Monday, 6 November 2017

Recovery drinks....

Since becoming a vegan, I've been struggling to find a good substitute for the High 5 Chocolate Recovery shake that I used to use after training (and which contains milk products). I generally get all of the protein I need from my everyday diet - something that's pretty easy as a vegan, in spite of the myths that persist about the need for meat and dairy to get adequate protein. But if I'm doing swims of more than a couple of hours, I need something extra post-swim to maximise recovery and to stop the weird night-time arm-twitching that I get if I don't refuel properly (a problem I had long before I switched to vegan). Most recovery shakes are far too sweet and sickly for me and over the last couple of years, I have experimented with the small handful of vegan options out there with little success. I also tried soya chocolate milk which is tasty but doesn't really do the job...plus it's quite sugary, and there's a lot of wasteful packaging for each individual drink box, including plastic straws, which are disastrous for the environment:

So then I tried this vegan blend of pea, rice and hemp protein, which I blend up in shakes with banana, blueberries, strawberries, almond milk and maybe some spinach; it's also nice if you add in some coconut or almonds, or a dollop of peanut butter. It's flavourless so requires plenty of other ingredients to make a tasty shake, and consequently, also requires access to a blender - it's not something you can just shake up in the van or the car after swimming. It's £19 for 30+ servings, so it's a good deal and a great option for when you have easy access to a decent blender, especially if you've got some frozen fruit to hand to make a nice thick shake. This is my go-to when I'm at home. 


For out and about, I tried a couple of vegan post-exercise products that you can shake up in a bottle, but they were utterly undrinkable - either sickly sweet or disturbingly grainy. But then last year, I stumbled across this product by Amazing Grass





I'm not so keen on the more 'green' products in their range (literally....very green), but this flavour hit the spot perfectly. It's sweetened with stevia, but isn't sickly, and the chocolate taste isn't overbearing or too plasticky. It's entirely drinkable blended up just with non-dairy milk, and add in a banana and maybe a strawberry or two, and you've got a top notch recovery drink on your hands. It's not cheap (about £22 for 10 servings...although I stretched my last tub to 15 servings by skimping on the scoops a bit and maybe subbing in a few almonds), but it goes down a treat after a hard training session. I also have it for breakfast sometimes, blended with lots of frozen fruit and a big handful of spinach. The downside is that it doesn't really do well without a blender, and although I tried mixing it up in a shaker, this was a grainy and unpleasant non-starter. However, last summer, I acquired one of these portable blenders to keep in the van to get round the problem:


The bottom portion houses the motor, battery and blade, and it's rechargeable via a USB port, meaning that you're not tied to the need for mains electricity. It's not very powerful and can't really manage nuts or frozen fruit, but it can accommodate a scoop of powder, a cup of almond milk and a some bits of soft fruit quite easily - the perfect solution to the problem of the vegan post-swim recovery shake on the move. Problem solved. 

The other product I've started to use is Ultima Replenisher, particularly if I've been running or am somewhere warm. 

I picked up on this from journalist and accomplished marathon swimmer, Elaine Howley, who is a strong advocate, and this is now a standard part of my swimming kit - it shakes up easily in a bottle and is a quick route to rehydration and electrolyte replacement. There are lots of flavours, although the grape flavour is the only one that really works for me (you can buy mixed packs of individual sachets to test them out). It provides zero calories, so you'd need to intake energy in addition if you were mid-swim; but I also imagine this would also be a good option if you had stomach issues during a swim and would keep you on an even keel while everything settled down. A 90 serving tub is £39, which is a bit of an outlay, but pretty good value (and not as wasteful in packaging as individual stick sachets). 

At the moment, this is all rather academic for me as I'm still inching my way back to full fitness after my summer of injuries and am not really able to do enough to even require recovery shakes and electrolyte drinks. But when the time comes, I'll be ready. 

