Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Sports Personality of the Year

So today, the shortlist of 10 candidates for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year award was announced....shortly followed by a big media flurry about the news that there were no women on the list. Don't get me wrong - I think it's offensive and stupid that women's sport has been so egregiously excluded. But it's really not that surprising, and nor is it the worst offence against women in sport at the current time.

Firstly - let's think about how the shortlist is drawn up....by sports journalists from publications including Zoo, Nuts and the Sun - all with excellent credentials for including women (as long as they don't have any clothes on at the time and are performing sexual availability to their predominantly male readerships). Secondly, let's look at sports reporting itself, only a tiny proportion of which covers women in sport (c. 5% according to the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation). Just as an example, the Guardian was quick to join the debate about the shortlist, but a quick look at its sports pages shows that it includes a human interest story on Taekwondo world champion Sarah Stevenson (reflecting on the challenge of the upcoming London Olympics in the light of the recent tragic deaths of both her parents from cancer), and two further articles relating to the shortlist story (one using an image of Keri-Ann Payne, and the other showing Crissie Wellington). There are no stories on the webpage that actually report on women's sporting events and performances - not a single one that I could find. Is it any wonder, then, that the journalist "experts" that were invited to nominate sports people for the award could muster so few women for their nominations when women's sport is so far off their radar in the first place?

That a bunch of sexist editors excluded women from their nominations, then, is a news story, I suppose, but not a very interesting one; what's more important is what it signifies - that women's sport is consistently marginalised, not only in the media, but also in terms of the distribution of both public and commercial resources. For example, women's elite sport receives only 0.5% of the sponsorship market, making a professional sporting career impossible for many women in many sports which are awash with funding for men, especially if they are unwilling or unable to trade on their sexualisation within mainstream sporting and commercial culture. The effect of this to deter women and girls from engaging in sport because they are figured within the sporting world at best as visitors, and at worst as impostors.

The desperate attempts by the media today to demonstrate their outrage at the men-only shortlist through shocked opinion pieces and alternative women-only shortlists is all very well, but this fails to recognise the broader and more serious problem of the marginalisation of women and girls in sport at all levels - something which is much more serious, and depressing, than their exclusion from this particular popularity contest. There are some tremendous sportswomen out there, but there should be more, and we should hear about them more.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Sleeping like a swimmer....

I've never been a great sleeper, and my insomniac tendencies always get worse during the academic term when it becomes harder to contain teaching and writing responsibilities within a reasonable working day. Consequently, in spite of a carefully managed routine of hot drinks, light reading, herbal sleeping pills and a light that simulates the sunset in an attempt to trick my body into sleep, I am often awake in the early hours, my mind racing and my body fidgety and unsettled. As anyone who has trouble sleeping knows, it's a vicious cycle once it starts - feeling tired during the day makes you anxious about getting a good night's sleep, which makes it harder to get to sleep.

But then along came the distance swimming, which completely transformed the quality of my sleep. I've done other endurance sports - marathon, triathlon - but while I've found these exhausting, I've never really found them restful. But swimming....well, that's a different thing altogether. As my openwater training escalated in 2009, I noticed a distinct dropping off in my novel reading, going from reading several books a week in bed before sleep, to barely a few pages each night before falling asleep, often with book in hand. I knocked my sunset light off the bedside table accidentally one day and it broke, but I didn't replace it - I was no longer awake for long enough to even remember to switch it on. After long sea swims, I started to experience an utterly delicious, fully-body tiredness that made every surface look like I could curl up on it for a nap. Even in the middle of the intensifying pressures of work, I slept more profoundly than I could ever remember.

Fast-forward to the present. The stroke correction programme I've been following has been engaging and productive, but it's not "swimming" - not enough to produce the lovely easy sleep of long distance training. And I've been running, but only 3-4 miles a few times a week, and in any case, running just doesn't work in the same way for me. And so, as the stresses of term have intensified, my quality of sleep has declined; the herbal sleeping pills are back, and I had to buy a new sunset light. But then, last week, I decided that it was time to reintroduce swimming (as opposed to just drilling) into my training, and have started doing sets on top of my daily drills - only 2-3km at a time for now, and always trying to swim mindful of my stroke corrections, but swimming, nevertheless. And lo and behold...my swim-sleep has returned - something which has been aided by my fairly poor swim-specific fitness, meaning that I get nicely tired even at relatively low distances. Bad news for my hopes of keeping up with contemporary fiction; but great news for my general well-being. Here's to sleeping like a swimmer.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Farewell to Ian Smith

I was shocked to receive the terrible news this morning that Total Immersion swim coach, Ian Smith, passed away on Monday. As regular readers of the blog will know, I've been working with Ian over the past few months to improve the efficiency of my stroke. These most recent sessions continued a coaching relationship that extends back several years, over which Ian has helped me to tame my wayward stroke and maximise my skills as a swimmer. Ian was a consumate professional - focused and knowledgeable, with an incisive eye for efficiency-damaging swimming quirks and an armoury of drills and strategies to sort them out. Ian communicated a passion for the sport through his coaching, regardless of whether he was dealing with a speedy youngster with competitive ambitions, or a plodding long-distance swimmer like myself.

