pace (starts to hurt by 25-50 yards, can maintain for 2-3 minutes)

Level 9: hard pace, can maintain for 60 +/-seconds

Level 10: fastest possible, killer pace, can maintain for 20 +/- seconds

What pace do you generally do for a 10k? 10 miler? 8+ hour swim?

In August I got my first 10K finish at Swim to the Moon in Michigan (out and back lake course). My intensity stayed around a 6+ the first 5K. The water was cool and calm, there was a good crowd, I could draft some, and I felt great. Then about ½ way reality set in. Both my shoulders started to hurt and though I never bonked, my energy level was decidedly lower physically and mentally. The second 5K I was a level 5 most of the time. My time for the 1st 5K was 1:25:26, 2nd 5K 1:31:54 for a total 10K time of 2:57:30. (I was very happy with my time.) So I wasn’t insanely slower for the 2nd half even though I didn't push as hard and I didn’t draft at all.

Was it dumb to start out at a 6+ intensity? I wonder if I kept it at 5-5+, if my shoulders would hold out better. The two 10K practice swims I did this summer, at a 4-5, didn’t cause my shoulders to hurt at all. Even at 10K.

In the pool if I swim a 1650 yards at about a 5 intensity my time is 26:30 or so. If I find the fortitude to keep it at a 6 to 6+ I can get it down by about a minute to 25:30. Very different experience though, for not lots faster. I’m thinking that for long swims an intensity of 5 or 5+ except maybe for short periods is the better way to go.

What do you more experienced OW swimmers say?

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. --Neale Donald Walsch


  • Based on my times, not hard enough.


    Looking for the next big thing.. ... @suzieswimcoach

  • timsroottimsroot Spring, TXCharter Member

    I was at swim to the moon, also. On the way out, I probably went out around what you would describe as level 4, and ramped from 5 to 6 on the way back home. I stopped at the turn around, drank a 24 oz feed, and switched from clear to tinted goggles. I stopped every mile to down a gu, other than at the 5 mile post. Results show me as out in 1:30:25, and back in 1:27:58.

    On the way out, I made sure to control my pace and keep a tight leash on myself, as it was my first long swim in over a year. On the way back out, I let myself go harder. I probably had a little more in the tank, but not much.

    Since I'm more worried about completing than racing, I don't warm up for long swims like that. When the disc in my neck recedes back to where it's supposed to be, I'd probably start warming up for 5ks, possibly a 10k. The longer the swim, the more I remind myself to slow down earlier in the swim. I generally feel like garbage the first hour of any swim, whether it be training or racing, so I have to remind myself of that to avoid mentally falling into a ditch. Only when I feel comfortable that I won't fall apart will I let myself swim with more effort.

    The upside of this is that it's safer, and I usually have a better shot at finishing. The downside, if you are worried about places, is that I probably finish lower down the results sheet than one might argue I could. If I can keep my head straight, my tactics generally allow me to do better in harder swims, especially if currents are tricky and navigation is harder.

    For swim to the moon, I think I showed too much respect for the swim. I had only been back in the water maybe 5 months after taking a long break. I think I was in a bit better shape than I thought, although I had done next to no speed work. Perhaps I could have finished faster, I don't know. My stroke didn't really fall apart, even though that was probably as much effort as I've put into the back half of a 10k. For a swim that short, I still think I'd try to control the front half, use a very similar nutrition strategy, but allow myself a bit more leash. The last mile, I'd go a bit harder than I did, although that is something I need to work on a lot more in the pool.

  • wendyv34wendyv34 Vashon, WASenior Member

    I've done two 10K races (both 4x2500 courses) and tons of 5Ks (22 years OWS). My advice: start your 10K at L5 and raise your intensity toward the end (~last 2500). You can always go faster if you get halfway and feel like you're not pushing hard enough. Once you've blown up, it's hard to feel good again. That being said, an open water race is interactive, so if you have the opportunity to draft or to put your competition away for good, you may want to adjust your effort/plan accordingly. I swam virtually the same time on a point to point 5.1K course, 2013 suffering at L6-7 on my own vs. 2015 drafting two guys at L4.

