Friday, 7 September 2018

On a scale of 1 to 10....

At the risk of this reading like episode 476 of my injury story., and since I have nothing exciting to tell by way of swimming adventures, I thought I'd offer up a quick update.

The long and the short of it is that I remain injured, but nowhere near as badly as this time last year. I've benefited from the significant expertise and care of my osteopath, Louise, at the Ilkely Osteopathic Practice, and Pilates instructor, Sarah Clough at Space: Fitness and Wellbeing, both of whom have helped me transition from constant pain and neck and shoulder immobility to an almost pain-free everyday existence. Over the year, I've cycled on an endless loop between being able to engage in modest swimming (3-5km at a time) and long periods of injury-imposed rest; each time I thought I had it on the run, back it would come once I passed the threshold of my body's tolerance, no matter how slowly and gently I approached it. I have been performing my prehab routines with religious diligence, do yoga and Pilates several times a week, and have generally been an obedient neoliberal subject trying to take responsibility for my body, but while everything that I have done has helped, nothing has managed to get to the bottom of it all, and the movement restriction and buzzing nerve aggravation in my neck / shoulder persisted. However much it receded into the background, it was always ready to jump to the fore when I got ahead of myself. More recently, this has also manifested itself in a shoulder impingement, just to add to the fun.

Amidst the frustration, I still had a fantastic summer. I kayaked for Patrick Smith in the BLDSA Coniston Vets swim, watching him swim with impressive consistency while being swamped with waves from behind in a howling gale and while I paddled frantically backwards, desperately trying not to be blown down the course away from him. Amazingly, unlike our adventure in Ullswater the year before, I even managed not to fall in, so I chalk this up as a total success. And I volunteered as a timekeeper for the BLDSA Windermere one-way swim last weekend - always a great chance to see some determined swimming in a beautiful setting. I did a bit of swimming myself too, including 4 full 9km laps of Crummock Water (separately) over the summer:



I also completed the BLDSA Champion of Champions event - a total of 9 miles across three separate swims, coming in just under the 5 hour mark - something that I was very pleased about after my appalling swimming performance over the last couple of years:


I enjoyed a glorious there-and-back swim of Buttermere with Amanda Bell too, since there are few ills that Buttermere won't cure:


And I bought an inflatable paddle board, which opened up all kinds of possibilities for bobbling about in beautiful places:


But while I have loved all of this during what has been a quite spectacular summer (who knew Cumbria could have a water shortage!?), it's not enough for me. I can't swim like I want to, and at the moment, I'm not ready to let go of long swimming.

And so, I have recently started working with sports therapist, Adam Smith, who I met through the prehab workshops organised by Active Blu's Emma Brunning, who has also been hugely helpful over the last few years in working on my stroke. After a thorough assessment, Adam agreed with my osteopath's view that this is not a vertebrae/ disc issue, but rather, is a question of tight soft tissue trapping the nerves and causing the problem. And the solution? If the problem is deep in the tissue, then the only way to resolve it is to get in there. It has to be said that this is not a pleasant process, and as a treatment experience, the more gentle approach of my osteopath / Pilates instructor is a far more pleasant way to spend an hour. As anyone who is familiar with deep tissue massage will tell you, it can be exquisitely painful, but the more you can endure, the quicker it goes in the long run. In my first session, Adam constantly asked me to rate the pain from 1-10, calibrating my tolerance for the process and tailoring it accordingly. At 3, I wondered what 10 might be like; in the brief moments that I hit double figures, I concentrated on breathing and thought about swimming. Sometimes, he announces that he's going to 'drop in' to this or that bit of my back / shoulder; it sounds so benign and friendly ('dropping in for tea'), but really isn't. Far worse than the pain, for me, is the occasional moments of what I have come to think of as 'twanging' - the easing into movement of taut muscles by strumming or peeling across them. It's not so much painful as, well..... just weird; it doesn't really hurt, but makes me feel really squeamish, like listening to someone crack their knuckles or scrape their fingernails down a blackboard. I've been trying to find the adjective to describe the whole process. I started off with 'violent', but that's not right at all since the whole experience is collaborative and consultative, as well as voluntary and temporary. Instead, I've settled on 'physical' - it's an intensely physical experience that digs to the heart of the mechanics and sensory mechanisms of the body. On a scale of 1-10, my desire to return to long swimming is about a 15, so it's all more than worth it, especially in the hands of someone who knows what's he's doing and shares my goals.

