“Oceans Seven” Adam Walker on ocean swimming technique

January 11, 2016

Those of you who’ve known me (or the blog) for long enough will know about my other life.

Back in the day, I used to be a swimmer. Specifically, a Channel swimmer. I’ve swum the Channel twice and done other long open-water solo swims. (You can read more about all that here).

But Adam Walker‘s sea swimming accomplishments are something else. Adam was the first British person to complete “Oceans Seven”, thought to be the toughest seven sea swims in the world:

– English Channel 2008 (finished 11 hours 35 mins)
– Two-way Gibraltar Straits 2010 (finished 9 hours 39 mins – he broke the British Record one way and was the first Brit to swim back)
– Molokai Straits in Hawaii 2012 (17 hours 2 mins)
– Catalina Channel in USA 2012 (12 hours 15 mins)
– Tsugaru Channel in Japan 2013 (15 hours 31 mins) (the first British person to complete this swim)
– Cook Straits in New Zealand 2014 (8 hours 36 mins)
– North Channel Ireland to Scotland 2014 (10 hours 45 mins)
AdamW-0265-2t_sm
So when Adam asked if he could grab a guest-blog spot on TFW, I had no hesitation. If I still have any open-water swimming readers, Adam’s story and stroke technique advice will be golden for you. And for the rest of you? Be inspired by his story, and consider reading his book “Man Vs Ocean” by Adam Walker (published by John Blake Publishing and available at Amazon here – Man Vs Ocean, Adam Walker, Amazon).
Man V Ocean Book Jacket

Over to Adam for some serious technique talk.

On 6 Aug 2014 I became the first British person to swim the hardest seven ocean swims in the world, known as the Oceans Seven.

My swim stroke was the conventional style of a high head and winding my arms, entering long and flat.

I trained with this style for 18 months, resulting in a ruptured bicep tendon whilst swimming the English Channel. Having completed the swim I had to have two operations. The surgeon told me that the bicep tendon had attached itself to the supraspinatus, and they were unable to separate them. He advised me to give up swimming as the arm rotations would irritate it and cause more injury. He said “If you do another long swim you will have serious long term problems!”

Giving up was not an option for me. I love the sport so much. So I began studying the front crawl stroke and how to take pressure off the shoulder, limiting irritation, and becoming more efficient.

At this stage I wasn’t concerned with speed, I just wanted to find a way to prolong my swimming career. Here’s what I learned.

Head position

After many months of practice and video analysis I established that having a still head looking downwards is critical in the stroke: if it’s not still, you could zigzag.

If you immerse your head then your legs will come up if you are on your side. It’s better to work with the water than lift your head up (which takes energy), not beneficial when the head is the heaviest part of the body.

Core movement

I thought about other sports such as golf, cricket, bowling, tennis and cross country skiing – they all use core stomach muscles to instigate the initial phase. Therefore it didn’t make sense for me not to use rotation as part of the swim stroke.

Rotating using the core only, allowing the hips to push the arms forward instead of throwing them overhead had a number of big benefits:

– Using fewer muscles
– Less impact when entering the water
– Reduced pressure on the shoulders
– Stronger propulsion in the stroke
– More length out of the stroke

If I drive the arm/hand into the water, I am using my chest as well to do this, using more muscles than necessary. Using the core helped keep my hand and arms as wide as my hips. If your chest dominates, more often than not they will drive into the centre line, particularly when you breathe.

You will then have to push them out again in order to pull back which takes time and is an added unnecessary movement. By driving them into the centre you have the potential to pinch tendons and cause friction which will eventually tether and cause significant damage (something unfortunately I know a lot about!)

Early arm entry

I was taught to enter my hand into the water as far out in front as possible to gain a good pull. However, if your hand enters the water early with a bent elbow and then extends under water this creates less resistance and will take pressure off your shoulders.

If you think about diving off a block in a race, they only allow you to go 15 metres under water. Why? Because you are faster under water than you are on top of the water. Therefore the sooner you get your hand and arm into the water the better.

Recovery arm

I discovered that by holding the front recovery arm in place until the stroking arm is just about to enter the water, I gained constant momentum. This aids with stability, which is necessary if you get knocked by a competitor or if a wave is about to hit you. This happened to me in the English Channel with my old stroke and I was flipped onto my back.

Pulling

Pulling to your hip only is your ‘power section’ – beyond that it turns into a tricep movement with your power significantly reduced and delaying the time needed to get your hand back in for the catch.

Leg kick

My leg kick is just enough to keep me afloat, nothing too vigorous. 70% of energy is used up in your legs and you don’t get that benefit back. The kick is a sideways kick as you are swimming hip to hip (never flat).

By carrying out a simple two-beat kick I’m not wasting excess energy and am limiting the calories burnt. This is also important in colder temperatures.

My suggestion is to swim the majority of a triathlon with a two-beat kick, then kick a little more in the final 50m or so to get blood flow into the legs in readiness for transition. The limited leg kick will serve you in good stead when you get onto the bike as they have had limited use. On my 17 hour Hawaii swim, when I climbed out of the water, my legs were so fresh they didn’t feel as if they had be used.