    Last year (mid-July) I swam my first 10K in 2:47, (Applegate Lk., OR). My goal was 2:45 and I went into it feeling pretty decent. Glassy water, 80 degrees. I swam the first 1K (warm-up) with Todd, a guy I've swam with many times. I let him go at 1K because he sped up and I wasn't sure I was ready to go that fast, although we normally finish 1-3 mile races within 20 seconds of each other. I split drafting/pulling with another guy on lap 2. My 5K split was 1:21. He skipped the feed stop, so I swam lap 3 alone and it was suddenly really painful, I even swam some backstroke to give my shoulders a break. I rallied on lap 4, catching the lap 2 guy (who didn't feed once) at 600m, then outsprinting a woman (who had gone out way too hard) in the last 150m. I felt completely destroyed for a few days but I was fairly satisfied with my effort, although in hindsight, I should've warmed up better and tried to stick with Todd longer than I did.

    This year (mid-August) I swam a 10K in 2:56, (Lk. Padden, WA) my goals were to not get lapped by Steve (a super-fast college guy) and to get in a long swim. I went into it exhausted and sore from 2 months of racing every weekend. Light but annoying wind ripples, water 68 degrees. Most of the swimmers were teenagers, so they took off in a swarm, while I moseyed along. I caught one girl at the end of lap 2. At the end of lap 3, I turned around to see Steve about 25 yards behind me. Victory! I picked it up on lap 4, (partially because Scott Lautman was waving and cheering me on from the safety boat) and managed to finish ahead of a couple of the teens. While tired, I didn't feel too bad afterwards, although I was glad I had someone to drive me home.

    I think it's hard to compare times on different courses, even year to year on the same course, due to conditions and how you interact with other swimmers. The point during your season that you swam it has something to do with the result as well.

    For me, motivation plays a huge part in how fast I can swim. If I find myself dropped with nobody to chase or ahead with a huge lead, I tend to slow down to a tolerable pace for the distance. Most of the races I won this year were by a comfortable margin and I didn't give it nearly as much effort as in races where I had to fight every yard for 2nd... or 12th. In most cases, I enjoy those tough swims, trying to win a sprint from my group or beat a friend, more than the effortless cruises...although there is something to be said for enjoying the scenery vs. finishing with tons of snot pouring out of your nose. Another incentive for me is to try to beat anyone wearing a wetsuit, go figure. My 5Ks this year ranged from a (glassy) 1:17:38 (8th F) to a (bumpy) 1:26:? (1st overall).

    Next year, 10K nationals are rumored to be at Applegate Lake. I'm aging up in April (The big 5-0!), so motivation will be high. I feel like I'm capable of a 2:40 10K if everything is perfect, but I'll be pretty happy with myself if I can break 2:45. More than that, I want to enjoy my friendly rivalries, make good decisions and hopefully win a sprint finish against someone.

    My best advice is to get into your groove, make good strategic decisions and save some kick for when you need it, (corners, crossing gaps & finishing). Don't blow up and crawl in on fumes. Finish like a (snot-soaked) super hero.

    It's always a bad hair day when you work at a pool.

  • JSwimJSwim western Maryland, USMember

    @susiedods I'll take your word for it, but from here, it looks like whatever you're doing, it works pretty darn well!

    @timsroot Great negative split on the Moon 10K! So not what I did... I’m not much concerned with where I place. Though I’m not opposed to placing well.

    @wendyv34 Yep, next time, I'll start at a Level 5. Hindsight, and knowledgeable advice, are golden. Gotta love "Finish like a (snot-soaked) super hero."!

    Thanks, guys!

    Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. --Neale Donald Walsch

  • Kevin_in_MDKevin_in_MD Senior Member

    I don't know why one wouldn't simply use the 6-20 or 1-10 Borg scales since they are already around and there is a good bit written on how to use them already, I think the article only serves to confuse things. She also didn't research too closely, the original Borg Scale goes from 6-20 and the revised one goes from 1-10. Neither goes from 1-20 as she indicates in her article.

