Sharpening Your Mind For The Olympic 10K Marathon Swim - And Other Competitive Races

Sharpening Your Mind For The Olympic 10K Marathon Swim – And Other Competitive Races

Completing in the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim at the Tokyo Olympics is similar to running a marathon while playing a game of chess. It is an incredible physical feat to swim fast for 10 km in a fast-moving pack in a rectangular course, but it also requires constant strategic and tactical thinking as there are changes around every turn buoy and feeding station. The Olympic marathon swimmers train themselves to anticipate and counteract every tactical move by other swimmers.

It is not just one swimmer who they have to consider, like the swimmer in lane 4 in the 1500m pool event,” says Steven Munatones. “The Olympic marathon swim is similar to having all 8 swimmers race in the 1500m finals of the in the same lane 4. There is physicality. There are yellow cards and red cards given. Each warning, each infraction must be considered and calculated into your equation. At each turn buoy, there is a shifting of positions and maybe even a foot in your chest or an elbow to your chin. At each feeding station, there is another change in the relative positions of the swimmers in the pack. And then what happens when the swimmers find themselves boxed in the middle of a pack, like Jordan Wilimovsky found himself at the end of the race in Rio? He can’t swim to his left; he can’t swim to his right, and on each arm stroke, he is being squeezed and hit. It is a very tough position to be.

Now at the Tokyo Olympics, instead of a wide-open ocean course that was offered in Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, there is only a tight, narrow space in Odaiba Marine Park in Tokyo Bay. The margin for error is increasingly smaller. Swimmers had the opportunity to make up time and space like Marc-Antoine Olivier in Rio, but in Odaiba, these opportunities will open – and close – within seconds. There is little room for a tactical error, especially on the last lap.

I am reminded of the saying of Bill Lauritzen, an American educator and swimmer at Xiamen University in China, who wrote, “You may be able to pick up the snake, but you don’t know which way it will twist.” Swimmers have to expect the unexpected.

So how can a swimmer prepare for such scenarios? “Racing – lots of racing – is the best preparation,” says Munatones. “But with the pandemic last year wiping out all the FINA events and the ongoing COVID-19 issues, swimmers have a lot less time to prepare. There is the World Cup race this weekend. But swimmers can sharpen their minds in their home pools, too.

To help the swimmer’s mind to be able to think clearly while swimming at maximum speed, the World Open Water Swimming Association recommends Prime Number Set in the pool. These are sets that are swum at an increasingly faster pace, but require constant thinking and calculations. If we training in sets that are unpredictable or that have no patterns, we can sharpen our mind for racing in unpredictable and unanticipated scenarios. Some examples are below.”

Prime Number 100 is an introductory set. Of course, intervals can be adjusted to match the speed of the swimmer:

1×100@1:19 (leaving at the :19)
1×100@1:17 (leaving at the :36)
1×100@1:13 (leaving at the :49)
1×100@1:11 (leaving at the :60)
1×100@1:07 (leaving at the :07)
1×100@1:05 (leaving at the :12)

After the swimmers get accustomed to this set, they can go more advanced sets.

1×100@1:19 + 1×100@1:17 + 1×100@1:13 + 1×100@1:11 + 1×100@1:07 + 1×100@1:05 + 1×100@1:07 + 1×100@1:11 + 1×100@1:13 + 1×100@1:17 + 1×100@1:19

The next level of difficulty is when the coach asks the swimmers to not start at the :60 on a pace clock, but to start on a random prime number – and the swimmers must react and begin the set within seconds.

Other variations include Prime Number 50 sets where swimmers can do sets like this:


Munatones continues, “Coaches can be creative with Prime Number Sets. If they base their pool training sets on prime numbers (e.g., 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, etc.), they can have some fun while seeing how their swimmers react. So instead of doing traditional pool training intervals on easy-to-calculate figures like 1:00, 1:10, 1:15, 1:20, 1:30 or 2:00, they can occasionally do prime number sets where the intervals are 1:03, 1:17, 1:23, or the distances are 175 or 425 or 350 meters. Alternatively, we may occasionally go on intervals like 37.5, 42.5, 47.5, etc. or descend in random patterns.

As pool swimmers know, calculating their next send-off on a 42.5 interval for 50’s or a 1:23 interval for 100’s is not easy, especially if the number of swims in a set are also a prime number. Imagine doing 11 x 75 @ 1:23 with #2, #3, #5, #7 and #11 descended. You have to constantly think as you are pushing yourself in the water. As a result, swimmers are constantly thinking and calculating in addition to maintaining proper stroke mechanics, trying to make the interval, and noting their swim times. These prime number set are taxing both mentally and physically – precisely what swimmers will face in competitive open water situations.

Other simple prime number sets for pool swimmers include the following:

Hit the Primes: 8 x 100 @ 1:30, swim exactly at a 1:23 pace for #1, 1:19 pace for #2, 1:17 pace for #3, 1:13 pace for #4, 1:11 pace for #5, 1:07 pace for #6, 1:05 pace for #7 and 1:03 pace for #8. Teaches precise pace control.

Beat the Primes: 8 x 100 @ 1:30, swim faster than a 1:23 pace for #1, a 1:19 pace for #2, a 1:17 pace for #3, a 1:13 pace for #4, a 1:11 pace for #5, a 1:07 pace for #6, a 1:05 pace for #7 and a 1:03 pace for #8.

Descend Down or a Progressive Prime Number Descend: 10 x 50 with descending intervals. 1 x 50 @ 50 + 1 x 50 @ 47.5 + 1 x 50 @ 45 + 1 x 50 @ 42.5 + 1 x 50 @ 40 + 1 x 50 @ 37.5 + 1 x 50 @ 35 + 1 x 50 @ 32.5 + 1 x 50 @ 30 + 1 X 50 @ 27.5

This mental work is very valuable for sharpening the mind in the water and swimmers usually get better at it with practice.

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Steven Munatones