How my new stroke technique has saved my career

This stroke, which my clients are calling ‘The Ocean Walker’ technique, has not only saved my swimming career but meant I was the fastest man on a 21-mile two-way swim in Windermere, and completed all seven channels including fastest British crossing of Gibraltar Straits one-way, and became the first British person to do a two-way crossing.

I’ve had three operations in total on my left shoulder, I can’t sleep on that side and I can’t hold over 10 kilos of weight with a straight arm, yet with the ‘Ocean Walker’ stroke I can swim 17 hours and am 1:15 mins faster over 1,500 metres and 5secs faster per 100 metres.

And my stroke rate has gone down from an average of 72 SPM to 52 SPM, showing that holding form in the stroke is generating more speed. I am saving 1200 strokes per hour! I am not pulling any harder than I did previously, actually if anything I am pulling with less power, showing the importance of body position and efficiency.

What I have realised is the key to swimming efficiently is to make the water work with you. By being relaxed, getting body position right and reducing resistance you will go faster.

The best athletes in the world are normally the ones who make it look effortless, use timing to their advantage and are efficient in what they do. Just look at Roger Federer or Usain Bolt!.

(It’s me, Nic, back again…. 😉 )

Thank you Adam, what an incredible amount of information. For more information on the ‘Ocean Walker’ stroke and Adam’s swim camps and 1-1 coaching, go to Ocean Walker.

Want to read more about Adam’s amazing swims? He’s on a “blog tour” and here’s where you’ll find him:
Man vs Ocean blog tour banner

“Oceans Seven” Adam Walker on ocean swimming technique is a post from The Fit Writer blog.

Nicola Joyce – the Fit Writer – is a freelance copywriter and journalist who writes for the sport and fitness industry. Her main website is here.


thefitwriter on BBC Radio 4

August 17, 2011

Hi all! Just a very quick one – remember when I was interviewed by the BBC about triathlon, whilst coaching open-water swimming down at Dorney?

The interview finally aired last night as part of BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight show. You can listen again here I believe. (Tuesday 16th August) I think it’s towards the end of the programme – I haven’t had a chance to listen yet myself!

Here’s the relevant section of the show http://www.webfilehost.com/?mode=viewupload&id=9997435

thefitwriter on BBC Radio 4 is a post from The Fit Writer blog.

Nicola Joyce – the Fit Writer – is a freelance copywriter and journalist who writes for the sport and fitness industry. Her main website is here.


Surprising similarities: Channel swimming and bodybuilding

May 29, 2011

Those of you reading who’ve known me for a few years *hi Mum!* already know that my sporting background isn’t in bodybuilding (my current challenge). New readers might be surprised to hear that I’m probably best-known for a very different type of sport: I’m a Channel swimmer. I’ve swum the English Channel twice (as a solo swim), once (as a relay swim, both there and back) and I’ve done similar swims like around the Channel Island of Jersey (USA readers: the Channel Islands are between us and France. They’re nice. Go and visit some time!)

So, when I decided to give bodybuilding/figure/physique* competition a go, I felt as if I’d taken a sudden and rather odd turn off my normal sporty track. Channel swimming had always been the big one for me, and I was also passionate about triathlon (and its component sports, swimming, road biking and running). (*back when I made the decision, I didn’t know which category I’d end up in).

Bodybuilding felt completely alien, brand-new and so far outside my comfort zone that I could just about see my comfort zone on the horizon if I looked behind me through binoculars.

However, here I am several months later and it’s dawned on me that Channel swimming and bodybuilding aren’t so different after all. Externally, yes, they’re worlds apart. But what goes on inside isn’t so different.

I’m not sure how many people out there have both swum the Channel and competed in bodybuilding but, if there are any reading, I’d love to hear your take on this in the comments.

Common themes in Channel swimming and bodybuilding

Get used to wearing swimwear
This is the theme which got me thinking about all the others. When I was training for my swims, it wasn’t unusual to spend 8… 10… 12 hours a day in a swimsuit. I thought nothing of it, it was just my kit, my uniform. OK, so the “swimsuit” I wear for bodybuilding is a little different (I’m not sure the velvet would cope for long in salt water!), but it definitely helps that I have no problem wandering around in swimwear. As a nice aside, I always used to choose to wear a two-piece swimsuit for Channel swim training (quicker to get off and therefore quicker to get warm clothes on). But they were a little bit bigger than my competition bikini!

Tweak your body fat

To swim the Channel, I had to get fat(ter). I consciously had to pack on bodyfat – and keep it there throughout all the training, in order to keep me a bit warmer. We don’t use wetsuits, so I had to grow my own under my skin.

To compete in bodybuilding, I’m having to lose bodyfat. There’s no point building all these muscles if I step on stage with them all covered up. That would be a bit like building a kit car, taking it to a show but forgetting to take the dust-sheet off.

Body temperature
This goes hand-in-hand with purposefully changing your bodyfat levels, but get used to changes in body temperature. In Channel swimming, I got so hot so easily. I gave up wearing shoes unless I had to, lived my life in shorts and t-shirts, and slept without a sheet. Partly because of the extra body fat and partly because I spent so long swimming in cold water that my body adapted and acclimatised.

During bodybuilding prep, I’m often chilly and it doesn’t take much for me to be sitting on the sofa dressed in hoodie, jeans and slippers with a rug around my shoulders. LOL!

