Saturday, 29 October 2011

Small adjustments...

The work of stroke corrections continues - a slow, frustrating but absorbing process of abandoning deeply entrenched habits and learning new, more efficient technique. My body is annoyingly intractable at times, resisting the small but significant adjustments and quickly falling back into comfortable (comforting?) old habits of movement as soon as my attention wanders. But there are also moments when I hit it right, and suddenly, momentarily, I see what Ian's getting at. And then it goes again. But there is some progress, as you can see below, although evidenced only by the smallest adjustments in posture, position and movement, and not, as yet, by any increases in endurable speed.

The first problem that we are focusing on is my waggly head, which lifts out of the water on each breath, exposing virtually my whole face. To support this, my opposite arm drifts out sideways contributing very little, and forward propulsion is doubly interrupted by my drag-producing head and my drifting arm. It also tends to produce a rather "ballistic" (to use Ian's term) recovery, with my hand travelling above the elbow, and then crashing into the water on entry.

Still a work in progress, but here's a snap from my most recent session - note the head is much more in line with the body, with only one goggle lens exposed. Plus, I've managed to keep a higher elbow and a more relaxed recovery.

The second problem was my lack of an effective catch, with straight arms drifting out and down, especially on a breath, and not catching until my hand was almost directly below my shoulder.

But slowly...oh so straight arm is learning how to do this...a high elbowed catch that enables me to get a proper grip on the water.

In tandem with these changes, perhaps the biggest change I'm trying to make is to move from breathing every three to every two strokes. This is hard, firstly because I was very attached to the idea of breathing every three as a way of balancing out the strain on the body over a long swim. And secondly, the rhythm of threes has become really central to my strategies for keeping going...I like to count to four, but emphasising the breathing strokes, creating a nice syncopated rhythm - ONE two three FOUR one two THREE four one TWO three four...and so on. As I get back to longer swimming, I'm going to have to work on something to replace what for me is the core soundtrack of the long distance swim.

But I remember on our Channel relay in 2009, Marcy Macdonald (our official observer) advised me during a particularly hard-push bit of the swim to breathe every two, doing, say, 6 breaths on one side, then six on the other to achieve balance. It was too big a change to implement during the swim, and afterwards, I quickly settled back into my habitual threes, not wanting to do the hard work of changing those ingrained habits at the same time as training for the Jersey swims and the Channel. I think that I chose to ignore this piece of (expert) advice for the same reason that I never really did the speed work before my Channel swim that I had been advised to do....somehow, I thought those things only applied to the faster swimmers, and that as long as I could plod on forever, I'd be fine. But now I want to be a better swimmer too, so at last, I'm finally starting to take this advice seriously. An extra incentive to sort this out comes from Ian, who is absolutely adamant that breathing every three will create inefficiencies through oxygen debt, and that breathing more often, combined with a breathing technique that doesn't interrupt my stroke, will speed me up over distance. So, that too is on the daily list of things to work on.

I miss the solid effort of a good 5-6km training session, but for now, am determined to stick with the attentive swimming of the stroke correction process. And in the mean time, I'm still running...and equally incremental process, but satisfying in its unspectacular way. Inching up in quarter mile chunks, my longest run each week is now 2.75 miles. I don't think Paula Radcliffe is going to be losing sleep just yet, but when I complete each new increment in distance, I feel full of joy at my progress.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Florence Chadwick - What's My Line?

I saw this circulating on Facebook and couldn't resist. It's from a 1955 episode of "What's My Line", and features the wonderful open water swimmer, Florence Chadwick - a four times English Channel swimmer who broke Gertrude Ederle's world record in 1950, crossing in 13 hours and 20 minutes. I love the fact that the panelist eventually guesses based on her having "the beautiful wide shoulders of a wonderful swimmer", although they get distracted at first by the assumption that she must be famous because of who she married!

Florence Chadwick was a true pioneer and an inspirational woman in whose footsteps I am proud to tread (in my own far less impressive way). Today's women swimmers owe her, and the other early female swimmers, an enormous debt for the work they did in opening up new possibilities for women, both in and out of the water.


Friday, 21 October 2011

20,000+ blog views

Time to celebrate - my little blog has now had over 20,000 views since it started. Who'd have thought it! Thanks to everyone who stopped by.

Swimfit - when is weight loss talk not about weight loss?

So, further to my concerns about the Swimfit use of the "pinch an inch" image on the Shape Up and Tone section of their website, I wrote the following e-mail to their complaints address:

"I am writing to complain about the problematic image used to illustrate the 'Shape up and tone" section of your front page, and then again, for the "how does your sport compare?" box. The image shows a very slim torso, with the flesh being pinched =, presumably to evaluate fatness. The "pinch an inch" test has long been discredited as offering any meaningful information, especially when conducted by untrained individuals. It is healthy to have pinchable flesh on the body, and it is disappointing that the website is so flagrantly focusing on cosmetic issues while purporting to be promoting health and well-being.

