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.


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: Tom Barnes on rowing the Atlantic (and boat for sale!)

February 3, 2011

Today’s guest post is from Tom Barnes, the brother of a personal trainer I’ve got to know here in Berkshire. In 2009, Tom rowed the Atlantic in a 7-metre boat with just one other person (the boat is now for sale, if you know anyone who’s interested!) Now, I’ve spent a lot of time in sea water, but rowing the Atlantic is a feat I can’t quite wrap my head around. Particularly the bit about spending so much time in the middle of nowhere with just one other person, with only 7-metres of boat to share between you. I asked Tom to tell you about his Atlantic row and the story building up to it. I hope you enjoy it.

Here’s Tom’s story:

In June 2007, I received an email from an old University friend that changed my life. The email was sent to around 15 people and it read along the lines of, “I’m entered to Row the Atlantic in December 2009 and my rowing partner has pulled out. Does anyone fancy it?”

I immediately emailed back and said that I’d always wanted to row the Atlantic; could we meet up? I didn’t hear back from Rich and I thought he’d been inundated with people biting his arm off for this once in a lifetime opportunity. I rang him a week later to find out how he was going to select his new partner. He said, “You’re in – you were the only one who replied!” I guess he’d been holding out for a better offer!

The “Red Arrow” team was formed for the 2009 Woodvale Atlantic Rowing Race which is the race that James Cracknell and Ben Fogle won in 2005. The race is billed as “The World’s Toughest Rowing Race”. It starts in the La Gomera (Canary Islands) and finishes in Antigua with 2,500 miles of Ocean to cross in between. The race is run every 2 years and is open to solo, pairs or fours boats. We were a pairs boat, competing against 20 other pairs teams.

To my mind, there are 2 races we had to complete. The first is to get to the start line. The second is to actually row the Atlantic Ocean. Many teams fail to get to the start line, and I knew this. We had just over 2 years to raise the necessary £75k to cover all our costs, as well as pass the mandatory courses, get our bodies as physically and mentally prepared as we could, do our research and buy all the required equipment and food. All this whilst working full time. The preparation was relentless and exhausting.

I’ve always loved a sporting challenge, but this was going to take me way out of my comfort zone as I’d never rowed or even been to sea before!

With an enormous amount of help and support from our friends and family (and gaining television coverage from Trans World Sport, which helped us attract various corporate sponsors), Red Arrow was shipped to La Gomera. We passed out scrutineering but the race was delayed by over a month because of bad weather.

Finally, on the 4th January 2009, the race started. Our shift pattern was as follows: 2 hours rowing, 2 hours rest, 2 hours rowing…and so on. On a normal day, Rich and I would row for 12 hours each and probably sleep for a total of 4-5 hours maximum, but not all in one go of course. There were many challenges – cramped living conditions, soaring temperature, mental battles, exhaustion, onboard arguments, endless wildlife, huge waves, near misses with huge tankers and constant rowing – but they all made it an amazing experience.

We arrived into Nelsons Dockyard in Antigua on March 17th to a hero’s welcome after 72 days, 8 hours and 43 minutes at sea. We had been utterly self-sufficient that whole time. We came 8th overall in the race and 6th in our class. You can read more about our experience at Row The Atlantic and watch a TransWorldSport video about the race here on YouTube.

Our boat, Red Arrow, is currently in Woking and available for sale. She’s already crossed the Atlantic 4 times. If anyone reading is thinking of entering a Woodvale race, you can be sure Red Arrow will get you across safely! Thanks for reading, Tom Barnes.

Thanks Tom, what an amazing story. I take my (swimming) hat off to you!

Guest post: Tom Barnes on rowing the Atlantic (and boat for sale!) is a post from The Fit Writer blog.


In deep water with a client

June 24, 2010

Some things are just blogging gold.

Like taking a client open-water swimming. For a blog which is about two things: my work as a freelance copywriter and my sport, such a thing practically writes a post all by itself.

Jeremy is one of my favourite clients. I can’t remember when we met – it was at a networking thing years ago. He runs a marketing agency near Ascot and, over the years, has used my copywriting services for his clients’ websites, brochures, direct mail pieces and adverts. He even got me standing up in front of a room full of telecoms engineers to deliver a workshop on how to create content for blog posts.

Anyway, a while ago I met Jeremy for coffee (one of the things I like about him is that his dedication to Starbucks rivals my own) and, at the end of our meeting, he asked me about open-water swimming races. I explained some of the basic points of taking part in a race, one of them being rescue/support boats. “But don’t worry about that,” I said. “The organiser of the event will have arranged that side of things.” A pause. “Er…I am the organiser,” said Jeremy.

So over the past few months I’ve been giving him a few bits of advice on arranging and training for an open-water swimming event (you can find details of his event here – it’s in aid of the RNLI).

Yesterday, I took him open-water swimming.

It was my first time at the Taplow open-water swim venue. I cycled over (just a side note – rush-hour traffic + the A4 + final-whistle time on a successful England World Cup match = hecklers, crazy drivers and near-death experiences. Thanks, guys. No, really, thank you) and met Jeremy as he was trying on wetsuits which the Taplow guys hire out.

Taplow is a lovely venue – a large lake (which was warm yesterday – 21*C or so I’d say) marked out into 3 routes, the largest being 650m. The staff are super-friendly and there’s a BBQ and hot drinks should you want to partake. It’s £5 to swim and I believe you can buy a book of tickets at a discount. My only gripe was the (pond) weed – but I think any OW venue struggles with weed in hot weather.

I’m more used to seeing Jeremy suited and booted, but we posed for a wetsuited photo (…eyes closed, again!) before getting down to biznass.

I gave Jeremy the condensed version of my coaching sessions at Dorney: acclimatisation, sighting, turning, drafting and mass starts as we did one 650m loop, stopping at each buoy to talk about his stroke, sighting and kick. I mentioned some drills he could try in the pool which I thought might help.

Swim-hats off to Jeremy, I thought he did fantastically well. First time in open-water and he did one big loop straight off without a problem. Those of you who swim OW might remember your first training session. Those of you who don’t, just bear in mind that there’s no black line on the bottom (you can’t even see the bottom!), no lane ropes, no wall every 25m to hang on to. Then there’s weed, swans, ducks and all manner of other unusual stuff for your brain to cope with. Some people freak right out, others find they just can’t swim in a straight line, or have a panic at some point or another.

Back at the start buoy, he took off to do one extra 490m loop and I decided to do another 650m. A pack of swimmers had started a few minutes before us and I was pleased to pick each of them off in turn, finishing with a sprint for the final buoy to catch their lead swimmer.

Our session finished with a brief tutorial on how to get your wetsuit off quickly in a triathlon before Jeremy and I both cycled back to our respective homes.

Swim followed by bike? Getting wetsuits off quickly? Hang on, that sounds like triathlon stuff! You’re right…did I mention that I persuaded Jeremy to do the Marketing Industry Triathlon with me in a couple of weeks? That’s more blogging gold, right there…. 😉


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