Monday, 28 August 2017

DNS

It has been the summer of Did Not Start (DNS). Unlike last year, when my Geneva DNS materialised right before the scheduled swim and towards the end of the season, this year, the writing was on the wall by mid-June. This left me with a non-swimming summer of watching milestones in my Geneva plans come and go; it was a long summer of wishing it could have been different. I've had several DNF's in my swimming career, and I haven't enjoyed any of them, but for me, the DNS is a more intense disappointment. Last year's accident-induced non-start in Geneva didn't help with this - from the outset, it made this year feel like more was at stake, making the fall harder when it came. The impact of all this was magnified by a simultaneous volley of other events. As I mentioned in my previous post, the death of a much-loved pet, the spectacular, scary and expensive structural failure of our roof and the terrible political climate of Britain in the shadow of Brexit (not to mention the US political landscape) all piled on, and the general stress and upset caused the wrist injury to cascade around my body, creating new and preoccupyingly painful problems in my neck and upper back that have ended up prolonging my swimming hiatus far longer than the original wrist injury would have. I felt wrecked and ragged, and with my 50th birthday approaching in January, I felt terribly old and creaky. In the moments when I felt most sorry for myself, it all seemed like a confirmation that I'd had a lucky run with swimming, but that my aquatic masquerade had been exposed; I felt like I had lost something very important to me that I didn't know how to get back.

It's worth saying at this point that I know that this is a very self-indulgent crisis to have. Not being able to do a marathon swim because of injury is a pretty privileged problem to be faced with, and I am also extremely fortunate to have the resources to pay for the interventions from my osteopath, physiotherapist and massage therapist that have aided my recovery enormously. I know that nothing catastrophic happened here. But at the same time, knowing this also makes the material and psychological impacts of injury even more difficult to talk about to others, which can compound the sense of defeat.

So what to do?

What follows is not an uplifting story of triumphant overcoming, or a 'how to' for surviving injury. Instead, it's a short list of the things that I've tried in order to manage my summer of DNS and re-orient myself now that the season is almost over.

1. Escape
This isn't affordable or practical for everyone, but as the scaffolding went up around our house and the hammering began, I took myself and a pile of interesting books off to the Canary Islands for two weeks. I gave my body chance to recover from its various ills, got heaps of sleep, finished off some writing projects for work, and even managed to do some swimming. There comes a point when your body's had enough and you have to stop. It was the best decision I made this summer.

2. Social media
I enjoy social media, but over the summer, I found it difficult to be confronted by the constant stream of swim-talk. I didn't (and still don't) resent other people's swimming pleasure or successes, but for this summer, I wanted to take a step back from it. I came off Facebook, and temporarily muted a number of very swim-focused accounts on Twitter. I also muted any accounts that regularly post sporting motivational quotes and gifs - I find these annoying at the best of times, but the relentlessly trite attribution of swimming success to the power of mind over matter is positively insulting when you're injured and no amount of positive thinking is going to fix things. So I just turned them off. I kept half an eye on some events, and there have been some truly incredible swims this summer, but basically I took a long breath of fresh, social-media-free air.

3. Volunteering
I resisted the desire to hide away from swimming entirely, and instead, volunteered to help out with several BLDSA swimming events in the Lake District - some kayaking, some time-keeping and marshalling. This allowed me to keep a toe in the swimming world, and also forced me to confront the utterly mundane reality of injury as an inevitable part of an extreme sport like marathon swimming. It also gave me some extremely memorable moments: kayaking for 74-year old Bryan Finlay in the BLDSA Coniston Vets race and seeing him finish in spite of fierce winds and cold conditions; spending 4 hours in a kayak in the middle of the night on Windermere on a beautifully clear, calm night, guiding overnight 2-way swimmers round the turn buoy and watching meteor showers; and kayaking for Patrick Smith for his successful length of Ullswater. I also managed to capsize just metres from the finish of Patrick's swim - what I lack in kayaking ability, I try to make up for with enthusiasm. Volunteering is what makes the swimming world go round, so injury was an opportunity to help out and still be part of the fun and challenge of swimming, even from the sidelines.