Accept that external influences are bigger than you

In Channel swimming, you can be the fastest, strongest swimmer who’s trained better than anyone else. But if the weather’s against you, or you get sea sick and can’t hold your feeds down, you’re out. You have to accept that this thing is bigger than you. Bring your best and try your hardest, but there is always a chance you won’t make it, no matter how hard you try. That’s not defeatest. It’s realistic.

In bodybuilding, people are telling me to take the same kind of mental approach. Train hard, be as good as you can be and bring your best on the day. That’s all you can do. Then accept that external factors over which you have no control – the other competitors, the judges’ opinions, the subjectivity of judging – will play a large part in how you place on the day.

Consistency is key
Both Channel swimming and bodybuilding demand and reward consistency and compliance. In Channel swimming, you must swim regularly in cold water, or your mind and body won’t build up the physical and mental stamina they need to get you across. In bodybuilding, you must be compliant 24/7, particularly in the latter stages of prep: training, nutrition, sleep (ha!), rest, stretching, posing… there’s a lot to do and you have to be consistent. Every little decision counts. Each one can take you towards or away from your goal.

No cheating: it’s all up to you
Neither Channel swimming nor bodybuilding give you anywhere to hide. You can’t style it out. If you’re not ready, you’re not ready, and no-one can help. It is all down to you. That can be a pro or a con, depending on who you are how you take it. It totally works for me: I like relying on myself. I know what I can do (I also know what I can’t do!) and I like to get on with it. When you’re out there in the middle of the English Channel in the dark, you’re the only one who can keep your arms turning and your mind focused on how the sand will feel beneath your feet when you get to the other side. In bodybuilding, you’re the only one who can decide whether or not it’s worth eating that bit of cake, or whether it will matter if you put your weights down a kg because you’re tired.

Of course, you have people who care about you and support you in both sports: in swimming, your boat crew, the boat skipper, your personal crew, and the people back on land who are thinking of you. In bodybuilding, you probably have a coach and if you’re lucky a partner, family and friends who support you. But when it comes to the crunch, you’re the only one who can decide whether to push on or give up.

Public interest
My husband told me to put this one in: he says both sports mean you need to get used to the fact that members of the public will stare at you, come up to you and ask about training, or ask random questions, either during training or just generally. I suppose this is true but I hadn’t really thought of it!

Misconceptions
I guess both Channel swimming and bodybuilding are unusual sports, odd even. Certainly niche. That’s probably why I come across a lot of misconceptions with both past-times. Misconceptions which naturally lead to…

The top three questions…
Channel swimming:
“Do you cover yourself in goose fat?”
“How far is it?”
“Do you swim it all in one go?”

Bodybuilding:
“Will you dehydrate yourself/not drink any water in the week before your show?”
“Aren’t you worried that you’ll get all bulky/look like a man/muscle will turn to fat after you stop?”
“So you have to cut all the fat out of your diet, right, because you need to lose bodyfat?”

(And, as a bonus, my least favourite “Why do you want to do that to yourself?!” <— this from a close friend…!)

Your grocery budget will skyrocket

True story: I found a receipt the other day from a supermarket shop I did one Saturday with two Channel swimming buddies. This was just for the 48hours we were spending down in Kent. It included a big packet of dried pasta, doughnuts, bread rolls, cheese, deli meat, chocolate, milkshakes, bananas… etc. It really made me laugh, because it so instantly transported me back to that Summer, when we’d swim from 9am-4pm and then have 4:05pm-8am in which to refuel, get ready for the next day’s swim and try to pack on a little more body fat. Of course, we could have made better choices and probably should have done, but it’s damn hard to meet a Channel swimmer’s calories needs in vegetables. So we indulged at weekends. And that amount of food costs!

Now of course my diet is markedly different, but I’m still eating a lot, and the amount I spend on vegetables, egg whites and other protein sources is noticeable! (Not to mention the supplements!)

You need a mentor
I know I just said that, in both sports, it’s all down to you, but of course you can’t go it alone. You need a support system, a team, a system of accountability, expert guidance. In both sports I’ve been fortunate enough to find the perfect coach and mentor. The legend that is Freda Streeter for Channel swimming, and my coach Kat for bodybuilding. There are many, many others who have helped along the way of course (in both sports). Too many to list!

You have to like your own company
Self-explanatory!

The exhaustion

Both Channel swim training and bodybuilding training leave me exhausted right down to the marrow of my bones. I guess it’s tiredness on a metabolic level. I only realised that a lot of people don’t know what I mean, when I tried to explain it to a non-sporty friend and she genuinely could not understand what I meant.

Running and road biking never made me feel this way, even training for marathons and long sportive rides. They made me very tired, but in an achy, sleepy way. Swimming in cold water, and lifting very heavy weights, both shatter me. I might not even be sore or achy, but I am drained of energy, to the extent that even the idea of leaning down and picking something up off the floor seems too much of a challenge. I can often be found standing in one spot, staring down at a bit of mud the dog’s brought into the house. I am OK. I’m just wondering whether I can be bothered leaning down, focusing on it, picking it up and straightening back up again. Then of course I’d have to walk out of my way to the bin. It’s all a bit much, you understand? 😉

Have you done sports which seemed totally different but, actually, had similarities? What were they? Aaaand which would you rather do, swim the English Channel or enter a bodybuilding competition?

