Friday, 31 December 2010

Goodbye 2010...Hello 2011

We had the most glorious winter break in Tenerife over Christmas - bright sunshine, a relaxed pace and a gratifying absence of all things Christmassy. We celebrated with our traditional Christmas dinner of beans on toast and came back restored, well-sunned and refreshed. Just what we needed at the end of a really challenging term.

All charged up by our lovely holiday, I just got back from the pool, where I did my end of year long swim. This year, I decided to focus on the theme of "2010-2011", and did 20 x 200m, 10 x 100m, 20 x 200m, 11 x 100m (total: 10.1km) - all broken down into smaller segments, with lots of kick, pull and sprints to liven it up along the way. I was joined during the swim by various friends from the triathlon club, with special mention going to Penny, who arrived just when I was starting to flag and helped me to pick the pace back up. It was a really nice swim, but I have to confess that I really felt my lack of training recently. My times were dropping off towards the end, and I feel pretty tired and a bit sore now (but in a good way). Good motivation to get back down to training in earnest when the pool opens again next week.

It's been quite a year. I've been swimming in Jersey, Cork, Malta, the Lake District and, of course, Dover, as well as my regular local lakes, and have trained harder than I ever thought I could. I have swum from Jersey to France....and I swam the English Channel. Even several months later, it still makes me smile to say that out loud. I've also won funding for my "becoming a Channel swimmer" research project, and have already signed up for my next big swim - the Catalina Channel. A good year, I reckon, with hopefully another exciting swimming year to come.

Very best wishes for 2011 to everyone who visits the blog, and to my swimming friends around the world.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Exciting invitation...

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the possibility of an exciting new opportunity in April...Well, my latest news is that I've been invited by Swimtrek to do a couple of weeks' work for them next Spring as a guide on two of their long distance training camps! I was genuinely very surprised (and flattered) to be asked, and am a little daunted by what seems like a lot of very grown-up responsibility, but what an amazing opportunity. The only condition is that I have to get a powerboat qualification! What fun!

Plus... Sally M-G in Jersey has invited me to go on their training camp at the beginning of June as a helper.

I would never have thought that the swimming would have brought so many new opportunities into my life.

A good day in the pool...

It's been such a unsettled term for me that the swimming just hasn't been going that great and I've found it difficult to get into a training rhythm. A combination of work-related stress, the strangeness of Peter and I having to live apart during the week (because he's working Bath Univ), having to leave the swimming club, and the fact that I've not been getting enough regular and hard training in to wear myself out have meant that I've been suffering bouts of chronic insomnia, which just makes it even harder to get out to the pool in the late evening. And to be honest, even when I did manage to go swimming, more often that not it was feeling like a real chore - a 90min commitment at the end of a 10 hour working day. Swimming has always been such a source of pleasure for me, and I really don't want it to be such a struggle.

And then, just when I was starting to lose faith, along came one of those glorious swims where everything just feels right. I did a 6km set at Henrys on Sunday afternoon, and for over an hour of this, I even had the pool to myself. And I felt great from start to finish - like I could swim forever. And when I got out, I was deliciously tired in that way that only swimming can produce. I felt so much better, and am positively excited about getting back in the pool tonight (although this probably also has a lot to do with term having ended!). I still don't know what the answer is to balancing work and training, but this boost came along just when I needed it.

The other change I made on Sunday was to reintroduce post-swim protein shakes. Even though I've been training on and off, I've not been using energy drinks or shakes....mostly because after the hard training of the summer, it didn't feel like I was doing enough to need them. I've been experiencing really restless legs in my insomniac nights, and hadn't even considered that this could be something to do with the exercising / recovery. But yesterday, I used energy drink rather than water, and had a protein shake afterwards, and then didn't have so much as a twitch all night. I can't say for sure that that's the reason, but I certainly felt better for it anyway, so I'm going to reinstate that part of my routine from now on.

So a positive, morale-boosting day in the pool at the end of a tough term...and a good reminder that there is nothing quite like that feeling of a good day in the water.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

time, time, time...

After my year on research leave, I had forgotten just how much the demands of term time swallow everything else. Consequently, I've been experiencing real problems in getting to the pool regularly, which is really frustrating, as well as making me a bit anxious about my preparations for next summer. I had been trying to get into a routine of eating between 6-7pm, and then going to the gym / pool from 8-10pm, but especially over the last couple of weeks, when essay marking was also added to the mix, I've been working through to 8 or 9pm and have ended up skipping more training sessions than I've made. I makes me realise just how much being on leave helped with my training last year - not that I didn't work while I was on leave, but I had much more control over my time, and could work more evenly across the year without the particular intensities of the academic term.