My heart goes out to his family, whose loss is unimaginable. For myself, I will miss him enormously.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Training toys

I've been oh-so-good about working on my wayward stroke out; for ten weeks now, I've been drilling, drilling, drilling 4 or 5 times a week, and foregoing the pleasures of the longer, absent-minded swim that I used to end my day with. And there are definitely signs of improvement - improved pace, less waggling in the head area, a less frenetic hurling of the left arm through the recovery. But I was getting bored, so I decided to buy myself some toys to keep me entertained.

The first of these is a swim snorkel that I've had for a couple of weeks now - mine is made by Finis, and is splendid...or at least it will be once I've finally got the hang of not inhaling large quantities of pool water up my nose. And yes - I know it doesn't make sense because I don't inhale underwater through my nose when I'm swimming without a snorkel. It's obviously just a co-ordination demand too far sometimes. But when I'm not snorting water, this is a fabulous little gadget for giving me time to think about particular elements of the stroke without the distraction of turning to breathe. I don't use it too much, since being able to turn to breathe seems pretty important, but a portion of the session with the snorkel on helps me to get the feel for those bits of the stroke cycle that I'm having trouble holding on to, making it easier to keep everything in place when I'm back to full stroke. Be warned, though - it is a spectacularly foolish-looking piece of kit, and you will be very hard to take seriously when wearing it.

The second new toy is these funky Finis PT paddles...or anti-paddles, really. Unlike conventional paddles, these are specifically designed to completely prevent any purchase on the water by the hands. This forces the swimmer to make full use of the forearm in the catch and pull phase of the stroke - a bit like fist gloves, except the hand is kept in a more natural swimming position. At first, they were really frustrating to swim in because of the lack of grip on the water, but after a while, you start to really feel for the water with the whole forearm. In turn, this has been really helpful in terms of getting my arms into a better, high-elbowed catch position. And, when you take them off, you feel like you are flying.
Anybody else got any good suggestions for training kit that you can't live without and that might keep me entertained in my drill sessions?

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Catalina Channel Swimming Federation banquet

Last Saturday was the awards banquet for the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation - a chance to celebrate the year's successes, plus the contributions of pilots, kayakers, crew, family members etc. It goes without saying that I would have loved to have been there, but time and money, plus the fact that I think I've already left a pretty hefty carbon footprint this year, meant that I had to watch from afar. From the reports and pics that I've seen, it looked like a fun affair.

It was nice to see the list of successful swims....although I have to say that I felt ever so slightly embarrassed at having taken quite such a long time, relative to the majority of swims. My poor crew!

Well done to all the swimmers, and to the CCSF and all those involved for another successful year of swims.

In the mean time, although I'm absolutely determined not to do another long swim next year, I'm starting to cook up some plans. That's what the winter's for - pool training and plan cooking.

Friday, 4 November 2011


Okay...so last night I tried a little experiment at the pool.

I've been concentrating on drilling, drilling, drilling, with no sustained swimming. Even when I am doing full stroke, at the beginning of each length I select what I'm going to focus on, then stop at the end, choose the next thing to focus on, and off I go again, working my way through the different elements of the stroke (right breathing, right arm catch; right breathing, left arm catch....and so on). This has been going on for two months now, and it's starting to come together, sort of, although at the same time, my swimming fitness has gone through the floor because of the absence of sustained effort. Anyway, feeling a bit frustrated with all the drilling, and desperate to burn off some energy after a difficult day at work, I finally cracked last night and decided to have a bit of a swim, up and down, up and down, just to see whether I could sustain my new work-in-progress stroke. Not too bad, though I say it myself.

And then, right at the end, I decided to try a 100m sprint, just to see. Previously, I have always struggled to break 1.30, and have certainly struggled to do so consistently. Plus, on the occasions when I have dipped just below 1.30, it has been at full-welly, pass-me-a-bucket, spots-behind-the-eyes effort. So, how did I do? Well...I was amazed to hit the wall at 1.25....and that was without being anywhere near max effort. I realise that breaking 1.30 is hardly going to shake the swimming world and there's probably no need to alert the swimming authorities, but for me, this is a big moment - to break it so clearly, at a much lower intensity than previously, and at such a low level of swimming fitness surely bodes well for what I might be able to do after more drilling, rebuilding my swimming fitness and working at full effort.

I'm starting to think there's something to this technique business.