Surprising similarities: Channel swimming and bodybuilding is a post from The Fit Writer blog.

Nicola Joyce – the Fit Writer – is a freelance copywriter and journalist who writes for the sport and fitness industry. Her main website is here.


Coaching, cold water and the BBC

May 14, 2011

(I’ll wait to see if anyone Googles that exact combination of words!)

Phew, what a day. Lying in bed with my laptop on my knees and typing this is about all I can manage right now.

(Shortly after this was taken, clouds rolled in and wind picked up – brrrr!)

As long-time readers of the blog will remember, a few weekends a year I coach open-water swimming (I do this for triathlon coaching company thetrilife.com in partnership with event organisers Human Race). Time rolls around quickly, and here we are at the start of the triathlon season again, so it was time for me to zip up my wetsuit, put on my coaching hat (it looks just like a swimming hat but contains top tips and handy hints) and step into that cold water.

And, maaan, was it cold. I mean, it actually was cold, but it felt even colder. Not surprising really since I’m probably sitting at anywhere between 5-10% less body fat now than I was last year. And, as any Channel swimmer knows, subcutaneous fat makes a big (gooood!) difference when it comes to feeling at home in cold water.

I was in a wetsuit, of course. A wetsuit which was so baggy the other coaches were laughing at me. Yes folks, heavy weight training will not make a woman bulky. The baggy wetsuit didn’t do much to protect me from the cold water. Brrr!

Despite the cold, it was a great day. I truly love coaching and feel it’s a real honour to take people through what is often their very first time in open-water. And I got to see my coaching buddies again, and chat with Bill Black, perhaps one of my favourite people in triathlon. (He always seems to find new ways to introduce us to our coachees: this year I was “that little fish…”)

Last year, I finished off my days coaching at Dorney with a 20+mile bike ride home, having also ridden there. Not this year (no such long cardio for me, certainly not with 7 weeks to go til my comp). Today had a rather unusual ending: being interviewed by the BBC! This is not something which happens to me frequently. Or, ever. But on Thursday I had a call from a nice young woman called Charlotte, a BBC news reporter who works for Radio 4. It seems the BBC are putting together a feature or series of features about the explosion in popularity of triathlon in this country. They found me online via this very blog, decided I’d be able to be vaguely useful to the feature and came along to interview me. Happily, I was decked out in triathlon kit, soaking wet from lake water and set against a backdrop of a supersprint race.

I don’t know where the clip will be used (Charlotte said it could be on Radio4, on TV and/or online) but as soon as I find out, I’ll let you know. I just hope I was useful to them – I was seriously so cold that I was having trouble speaking (you know when you want to say a word but your mouth won’t form the correct shape?!)

A few people have challenged me with the idea that bodybuilding is a vain sport, and others have suggested I’m vain for working towards a bodybuilding show. I can’t answer for the sport in its entirety, but I’m hoping my willingness to be filmed whilst wearing a wetsuit and woolly hat and without a scrap of makeup on my face (which is tinged blue and chapped from the wind) answers the second challenge. (And remember when I wrote that piece for the Observer book? My portrait photo for that one… yep, me in a swimming costume (!) standing in a lake. In April). Or perhaps bodybuilding allows me to indulge the small scrap of vanity I have left after Channel swimming and open-water triathlons have taken their toll?

Right, I must go. Richard of Richards TransRockies is here because he and my husband are doing some mega-long off road sportive tomorrow. And there’s Eurovision to watch. I hope you had a good Saturday. 🙂

Do you think bodybuilding is a vain pursuit? Do you think it’s possible to engage in a vain sport without being a vain person? Do you find that once you’ve typed “vain” several times you start to doubt that you’ve spelled it correctly?

Coaching, cold water and the BBC is a post from The Fit Writer blog.


How to get your triathlon wetsuit on…and off

April 21, 2011

In my capacity as an age-grouper triathlete and triathlon feature-writer, I’m often asked the best, easiest and quickest way to get a triathlon wetsuit on and off. When someone asked me the question on Twitter today, I thought – why not write a quick “how-to” blog post. The open-water training venues are opening up very soon and the first triathlons of the season won’t be far behind. And I daresay this glorious sunshine will tempt a few of you into the open-water. But it’s a bit chilly to go without a wetsuit just yet (don’t be fooled by the air temperature!) And why swim without a wetsuit when the event you’re training for dictates you wear one?

So, here they are: my top tips for getting that skin-tight triathlon wetsuit on – and then off again!

Getting your wetsuit on

Remember a couple of things: firstly, no prizes for being the fastest person to put their suit on. Secondly: yes, it really should feel that tight (it will loosen off a little once you’re in the water, which is all that matters).

The clock doesn’t start ticking til the starter sets you off on the swim. So you can take as long as you like. Leave yourself plenty of time and find a cool spot (it’s amazing how hot and sweaty you get struggling into a wetsuit). Take your secret weapon (thank you to my triathlon pro and super-speedy swimmer pal Richard Stannard for this tip):

Yes, the common carrier bag. Put the carrier bag on one foot, like a sock. Slide that foot into the suit (the leghole, obvs). Take the bag/sock off, repeat on the other side. You should now have the suit on both legs, up to about the knees.