    At any rate, at 10k my exertion starts at about an 11,
    and if things are close at the end goes up to 17 or more.

    For 10 miles or more I am definitely starting at the "light" exertion for the first two or three miles.

  • JSwimJSwim western Maryland, USMember

    @Kevin_in_MD I felt the exertion level descriptions “light”, “very light”, … “somewhat hard”..., of the Borg Scale were vague and potentially ambiguous for what I wanted. It wasn’t difficult or particularly time consuming to produce the scale I did. And the process of creating the descriptions (and my initial post too) was in itself educational for me.

    If some find it redundant, so be it. I hope they feel free, as you did, to use another exertion scale.


    Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. --Neale Donald Walsch

  • IronMikeIronMike BostonCharter Member

    For my 2012 Swim the Suck, I went about 5 the whole way until my kayaker told me he saw the finish buoy then I picked it up to 6-7 for the last 45 minutes or so, at least it felt that way and my kayaker did tell me later that he had to quicken his paddle stroking to keep up with me. Still, I had something left in the tank at the end, so perhaps I should have hit 6 earlier.

    My first (and only successful) 10K so far, I was saving myself because I had no idea what it would take to finish (maybe a 4-5), and by the time I got to the end and put the pedal to the metal (7), I was done. I had tons left in the tank.

    For my latest 5K (still my fav race distance), I felt so damn good the whole time. Probably a 6 the entire first 4K due to my drafting off a couple folks. While I couldn't pass them (due to their speed, not that I was blocked or anything...I certainly tried to pass them a couple times), I felt like I could go that speed for hours. During the last K, I picked up the pace and passed one of them, and started to die at the very end. That's the first time I ever thought I paced myself perfectly in a race.

    Just here troubling deaf heaven with my bootless cries...

  • JSwimJSwim western Maryland, USMember

    @IronMike Thanks for sharing your experiences. Makes sense.

    My take away is that for swims over 2 or 3 hours, don’t spend much, or perhaps any, time over level 5 until you’re a good way done. Though I expect someone with experience and great fitness could push harder than that without ill effects. But that’s not me.

    In your Lake Issyk Kul swim did you try to maintain a moderate pace, or did you have to ramp it up to stay warm and make progress in the waves?

    Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. --Neale Donald Walsch

  • malinakamalinaka Seattle, WACharter Member

    You all can vary your speed?? I mean, changing effort level is easy, but speed? Impressed.


    I don't wear a wetsuit; it gives the ocean a sporting chance.

  • Leave it to the scientist....


    Looking for the next big thing.. ... @suzieswimcoach

  • IronMikeIronMike BostonCharter Member

    @JSwim, for my Issyk Kul swim I only had a level 5 or so the first hour maybe, then all went downhill pretty quickly.


    Just here troubling deaf heaven with my bootless cries...

  • ssthomasssthomas DenverCharter Member
    edited October 2015

    @malinaka: I had the same thought yesterday. I was pondering this post while I was swimming (in a pool). I can "sprint" and be tired after 20-30 seconds. However, the end result is barely different than a moderate pace I can hold all day. Not sure why I should bother with that "sprinting" stuff.

    I think I have 5 gears (not necessarily speeds, to Andrew's point):

    Level 1- Floating. This is the effort/speed of feed stops and whining as I get into cold water. This is also what happens when I attempt a kick set.

    Level 2- 50 mile pace. This is the effort at which you can, literally, swim for 2 days straight. This level can also be used perhaps as a cool down after a long/hard set. In real life, my husband calls this "fist punching the water"- your arms are moving, but you're not really going anywhere.

    Level 3- Channel pace. This is the effort used to swim for about 12-18 hours without issue. Also, warm up pace in a pool workout.

    Level 4- 10k pace. Heart rate is up, just on the verge of sprinting.

