On this episode of The #AskASwimPro Show, we’re talking with MySwimPro Ambassador Catherine Breed! Based in San Francisco, California, Catherine is a record-holding marathon swimmer, who most recently broke the women’s record for the swim around Angel Island.
We talked with Catherine about her most memorable swimming moments, how to start marathon swimming, and her advice for new open water swimmers.
A Lifelong Love for the Water
Catherine has loved the water since birth — she says she was swimming when she was just 18 months old! By age 4, she had started year-round club swimming and qualified for Olympic Trials at age 15. She was recruited to the University of California Berkeley swim team, where she swam for 4 years.
Beyond swimming, Catherine spent a lot of her free time in the water, too! Her family had a sailboat in a variety of destinations, including French Polynesia, New Zealand, and Baja, Mexico. They would spend summers and holidays swimming and relaxing.
Catherine says the ocean — and water in general — has always been a comforting place. During her time at UC Berkeley, her coach, Terri McKeever encouraged swimmers to build a strong relationship with the water, and Catherine says that has played a big role in her love of the sport to this day.
Swimming at Cal
UC Berkeley (also known as Cal) is known for having one of the top collegiate swimming programs in the world. Catherine says her career at Cal was challenging, but also incredibly fun and rewarding.
Catherine was one of the top recruits in the nation when she started at Cal. Starting out, she specialized in the 200 and 500 freestyle. As the years progressed she transitioned into the 1,000 freestyle and the mile.
Under Terri’s guidance, Catherine became not just a better swimmer, but a better, stronger woman. She learned how to be a leader and how to speak in public, along with other life skills that have carried through to her post-college life.
Catherine defines marathon swimming as any race up to a 10k. Ultra marathon swimming is considered any distance over 10k, such as the English Channel or the Catalina Channel. Marathon swimming isn’t just a physical challenge — it’s a major mental challenge, too.
After graduation, Catherine wasn’t ready to hang up her suit, but didn’t want to continue racing in the pool. A few friends introduced her to open water swimming, and a new passion was born! Catherine joined the Dolphin Club in San Francisco and was encouraged to start doing marathon swims.
Some of Catherine’s favorite marathon swims include Manhattan Island and the Oceans 7. She said if you can find a stretch of water that’s 20, 30 or 40 miles, you can swim it. You just have to plan it!
Lake Tahoe Marathon Swim
Catherine’s first marathon swim was in Lake Tahoe — she swam from the south shore to the north shore: a whopping 21 miles! She currently holds the record for this swim, completing it in under 9 hours. She beat the previous record by just under 30 minutes.
Looking back on her training for this swim, Catherine said she was training from a place of fear. She was worried she wouldn’t be able to finish!
Her training included the following:
- CrossFit 3 times per week
- 20-30k yards of swimming per week, mostly in the pool
- On weekends, she’d fit in 3-5 hour training sessions in the ocean.
Before this race, the longest swim Catherine had done was 5 hours.
The North Channel
Catherine swam the North Channel — from Ireland to Scotland — recently, and she says it was the most difficult swim she has done. It took 11 hours, the water was 52 degrees, there were 10-12 knot winds, and Catherine counted more than 100 jellyfish! The race was a huge mental challenge.
The English Channel
Catherine swam the English channel in 2018, finishing in under 10 hours. She compares the English Channel to hiking Mt. Everest. In both situations, you have a large team supporting you and managing your gear, and the media loves highlighting these swims.
On the other hand, if you choose to hike K2, Mt. Everest’s neighbor, your experience will be very different. Similarly, if you swim in a lesser-known spot, you’ll experience harsher conditions, sharks, and other challenges that aren’t common in the English Channel.
Catherine loves that the English Channel has so much notoriety, because it opens up a conversation about marathon swimming that may not happen otherwise.
Oceans 7 is the equivalent of the 7 Summits, which involves climbing the tallest peak on every continent. In this challenge, swimmers try to complete 7 of the toughest marathon swims:
- The English Channel in England
- The North Channel in Ireland
- The Strait of Gibraltar in Gibraltar
- The Catalina Channel in California
- The Moloka’i Channel in Hawai’i
- Cook Strait in New Zealand
- Tsugaru Strait in Japan
Catherine has done 2 of these swims so far: The English Channel and the North Channel. She plans to swim the Catalina Channel in October 2020.
