Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Why wetsuits aren't biscuits....

I had a conversation last week with a prospective English Channel swimmer who wants to start getting some outdoor distance under her belt as soon as possible, but doesn't live close enough to an open water venue to make it worth what would inevitably be relatively short dips at first because of the early season cold. Her suggestion to some marathon swimming friends that she might use a wetsuit in the spring as part of her training had been met with derision, arguing that she needed to acclimatise, and that she risked becoming dependent on the wetsuit in ways that would damage her Channel swimming plans.

This latter is one of the core objections from within the marathon swimming community to the use of wetsuits - that they create a dependence both in terms of body position in the water and their insulating effects. This talk of the risks of over-reliance on wetsuits reminds me of the conversations that happen routinely among dieters - that some foods have to be avoided because we can't be trusted around them. The 'biscuit' (or cookie, for my US friends) is the conventional unit of risk in these discussions - that you can't afford to have biscuits in the house because of the risk that you won't be able to stop eating them.

But wetsuits aren't biscuits.

Sacrilegious though it may be to say so in marathon swimming circles, it is perfectly feasible, and, I would argue, sensible for a marathon swimmer in training for a non-wetsuit swim to use a wetsuit as part of their preparations. For example, for those (like me, and my friend above) who live too far away from open water venues to allow for short acclimatising dips, it makes perfect sense to use the wetsuit to get some distance in, in combination with acclimatising swims. So, for example, in the early season, I might do a 2 hour wetsuit swim, followed by a 15 minute non-wetsuit acclimatisation dip. Then next time, I shorten the wetsuit swim by 15 minutes and lengthen the non-wetsuit portion by the same...until eventually, both acclimatisation and the warmer weather join forces and allow full session non-wetsuit swimming of ever-increasing distances. In the mean time, in addition to ongoing pool training, I've managed both acclimatisation swims and done some good foundational distance work (and most importantly, got to enjoy being outdoors).

For those who don't want to engage with non-wetsuit swimming at all, for whatever reason, my advice is to ignore the anti-wetsuit harrumphing of some parts of the marathon swimming community and dive in anyway. Wetsuits add comfort and buoyancy, and allow many more people to enjoy the water than otherwise would. For those who would like to try non-wetsuit swimming but are nervous to do so, find an experienced ally who can support you to do it safely and who will help you to learn what they find pleasurable about non-wetsuit swimming - and if you don't like it, go back to the wetsuit if you enjoy that more. And for those who are training for a long, non-wetsuit marathon swim, don't be afraid of wetsuits - they can be an effective training aid like any other. I know there are plenty of people who wouldn't be seen dead in a wetsuit, and that's their choice; but the non-wetsuit rules of marathon swimming only apply to the swims themselves. It doesn't make you any less of a marathon swimmer to use a wetsuit as part of your training.

There are many paths to successful and enjoyable marathon swimming, and wetsuits aren't biscuits.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

While I was away....

While I was away from the blog, there's been a couple of notable happenings. The first is very much about swimming - my decision to sign on with the Lake Geneva Swimming Association to have a crack at swimming the length of Lake Geneva (from Bouveret to Geneva - all 69 km of it). US swimmer, Jaimie Monahan completed it last year in just under 33 hours, following in the footsteps of two Swiss swimmers -  Vedika Bolliger in 1999 (42.45) and Alan Charmey in 1986 (22.43). It's a bit of a monster swim, and I'm slightly frightened of it, but I'm curious to see what a swim of that magnitude feels like. I've never swum into and through a whole night, and I've never swum anything like that distance in fresh water, so it's a bit of leap into the dark. But go to the website and look at the scenery - it's jaw-droppingly beautiful.

