Inside the Mind of a Champion: Petar Stoychev on Competitive and Marathon Swimming

Inside the Mind of a Champion: Petar Stoychev on Competitive and Marathon Swimming

“The victory keeps me warm.” – Petar Stoychev

In this special interview, Petar Stoychev shares some great advice with us about competitive and marathon swimming. Stoychev has an incredible swimming career. He accomplished 60 international marathon victories and 11 consecutive World Cup titles. He has competed in four Olympics. In 2007, he became the first to swim the English Channel in under seven hours, with a time of 6:57.5. He was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame in 2008. Then, the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2019. Finally, he received the Poseidon Award in 2020. He’s the first Bulgarian on the Technical Committee for Swimming at the 2024 Paris Olympics this year.

He recently shattered the fastest cumulative time for the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming. He did this with his 8 hour, 42 minute, 33 second swim across the 32.3 km Catalina Channel on June 10, 2024. The previous cumulative time record was held by Marcia Cleveland (USA) at 24 hours, 38 minutes, and 3 seconds. Stoychev beat the record by 2 hours and 29 minutes with a cumulative time of 22 hours, 8 minutes, and 46 seconds.

Stoychev though, is not stopping at the Triple Crown, he is also pursuing the Oceans Seven challenge as well.

So far he has completed 5 channels:

  • English Channel: 33.5 km from England to France in 6 hours 57 minutes (2007).
  • Cook Strait: 23 km from South Island to North Island in New Zealand in 6 hours 51 minutes (March 14, 2024).
  • Strait of Gibraltar: 14.4 km from Spain to Morocco in 3 hours 46 minutes (April 15, 2024).
  • Molokai Channel: 45 km from Molokai Island to Oahu in Hawaii in 18 hours 53 minutes (May 14, 2024).
  • Catalina Channel: 32.3 km from Santa Catalina Island to Palos Verdes Peninsula in Southern California in 8 hours 42 minutes (June 10, 2024).

We sat down with Petar to talk about his journey. He shares his experience and wonderful insights into his mindset, training routines and into the world of open water swimming.

How does completing the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming feel compared to your earlier wins in competitive swimming?

Petar Stoychev: Well, a long time ago, I wanted to complete the Triple Crown. My first swim of those three was in 2006, and then in 2007, I broke the English Channel world record. Three years later, I swam with the American guy Mark Warkentin around Manhattan. We tried to break the record there, but unfortunately, we were late with our start and missed the proper current for the record. I swam for almost six and a half hours, which is nothing special for the Manhattan swim. But with less than seven hours in the English Channel, that gave me hope that I could achieve the Triple Crown record after the Catalina swim.

Of course, three weeks ago, when I successfully crossed the Catalina Channel, I had quite good conditions to swim under nine hours. My time was 8 hours and 43 minutes, which is a really good swim. That gave me the chance to break the world record by almost two and a half hours, which is, in my understanding, a remarkable cumulative time for all three swims. So it feels really amazing to achieve this goal.

So you add a competitive element by focusing on your time. You’re not just completing the Triple Crown, but also aiming for good times.

Petar Stoychev: Yeah, definitely. Of course, I wanted to do that. I want to have a good cumulative time in the Oceans Seven from those seven swims. Unfortunately, my Hawaii swim was really, really slow due to facing a current in the second part of the crossing. But anyway, I still have two more swims to go, and I believe I can still have a good time regardless of this Hawaiian race. Also, my goal is to have all these seven swims completed in less than six months. So I’m waiting now, and really hoping to have a specific day to swim the Tsugaru Channel in Japan, probably right after the Olympic Games.

How has your training and mental preparation changed from competitive marathons to channel swims?