Pull it up. The zip should be at the back. You now need to make sure the groinal area of the suit (I know groinal’s not a word, but how I wish it were) is right up into your groin. Do this by inching the suit up, from below the knees if necessary, in tiny steps. Don’t yank and pull at it – therein lies a future of rips and tears to your suit. Use the pads of your fingers to pinch a bit of suit, and pull it up a few inches…and repeat all over the legs until the groin is in the right place.

Now check there are no rucks or folds behind your knees. This+swimming=ouch.

OK now check the time. Is your wave nearly ready to go? If so, proceed to the next step. If not, leave things here for a while. You really don’t want to be walking round for ages completely zipped up into your wetsuit on a hot day.

Put one arm and then the other into the suit (different arm holes). Then repeat the process you went through with the legs, but with the arms, making sure the suit fits right into your armpits. This is really important. So, inch the neoprene up in tiny bits from the wrists until it fits properly. Get someone to help you if necessary, don’t feel shy to ask, after all you need to keep your strength for the triathlon and it can be exhausting getting a wetsuit on!

Once your arms and legs are in and your groin and armpits are aligned with the relevant bits of the wetsuit, it’s time to zip up. Again, don’t do this if you have a long wait for your swim, it’s just not worth getting overheated.

Ask someone to help you zip the suit up (you may need to breathe out and draw your shoulders together right back behind you). They’ll need to press the velcro flap down over the top of the zip. Get them to hand you the end of your zip leash (if that’s what it’s called?) so you’re confident you can find it on swim exit.

Now just a couple of things to do to really check your suit is fitted snugly. Bend forward at the waist and grab any spare neoprene around your stomach. Yes, it really is neoprene and no I will not believe it is your belly. You are a triathlete! You have trained!

Ease any spare neoprene up, over the boobs (if you’re a lady…) and onto your upper chest/shoulder area. This is really the only area where you want any ‘spare’ neoprene. Can you grab a fistful of neoprene in that dent in front of your shoulder/under your collarbone? That’s OK. Can you grab a fistful of neoprene anywhere else? This is not so OK.

Check again for folds and creases in your elbows and behind your knees – get rid of them.

You’re ready to go (assuming you have your hat and goggles on). Enjoy.

Getting the wetsuit off

OK so you’re out of the swim. Time really does count now so it pays to practise getting your wetsuit off as fast as you can. What makes that super-tight wetsuit come off quickly? The layer of water inside. So act quickly before the water drains out. Here’s the drill.

Stand up out of the water, pop your goggles on top of your head, and start to run/walk towards transition. Immediately, reach behind you for your zipper leash and pull.

As you run/walk along, take one arm and then the other out until the suit is flapping around your waist.

Get to your bike and roll the suit down to your knees. Then lift one leg and the other until you can pull one foot free. Use that foot to stand on the other leg of the wetsuit, so you can pull the other foot free.

You’re done!

If you struggle with this technique, experience dizziness after the swim (me too) or feel a bit flustered, there’s no shame at all in just sitting down by your bike and pulling your suit off whilst you sit on the ground.

Hope that helps!

Do you have any tips or personal experiences to add? Please do!

Edited to add: My friend Dick (yes, really) has alerted me to the fact that “groinal” is, in fact, a word. Thanks, Dick!

How to get your triathlon wetsuit on…and off is a post from The Fit Writer blog.


Guest post: Dr Karen Throsby on open-water swimming

January 31, 2011

Today’s guest post is from Dr Karen Throsby, Channel swimmer and academic who is currently immersed in a sociological study of channel swimmers’ bodies. You can read about the time she interviewed me here (and here on her own blog). I asked Karen to write a post about what open-water (sea) swimming means to her. Her response, below, is beautiful. I think it will resonate with any of you out there who have ever swum in open water (and enjoyed it!) and will perhaps intrigue and delight those of you who have never known the joy of slipping into cold water and entering that quiet world…

Without further ado I give you Karen Throsby.

What I miss about open water swimming…

(Karen calls this her “happy swimming” photo and says she has it on her phone to remind her what open-water swimming feels like at its very best. The photo is from her round-Jersey swim).

How lovely to have been invited to write a guest post on Nicola’s fab blog. Unlike Nicola, who is an accomplished mistress of many fitness activities, I am rather more one-dimensional, sticking mainly to swimming, with the occasional gym visit (although more out of duty than love). In the absence of another sport that really grabs my enthusiasm, and even though I quite enjoy pool swimming, I’ve now reached that point in the year when I really start to long for the open water swimming season to start….

I miss the calm of it. I like nothing more than swimming along for hours at a time, not thinking about work and the burgeoning to-do list on my laptop, or about the political or current affairs that have me ranting at the radio over breakfast. Sometimes, I fill an entire hour between feeds just thinking about a single green jelly baby, or by counting repeatedly from one to four. There is a special pleasure in knowing that for those few hours, I have to do nothing but swim, away from the distractions and demands of the everyday (and without having change direction every 25 seconds).

I miss feeling strong and physically competent. I am, in my everyday life, quite clumsy and physically awkward. I have terrible hand-eye co-ordination, a bafflingly inadequate spatial sense, and very slow reactions. Imagine what an unappealing prospect I was at school when the time came to pick teams in PE and how those years taught me to dread sport. But in the water, I am strong, capable, co-ordinated…even graceful (or at least, that’s how I feel). If you had told me this while I was at school, as I lined up, full of shame, waiting to be picked last for another hour of ordeal-by-netball, I would never have believed you. It is a liberation that I can’t even find the words for; it’s how I imagine flying would be.