The LGSA is a new organisation, and I think that quite a few people will be having a go at this newcomer to the swimming scene this summer. My swim's not until the end of August, so I'm planning to watch and learn from others. And I'll be swimming. A lot. Key training points include a trip to Lanzarote for some early long distance training in April, and then at the end of June, I'll be trying to do a double Windermere (21 miles) followed by a single Windermere the next day, which, if all goes well, should enable me to more than meet the LGSA qualifying criteria of a 7 hour swim followed by a 6 hour swim the next day. Many thanks to Mark Robson for offering to help with the piloting and logistics of this. Otherwise, I expect you'll be able to find me hanging out in the Lake District over the summer, churning out the miles in some of my favourite swim spots. Fingers crossed for a safe, injury-free run-up.

The second development relates to the decision I made last August to become a vegan - that is, to eliminate all food sources derived from animals (meat, fish, dairy, honey etc). In the first instance, this has been confined to my diet (I haven't decided yet whether to take this further (clothing, anti-chafing products like Desitin and Sudacrem etc)) and the decision comes after 30 years of vegetarianism. I think that my move to the countryside finally tipped me over the edge (sheep bleating all night for the lambs taken away etc), but I've been bothered for a while by the inconsistency of a vegetarian position based primarily on resistance to animal cruelty and exploitation (as mine was). It's not been an entirely easy transition - I found giving up cheese in particular very difficult, and lots of entrenched habits of eating left me feeling very lost at first. But as the weeks have progressed into months, I gradually adapted to my new diet. The trick, I was advised, is to crowd out dairy with new foods; I have expanded my previously quite limited culinary repertoire and have enjoyed exploring new ways to eat and get the nutrition that I need.

At first, I made a lot of mistakes, especially in relation to swimming and training. The only complete lapse came after a five and a half hour swim last summer, quite shortly after becoming vegan, when I didn't properly attend to my immediate post-swim nutrition (the recovery shake I always normally used, like most, has milk products in it) and I ended up waking up hungry and depleted and eating cheese on toast in the van at 3 in the morning. A learning experience! I've tried the specialist vegan recovery shakes but they're too sweet and sickly for me, so I've now switched to soya chocolate milk or a green protein shake made from spinach, bananas and vegan protein powder (rice and hemp proteins). I've also had to say goodbye to the jelly baby (gelatine - sob!), and will be experimenting over the summer with a range of in-swim nutrition options to supplement the carb drinks (vegan porridge, fruit bars etc) plus my usual standby - bananas. This will be an important part of my summer training - to recalibrate my in-swim and post-swim nutrition. I started off using the No Meat Athlete book and website for guidance, but have branched out since then. My approach is very simple  - I aim for as much unprocessed (or minimally processed) food as possible, with as wide a range as possible. I don't count anything - calories, or quantities of protein, carbs, fat or anything else - because life's too short. I work on the principle that a diverse range of plant-based foods will give me the nutrition I need. And so far,  it's working.

My decision to go vegan is all about animal welfare and the environmental implications of the exploitation of animals; I didn't set out with any health or weight goals. But incidentally, the health impacts have been noticeable - I am sleeping better, have much more energy and feel great. Collaterally, I have lost a fair amount of weight, but I don't consider this to be an independent health benefit and don't weigh myself so I have no idea how much my weight has changed - I decided many years ago that I never want the quality of my day to be determined by a number on the scale, and the conventional assumptions that weight loss is synonymous with improvements in health is highly problematic. I think that I lost a lot at the beginning because I didn't have the nutrition right, so I'm pleased that this has now tapered off, suggesting that I've reached a better state of stability and balance.

I'm probably going to be writing more about all this later on - I'm working at the moment on a journal article comparing vegan and low carb weight loss plans, focusing on the rhetorics that they use to recruit followers (both very similar in spite of their diametrically opposed dietary philosophies - science, primitivism, masculinity, anti-obesity, 'health'). I'm not at all interested in trying to arbitrate over which is healthier, sustainable or effective, but I'm really intrigued by their shared repudiation of the standard dietary recommendations and their appeal to new commercial weight loss markets (and particularly men). More to follow on this.

So that's my news - a big swim and a dietary change. And now I'm just waiting for the warmth of spring so that I can head outdoors where the fun swimming happens.