I love my job (although the current economic climate brings its own unwelcome pressures and concerns), but I love the swimming too....and I think that time spent swimming is an essential way of coping with the demands of work in terms of general health and wellbeing. One of the challenges of both academic work and swim training, though, is that neither of them have an obvious end point; it's hard to know how much is enough / too much, and it's easy to end up feeling like you're doing neither of them properly. I don't know what the answer is, but I could really do with a couple more hours in the day...

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Winter swimming

Many very experienced open water swimmer endorse regular immersion in very cold water throughout the Winter as a means of acclimatising to the cold. I have also met many first-time swimmers who incorporated not only cold water swimming into their winter training, but also took cold showers / baths, kept the heating down or off in the house, slept with the windows open etc. A lot of swimmers I have spoken to endorse these practices very strongly, arguing that they provide both psychological preparation as well as physical adaptation. Personally, I have never been convinced by this as an effective training strategy, not least because the body's reaction to water close to freezing and the reaction at 10+ degrees is so different. Consequently, in both seasons, I waited until May and then began the building up of time in the (gradually warming) water.

However, aside from the training side of things, there are, of course, many people who swim in very cold water throughout the winter for the pleasure of it. This, also, had always escaped me, and I had always felt very sceptical of the claims about the invigorating and health-giving properties of cold water swimming. But now I think I may have to think again, because yesterday, I had my first Winter swim and LOVED it.

I was arranging to meet Sarah Taylor (who swam the Channel this year too) for a research interview, and she suggested that we meet at Parliament Hill lido for a swim first. I agreed immediately, mostly because, having never swum in any of the lidos, I was assuming the PH lido was heated....why else would anyone suggest meeting for a swim there in December? And then I checked. Hmm. And as the day approached, Britain sank into an icy cold snap, just to add to my anxieties.

And so, yesterday morning, we met at the lido on the most wintery of days.

Just in case we didn't realise it was a cold day, the electronic sign at the entrance warned us what was to come....

Sarah is an old hand at this business and slipped in quickly (plus she'd cleverly brought an old pair of trainers for walking from the changing room to the pool steps - the mark of experience). I, on the other hand, picked my way barefoot through the snow and lingered tentatively until I realised that my feet were freezing anyway, and that the rest of me was soon to follow as a cold wind licked around me. I reassured myself with the thought that it might be like night swimming, where the water is warmer than the air, and therefore quite comforting . I went down the steps and walked in quickly up to my waste, gasping with the shock of sensation, and then off we went.

For those who do this kind of swimming regularly, this account will not seem the slightest bit remarkable, but as someone doing this for the first time, I was genuinely astonished by the experience. Firstly, it's quite painful to be in water so cold. My hands and feet went numb almost immediately, accompanied by sharp pains; my back prickled as if it were burning; it was hard to control my breathing. I kept my head up, although the water splashed onto my face, numbing my lips and chin. We swam across the width (25 metres) and back, and I was heading for the steps when Sarah suggested another two. Peer pressure won the day and off we went again. I was very chilled by now, but had recovered from the initial shock of immersion and enjoyed these two more. I noticed that small droplets of waters, splashed up by our swimming, were actually freezing in the air and colliding with other frozen droplets, making a soft tinkling sound; my body was experiencing a combination of numbness and intense sensation. When we finally got to the steps to get out, I realised that not only could I not feel my hands, but that I had no dexterity at all and could barely pick up my towel and bag; my hands felt like big, thick sausages. We scurried inside and stood under warm showers which quickly restored sensation to our extremities. It's not the same as the experience of warming up after a two hour swim in May when you get chilled to your core and you warm up slowly after a prolonged period of shivering. Instead, the recovery (like the immersion and physiological response to it) was much faster, and by the time we were out of the showers and dressed back up in our mountains of sweaters, hats, coats and scarves, I was perfectly fine...although I had the most bizarre tingling sensations down my back, arms and legs for several minutes afterwards.

So - my first Winter swim. I have to confess that I had been absolutely dreading it, but the reality of it was quite astounding - I hadn't anticipated the intensity of the sensation, and the rapidity of it. It was painful, but also extraordinary, exciting and enervating; afterwards, I felt full of beans. Perhaps it was because it was my first experience of it, but I found it quite thrilling and invigorating. I still am not convinced by its value as a training activity, although can see how it would have psychological value for those who are worried about the cold. But as an activity in itself, I thought it was fabulous (albeit in a slightly perverse way).

And in this spirit, have also signed up for the cold water swimming championships at Tooting Bec Lido in January (just the 30m freestyle....nothing too ambitious).

What fun.