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Swimming to Break Barriers: The Challenge That Shattered My 2020 Blues and Strengthened My Spirit.

Updated: Jan 2, 2021

Dubai Fitness Challenge: An Inspiration and An Opportunity

Pushing through the water at pace, after hours upon hours of effort, one question comes up again and again:

“Why? Why this challenge and why this way?”

What had I done to put myself through 30 days of swimming in the sea, battling the currents, the salt, the swell, basically playing a game of chess with Mother Nature. My 30-day challenge put me through a range of emotions, taught me about human endurance and coming together as a team, and set a great record for Dubai. But how did I get there to begin with?

The Dubai Fitness Challenge was launched in 2017 to motivate people to do 30 minutes of their exercise of choice, every day for 30 days. It’s creating a fitness-focused mindset and getting everyone active, doing what they enjoy. It would be nearly impossible to live here in Dubai and not to get involved, especially as a swimming coach surrounded by active people. However, setting myself the challenge to swim 10 km every day, for 30 days, was definitely a more extreme way to take part!

To explain why I set off to swim a marathon distance a day, I’ll go back to what 2020 has been like for most of us. The Coronavirus crisis has hit everywhere, and my family and loved ones were no exception. I didn’t just struggle for months with depression caused by lockdowns, and the concern for the financial downturn and inability for any of us to go out and exercise. I’ve also lost someone dear to me, and that put the fragility of life in perspective at a time when my wife and I were also expecting our first child. The circle of life, strong as it is, was pursuing at a quick pace during Covid-19 in Dubai.

So, after some intense soul searching, I decided that I could see this crisis as an opportunity for change and exploration. The world as we knew it had changed forever, so why not set off on an adventure that defied all I had known previously?

Sure, as a Swim Smooth coach with business coaching others to swimming performance, swimming 30 minutes every day for 30 days didn’t seem too much of a challenge. Swimming 3 km, or 5 km even, would be achievable. But I wanted to set myself up for a battle that had an unknown element to it – a challenge I could fail at. That’s how the fateful 10 km distance came up.

Photo Credit: Giles Richardson

A big challenge on top of the physical and mental toll of the 30 x 30 swim itself was keeping it all a secret until I actually set foot in the water on day 1. We live in a world controlled by image and perception and this wouldn’t be the first time I’d hear that “my shoulder would fall off” or some other foreshadowing like that! So, I embarked on a grueling training regime despite strict lockdowns, with the largest part of my training done on land, without telling anyone other than my wife what I was aiming to do this past November.

In the process of training, I learnt a lot about myself and about how the human body is limited by the mind in an overwhelming proportion. While swimming for 30 days, never touching land until I’d clock my 10 km for the day, I learnt even more not just about physical and mental barriers and overcoming them, but also about the power that a common goal can have in bringing people together and creating an unbelievably supportive community. This is the story, from preparation to execution, of the toughest and most rewarding challenge I’ve done in my life.

Why Would You Swim 10 km a Day for 30 Days?

Would you swim for your life? For a prize? To reach a destination?

In all these cases, you’ll probably only ever have to swim in short bursts and maybe for an hour at most (unless you sign up to swim the Channel!). Swimming long distances is a test of endurance, on physical and mental levels alike. Adding in the additional pressure of doing it day in, day out, without a rest day, for an entire month, breaks through those levels and truly tests your motivation.

So, what was my motivation and how did I come up with this challenge?

It all began during the strict lockdowns imposed in early 2020 because of the Coronavirus crisis. Within a few short days, life went from complete freedom to plunge into the ocean and enjoy the outdoors freely, to a strict restriction on all movement in order to reduce the spread of the Covid-19 virus. I don’t think any of us realized how quickly all our liberties could be stopped, and I know this affected many of my friends and family, as well as myself.

On the one hand, it is true that you only appreciate the extent that something is important to you when it is taken away from you. During lockdown, we were uncertain of how the future would look, or when our freedom that we took for granted would return. We were also anxious because of the very real health threats posed by the virus.

All of these pressures made for a bleak mental state for much of 2020, and it was in the middle of this feeling powerless and restrained that I decided that I should not be wasting the time I had. I thought that, as soon as I would have an opportunity, I wanted to challenge myself to my true limits doing something that would also be an achievement to treasure for the rest of my life. It was the moment when I told to myself now or never!

