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.


Fancy swimming a mile every hour…for 24 hours?

April 7, 2011

Like swimming? Free between 9.30am on 30th April and 9.30am on 1st May? Well then here’s a challenge for you: swimming a mile, on the hour, every hour, for 24 hours all in the beautiful setting of Guildford Lido.

This unusual challenge is the 2swim4life event and it’s all happening in aid of the charity Help for Heroes. I was contacted recently about 2swim4life but can’t take part myself this year. But I thought some of my lovely readers might be able to. So, do you fancy it?

Entrants include channel swimmers, open water swimmers, distance and sprinters all seeing who has the mental and physical staying power to go the distance. I would imagine the psychological and emotional challenges will be just as great – if not greater – than the physical ones. I remember that one of the worst bits about the two-way Channel relay I did in 2005 was the “getting in and out and in again” aspect. I wonder how the 2swim4life event swimmers will cope with having to get back in to swim a mile…23 times. Finishing that 24th mile will feel fantastic!

The organisers told me:

So far there are individuals from Spain and the Isle of Man as well as all across England. There are teams of three and individuals wanting to push themselves. There are a variety of reasons behind people wanting to do the challenge: some want to see how much they can raise for the worthwhile charity, whilst some have lost loved ones in conflict and want to give something back to help others.

The event is for swimmers over 25 years of age on 31/12/11. Swimmers aged 18-25 don’t have to feel left out – they are welcome to take part in the half event. It’s the same format, swimming a mile on the hour, but starting at 9.30pm and swimming overnight until the finish at 9:30am.

The event start date and time coincides with the first day of opening of Guildford Lido’s Summer opening so it’s a great chance for people to come and see the fantastic facilities at the Lido. Swimmers will be welcome to use the hot tub and marquee, get hot drinks and of course enjoy the wonderful company of…like-minded folk 😉

We do ask that each swimmer assigns a non-swimming buddy to help look after their mental, physical and emotional wellbeing, as well as ensuring their fitness for such a task.

Is this tough but exciting challenge for you? Go on, give it a go. Just be sure to let me know how you get on. There’s a guest blog post waiting for you here 🙂


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.


Sports journalism: Nicola Joyce interview

November 12, 2010

This week I was asked by the website Essential Writers to talk a little about my journalistic niche: sport and fitness. The interview is now up on the Essential Writers site; if you’re interested in how to get into sports journalism or just want to read what I have to say about the job, the perks and the challenges, head over and have a look.

Here’s an extract:

It’s difficult to untangle my career as a sportswriter from my own adventures in sport and fitness. In fact, I don’t think I’d be doing this job had it not been for one, rather special, sporting achievement. This is how it happened:

I made the decision to become a freelancer when I was made redundant and moved out of London. It seemed like as good a time as any to pursue a career in writing (something I’d always wanted to do). Initially, I took on copywriting clients, but knew I really wanted to write features for sport and fitness magazines.

I just needed a way to get my foot in the door. At the time, I was just a few weeks away from swimming the English Channel (the first of two successful swims, as it would turn out). If I couldn’t pitch a first-person piece about swimming the Channel, it was unlikely I had what it takes to be a freelance writer of sport-related features…

Thanks to Essential Writers for inviting me to be part of their specialist genres pages.

Sports journalism: Nicola Joyce interview is a post from The Fit Writer blog.


How a swimming journalist works

November 8, 2010

Whilst the majority of my work days are spent at my desk researching, sending pitches, looking for case studies and writing, my work as a triathlon and swimming journalist does take me to some less-typical “office spaces”.

Remember the time I had a coaching session in London’s Serpentine Lido with Keri-Anne Payne’s open-water coach and then wrote up my notes from this deck-chair in Hyde Park?

Or the times I conducted interviews with Liam Tancock and Bill Furniss on the side of a swimming pool whilst in a towel (me, not Liam or Bill)?

Not to mention that one time I interviewed top triathlete Tim Don. He was in an ice-bath, in his pants. He said it was OK!

Last week I had a couple of bits of triathlon kit to test for 220 Triathlon and Triathlete’s World, so took myself to Hampton Lido (I know! It’s heated: what’s happened to me? Well, you try and find a body of open-water in Berkshire in November. Not easy.)

Here she is: 36m of heated loveliness under the crisp November air

After testing some great goggles and a really exciting yet-to-be-released wetsuit (keep your eyes on 220 Triathlon and Triathlete’s World for the reviews!), I went up to the lido’s roof cafe to write my notes.

Bypassing the array of giant muffins and cookies the size of my face, of course (since I’m currently on week 6 of 8…)

And this was my peaceful view.

Do you sometimes get to work somewhere other than your office? And do you have an interesting view from your desk?

How a swimming journalist works is a post from The Fit Writer blog


Race 3 of 3: a swim in London’s Docklands

July 5, 2010

Phew. My third and final race of the week was the Great London Swim, part of the British Gas Great Swim series. I was asked by “Sportsister” magazine to take part and cover the event for their publication and website so, like the Windsor Triathlon, I won’t do a proper write-up here (I’ll post a link to the Sportsister story when it’s online).