I am an experience and passionately involved long distance open water swimmer (English Channel 2010, Catalina Channel 2011) as well as a sociologist researching long distance open water swimming and its relation to what constitutes the "fit body" (among other aspects). In my view, your website needs to be very clear that weight in itself (and especially having pinchable flesh around the torso) is in no way a predictable measure for health. This is an incredibly impoverished view of what swimming has to offer, and presents the view that less body fat is always better."

To their credit, they got back to me pretty quickly, but the reply was frankly baffling:

"Hi Karen,
The website shows this picture for the Shape Up & Tone programme, which is not any suggestion about weight. it is simply to tone your body whatever shape it may be. None of our programmes have mention of weight they are simply to encourage people into the water, get them swimming and enjoy themselves while following our programmes. The Shape Up & tone programme encourages strengthening of more muscle groups to tone the body but has no mention of loss of weight. Of course, if someone writes to us asking how to lose weight with swimming we can help them but that is not the aim of the programme".

If we set aside for a moment the ways in which words like "toning" and "shape up" are codes for weight loss, what's most striking about the reply is the extraordinary claim that none of the programmes mention weight / weight loss. Take, for example, this extract (my highlights added) from the front page of the Shape Up and Tone section of the website:

"Shape Up and Tone is for you if you are seeking to bring about some changes in the way you look or considering using swimming as part of a weight management programme.

This may be maintaining your current weight but achieving a more toned appearance or as part of a weight loss programme. And there are some great reasons why you should be swimming to achieve this.
Did you know even a gentle swim can burn over 200kcal in half an hour and a fast front crawl can burn as many calories as an 8mph run? True.
And the because water is about 800 times denser than air, you can work harder, and burn more calories, in a pool than out of it? Again true."

Not only does the text slip easily between mention of "toning" and direct reference to weight / weight management / weight loss, but also, the only "great reasons" that are offered for using swimming both concern calorie burning (an obvious reference to weight loss). If the strengthening of muscle groups is the goal of the programme (as the Swimfit representative suggests), then a "great reason" to do it would be evidence of improved muscle strength and its effects in people following such a programme. The number of calories presumed to be burned tells us nothing about this. I can only return to my original conclusion that the section is actually about weight management....which brings me back to the image as fundamentally, and problematically, about weight. It is frankly disingenuous to say that the programme doesn't mention or refer to weight, since it evidently does so, both implicitly and explicitly.

And while I'm on a roll....let's take a moment to think about the "Choosing the right swimwear" section (also in the Shape Up and Tone section. There's a section each for men and women, each with lists of body shapes and parts matched to style advice about what shape of costume to choose to distract the onlooker's eye from flaws and draw it towards more "appealing characteristics". I'll save my comparison of the male and female advice sections for another day, but suffice to say that the women are given more possible problems to worry about, and the advice is more elaborately oriented to very specific body parts, rather than "builds", as is the case predominantly for the men. But real objection is this....The section for "pear shape" women begins: "A pear shape has often been a plague for women, but it no longer needs to be." A plague? Really? Women are on the receiving end of plenty of devastating problems - domestic violence, lack of reproductive freedom, unequal pay, sexism - but plagued by a body shape? Only in the eyes of those who prioritise how women look over what they can do could this sentence make sense. As soon as you focus on "flaws", you make them matter; as soon as you offer advice about how to hide them, you make it difficult for women to feel anything other than ashamed of their bodies. If the Swimfit programme is about getting people into the water, rather then teaching women to surveille and discipline their bodies for public consumption, then why does this section not simply say, "It doesn't matter what you wear - as long as the costume is comfortable, you're good to go!"?

Phew. Glad I got that off my chest.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Pinch an inch?

I was browsing the British Gas Swimfit website today and was really frustrated to find this image, which is used to illustrate both the "shape up and tone" section of the site, and this box which takes stroke, intensity and duration and gives you the calorie expenditure estimated to be involved, plus a comparison with other activities such as walking or running.

I have so many problems with this. Firstly, the person pinching their flesh is very lean, but it is still not clear whether this is representing the identification of a problem or the demonstration of the "good" body. Either way, the "can you pinch an inch?" mode of body assessment is highly discredited, not least because healthy bodies are supposed to have flesh on them. Furthermore, the association of the image with calorie counts draws a straight line from calorie intake to targeted fat loss - a move that conveniently skips over the well-recognised complexity and unpredictability of energy balance and the impossibility of targeted body fat loss as a product of intake reduction.

And secondly, while I'm having a bit of a about how to suck the life out of swimming. I can't think of anything more impoverished than the measurement of swimming's benefits through the miserly counting of calories. Interestingly, while the other non-competitive sections of the Swimfit programme (Health and Fitness) offer evidence of tangible health benefits from swimming (e.g. reduced stress and depression, greater physical comfort while exercising for those with mobility difficulties or joint problems, improved range of motion), the Shape up and Tone section only offers estimated calorie usage with changes to body size and composition assumed. Where is the evidence of actual health-related improvements to support this aspect of the scheme? In this model, the increase in energy output is always presumed to be desirable because it is presumed to lead to weight loss (which is also deemed to be always desirable) - it's actual relation to health and well-being is unclear, and the "pinch an inch" picture sends a confusing and offensive message that health can be measured directly off body composition.

