Sunday, 5 February 2012

Ten things I wish I'd known when I started this swimming lark....Part II carrying on where I left off....

6. Jelly babies and wiggly worms - the comfort of small things.
One of the most disconcerting effects of long training swims in the sea is the weird thing that happens to the inside of your mouth - the swollen tongue, diminished sense of taste, sore spots that hurt A LOT if you eat a tomato. And then there's the lovely sloughing off of a layer of your tongue a couple of days later... This is all part and parcel of marathon sea swimming. But there is nothing better than a black jelly baby, or a black or red wiggly worm to get the taste of salt out of your mouth at the end of a swim. Sometimes, it's the small comforts that make the difference.

7. Get some proper sunscreen.
Writing about swim nutrition, Evan Morrison advises that you should never use anything you can buy at the garage (excuse me....gas station) as your core nutrition. To extend this to sunscreen, I would say that you shouldn't use anything you can buy at Boots, especially if, like me, you're fair skinned and go pink and burst into freckles as soon as you see the sun. The stuff that people use on the beach on a summer afternoon, including that blue stuff you spray on children, is no good for multiple hours of open water swimming. Getting sun-burned is extremely unhealthy, plus it REALLY hurts when you get in the shower. Get some proper water-sports grade sunscreen - something thick and gloopy that won't come off for hours. I've found Aloegator gel really good, except that it's clear, so it's hard for whoever's applying it to see where they've already done, making it easy to miss bits. My personal favourite is Prosport 44 - slather it on thick well ahead of time, and you're sorted. Of course, it's not perfect, and I still have a lovely stripe across my forehead for most of the summer, but I don't get burned (any more....a hard lesson learned in my first season of swimming as I worked my way through the sunscreen shelves).

8. There are no emergencies in marathon swimming.
Of course, this isn't strictly true, since there are clearly moments when the crew has to act quickly to protect a swimmer from an unexpected hazard, or get an injured or ailing swimmer out of the water. What I mean is that, if you trust your crew to intervene in the real emergencies, from the swimmer's perspective, there's really nothing in marathon swimming that can't wait for half an hour. It is in the nature of marathon swimming to experience the occasional spirit-crushing low point, but no matter how lousy, exhausted, sick, sad or cross you're feeling, it's nothing that can't wait. The moment when you decide you want to get out is generally not the moment when you need to get out - give it 30 minutes, then review. These things are often cyclical, and the odds are that you'll feel better. And I refer you back to point 6 - remember the comfort of small things: ask for a favourite treat; allow yourself to hear your crew's encouraging shouts; repeat over and over in your head a word that makes you laugh (in my case, "discombobulation"). I'm not suggesting that getting out is some kind of mental failure to overcome suffering - sometimes, it's just not your day and getting out is absolutely the right thing to do. But it's also the case that the desire to get out is rarely an emergency - a lot can change in 30 mins.

9. It's only swimming.
Before my Channel swim in 2010, I was whittling on to a very understated, but accomplished swimmer who had crossed the Channel in the 1960's. The weather was vile and it looked for all the world like I might not get a chance to swim that season. She sympathised at my frustration and despair, and then said, "But it's okay - it's only swimming". And this has stuck with me ever since. This is the paradox of marathon swimming - to do it, it needs to be a fairly all-consuming project, and easily comes to feel like the most important thing in the world. But at the end of the day, it's still only swimming and it has to be kept in perspective. I take my swimming very seriously: I plan; I train; I save money to pay for swims; I think about it every day. And although I've been fortune enough to complete all of the long swims I've done, I would have been gutted to have not made any of them, or not had a chance to swim. But it's still only swimming, and the water waits if you want to have another go.

I wish I'd taken this on board at the beginning, when failing to complete a training swim or weekly distance goal felt like a blow to my Channel hopes - proof that this was a ridiculous goal for a person like me. I've seen it in others too, in Dover, or in Gozo, when having to get out early is experienced as a devastating sign of Channel failure; or of some kind of personal failure. I've seen people march off the beach in a distressed fury, going off on their own to beat themselves up. I understand the urge and have been known to sit in the van crying tears of frustration from time to time at my own limitations. But it's only swimming - go and get washed and changed, take care of your recovery by having something to eat and drink, and then get back down on the beach - talk to people about what went wrong and how to fix it, help out with feeds, encourage and congratulate the other swimmers. I guarantee you'll feel better.

10. It's an enormous amount of fun.
When I signed up to swim the Channel, I had expected to enjoy the challenge of it, the structured life of being in training, and the novelty of a physical challenge that is so at odds with my sedentary working life as an academic. I liked the out-of-the-ordinariness of the whole business - a welcome change of pace and focus at a time when I was feeling uncertain about where my professional life was heading. But I hadn't expected to enjoy the swimming so much. I hadn't expected that my first thought when heading home from even the coldest, most miserable swim would be when I could next go swimming; I hadn't expected to find the swimming peaceful, relaxing, at times, even euphoric. So many of the tales that swimmers tell each other, and to others, are tales of suffering - perhaps because those are the most memorable parts, and because they make the best stories. But it's so much more than that, and now, in the darkest, wintery depths of early February, I am desperate to get back in the open water, not because I have to train for something (which I don't this year), but because I want to. I spent a lot of time at the beginning, not unreasonably, panicking about the cold, about whether I was a good enough swimmer and so on; I wish I'd known at the beginning just how much fun I was going to have too.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Ten things I wish I'd known when I started this swimming lark... Part I