4. Stroke correction
Thanks to the ministrations of the various professionals who have helped put my ailing body back together again, I'm now pain-free and good to go, but the original wrist injury is most likely the result of a stroke defect, and the only way to prevent it from happening again is to fix it. So last week, I went to see Swim Smooth coach, Emma Brunning. I've worked with her before, and like her thoughtful approach and sharp eye. I went in convinced that my habit of splaying my fingers on entry and then snapping them shut before catching was the problem, but the video showed an additional, and much more likely, culprit - my bendy wrist:



The video shows an unmistakable tilt of the wrist downwards at the beginning of the catch phase; this then straightens up again as I hinge from the elbow to continue through, but repeated over thousands of strokes, this must have been placing incredible strain on my lower arm. There's a small chain of problems that are connected to this (including my splayed fingers and a bit of a dead spot at the front of the stroke on the left side) and these are now the subject of daily drilling in order to break bad habits and hopefully forge new ones. It feels like it's going to be a long job, but I have to confess to quite enjoying this kind of work - it's very consuming as a task and feels constructive after months of relative inactivity.

***

As I write this, I don't yet know what, if anything, comes next. I am nervous to take on another long swim after two disappointing years of DNS, but I love long swimming and think I'd regret it if I let the fear of it going wrong stop me from trying. And I still haven't swum through a whole night - something that I'm itching to try. I also feel like my 50th should be marked by something ambitiously fun. We'll see.

For now, I'm relieved that the summer of DNS is drawing to a close and I can turn my attention to my next adventure - a year of research leave, courtesy of the Leverhulme Trust, to work on my new project, "The Social Life of Sugar". That...and the drilling, and whatever comes next....

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Defeated...

It's not been the best week - on Monday, we had to put our lovely old cat, Oscar, to sleep; we discovered that our entire roof needs to come off and all the beams need to be replaced; and then came the messy upheaval of the election and its aftermath towards the end of the week. And throughout, I was trying desperately to remain optimistic about the intractable niggle in my left wrist. It had started a couple of weeks ago, becoming sore and swollen, with the tendons squeaking and rubbing together whenever I moved my wrist or thumb. It felt very sudden, but it probably wasn't; I'd done several long swims in the preceding two weeks which presumably stressed the tendons without me realising it. With the help of my physio, I treated it every way I knew how - rest, ice, taping, denial, optimism - and by the end of last week I had full and pain-free movement and no more squeaky tendons. At the same time, I had managed to postpone my planned Geneva qualification swims for another week; I was hoping that now my wrist was better, I could slowly build back up during the week ready for the swims and then I'd be good to go for the last run up to Geneva II. But sadly, a gentle test swim yesterday morning caused a mild, but unmistakeable, return of the symptoms and I was faced with an unavoidable truth: that if I couldn't do 30 minutes in the pool without triggering it, I was never going to be able to do 10 + 7 hour qualification swims without setting my injury so far back that I wouldn't be able to train between the qualification swim and Geneva. A session with my physio confirmed my suspicions; tendon injuries generally take longer than 2 weeks to heal properly, and although we'd tried really hard, it wasn't looking good. This was particularly true with "old" tendons, he told me. Thanks for that.

The inescapable fact of the matter is that there is simply not enough time for the injury to fully settle and to correct whatever stroke defect is causing it (my persistently wiggly thumb is the prime suspect) before the Geneva swim, never mind actually training for it. And so, in spite of my best efforts and determination for it to be otherwise, I have declared defeat and this summer's qualification swims and the Geneva swim have been cancelled.

In an extreme endurance sport, injury is an occupational hazard, where even the slightest problem is easily magnified to swim-stopping dimensions - whether that's stupidly slipping off a small step, or the imperceptible rubbing of two tiny tendons under the strain of a misplaced micro-movement. I don't know if I have just been unlucky, or perhaps I didn't work hard enough to take care of my body in my training, or maybe I have just over-reached in taking on such an ambitious swim. I feel bad for messing people about (LGSA, Chillswim, Janine and Kate who were coming over to crew) and am embarrassed that once again I've not managed to make it to the start line. At least the injury was swimming-related this time, so perhaps that's some kind of progress.