Suffice to say that I was a bit tired, standing there on the side of the Royal Victoria Dock at 8:30am! It had only been 16 hours since my last race, and I’d driven across London from Berkshire to get there. That was a first, by the way – driving through the centre of London from one side to the other. It wasn’t that bad, actually, and I got a great view of all the tourist hotspots (and the tourists, on the way back…)

The Great London Swim takes place in the Royal Victoria Dock near London’s Excel. (Despite being billed as “in the Thames”, it just isn’t, surely. It’s a dock. Not the river. Thoughts?) In the middle of this industrial bit of East London, were 5000 swimmers (five times the amount who took part in 2009, apparently) and an entire athlete village with registration, changing, baggage tents, sponsors, refreshments and photography stages. It was all a bit incongruous, but very slick and impressive.

I’m not too sure where the race announcer thought he was. As the swimmers in my wave (8:30am, the first of the day) made our way through to the holding area (where we’d be briefed and have access to a tiny area of water in which to “warm up”), he joyfully told us that “the water is so warm, there’s no need to wear wetsuits! I expect there’ll be some hardy souls today who choose to go without”.

The race information had stated definitely and repeatedly that wetsuits simply must be worn, regardless of water or air temperature. I started an internal debate about whether or not to wear my suit, when the announcer boomed “oh, er, ha ha, I’ve actually just been told you do have to wear wetsuits, yes, wetsuits are mandatory here today!” Well, it was an early start. I wasn’t feeling too sharp myself.

Our wave was started by open-water champ David Davies and then we were off: a “beach” start, a little dive into the (strangely salty) water, and away down the Thames dock.

It was a beautiful swim and I really enjoyed myself. If race one this week was a hot and sweaty slog for a PB, and race two was a battle for a “podium” place, today was all about the love of open-water. Truly, I’d forgotten how much I love swimming in open-water purely for swimming’s sake. Mostly nowadays, I swim open-water as the first leg of a triathlon, and I’m usually thinking about where I left my bike, how my legs are feeling or how hot it will be for the run.

Today, all I had to do was swum, and I loved it. Despite there being over 200 people in my wave, I was away with the first lot and had no-one swimming over me and no-one slowing up in front of me. The water was really murky, but it didn’t matter because there was nothing to collide with. Just green water, the sun on my back and the majesty of all those old docklands buildings as I turned my head to breathe.

It was over all too soon: 31:02 was my time (I hadn’t quite appreciated that there was a scramble out of the water onto a pontoon, and a short run to a timing mat).

And, as I walked away from the finish area, I heard that announcer come out with another classic. “I can’t believe how many women are finishing around the 30-minute mark!” Bless. Someone should tell him that the extra X chromasome really isn’t that heavy to drag around…

Yes, I drove from Berkshire to Excel at 6am and then back again for a 30-minute swim on behalf of a magazine. What can I say? I love journalism and I love open-water swimming.

Great London Swim (1 mile open-water)
31:02
704/3143 finishers
221/1540 female finishers
146/795 in my age group


Sport and fitness journalist’s favourite commissions

May 4, 2010

When you spend your time writing about sport and fitness, every commission’s a good one. But some turn out to be extra-fun. I think these are my favourite commissions…(so far!)

1: Swimming between the Scilly Isles for Coast magazine
In July 2008 I went to the Scilly Isles (by helicopter, no less) to take part in a holiday which involved “island-hopping”… by swimming between the islands. The water was beautiful, but cold. I’d never been to the Scillies before and I was blown away by how stunning the landscape, beaches and wildlife was. On the final day of the trip, I got to swim with seals which was something I’d always wanted to do.

Swimming with seals in Scilly

The article appeared in Coast magazine

2: Swimming around Malta for 220 Triathlon magazine
In April 2008, 220 Triathlon magazine asked me to go on a long-distance swimming training camp in Malta. I was training for my second Channel swim at the time, so I jumped at the chance. Mind you, this was a tough way to get a commission! Over the four day trip, I clocked up more than 12 hours of swimming in the seas around Malta and Comino.

Long-distance training in Malta


The article appeared in 220 Triathlon magazine and you can read it here

3: Training with an Olympic athlete for Triathlete’s World
It’s not every day that you get to train with an Olympic athlete. And it wasn’t until I stepped onto the track at Loughborough University that I realised quite what a silly idea this was (although hopefully it made good reading!) Tim Don is a World Champion Triathlete, who’s represented GB at the Olympics. I’m…er…not! I do triathlon, but at around half the speed that Tim cruises at. Half of this commission took place whilst jogging round the track with Tim during recovery intervals, with the interview being conducted whilst he was sitting in his pants in an ice-bath. I love my job!

Interview with Tim Don


The article appeared in Triathlete’s World magazine.

I need to keep number 4 hush hush for now, as it hasn’t been published yet. Suffice to say it involved spending time with lifeguards… You can read the article in July’s issue of Coast magazine 🙂

Lifeguarding for Coast magazine


As well as copywriting for sport and fitness brands, I write regularly for sport and fitness magazines. You can see some of my journalism portfolio at my journalism website. I’m always available for commission – seals, ice-baths and sea-swimming pose no problem! 😉


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