And the most important thing is that it seems to be working. Adam's theory is that while everything that I've been doing has helped, nothing has gone deep enough to cut to the core problem, and it's a persuasive thesis which is already being proven by the results - a massive increase in range of motion and flexibility, and far less pain and discomfort in my neck and shoulder. The treatment itself is leaving me quite sore and bruised, but this is of a very different quality to the injury pain and feels incredibly constructive. It also leaves me feeling completely whacked, and after each treatment I've slept as if I've done a 6 hour swim, which tells me that there's a lot more going on than I can directly perceive. Only 10 days after my first session, there's a world of difference that fills me with optimism. There are more sessions to come, to be followed by a rehab strength and conditioning programme, but hopefully, with all the necessary work, this is all preamble to a proper return to the water very soon.

So that's where things are. My long swimming days aren't over just yet.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Slow healing....

This is the next instalment in what is becoming a series of annual posts where I chart the gulf between my swimming aspirations and  bodily realities. After last year's disappointments, I have been working hard to manage my injuries; in particular, my neck problem proved to be stubborn and intractable, but a combination of osteopathy and a diligently-followed prehab regimen slowly relieved the trapped nerve and associated muscle damage and by the end of January I was covering 25-30km a week in the pool quite happily and feeling very optimistic. I threw my hat in the ring for an ambitious and exciting swim and thought I was good to go.

But it's never so simple. I came out to the Canary Islands last week with the aim of spending a couple of weeks doing some very dull data coding, made easier by sunshine and swimming on tap. Unfortunately, a spell of stormy weather here made the swimming lumpy, and then later, impossible, but even in the modestly lumpy phase, the gap between the predictable flatness of the pool and the erratic movement of the waves exposed the weaknesses of my recovering neck, which soon started to feel stiff and sore post-swim. I stretched, pre-habbed and maintained a position somewhere between optimism and denial, but the next day the stiffness and immobility started to return even while I was still in the water being bounced around by the waves. A huge storm then hit the islands putting a stop to all swimming, but the niggle in my neck persisted, clicking and crunching when I woke up in the morning or turned my head quickly.

What to do? I could persist and hope that it would be relieved by more swimming; or that calmer waters later in the trip would reduce the strain and allow me to continue building up. Or I could pull the plug and go back to my modest pool-swimming, osteopathy and prehab regimen, which has undoubtedly been working...albeit not as quickly as I would have liked, as it turns out. I couldn't face (or afford) another late pull-out, so in the end, this morning I decided to pre-empt the issue and withdraw from the delicious swim I had been hoping to do (as well as a more low-key UK event that I'd signed up for a while back). I feel terrible that I seem to have become a serial withdrawer, in spite of my best intentions and genuine convictions that I was up to each challenge.

It is painful to have such a fantastic opportunity slip through  my fingers, and I have been torturing myself all day with the thought that maybe...just maybe...I would have been alright and could have done it. But in the end, I suspect that uncertainty about an injury is certainty enough when deciding about a very long swim; distance is pretty unforgiving of bodily weaknesses and injurious flaws.

This is very different to last year's crash and burn though. I hope that I've called a halt in time to stop the injury niggle in its track and to get quickly back to my slow.....slow....recovery. I haven't pushed on and aggravated the injury into something much more serious like I stupidly did last year, so perhaps I am learning and this too is some kind of progress in my swimming evolution (or possibly devolution, given that I started strongly with the EC years, but am becoming increasingly unimpressive and breakable).

The healing process is slow - perhaps because of my age, or maybe because this is just how bodies are sometimes - but I am still confident that I am healing, if not at the pace I thought I was. I'd like to think that I still have another long swim in me, but I wouldn't want to say with any confidence that I do. And I think you can only cook up exciting plans and then let people down so often before you have to rein in your ambitions with a dose of reality and the wisdom born of experience. But perhaps this is also a chance to learn other, gentler ways of being in the water too... an opportunity for a more leisurely summer of beautiful 2-3 hour swims in the Lake District rather than the 6-8 hour slogs I was anticipating; a chance to think about swimming rather than training, perhaps...

We'll see. But for now, it's back to slow healing.

To end on a positive note, even though it's ferociously windy, it's 23 degrees and sunny here in the Canary Islands, while the UK is blanketed in snow and ice. Plus we have kittens at home now, and life is always okay once there are kittens in your life.




Saturday, 13 January 2018

Aquatic adventures....