She says she always felt that she could never do Oceans 7 because the North Channel is considered to be extremely challenging. Now that she’s done it, Catherine feels more motivated to keep checking off swims!
Training in the San Francisco Bay
The San Francisco Bay is a long, oval shaped bay. Most swimmers hop in the water at Aquatic Park, which is near San Francisco’s famous Fisherman’s Wharf and has views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Related: 3 Tips for Cold Open Water Swimming
The water is usually calm near Aquatic Park, but as you swim further out, you’ll contend with whitecaps, strong currents, wind and chilly temperatures. Catherine thinks it’s one of the best places to open water swim in the world, with a strong community of swimmers to match.
Watching the sunrise from the bay is incredible!
Differences Between Pool Swimming, Open Water Swimming and Marathon Swimming
Catherine considers pool swimming, open water swimming and marathon swimming to be different sports. In pool swimming, you’re in a controlled environment and racing is a major focus.
Open water swimming, on the other hand, is often used as more of a challenge for masters swimmers. In Catherine’s mind, swimmers either love it and try for their first marathon swim, or they hate it and never go back.
After doing their first 10k race, swimmers look to even longer swims. Catherine loves the natural progression between the 3 disciplines, and says swimming provides so much freedom and flexibility to do what you want.
Adjusting Your Stroke for Open Water
The main difference between pool swimming and open water swimming is temperature. Typically, open water is colder than the pool, and if you’re in the ocean, the salt water makes you more buoyant.
Catherine’s stroke looks very different in the pool than it does in open water. In a pool, every stroke can be the same. In open water, Catherine’s stroke will change as she swims, based on the waves. Sighting also plays a role in your open water stroke, and Catherine emphasizes finding a sighting pattern that works for you and doesn’t give you shoulder or neck problems.
Despite these differences, the same basic stroke principles apply: Rotate from your core, keep your stroke long, don’t lift your head when you breathe.
Marathon Swim Nutrition
Nutrition is very personal, but Catherine typically starts mid-swim nutrition 1 hour into her swim. After that, she’ll have water and a 100-150 calorie gel every 30 minutes.
Catherine’s favorite pre-swim snack is oatmeal with 2 sunny side up eggs. During her workouts she swears by Honey Stinger gels. Post-workout, anything peanut butter or almond butter is Catherine’s go to. Post-race, however, she loves a breakfast burrito!
A Strong Support System
Marathon swimming takes a large support system, and Catherine is grateful for everyone who has helped her along the way. UC Berkeley coach Terri McKeever, Steve Morsilli of the Pleasanton Seahawks and Marcia Benjamin with MEMO have always supported Catherine’s goals.
The San Francisco open water swimming community inspires Catherine every day, too. On any given day, Catherine can show up to swim and talk with someone who is also training for a channel swim, or someone who has already done it!
Beyond the swimmers themselves, Catherine credits the kayakers and pilots who glide alongside the swimmers during races. She says they’re just as excited about these swims as she is!
Advice for New Open Water Swimmers
Catherine’s biggest piece of advice? Find a swim buddy! Trying open water swimming with a friend can help reduce nerves and make the experience more fun.
She also says to not be afraid. Breathe, clear your mind and enjoy being in nature. Once you’re comfortable in open water, you can start working on technique and speed.
Tips for Experienced Open Water Swimmers
First, Catherine recommends doing a 10k race. If you enjoy it, set your sights on a race that’s 12-15 miles, and ideally close to home. If you’re still loving it, sign up for a larger race. Don’t hesitate — just do it!
The worst thing that can happen for marathon swimmers is that they don’t finish. If that’s the worst that can happen, you can’t fail.
She also recommends cross training for marathon swimmers. If your shoulders, lats, and hip flexors aren’t strong, you’re going to get injured. Catherine loves trail running, cycling and yoga as cross training.
Beyond the Black Line
Catherine is known on Instagram as @beyondtheblackline_. She aims to encourage people to explore the possibilities beyond the “concrete box” of the pool, with its black line keeping you on track. Going beyond the black line could mean swimming in open water, or it could entail going for a hike or a trail run.
On a deeper level, Beyond the Black Line isn’t just about that line at the bottom of the pool. It’s also about the “lanes” we create for ourselves in our minds. Mental limitations keep us from achieving our full potential and pushing ourselves.