I'd like to say that I'm down but not out, but right now, I don't feel like that. I love swimming, and especially swimming a long way, but I'm not sure that I have the temperament for such a high-risk game. We'll see. But for now, back to physio and stroke correction I go.



Sunday, 28 May 2017

Unfinished business...

My one reservation about going back to Geneva this year was that the lure of "unfinished business" would raise the stakes of the swim to the point where it would cease to be the enjoyable adventure that a swim like that deserves to be. In general, I think I've done a pretty good job of keeping it in proportion and not letting it gather too much import over the winter, but the start of the open water season saw my first major wobble. I spent two weeks in Lanzarote at the end of April, covering just over 90km in total and feeling really good in the water, but my return to the open water in the UK didn't go quite so well. It was COLD, and a combination of having lost a bit of weight and being a bit of a softy in the face of the cold, left me unable to get beyond a couple of hours for my first few outdoors swims before my stroke slowed dramatically and I had to get out. There was a lot of this:



It was very disheartening, and with my 10 hour + 7 hour qualification swims looming and the unfinished business of Geneva waiting in the wings, my confidence took a bit of a battering. Thankfully, several people I know and trust gave me a good talking to, and then right on cue, some long-awaited sunshine arrived and the lakes quickly tipped over the threshold from cold to perfectly swimmable (for me, this comes between 12/13 - 14/15).

And so, with the unfinished business back in its box and an almost unbelievable forecast of 25 degree sunshine for the Lake District, I heading off to the always-stunning Grasmere this weekend to get a bit of confidence-building distance under my belt:


I managed my first 6 hour swim of the season with no problems at all, and I followed that with a couple of hours the next day - I was hoping to do more and definitely would have been able to, but thunder, lightning and torrential rain of the kind that only the Lake District can truly deliver stopped play and I was forced to retreat to the van, where I feasted on beans on toast and read until I fell asleep. If this is what unfinished business is like, then I think I can deal with it! 

So the upshot of all this is that I had a bit of a wobble, but some sunshine and the gorgeous Lakes have set me straight. I've got a touch of niggly tendonitis in my left wrist which I'm getting sorted, but apart from that, I'm fit and well and feeling cautiously optimistic. 

And in other news, I recently heard that I've been awarded a Leverhulme Trust fellowship for my new research project on the social life of sugar. This is a huge privilege and a great opportunity, but aside from the work implications (research only for the next year, with no teaching or admin commitments) and the chance to focus on some interesting research, it also means that I'll have the time to train. I was going to take a year or two out of long swimming after Geneva II is over - a chance to let my body / finances recover. But this seems like too good an opportunity to waste. So I'm probably going to be on the market for an interesting swim. At the moment, the 40 Bridges, Zurich or Tahoe are on the 'possible' list, but all suggestions are gratefully received. 

But for now, I'm keeping my sights on (a) the qualification swims in a couple of weeks (2-way-Windermere + 1-way Windermere) and (b) Geneva II. And I'm watching my step very carefully. 


Saturday, 4 March 2017

Inclusive swimming

I read today that the UK's Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) has issued a new swimwear guidance that allows for exceptions to the usual rules for competition swimwear on the grounds of religious belief or pre-existing medical condition. These changes are in response to a review requested by the Muslim Women's Sports Foundation (MWSF), who highlighted growing participation by Muslim women and girls in sport and the need to foster this interest by maximising the possibilities for access. The revised rules allow the use of textile full body suits that do not have the potential to enhance performance and which have been approved by officials in advance. This change to the rules will primarily benefit those women and girls whose religious beliefs mean that they would prefer to cover their body.