I came to the sport of marathon swimming relatively late. I only discovered the joys and possibilities of non-wetsuit open water swimming in my late thirties, and I was 42 when I swam the English Channel in 2010. This is possibly the only aspect of Channel swimming where I am above average, given that the average age for solo swimmers is estimated at 33. I've also been involved in the sport a relatively short time, which means that there's still a lot I have to learn, but that I've also had to learn a lot quite quickly. So, I've boiled this down into an arbitrary "Ten things I wish I'd know when I started this swimming lark...." These aren't hierarchically arranged, and some are very individual while others, I think, are more generalisable. They come with the necessary caveat that there are far more experienced and knowledgeable swimmers out there who are far better sources of information than a relative neophyte like myself. But I'm guessing that if I wish I'd known these things, then I can't be the only one...

1. The cold isn't the problem.
This is not a generalisable point, since for some people cold is the primary challenge. But for me, it never has been, even though all my initial planning was around getting a swim slot at what I hoped would be the warmest point in the year with the most daylight....which I also hoped would make it warmer. As it turns out, and no doubt bolstered by a generous layer of body fat, I've never really had a problem with the cold, and certainly not on any of my long swims. So for me, the cold isn't the's just a really long way. I guess the key point here is: if you're taking on a challenge, make sure you know what the challenging part is....otherwise it's going to sneak up on you when you're too busy worrying about something else.

2. Drilling and speed work matter...for everyone.
I was told repeatedly in the early stages of my training not to just plod out long steady swims, but to intersperse that with speed sessions, as well as technique work. I took this on board to some extent, but as training progressed, lapsed into long slog mode; somehow, I had convinced myself that the speed work was for the speedy, not for the plodders like myself whose chances of success depended on being able to keep on hacking away for hours. In some ways, this is true, in that slower swimmers have to be prepared to be in for the long haul. But as I also discovered on my Channel swim, to be able to have different registers of effort and pace can make the world of difference on a swim. And as for the drilling - I had decided that it was not possible to work on technique and put in the distance simultaneously, so set the technique work aside as the training mounted. I am now a complete convert to technique work and drilling at the beginning of every set that I do, if for no other reason that it serves as a corrective reminder, preventing a slide into bad habits that comes with a focus on distance only. I haven't tested this out in a long swim yet, but I am absolutely certain that I am a better swimmer (more efficient, less likely to get injured) as a result of this change of structure to my training.

3. Strength and conditioning training helps.
Regular gym work with weights / stretch bands to strengthen your shoulder muscles and ligaments, as well as those in the arms, back, chest and core is an important element in remaining injury-free. I've also found it useful in balancing out some of the imbalances that are produced by freestyle swimming (e.g. the pulling forward of the shoulders). There is an age factor here, with most people becoming less flexible and slower to recover as they get older, making this kind of work increasingly important. I also follow a programme of stretching, and engage in regular cross training - these days, mostly running, but also some cycling, or working out on the gym cross-trainer. This provides some weight-bearing exercise (important for bone density, especially for women), and keeps the legs - often neglected in marathon swimming - fit, strong and flexible. In particular, I've found that running, plus some time on a wobble board has done wonders for my ankle stability - something that can be damaged by a lot of freestyle swimming. It's important not to see this as an add-on to training, but as a fundamental part of training - however much you feel like you should be using every spare training minute in the water, it's really worth setting aside some time for this.

4. Start from where you are, not where you think you should be.
One of the problems for novice Channel swimmers is that there are as many ways to train as there are swimmers. Those at the beginning of their training are commonly full of anxiety about whether they are doing enough, or enough of the right kind of training - I know I was. And then I would read about someone doing massive pool swims, or enduring very cold water, and I would immediately thing that that's what I should be doing....regardless of whether that was within my capabilities at the time. What I have learned over time is that you have to start from where you are, rather than where you think you should be - there is no value in hammering out a swim that is beyond your capabilities only to be unable to train for the next few days because you're completely exhausted and sore. Binge-swimming doesn't work - you'll just get injured and it doesn't build endurance in a sustainable manner. So, my advice is to make a realistic assessment of where you are, and start from there regardless of what anyone else is doing, increasing intensity / time / distance incrementally. It's not very spectacular, but it works.

5. Not every swimming costume rubs.
One of my biggest regrets is that in my first year of training, I just assumed that swimming costume rubs were an occupational hazard, and even with globs of vaseline, I would end up with sore patches on my shoulders and down my sides. At the time, I was wearing Speedo Endurance costumes, which I love for the pool, but just didn't work for me in the sea. I think I got seduced by the whole "endurance" idea and it was a complete revelation to me when I eventually switched brands (firstly to Arena, and more recently to TYR) that I finally twigged that painful salt rubs are not inevitable. My Catalina swim, for example, was completely rub free in my favourite TYR costume. So, the trick here is to keep looking around for the right kit for you - the same goes for hats (which shouldn't keep slipping off) and goggles (which shouldn't need adjusting). These are very individual matters...but don't settle for "okay". It's just a matter of finding the right product.