You only have to look at the average Channel swimmer to know that the relationships between health, fitness and body fat is far more complicated than that.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Waggly head and ballistic arm...

A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Ian Smith at Swim Shack as part of my project to revamp my swimming technique and speed up a bit, as well as trying to avoid any further injury problems with my shoulder and hand. There is nothing like being videoed from multiple angles in an endless pool and then having it played back to you immediately to bring home the vast gulf between how your swimming feels and how it looks in practice. In particular, the first thing that Ian homed in on was my waggly head, which lifts out of the water at an angle on each breath. Looking back at pictures from my Catalina swim, for example, you can see this very clearly:

One of the effects of this, especially when I breathe to the right (where the problem is more pronounced), is for my left arm to shoot out sideways in search of leverage to support my tilted head. It then tends to drift, straight-armed, downwards, not getting any real catch until it's well down my body. It's obviously something that's really slowing me down, because when I tried just swimming without taking a breath, with the flow of the endless pool at the same rate as before, I immediately smacked into the propulsion unit and the flow had to be increased quite considerably. Most notably, my arm doesn't drift and sink when I keep my head down. So, this is what I've been working on....breathing by keeping my head in line with my body, rather than tilting upwards. It sounds really easy, but like all embodied habits, it's a tough one to change and I can still only execute a breath properly for just a few cycles before my head pops back up again. Work in progress.

The second big issue was what Ian describes as my "ballistic" left arm. My arm tends to fly out of the back of the stroke and over my hip before hurtling forwards with the hand well above the elbow, and smacking into the water. I thought that it was connected to the breathing problem (which it probably is in the holistic sense), but I still do it when I swim without taking a breathe, so it's also an engrained habit in its own right. Ian reckoned that this is almost certainly what is causing my shoulder problem, and, rather ominously, remarked that we'd need a whole separate session to deal with that! So, I'm not concentrating on that for now and am trying to focus on my waggly head. I'm going back in two weeks, so hopefully I'll start to be less "ballistic" very soon.

I'm swimming three or four times a week, just for about 45 mins or so.... hopefully I'll be able to increase this a bit once the beginning-of-term dust has settled. Mind you, I have to say that I'm enjoying having a break from the hard swimming - I think a fallow period will do me good, and by next Spring, I'll be dying to get back to it.

In the mean time, I'm also pursuing my parallel project of adding in running and strength and conditioning training to my routines. The S&C is one of those things that it's hard to measure progress in, except that I'm slowly increasing reps and exercises. The running, however, gives a much greater sense of progress, however unimpressive in the context of the wider running world. After a month of preparatory walk-running, I've moved on to Hal Higdon's novice 5km programme, and am now comfortably running 1.5-1.75 miles four times a week at roughly 10min / mile pace. This is a distinct improvement from when I started this project when I couldn't run for more than a few consecutive minutes without turning bright scarlet. I sometimes feel quite frustrated by all this, and cross with myself for so thoroughly letting my running fitness go - only 7 years ago, I ran the Barcelona marathon in 4.20, which is not fast by any means, but was a decent performance for me at the time. But I have to keep reminding myself that you have to start from where you are, not where you wish you were. And I do have a good fitness base on my side from all of the swimming, so I'm sure that's helping. And if there's one thing that Channel swimming has taught me to make good use of, it's patience.

So there we go...incrementally advancing S&C and running and a work-in-progress stroke correction.

Plus, I'm now analysing the swimming data and am in the very early stages of planning out the writing phase of the research. More about this later when I have something to show for it.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

British to organise a dog's breakfast of a ticketing process

So... like many people who failed to get Olympics tickets for the swimming, I excitedly pre-registered myself for priority booking for the British Gas Swimming Championships, 2012 - the GB trials in the new aquatics centre. The fact that British Gas are involved, even only as sponsors, should have given me a heads up (anyone who's tried to deal with what they laughingly call "customer services" will know what I mean), but this was just a spectacular dog's breakfast from the outset. The ticketing website, accessible through an individualised link, was supposed to open at 9am today, and I was duly online at 9.05, ready to book my tickets before my morning of meetings. But wasn't up yet. I don't know what time it opened, but I checked briefly at 9.50 and it was working, but I had no time before my meeting, so I started again at just gone 11am....What a mess. The system was slow and clunky, repeatedly timing out. Eventually, I managed to reserve two sets of three seats for a session of finals, and for some heats. Result....or so I thought until I finally crawled my way to the checkout, only to have the site repeatedly crash, and then to time out, wiping off all of the tickets I had reserved. Aaargh.

Off to another meeting, then back to try again....except this time, most of the tickets had already gone. I give up.

I accept that not everyone can have the tickets that they want, and I think it's great that so many people are into swimming. But exclamations on the part of British Swimming that they had greater demand than anticipated ring pretty hollow, given that all they had to do was count up the number of people who had purposefully pre-registered - a pretty good indicator of how many people would try to buy tickets, I would have thought. And also, how can it be acceptable to have such a feeble system in place to manage that demand? All British Swimming had to say for themselves was to "keep trying", but this isn't good enough - I don't think it's too much to ask to have a system in place with enough capacity to process applications, or efficiently display non-availability. What a waste of time.