I miss the tingle and burn of the cold water on my back, even though I hate it at the time; I miss having a swimming suntan, even if it is absurdly uneven and probably quite unhealthy. I miss the sounds of swimming – the breathing, bubbling, and splashing; the wind, and the slap of the water. I miss the delicious tiredness at the end of a long open water swim, and the voracious post-swim hunger. I just miss the sheer pleasure of it.

Roll on May.

Thank you Karen for these lovely words. They’re enough to make me miss open-water swimming, too! All the very best with your training this year (Karen is due to swim the Catalina Channel this summer).

Guest post: Dr Karen Throsby on open-water swimming is a post from The Fit Writer blog.


Channel swimming: extraordinary bodies

January 13, 2011

Yesterday I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Dr Karen Throsby, a sociology lecturer at Warwick University. Karen is in the middle of a 2.5 year research project into the sociology and politics behind creating (and walking around inside) the kind of physical body capable of swimming the English Channel. Both Karen and I are Channel swimmers and I found it fascinating and a complete pleasure to talk (for hours!) to her: someone experienced in Channel swimming and so interested in what I’d call the politics of the body. My Masters studies touched on gender politics and the sociology of the body and chatting to Karen made me realise quite how much I’d forgotten. Now my brain aches to match my muscles! 😉

Karen during training for her Channel swim

Here is the website for Karen’s project. If you’ve swum the Channel and want to offer your thoughts, memories and feelings up for research, get in touch with her. Karen’s blog The Long Swim is here (she’s swimming Catalina next and I’m jealous….so I guess that answers your questions Karen when you asked “so is that it for you now?” 😉 )

I’ve asked Karen to do a guest post and a Q&A on this blog some time, so please do look out for that, I promise it will be interesting to you whether you’re interested in Channel swimming, sport in general or in why we view our bodies (and those of others) in the way we do. For now, here’s a little about Karen’s research and things she asked me.

Karen’s research is called “Becoming a Channel Swimmer: Identity and Embodiment in a Sporting Subculture” which is a fancy way of saying she’s looking at what happens (socially) when we have to create a certain kind of body to do a certain sporting event (in the Channel swimming example, typically to add or retain body fat -certainly not lose it – and to build significant upper body muscle, usually without trying). What does it mean to us to have that kind of body? And how do other people react Is there a “perfect sporting body” and, if so, what is it, and how can that be when so many different kinds of bodies perform very well against different types of athletic demands? Karen’s looking at how our society views and values muscle, strength and body fat and the social politics behind sport and our bodies in sport.

Huge apologies to Karen if I’ve dumbed her work down to such a level that she no longer recognises it 😉

After my first swim
Me after my first Channel swim

So she interviewed me as someone who’s swum the English Channel twice and around the Channel Island of Jersey once (and a half, but we don’t talk about that!) She asked me how I felt about my body as it changed, and whether I made a conscious effort to control the changes one way or another. She asked me about nutrition. She asked how I felt about my swims: the training swims, the preparation stages, the swims themselves once I got in and set off for France.

She asked questions about what swimming means to me, how it feels, and what my favourite swimming memory is. If you’re interested, I said it was hard to choose between the moment I stood up on Wissant sand at the end of my second Channel swim, and that crazy 4-hour training swim in Dover harbour in 2004 when – out of nowhere – the skies blackened and we had a storm of ice-chips so large and hard they cut us. Of course, we were so cold our cuts didn’t bleed until we were getting dressed after the swim.

Happy days.

Thanks, Karen, for a very interesting chat and for asking me to dig back into my bank of memories and feelings about swimming and Channel swimming in particular. I hope we’ll keep in touch.

Channel swimming: extraordinary bodies is a post from The Fit Writer blog.


Open-water coaching from Keri-Anne Payne’s coach

August 20, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I got the opportunity to have an open-water coaching session with Sean Kelly, the ex Head Coach of British Swimming’s open-water team and the guy who coaches Keri-Anne Payne, Cassie Patten (who finished third in Beijing behind Keri-Anne), James Goddard, David Carry and Michael Rock. I was there like a shot. After all, five minutes with Sean is going to be more useful than hours of my own training. Here’s how the session at Hyde Park’s Serpentine Lido panned out.

Togged up in Speedo kit (Sean is a Speedo sponsored coach and the company invited me along for the session), I waited in my wetsuit whilst a chap from the BBC was filmed being put through his paces.

Once I got in, Sean told me to swim out and back. The water in the Lido wasn’t the best (this was a couple of weeks ago during that really hot weather) but it’s a beautiful facility – 100m long, apparently, though it didn’t feel it!

“There’s not a lot I can give you in terms of coaching points,” Sean said. “Your stroke is really sound.”

Excuse me. I need to take a moment.

OK, I’m fine now.

So, after Sean Kelly told me my stroke was really sound, I asked him how I could get faster. This is my sticking point – I’m well aware that my stroke is OK, particularly when I remember not to get lazy, but I am really quite slow, and seem to have got slower over the years if anything.