This is how the 30 x 30 challenge came about: from a desire to surpass my limits and celebrate them at the same time, championing what the human body and mind can do when they work together and are trained for a clear goal. My aim was to fully test what makes the human spirit so unbreakable in the face of challenges and adversities. I was fully aware that sometimes, even the toughest mentally trained athletes fail physically, so having a strong mindset doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve done enough. Therefore, I wanted to also explore the role of physical preparation, the right nutrition, appropriate training, and finally the external support required for a true challenge to go smoothly.

One thing that boosted my motivation and became a great learning from this experience was actually the role of supporters. From my wife, the Swim Smooth Dubai Squad, and all others who came to join me either swimming or lending support, the role of each person who helped me throughout my adventure was incredibly important. Although swimming is definitely a solo sport, this challenge was a team effort and demonstrated the strength that can actually be drawn from a motivated team, too – a truly unbreakable link. Finally, I’d like to think that demonstrating what can be achieved with this level of support and dedication, but also against the odds training in lockdown and doing something so challenging, would get others to consider how to overcome their own limits. Whether because of controlling beliefs about what they can achieve, or simply because of lack of confidence, I know many might be discouraged from taking on this sort of challenge. Yet, challenges are valid at whatever level they present themselves: it’s all about whatever takes you out of your comfort zone. I hope I’ll have motivated some of the spectators to come out and cross their own boundaries too!

Preparing for 30 x 30 Swimming Challenge: A Game of Two Halves

Preparing for the 30 x 30 swimming challenge involved more than just training, or rather, training in a completely different way from what I have been used to as a swimming coach. Overcoming the lockdown restrictions to find new ways to get my body fit for swimming 10 km every day for a month was a challenge in itself. Additionally, I spent a significant amount of time working on elements other than physical fitness: nutrition, mental preparation, rest , recovery, and squad preparation. Here are the key ways in which I addressed each of them.

Photo Credit: Diane Gordon

Physical Preparation

No physical challenge of this magnitude can be approached with base fitness alone. Naturally, I had to develop my endurance and my swimming economy to ensure my effort expenditure was as efficient as possible on long days in the water. Even swimming in average at 1min27sec /100 m pace, I would need to be ready to spend around 3 hours in the water on a daily basis.

My first area of focus was the physical fitness – but it was far from idyllic getting ready during lockdown here in Dubai! Instead of jumping in the water for long swims, I started off with land-based exercises, core stabilization and mental visualization. Doing lots of strength workouts in my apartment did pay off more than I had expected in the end, especially through the work I did on simple muscle memory. It literally conditioned my body to be able to perform the 11,000 strokes a day I’d end up doing during the challenge.

I would like to mention one of my mentors Paul Newsome, who is a founder of Swim Smooth methodology that I adapted. I was able to piece together all aspects of his training and to find the right balance between the CSS (critical speed swim), endurance and technique, as well adapting style of my stroke to open water condition.

Mental Preparation & Logistics

Beyond the strength and core workouts, another important part of training was the mental aspect, along with the logistical planning.

Mental training can be crucial in getting you over the most difficult “dark times” of a challenge like this, so focused on endurance. Visualizing where I’d be swimming, how my support kayak would follow me, where I would be going every day and how I would feel, was key to my training.

I spent a good amount of time imagining myself in various scenarios that I’d be likely to encounter, so no stone was left unturned by the October 30 start day. This also helped overcome the isolation during lockdown, as it gave me something to actively prepare for and dream about.

As far as logistics go, I was lucky to have the support of various people including my Swim Smooth Dubai squad. In total, around 100 swimmers joined me during the challenge, which would turn out great for lifting my spirit and helping with motivation. But, before I started, I made sure to arrange my support plan with a good swimmer who would follow me in a kayak for security, every day. Over 10 days, it was always Richard from my swimming team, and then my wife took turns accompanying me too.

The kayak would hold food for me like nutrition gels and protein bars, as well as water. I made sure to always have spare goggles so carried three pairs for emergencies, and I also had one big box of Vaseline! You can’t underestimate the bruising and chafing in salty water after hours of swimming in the sea.