Petar Stoychev: Well, the difference is obvious. In competitive swims, you always have someone next to you, and you have to race and win at the end. Sometimes during the swim, you accelerate or slow down just to get a better position. But in channel swims, my understanding is you always need to keep some energy for the end of the swim because you never know what kind of current you will face in the second part or the last quarter of the swim. Being in a horizontal position for 10 hours and then needing to get vertical and exit the water to dry land requires a lot of effort for most swimmers. That’s why there’s a difference between competitive swims and channel swims. In competitive swims, you start and finish in the water. In channel swims, you are often out of the water, running, going in, and continuing to swim until you completely exit the ocean. For example, in Hawaii, it’s very difficult to exit if the waves are big at the end, so you need more power to face these difficulties. So, to answer the question, I’m always swimming with a kind of reserve, saving some energy for the end of the channel swims. That’s the huge difference between competitive swims and single channel crossings.

Can you tell us more about your mental training and mindset?

Petar Stoychev: Well, this is all experience by myself. This actually started when I was small, during our training sessions in the team. We would race each other in every training session, seeing who would finish first in each exercise. Year by year, this developed a competitive way of thinking. With experience from many swims of similar distances, I learned how to visualize the swim in my mind just before doing it. I know how it is going to look from the inside. With the experience I have, I know what to expect at specific moments during the swim. Of course, sometimes I am surprised by something, but generally, nothing surprises me that much because I mostly expect what will happen. That’s why I have a clear feeding schedule, and I know each feed because some have different tastes for a reason. I know how much I need to swim, how much I have completed, and how much more I probably have to swim. This is very important for me to stay focused on the swim and to know where I am, how much I have swum, and how much I need to complete to reach the finish. The main thing here is the visualization, built from experience through all those years.

How do you adjust your nutrition for different swims?

Petar Stoychev: In marathon swims, depending on the water temperature, I change my feeding schedule. But in general, I always drink room temperature drinks. I don’t like cold drinks during warm water swims or hot drinks during cold water swims. In my career, I have always used room temperature drinks, and I think this is the secret to some difficult swims. My understanding is if you drink ice-cold water in hot swims, the big difference in temperature probably doesn’t affect the body well. That’s why my nutrition schedule is usually every half an hour, every 20 minutes, or every 15 minutes. In the past, I would drink every 12 minutes. It all depends on the water temperature, the air temperature, and the speed of the swim.

Swimming in strong currents is challenging. What techniques do you use to swim effectively in currents?

Petar Stoychev: Well, in the competitive years, I swam many times against river currents in Argentina, in the very famous Argentinian races. The technique for swimming against the current is very important. You must not stop, even for half a second, because you go backwards very quickly. But you need to use your normal technique. You don’t have to change the way you swim. Swimming against the current drains your power very quickly, so you have to be really focused to get through that part. Afterward, you need to be fresh for the dead water or when you’re swimming with the current. Don’t change your technique for any reason. This is my understanding. Keep going, but don’t accelerate against the current. Don’t try to push more than normal. Just keep the pace, because swimming against the current is really difficult sometimes and could be longer than you expect.

During competitive races, turning buoys can be tough. What strategies do you use for smooth and efficient turns, especially in crowded conditions?

Petar Stoychev: Well, you need to know where the turning buoy is so you’re not surprised when you approach it and find yourself too close. You need to raise your head well before and know where the turning buoy is, trying to find the position in the pack where you can turn without interfering with other athletes. Some swimmers prefer to be on the inside of the pack, near the turning buoy, while others prefer to watch other swimmers on the side where they breathe. The most important thing is not to lose many positions during the turn because we have seen swimmers lose many positions during the turn, making it almost impossible to regain their position. So it’s very important to practice and know what to do before, during, and after the turn. This all comes from experience and practice during training sessions.

What do you do if you experience hypothermia during a swim?

Petar Stoychev: Well, until now in my career, I have never had these difficulties. I’m probably expecting it to be very cold in two weeks’ time in the North Channel. Until now, I have never really had this problem. Of course, I felt cold during some swims, but I never had the issue of being in hypothermia, unable to control my body and strokes.

The longest ice swim I have done is one kilometer, and it takes about 14 minutes. The longest one was in the North Pole, with minus 1.5 degrees water, because it’s salt water and goes below 0 in Celsius. So I swam 14 minutes in Svalbard in the North Pole.

I get cold, but after 10-15 minutes in the sauna, I recover. I was able to dress myself alone and be fine in the next half an hour after the swim.