Once your technique is OK, Sean said, there are three ways to improve:

1 Stroke length (‘distance per stroke’)
2 Stroke rate
3 Body position
(or ‘what you present to the water’, which I thought was a very poetic way of putting it)

We worked on stroke rate. Sean set me off swimming again, offering to time my stroke rate with some nifty coaching gadget he had about his person. In the 100m Lido, I was swimming at 33.5 strokes per minute. (Interestingly, Sean refers to one stroke as two arm pulls – left and right – as opposed to each individual arm stroke, which I’m more used to. So, I’d normally say I swim at about 65-67 spm on very long swims.)

“Swim out again,” he said, “then, on the way back, try to pick it up a bit and we’ll see if your stroke rate comes up by a few.”

So I did, and it did. Obviously I needed to still be swimming at a sustainable rate, not thrashing wildly and losing control, so I swam something like I might do during the final 200m of a triathlon when I know there’s someone in my age-group just in front of me.

“Very good,” said Sean. “That was 37.5 spm – up 4 strokes from before.”

I was chuffed, then asked what Keri-Anne’s stroke rate is. Sean looked at me as if to say “are you sure you want to know this?”

“In a long race – like the 10,000m – Keri-Anne will swim at between 47-49spm,” he said. “But when she’s sprinting in the final 800m (!), her rate will go up to 55spm.”

OK hang on. Firstly, this is a swimmer for whom the final half a mile is a sprint. Secondly: 55spm. 55? I guess that’s why she’s one of the best OW swimmers in the world.

Sean then told me a little anecdote about Keri-Anne. “I once told her that she could have an extra day off training if she completed the hardest set we could come up with,” he said. “She wrote the set herself. It consisted of 18x800m, in a short-course pool, and she did each 800m on a 10-minute swim interval. I don’t know how much rest she was getting but I can remember that she swam the 18th 800m in 8:41. The set – 16,400m – took her 3 hours.”

If you’ve ever swum one 800m against the clock, let alone several, you’ll appreciate just how incredible doing a set of 18 800s off 10-minutes is. I guess Keri-Anne really wanted that extra rest day!

Sean’s open-water swimmers do most of their training in the pool, regardless of the time of year. I interviewed Keri-Anne recently for Triathlete’s World magazine and that’s what she told me, too. I remember being surprised at the time, but Sean explained why they train almost exclusively in the pool. “Our training has to be measurable,” he said. “There are too many variables in open-water, and a coach can’t keep a close enough eye on the swimmers to be able to record data at the top and bottom of what’s going on. When we travel to an open-water race, we’ll get in the water a couple of times to acclimatise and get used to the course.”

After I’d finished swimming, I asked Sean for some top tips which I could pass on to you guys. Here they are:

– concentrate on minimal gains, whether on your stroke length, body position or stroke rate. They all add up.
– look at your basic stroke count and work to reduce it, even by a fraction
– work on your tempo: if you can maintain the same stroke count/dps but increase your stroke rate/tempo and you will go faster – it’s a fact, supported by mathematical equations
– swim some water polo drills (front crawl but with your head up and looking forward) to strengthen your back and make it easier to sight often during longer races. Sean’s athletes will do sets of 400m (with paddles!) of polo drills (ouch). Try 25m polo drill, 75m full stroke.
– work on your kick – yes, even in a wetsuit – to maintain a good body position
stretch. Sean’s swimmers spend ages stretching (after, never before, training) and are super-flexible. Stretch the chest, the shoulder girdle, the neck, back, hips

Thank you, Speedo, for inviting me along and thank you Sean for your time, attention and generous words of wisdom.


Outdoor swimming – so what’s new?

August 9, 2010

Barely a day goes but I read a new article about wild swimming, outdoor swimming, or swimming outside. There seem to be more and more TV programmes about it, too. Whatever you call it, it’s just swimming, surely?

A conversation on an online forum prompted me to have a good old think about this. I appreciate why TV, newspaper supplements and magazines have gone wild for outdoor swimming in the past few years. It’s a growing trend, and there’s a lot of hype about it. If I didn’t understand why various media are documenting the hype, I’d be a pretty useless journalist 😉

But. Is it really anything new? Does it really need a label? Isn’t it just, well, swimming?

I come from a coastal town (big up da Folkestone massive) where I learned to swim in a pool, swam for a local squad but also swam in the sea. I called all of these things “going swimming”. In Folkestone, there was more than one hardy octogenarian famed throughout the Shire for swimming in the sea 365 days of the year and then, of course, there was the annual New Year’s Day Dip. And Folkestone’s not alone: go to any seaside community and it won’t take you long to locate the old-timer who swears by his (or her) daily dip in the briney.

I daresay towns with a river or lake in them are the same. The bottom line is, people have been swimming outside for a lot longer than they’ve been swimming in indoor pools. There was a time (sigh) when most major towns – and a lot of small ones – would have some sort of outdoor swimming pool. The oldest swimming clubs in the country include the South London Swimming Club (founded in 1906 and based at the beautiful Tooting Bec Lido) and Farleigh and District SC (a river swimming club, founded in the 1930s).

Do you swim outside? How do you refer to it? Do you feel the need for the activity to have a label, or is it just swimming, as it’s always been?


