Season in Brief and Lessons Learned

In January of this year, I packed up only what I needed and headed to the Mecca of open water swimming, Southern California.  I had decided that I was ready to take my career in this sport as far as it would go, and nearly one year later I feel like I’ve only started scratching the surface of my capabilities.

After a slow start to the season with double injuries and logging my first DNF (did not finish), I got back to training and was able to turn in a decent performance at the 3k Dwight Crum Pier-to-Pier race in July. Two months later I won the women’s race at Naples Island 5k Race in Long Beach.  In October, I picked up another trio of wins (Women’s 8k, Women’s 1.2 Mile, and Women’s Grand Slam 8k+1.2 Mile) and set a Women’s Grand Slam record at Slam the Dam in Las Vegas.  A few weeks later I turned out a stellar performance at the 12-Mile Swim Around Charleston that earned me an overall win and a course record.

As I prepare for the 2012 season I’ve been taking a look back to what I learned from the 2011 season. I’m a big believer that goals and training approaches shouldn’t be static, but instead should be evaluated frequently and modified as necessary. Here are a few key lessons that I learned.

  1. Rest and recovery is more important than you think:  I spent the first half of the racing season on the sidelines because of back-to-back injuries due to over-training and exhaustion. What was one of the most frustrating experiences of my competitive career ended up being a godsend; I am much more diligent in ensuring that I get the proper amount of rest and my training and performance has skyrocketed since.
  2. Being self-coached has made me a better athlete AND a better coach: My relocation to a new state left me struggling to find a team or coach that would be a good fit for me.  As a marathon open water swimmer, this is no small task.  What eventually developed looks nothing like a conventional training situation. I mix and match my workouts, and ended up with a schedule that incorporates a handful of Master’s practices, solo pool sessions, unsanctioned group workouts, and open water sessions with swimmers of various speeds.  I researched training programs from various sources, consulted with other athletes and coaches, and really put some thought into what my athletic history says about how I should be training. Every workout has a stated purpose or goal, but that purpose or goal is occasionally modified based on how I feel in the water that day. Ultimately, this set-up offers me the flexibility that I need to maintain a balance of training, work, home, and recovery that I have never obtained before. Consequently, I am swimming faster at 25 than I ever did in college and loving every minute of it. Because I was forced to educate myself beyond what I learned through osmosis as a coached athlete, I am better prepared to help other athletes reach their goals as efficiently and scientifically as possible.
  3. Every race is a learning experience:  While my optimum distance is over 10 miles, I had more opportunity to race short distances (1-3 miles) in one season than I ever have before, and was pleased with how much I learned because of it.
  4. Don’t underestimate the importance of a top-notch crew: Many open water swimmers treat the compilation of support crew like an after-thought. My participation in the Support Paddling for Open Water Swimmers Clinic, taught by David Clark of the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation, and the subsequent pre-race training that I put my support paddlers through, made a noticeable difference on my performance in Las Vegas and Charleston.

It was a season of high highs and low lows, and a season of great learning.  I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to go after what I love, and to share my joy with others.  2011 was an amazing adventure, and I can’t wait to see what 2012 has in store for me.

- Mallory Mead
Open Water Marathon Swimmer