    Level 5- Sprinting. For all distances below a 10k. The difference between a 4 and a 5 is the presence of a kick.

    *Levels 3-5 can all be a similar speed, depending on the day. Effort is what marks the difference for me.

    I workout/train at a level 4 and 5 most of the time. If you're only in for a couple of hours, might as well make it worth it. Back in my early days, I attempted a couple of channel swims at a level 4. I paid dearly. Swimming at a Level 3 is much, much more enjoyable.

    Anyways, there's my two cents...apparently, pool swimming is boring and gives me too much time to think.

  • JSwimJSwim western Maryland, USMember


    Level 4- 10k pace. Heart rate is up, just on the verge of sprinting.

    Level 5- Sprinting. For all distances below a 10k. The difference between a 4 and a 5 is the presence of a kick.

    No pace between 10K and Sprinting? :) ... That's hard core marathon & ultra marathon mentality. ^:)^


    Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. --Neale Donald Walsch

  • j9swimj9swim CharlestonSenior Member

    80% - go smooth and strong and when you see the bridge you can either sprint or slow down to enjoy the moment.

  • ssthomasssthomas DenverCharter Member

    @jswim: Not mentality, just ability. I have 0 ability to sprint. Even if I try, the speed is no different. For example, when I was in high school and college, my best time in a 100 was the first half of a 200. My best time in a 200, yup- came in the first 200 of a 500. I'd take my 1000 and mile out only a few seconds slower than my fastest 500 time. We should have known then that a mile was simply not long enough...

  • JSwimJSwim western Maryland, USMember

    @ssthomas I'm bad at sprinting, but not as extreme as you. I can manage a little faster pace for shorter distances than longer, with a really big increase in energy expended per stroke. As a competitive swimmer in the 1970's (not college though), I never knew anyone else as extreme as me in that regard. Nice to "meet" you!

    I've wondered if maybe there's just something I don't understand about what I should do to swim faster for short distances. I don't think so, but maybe... Not that I'd give up OW marathon swimming, even if I learned some sprinting technique. It would just be cool to be able to blow away a sprint.

    Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. --Neale Donald Walsch

  • ssthomasssthomas DenverCharter Member

    I spent many years wishing to be a sprinter. Just embrace your ability to swim forever and ever. It's easier than trying to learn to swim fast! :-)

  • @ssthomas said:
    I spent many years wishing to be a sprinter. Just embrace your ability to swim forever and ever. It's easier than trying to learn to swim fast! :-)

    Reviving this a bit.....
    At our US Master's Meet last weekend, I was told by several sprinters that while they NEVER wished to be a miler, they certainly did respect us. They said, "I don't want to work that hard for that race is finished in :30-2:00 -- depending on event -- yours goes on.....................and on..................... and on!"

    My reply, "yeah, but I don't have to count my laps! Someone else does that for me!" :)

  • miklcctmiklcct Kowloon, Hong KongMember
    edited February 2019

    I currently have the following effort levels, in pool distance:

    • all-out sprinting for 25 m and 50 m
    • medium-hard effort for 200 m to 400 m
    • the comfortable not-so-slow pace for 750 m to 1.5 km
    • anything more than 1.5 km is forever easy pace for me

    For OW, the distance may be doubled because of the lack of walls, i.e. for a 1.5 km OW race, I normally use the effort level of 750 m in the pool.

  • curlycurly Issaquah, WAMember

    @miklcct because I know you are trying to learn how to increase your speed for marathon distances...

    One thing you might try doing is a set where you pick a distance to swim, then do it as a broken set, then do it as the full distance. Repeat for a number of times. Example:

    Swim 500
    Swim 5x100
    Swim 500... and so on. Three reps of this and you've knocked off 3000 just like that.

    What you will find is that you swim the first 500 at your comfortable not so slow pace and it's all good. Then you swim your 5x100 at a quicker pace because it's short and you are feeling pretty frisky now. Then you do your next 500 and lo and behold, you will discover that you swam it a little faster than your first 500.