How not to race in hot weather

July 12, 2010

Or “losing my bottle”.

Yesterday was a scorcher, wasn’t it? I was racing at Dorney in the Bananaman triathlon (nothing to do with 29 Acacia Road) and my wave set off at 12:45. If you were in Berkshire yesterday you’d know it was very hot, very sunny and pretty windy. Not ideal for any triathlon but particularly not one taking place in the hottest part of the day.

By the way, my phone ran out of battery so this post contains no pics. To my readers who only come here for the photos (hi Sam), you might want to come back later in the week.

I wanted to do this race because I did it last year, and I think it’s only really relevant to compare race times from the same event. Races can vary so much, particularly with size of transition or distance from the swim exit to your bike, and it kind of makes comparing two random Olympic-distances races a bit silly.

I’ll be honest with you though, I wasn’t really feeling the love yesterday morning. I had such a busy week last week and really enjoyed a Saturday doing not much. As the clock ticked on towards that late race start, I had a hard time getting up off the sofa and packing my bag. But I did, reasoning that if nothing else it’s all good training.

I got to Dorney and looked at the trees bending in the wind. Now, Dorney’s a great venue but it’s completely unsheltered from wind and sun. Six laps round the lake on the bike meant six knee-grinding goes into a headwind and six desperate attempts to make the time up again on the way back. Three loops on the run meant…well…7.5km of harsh running under the glare of the sun.

Bananaman is an 800m swim, 30km bike, 7.5km run. Why? I don’t know. It just is. I did pretty well last year, finishing 8th in my age group with a really strong run (34:25 for the 7.5km). This year, I reckoned I’d have a pretty shoddy swim, a decent bike (despite the wind) and a slower run than last year. I calculated that I might just be able to scrape a faster time over all, but really wasn’t sure.

I was convinced the lake would be 22*C+ and wetsuits would therefore be banned, but evidently they’d found a cool patch somewhere when they went out with the thermometer, because wetties were optional. I racked my bike (had a really nice spot with tons of room) and chatted to the lady next to me who was doing her first open-water swim. In fact we both nearly missed the start because we were talking too much.

SWIM
I positioned myself right at the front for the swim, up for a bit of a bunfight. I wasn’t disappointed; I was still having my ankles grabbed at the final buoy. The only time I could get clear of people was turning at the buoys, for some reason I seemed to be getting round them with less trouble than the women around me.

BIKE
A couple of schoolboy errors in T1 and then I was out on my bike, caught up in a big pack leaving transition at the same time. I got into a big gear straightaway and left them behind. Down on the tri-bars, I overtook a few faster swimmers within the first few kms. The headwind was strong but, coming back down the other side of the lake, I was holding 45kph and keeping my average above 30kph which was what I wanted.

At the end of lap one – just 4km into the bike leg – disaster struck. My one drink bottle fell out of its cage, bounced once and rolled to the side of the course. I stared in front of me, brain working overtime, as I spun onwards. OK….I now have no drink. I’ve got 25km of cycling to do. It’s hot, really hot, and I’ve got to ride into that headwind five more times. I’ve then got to get off the bike and run 7.5km and, if I want to even think about placing in my age-group, I need to run well.

I thought about all of this during the next lap and, as I approached my bottle (now propped up by the edge of the road by a marshall), I considered getting off and picking it up. I had no idea what would have more of an impact on my time…changing down into a smaller gear, decelerating, getting off, getting on again (etc) or finishing the race with no fluids.

On each lap, I stared down at the bottle momentarily. On each lap, I couldn’t bear to get off the bike and on again.

I pushed on, thinking I’d allow myself just to get through the run rather than placing any pressure on myself. I had a couple of gels even though you really should take those things with water.

RUN
Off the bike, a quick shoe-mishap and I was in T2 gulping my spare bottle of drink. Then it was out onto that hot, flat, unforgiving run course.

Like last week, I used the first lap of the run to count the women in front of me to determine my position. The first woman was miles in front of anyone else, young, rangy and determined. Then came two and three, on each other’s shoulders, fighting their own battle. I counted four, five, six..and stopped counting at 12. Oh well. There was no way in the world I was going to overtake anyone and there was every chance I’d be caught by more than one. I watched my pace hovering around 7:45minute/miling and then dropping.

At each water station I downed a cup and dumped a second one over my head. The road was shimmering in the heat. On the second and third laps, I was overtaking people but I think they were runners on their first lap. As predicted, I was overtaken by two women looking pretty strong.

With 1km to go, I tried my best to pick my pace up. I could see from my watch that I would be cutting it fine to get a PB on the course (a small victory given the circumstances). The thought of the woman brandishing the hosepipe spurred me on and I crossed the line in 1:55:20 – 23seconds faster than last year’s time.

Oh, that hosepipe was nice.

Lesson learned: never, ever carry just one drink bottle. As for the question of what makes you slower: stopping to pick the bottle up, or racing dehydrated…I don’t know.

Bananaman triathlon (800m/30km/7.5m)
Finish time: 1:55:20 (last year 1:55:53)
Swim: 15:09 (15:07)
T1: 1:41 (1:35)
Bike: 59:54 (1:03:27)
T2: 1:15 (1:19)
Run: 37:19 (34:25)

I was 12th female (26th last year) and 5th in my age group (8th last year).


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