When I think of the water, I always think about swimming; when I see a stretch of water, I wonder what it would be like to swim in it, across it or around it. But there's a whole world of other ways to interact with the water that I've never really explored....and as my 50th birthday rolled around this January, it was time to try something new. In the summer, I was feeling pretty fed-up about my pending big birthday - my various injuries made me feel decrepit, and I felt a bit defeated. But then I thought....well, sod it. So I decided to embrace it instead, and to that end, used my birthday trip to the Canary Islands to try two new water activities - scuba diving and stand-up paddle boarding (SUP).

I was quite terrified when I turned up for my try-dive lesson at a sea front dive centre near our holiday bungalow, and I had no idea how I would feel about being submersed and reliant on what seemed like a very complicated and cumbersome set of equipment. After a short period of dry-land instruction covering safety procedures and in-water communication, we kitted up and waddled under the weight of the gear down to the beach and into the water. One by one, the instructor submerged us, deflating our buoyancy vests and guiding us down a couple of metres to the sea floor. Rather disconcertingly, my instructor grabbed a couple of rocks from the sea floor and shoved them into mesh pockets on the side of my gear to prevent me from rising. It takes a particular kind of trust to relax enough to allow someone to sink you so thoroughly under water. Once we were all submerged, we paddled along the side of a rocky reef, flanked by our instructors, and soon found ourselves surrounded by a school of fish with large, rounded bodies and yellow stripes, completely unbothered by our presence. Later on we saw cuttle fish, and this beautiful octopus.



Once I'd relaxed into it, I was completely blown away by the experience of visiting this vibrant aquatic world which I thought I understood from swimming at the surface, but in reality had no clue about. It was hard to let go of being a swimmer though - I couldn't resist using my arms and hands to propel myself forwards, even though I was wearing huge fins that required only the slightest flick to move me through the water. Using my hands also proved to be quite destabilising, and I found myself constantly tipping from side to side and then having to correct.



I slowly came to understand that while swimming is about constant movement, diving is more about not moving - of being in the water rather than moving through it and using the fins as rudders rather than propellers. It's about enjoying the view and visiting another world. 




We were only in the water for about 30 minutes, but I loved every second and was so disappointed when the instructor started pulling the rocks out of my pockets and slowly guiding me to the surface. In fact, I loved it so much that I signed up for a second session the next day, this time in deeper water and entering from a boat rather than the beach (although still with the same level of instructor support as my first dive - this was a diving experience rather than structured training). I felt like Jacques Cousteau as I tipped rather anxiously backwards off the dive boat, but it was as easy as, well....falling off a boat; my instructor helped me to submerge, and off we went, exploring a reef and encountering huge shoals of long, thin trumpet fish. 

The whole experience made me want to get a PADI qualification and learn to dive more independently, but I can already see that it's a hobby that eats time and money....and I already have one of those. But still...it was an amazing experience. 

And so....on to adventure number 2 - an SUP lesson. While I took to diving immediately, I think it's fair to say that this was not an opportunity for me to shine. It was quite windy, and although we had excellent instruction, the entire session was punctuated by the sound of me scrabbling up onto the board, staggering to a stand, yelping as I lost my balance and then falling back into the water with a percussive splash. At the end of the lesson, we signed up for a 3-hour coastal SUP tour a few days later where I reprised my scrabble - pause - shriek - splash soundtrack but I soon discovered that by staying kneeling, I could stay on the board and still enjoy the novel perspective of being on, but above, the water. We visited caves, paused to go snorkelling, and had a splendid time. Towards the end, I found my sea legs and managed to both stand up and paddle, so there is hope for me yet. Peter, on the other hand, took to it immediately, and was able to draw on his skateboarding past and a very good sense of balance to strike a relaxed and effortless pose as he paddled away with impressive aplomb.

So two successful aquatic adventures - one deep below the surface, and one on / above it. It turns out that there is far more to a life of aquatic leisure than swimming. 

But of course, there was swimming too, although not as much as in previous years. I ended up doing a fairly modest 40km over the two weeks we were there - after my long lay-off, I'm still building my fitness and don't want to risk overdoing it and falling back into injury again. My confidence took a bit of knock over the last year or so, but hopefully all of the work I've been doing on my stroke, plus the prehab regimen which I do diligently every day, will bear fruit and I'll be back to full swimming capacity soon.  Happily, I'll be back in the Canary Islands for more in February and then again in April - I have a great deal of data analysis to do for the sugar project, and see no reason why this should not be done in the sunshine and combined with swim training. 

And in the mean time, I had a wonderful trip and a splendid birthday. If this is what it's like to be 50, then count me in.