The ASA guidance includes these images of the kinds of suits that are included by the new guidance:

The guidance also includes examples of suits that the revised rules will continue to exclude: 


There has been some predictable grumbling on social media about the changed rules potentially serving as a back door to performance enhancing body suits, but this is clearly not the purpose or consequence of this ruling. It's also important to note that this is distinct from recent FINA changes to the rules about wetsuits in competitive open water swimming, which have also caused controversy in the open water / marathon swimming / triathlon communities. Instead, this new guidance is simply a way of enabling more women and girls to compete in swimming, and that has to be a good thing. 

BME communities are notoriously poorly represented in swimming (all kinds, all levels). This is due to a combination of factors including lack of access to affordable swimming lessons and facilities and the lack of perceived 'fit' with the sport (i.e. children being pointed towards other sports, or being told that 'black people can't swim' because of outdated and racist assumptions about bone density). This poor representation is particularly true for women and girls. There is also the legacy of the historical exclusion of non-white people from swimming facilities - for example, during segregation in the US (see Wiltse's 2007 book, Contested Waters, for a frank and disturbing account of this) - which has ongoing generational impacts in terms of facilities, expectations and a paucity of role models. 

So this small change in the swimwear guidance isn't going to solve the problem of the whiteness of swimming, but it is an important beginning, and signals the active valuing of participation and inclusion to those outside of the sport who might like to give it a try. 

And this got me thinking about other branches of the swimming world where strict costume rules apply, including marathon swimming. This is a sensitive and hotly contested area, but it seems to me that marathon swimming is in a position to be among the leaders in the field of amateur endurance sport by actively incorporating amendments of this kind to swimwear rules. Changes like this to the regulations by Channel / marathon swimming governing bodies are relatively costless, since they would not confer a performance advantage on swimmers wearing full body costumes, but would demonstrate an openness to the social diversity that is currently lacking. It's a small measure, but one that I think would speak volumes in welcoming new swimmers to the marathon swimming community. 


Thursday, 12 January 2017

Starting from where you are....

One of the hardest lessons of training is that you have to start from where you are, and not from where you think you should be at any given point in the training cycle. 

In my last post, optimistically entitled "Recovery", I was optimistic about having completed my functional recovery from the ankle injury and having been signed off from physiotherapy. But the reality was that this was just the beginning of a much longer, slower phase of recovery where my injured ankle inched with glacial slowness towards fuller, more reliable pain-free function. And inevitably, from time to time, I became impatient, or perhaps over-optimistic, and pushed too hard, causing it to swell and ache. Sometimes, even just wearing regular shoes to work rather than allowing myself the comfort and support of trainers, meant that evenings had to be spent with my foot up, wrapped in ice. Each setback made me feel old and useless and  I kept returning in my mind to the costly moment of inattention when I fell, wanting to take it back and have it all work out differently. 

But they're not kidding when they say that time heals, albeit with frustrating slowness. And since Christmas, I've enjoyed a step-change in my recovery and can swim, cycle and run without pain for the first time in months. I'm still proceeding cautiously, and am diligently nurturing my physio-acquired, ankle-stabilising skills of balancing on wobbly things, but at last, I feel like it's pretty much fixed and ready to really take on the work of training. Over Christmas, we escaped to the Canary Islands, and although a sustained weather pattern of lively winds made swimming difficult, I was able to taste the beginnings of the return of the comforts of being in the water....a necessary foundation for training for me. 

Since November, I've been doing short, 30 minute swims (with the occasional hour thrown in), mostly with a pull-buoy at first, then more recently on full stroke. I've also been walking on a treadmill and riding a stationary bike, although both at low intensity. So I still have some basic fitness, but nothing like what I am going to need this summer for Geneva 2, and the gap between my current swim fitness and where I'd like to be now in order to get where I want to be is quite daunting. 