    It's a great way to learn how to increase your speed, plus it works on your conditioning. You can do this with all sorts of distances and intervals. If the 500 looks too formidable do it with 200/4x50. If you want to really have a fun workout do it with 800/4x200/4x50. All kinds of fun.

    I gave this workout idea to a triathlon friend and he loves it. I think the key to making this successful is to make sure you do the longer distance after the short stuff rather than the typical descending set. Hope this helps.

  • ssthomasssthomas DenverCharter Member

    One of my friends was a collegiate swimmer, turned triathlete, turned long distance swimmer (who still does some tris on the side- weird). He's a big proponent of doing short and fast stuff to help increase your speed and endurance for long swims. I admit in the last few years to losing some speed in favor of training really, really long without too much focus on speed work. But, as I've been rebuilding this winter/fall, my friend has been writing workouts to help get me going again. I'm actually seeing some really positive results from forcing myself into some shorter/faster sets. Here is one set he wrote that I really like. I do admit it works better when you have a group, to help push you.

    We do it 3 times through, but you could easily do it more or less if you wanted:

    4 x 100 @ 1:30
    3 x 100 @ 1:25
    2 x 100 @ 1:20
    1 x 100 @ 1:15
    -go right back into the 4 x 100 without any rest

    The point is to descend these so you can just barely make, or even miss, the 1 x 100. I just added intervals in there so you can see the descending pattern, so when you're doing this set, start with the fast interval you can barely make and go up from there. It forces you to swim hard/fast at the end and gives you some active recovery when you start the 4 x 100 again. I did this set and repeated it again 2 weeks later- I was able to decrease the interval by 5 seconds.

    I think there has to be a balance between long/hard training sets and focused, high intensity sets. You need endurance, but there may come a time in a swim when you need a burst of speed, too.

  • Sara_WolfSara_Wolf Member
    edited February 2019

    ssthomas said: We do it 3 times through, but you could easily do it more or less if you wanted:

    4 x 100 @ 1:30
    3 x 100 @ 1:25
    2 x 100 @ 1:20
    1 x 100 @ 1:15
    -go right back into the 4 x 100 without any rest

    I got a set similar to this from my coach.....
    Only, he forgot to adjust the intervals to MINE from the ones he uses for another one of his athletes.

    I emailed him............. "Is this supposed to be one of those workouts where you are thinking I likely will not make it, just to see how deep I can go inside?"

    him: "oops."


    The right ones were a solid 15 seconds slower for me. Whew!
    (And still darn hard work!)

  • FlowSwimmersFlowSwimmers Polson, MontanaMem​ber

    @ssthomas said:

    4 x 100 @ 1:30
    3 x 100 @ 1:25
    2 x 100 @ 1:20
    1 x 100 @ 1:15
    -go right back into the 4 x 100 without any rest

    @ssthomas Do you try to go faster as the interval decreases, or would you, for example, try to hold 1:12s throughout, with less rest as you go?


  • ssthomasssthomas DenverCharter Member

    Faster as I go. You need the 4 x 100 active recovery if you do the interval right at the end.

  • curlycurly Issaquah, WAMember

    Thanks for reminding me of this type of set. It's a good one and it is a stealthy motivator type set which I really like. I have a bunch of tricky little workouts like this that slowly sneak up and get me to work.

    Another variation is to do a set of 100s on a basic interval of your choice. The first 100 is 5 secs faster than the interval. This should be slow as heck and make you almost crazy. Then each 100 is exactly 5 secs faster than the last one. Send off is the same, but speed gets faster and faster. But the challenge here is to hit the time exactly. This is a great exercise in pacing and knowing exactly how fast you are swimming. You keep dropping 5 secs until you blow up and can't go any faster. Then, because it was so fun, you do the whole thing again. I usually pick an interval that will get me 8x100 with the last one being impossible.

    Also, I'd just like to say that it's nice to see @ssthomas posting again. I'm glad to see that you are getting back into the swim of things.

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