Friday, 15 December 2017


I've been thinking a lot recently about my swimming, and in particular, about my various injuries and niggles, and the general sense that I'm not swimming as consistently or recovering as well as I used to. Part of this is the obvious fact that injury necessitates down time which impacts upon swimming fitness, but also I'm 50 next January (how did that happen?), and no matter how much I refuse to be bound by constraining ideas about middle age, the ageing process, plus the menopause, has undoubtedly affected my flexibility and recovery. I've been involved in marathon swimming for almost 10 years, but I feel like the bodily stresses of long swimming have started to take their toll, and if I want to keep on swimming, something has to change.

So....a month ago, I joined a "Prehab" workshop run by Active Blu's Emma Brunning, who I've seen on and off over the years for help with my swimming stroke, and Adam Smith, a sports therapist and strength and conditioning coach. I've been thinking for a while that I could benefit from something like this, but wasn't sure where to go for advice, and to be honest, was a little embarrassed about pitching up to a professional coach - I never feel enough like the sort of 'athlete' I imagined they worked with. So the timing was perfect.

The premise of the workshop was that everyday life and regular training create bodily imbalances that eventually lead to injuries which in turn impact upon training consistency which affects overall performance. The coaches suggested that many amateur athletes who train regularly are on constantly on a knife-edge of breakdown and injury; this is certainly how I've been feeling, to the point where I wasn't sure whether I should even try to train up for another big swim and should perhaps stick to shorter events. The workshop explained the anatomy of these imbalances and provided us with a sequence of exercises to enhance thoracic and shoulder flexibility and stability that we were advised to do at least three times a week. The core principles are to keep the routine relatively simple and be consistent about doing it.

During the workshop, we performed shoulder distraction exercises using the resistance band hooked up to a large A-frame, but at home, I struggled to find a safe anchor point, so invested in a heavy duty door anchor which does the job perfectly - it sits behind the door on the hinge-side, is solid as a rock and doesn't damage the frame. The routine also includes work with a foam roller, floor work to improve shoulder and thoracic flexibility and techniques using a lacrosse ball to dig out knots and release taut muscles. Trust me - you'll never look at a lacrosse ball in quite the same way again, and if you ever see me hugging a wall with an expression of pained resignation on my face, you'll know what's going on.

Apparently, one of the biggest frustrations experienced by sport therapists / physios etc is that people don't do the exercises that they're given. I can see why this happens - people are busy and this is just one more thing to do, and the exercises themselves don't always feel immediately beneficial, lacking the direct logic for example, of going for a long swim as training for a long swim. But I have a lot of respect for expertise, and don't really understand paying someone good money for sharing their expertise and then not doing what they say. So...I've spent 30 minutes a day on the exercise routine (almost) every day since the workshop, and am a total convert. (I'm lucky in that I'm currently on research leave, so the time for this is less of an issue than it will be when I return to teaching next year. But I'll cross that bridge when I come to it). The positive benefits have been swift and noticeable, especially in terms of flexibility and balance. This has played out in the pool, where the combination of the rehab regimen and the stroke correction work I've been doing for the last couple of months has resulted not only in a much more relaxed and balanced stroke, but also a tangible pace increase. I care more about the prevention of injury than about improving my pace, but it's a happy side effect. 

None of this is any kind of guarantee that last year's cascade of injuries won't happen again, but I feel like this is such a positive step, and I wish I had done it years ago. I'm sure many more experienced and accomplished swimmers are rolling their eyes at my late arrival at this understanding, but as with many late-onset marathon swimmers who didn't experience the more professionalised training of serious squad swimming when they were younger, there's a lot to learn about how to train. I've been through the same learning curve over the years with technique work and speed work, but it turns out that you can teach an old dog new tricks, and I'd encourage anyone in a similar position to find someone with the right expertise and commit to the process. 

I'm flying south to the sun soon for a bit of a holiday and the chance to take my improved stroke and newly stable and flexible shoulders swimming in the sea. And yes, I will be taking my foam roller, exercise band and even that lacrosse ball with me. 


On a separate note, in response to a recent outbreak of abuse across a range of platforms where I am active online, I have closed The Long Swim to comments. I've also tightened up security and privacy on my new research blog, Sugar Rush, and on all social media. There is a history to this abuse and it is not directly related to any specific recent forum or other online activity. If you would like to engage constructively with anything here on the blog, I'm happy to discuss on the Marathon Swimmers Forum, which has the advantage not only of being closely moderated, but also of involving many members with far more experience than me on all things swimming. I'm also on Twitter as @thelongswim, but will only engage in debate publicly (and constructively) and not via DM. Please note that any abuse on any platform will be blocked and reported immediately. 

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