But....you have to start from where you are. So I have a training plan, running in the first instance through to mid-April, when I'll be going to the Canary Islands for two weeks of hard open water training (with the goal of 100+km during the trip). The next goal after that is to complete the qualifying swims of 10 hours, followed by 7 hours the next day....probably sometime around mid-June. My weeks are mapped out to incorporate gradually increasing volume, and even though I'm starting from only 4 hours per week at the moment, I have to trust that by starting from where I am rather than where I feel like I should be, I will be able to stay injury free and rediscover my long swim fitness. Happily, too, I'm on research leave now until September, which should mean that I can train with a consistency that usually escapes me during the teaching term. I've also been working over the past few months on improving the quality and quantity of my sleep, and I've tweaked my vegan diet slightly to focus even more on whole foods and to eliminate (almost) all processed food. Both of these efforts have been effective, although I'm also aware that these interventions were as much about making me feel purposeful in the face of my ankle frustrations as they were about improving my well-being (although both have). 

So that's where things stand....with 30 weeks to go, I'm starting from where I am and determined to do everything I can to get where I want to be. Money is being put down for the swim, and there's no going back now. 

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Recovery

It is 7 weeks to the day since my accident in Geneva, and I am finally able to walk around pain-free with a relatively strong and stable ankle. The abrupt failure to even start the swim and the frustrations of debility have left me feeling sad and demotivated at times, but the last two weeks have seen a rapid acceleration in the healing process in ways that have completely transformed my ability to get around and enabled me to begin rebuilding my lost fitness....including, at last, a return to the pool. 

I had always thought of physio as something you did after an injury had pretty much healed rather than to facilitate healing, and so when I first contacted Mark Wilkinson of Skipton’s Paragon Physiotherapy, I asked whether it was even worth coming in while the injury was still relatively new and angry or whether I should hold off for a bit. He was emphatic that I should start immediately and offered me an appointment for the next day. This, as it turns out, was one of the best decisions I have made and Mark has been pivotal to my recovery. He put me on an intensive regime of cold therapy, and kept me off the foot for longer than I would have if left to my own devices, but then two weeks ago, the pace of treatment changed and we went from resting, to simple strengthening exercises with a stretch band, to a wobbly cushion for proprioception, to today – a session of strength and proprioception tests that had me balancing on wobble boards, doing squats on a bosu ball, bouncing on an unstable trampoline whilst boxing or throwing and catching a ball, doing walking lunges carrying a 10kg weight and jumping two-footed over low hurdles whilst trying not to thud to a landing with the finesse of a sack of potatoes (apparently, we were aiming for balletic, but let’s face facts…).

It’s such a fascinating process to go through. Weaknesses I couldn’t even feel sprang to the surface as I tried to do various exercises….or more accurately, they ran through my body as it tried to respond to the demands I was placing on it. Occasionally, my right hand would start to shake violently mid-exercise; with all my focus and energy on my left foot, it was as if the embodied effort and tension of completing the task was pouring into my unattended opposite hand. And then there was the step – a stable platform, barely a foot high, which I had to jump up onto, two-footed, from standing. The first time Mark asked me to do it, I couldn’t even get my feet off the floor – it was as if my brain wouldn’t even let me consider jumping. Apparently this is a defence mechanism – the brain knows that all is not well and that the proprioception is damaged and stops you putting yourself at risk. But this isn’t a “mind over matter” affair – you can’t ‘think’ your way out of it. Instead, you have to take the time to restore the neural pathways before the jump even becomes thinkable. The body is never simply a matter of mechanics. 

And so….after all the balancing, hopping and jumping, I have finally been discharged from treatment with my foot strong and stable enough to move safely through everyday life without the immediate risk of going over on it again. I still need to be careful with it and to keep up with exercises to build on the progress already made, and it’s still a bit sore at the end of a busy day and needs to be iced, but it is a world apart from the day I hobbled home from Barcelona. I have started swim training again, and have Geneva II firmly in my (long-range) sights. 

And so, my advice to anyone who finds themselves in a similar position in the future is: find yourself an experienced, well-qualified sports physiotherapist as soon as possible and do whatever they tell you to do. I am hugely indebted to Mark for his expertise and care and learned a lot in the process.

But most of all, try not to fall down steps in the first place. It saves a lot of trouble later.