Don’t get me wrong, but in Canadian races, like at lac St-Jean, it’s cold, but you know after winning it 11 years in a row… probably, that’s what keeps me warm. The victory keeps me warm.

Do you do any specific training exercises to prepare for open water challenges?

Petar Stoychev: Before the Olympic games, I did a lot of dry land training and exercises, but now, in this Oceans Seven challenge, I mainly spend time in the water in the swimming pool. I don’t have possibilities here in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, to swim in open water. The experience I have from the past keeps me focused on my knowledge and experience. So now, my preparation is only in the swimming pool, specifically in the long course, 50-meter swimming pool. This is all I do now.

I try to swim depending on the periods. When I started before New Zealand this year, I swam six days per week. Sunday is off. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I do two training sessions totaling 11-12 kilometers per day. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, I do only one training session of about 8 kilometers.

To be clear, if I want to keep 4 kilometers an hour or 4.2 kilometers an hour, which is 1:25 up to 1:30 per 100 meters, I try to maintain that speed during training. Sometimes it’s 1:12, 1:13, or 1:16, just because the volume of kilometers during the training is not that high. I try to keep a higher speed. For the long swims, you can have a longer distance swim with a slower speed. This is the way I’m practicing.

You have been both an elite athlete and a politician. How do you see the connection between sports and influencing society?

Petar Stoychev: Well, successful athletes all around the world need to be examples for society and for the young generation that comes after us. It’s very important to show the community that we can be good examples for people to follow. Of course, you know, when some athletes are well-recognized in the country or around the world, they can always promote the sport they are doing in a positive way. They can promote a healthy way of life to society and to young families with newborn kids. Let’s say, swimming is one of the first sports they need to teach their kids. Swimming can be a sport from one year old to 101 years old. And that’s the way I think successful swimmers, especially open water swimmers, need to be examples for our community and the society of the country where we live.

What motivated you to take on the Oceans Seven challenge?

Petar Stoychev: Well, a long time ago, I wanted to do these Oceans Seven swims. But I didn’t have enough time, money, or enough people to support me to do all these trips, all these swims. I always knew that the time would come one day. I believe that we achieve our targets not when we want to, but when the correct time comes.

As you see, we spoke in the beginning that I wanted to complete Oceans Seven in less than six months. But sometimes, you see, not everything is in my control. I wanted to do this. I was so strong mentally to keep going for 19 hours to swim in Hawaii. If I didn’t want to have six months for Oceans Seven, I would have easily stopped in Hawaii and gone for the second time. You probably understand that it’s too much for a 45-kilometer swim to be 19 hours in the water. But the world record there is around 12 hours and something. So I was planning on 13-14 hours to be in the water. But just because I wanted to do it in a six-month period, all these swims made me focus and push on, keeping on going just to achieve this target.

And if I complete Oceans Seven, it will not deliver anything tangible to me. It will be just satisfaction and happiness for my next target. Oceans Seven is my target now. Of course, this is going to be achieved, and I will be satisfied and happy with that.

From all of your swimming experiences, what have you learned about the potential of a human being and endurance?

Petar Stoychev: Everything I have achieved and everything I have in my life—the family, everything—is because of swimming. Swimming gave me everything I have. It changed my life from being just a normal kid in school, in a small town in the mountains of Bulgaria, to the person I am today. Swimming gave me the chance to be at the Olympic Games four times as an athlete, and for the next Olympic Games to be a technical committee member. Swimming has given me everything once again. All my life is swimming. Even now, I’m working as a swimming pool manager, responsible for the biggest swimming complex in Sofia. And of course, I’m the president of the swimming club. So, everything I’m doing is related to swimming.

Is there anything you’d like to tell the open water swimming community?

Petar Stoychev: I would like to tell the open water community that if they want to be good in open water swimming, they need to spend more time training instead of looking for new technology, new swimsuits, or new swim goggles. They need to spend more time practicing swimming. And, of course, the technique of swimming is very important. For long swims, it’s important to have an efficient technique with less wasted energy. In my understanding, this is the most important thing during long swims. And, of course, to handle the difficulties: cold, waves, and darkness.

WOWSA