From the other side of an ocean

This one’s for my granny, really. I feel pretty sure she would have been an open water swimmer, such was her love of sea swimming. But she was the wrong side of an ocean of feminism, born before women swam against the tide of patriarchy… I could continue to extend this metaphor, but you get the picture.

My granny is a true matriarch. Right now, with 85 years on the clock, she is nursing her husband through his final weeks on this earth. Their exchanges are tender and touching, and we wonder what she will be without him. But at the same time, we’re watching an amazing, strong woman working like a horse to care for others, as she has always done, and she seems like someone who could never be adrift.

At one point in her life, she was caring for three children under the age of seven, and her ailing father, travelling by train from Hampshire to Dover to look after him, putting her feelings of exhaustion down to worry and grief, and missing the signs of her fourth pregnancy.

As a grandmother, she was always cleaning, cooking and playing with us. She’s the only person I know to have had a replacement shoulder from all that ironing. She’s the only person I know who irons underwear.

My own experience is from another place. In between her becoming a mother in 1951, and me in 2006, came the feminist movement. Women of my generation blog about the fact that motherhood is a hard grind, then leave the laundry to fester to go for a swim.

We get lambasted for it, too. Not by our menfolk, parents or grandparents, but ironically by other mothers of our generation who say that we should be grateful for our children, and not whinge about motherhood, rather bask in the sunshine of its eternal glory. Articles like this one lament a current ‘fashion’ to akin motherhood to martyrdom.

I love an irreverent moan, and feel that the success of bloggers like The Unmumsy Mum is a success for all maternal-kind. In my mind, motherhood is akin to martyrdom, as it always has been. My grandmother was a martyr: a fulfilling career and hobbies weren’t really on her radar. She martyred herself to a pile of ironing.

Sometimes I think finding motherhood tough might be a bit wussy compared to my granny’s generation; I can’t imagine not having a washing machine. But our battle ground is the same: expectation. What we actually expect of women may have shifted beyond recognition in the last 85 years, but women’s behaviour and choices are still dictated by societal expectations; in that sense, the feminist movement hasn’t yet done its work.

In the 50s, women were largely expected to marry, stay at home, have children and raise them. It was an age of respectability and conformity. This meant that women had little choice when it came to education, work and personal liberty. Expressing dissatisfaction in your marriage or with your children was a sign of ill mental health.

Now, successful women are expected to be educated, have good jobs, have equal, loving relationships, bright children, amazing homes and looks that belie their true age. In the sense that we make more choices, we have liberty by the bucket load. And yet we’re as oppressed by a media wall of aspiration and judgement as our grandmothers were by 1950s rules of decency.

I’m not saying we have it harder, just that things haven’t moved on as much as we’d like to think. Choose career, and you get judged for leaving it late to have children. Choose children, and you lose out in your career. Get fat in pregnancy and get teased. Get thin, and get accused of using a surrogate like Beyonce Knowles.

Now, as in my grandmother’s day, it’s women who judge the hardest. This culture of expectation pitches women against each other, and that hasn’t changed either. If in the 1950s you’d expressed despair at the demeaning job of wiping endless shitty bottoms, you may have been the subject of gossip at the vicar’s wife’s tea party; now you’d face a bitter rebuke in the pages of The Guardian like this bit of misdirected vitriol by Bibi Lynch.

Now, as in my grandmother’s day, the practical and emotional ties of motherhood trump any amount of choice. Right now, my youngest is sitting on my lap, and I can tell by resting my cheek on his forehead and because his breath doesn’t smell very nice that he’s not very well. No matter what wonderful choices I had in my education, career and clothes, I am in exactly the same spot as my granny was all those years ago as primary care-giver.

And now, as in my grandmother’s day, women have true strength. If we stop judging each other, comparing ourselves, or squinting into the mirror for wrinkles, we’d see small, modest stories of unerring feminine strength, like my 85 year-old granny washing her husband’s feet to make him more comfortable.

I do feel thankful that I’m a woman in a time where I can leave the laundry (two days on the landing damp in a basket) and go swimming. My granny grew up in Dover and loved swimming in the sea; I wish she hadn’t had to abandon it. I don’t think she’d be up for open water swimming now, but she’ll always be with me as I swim.


My granny and her daughters (the one on the right is my mum) were all Guides in the late 1960s.




What’s in your kit bag?

Only a swimophile could have a fantasy kit bag. Most of my friends covet handbags, but I can’t get excited about Mulberry or Louis Vuitton or whatever. But talk to me about the contents of your kit bag, and you’ve got my interest.

My bag is a rather pleasing khaki-green canvas tote. It has carry handles and a long strap so you can sling it across your back. It’s a single-compartment slouchy affair, a gift from family in Perth, Australia. It was originally filled with beer, but I have commandeered it. It’s mine. It’s got a bit of mildew on the inside. And I get quite arsey if someone else tries to use it.

Inside, at this time of year, is my towel, costume, swimming cap, fins, goggles, wash bag and some loose change. Sometimes I also take my swim watch. In open water season, I add my wetsuit, baby nappy cream for wetsuit rash, tow float and polarised goggles.

Just as you can tell a lot about a person by the contents of their handbag, what can you work out from a swimmer’s kit bag? I think mine says quite clearly that I’m an entry level, moderately serious recreational swimmer.

My clear goggles are Aquasphere Vista, which I love for the way they stick to my face rather than trying to pop out my eyes, and give me a clear field of vision. My polarised pair are Slazenger Triathlon Mirror goggles, which reduce the glare on a bright day, fit in much the same way as my Aquaspheres, and, essentially, don’t fog up while I’m swimming.

My swimming costume is a Zoggs boyleg swimsuit. As a swimming teacher, I’ve been through hundreds of swimming costumes. Zoggs has absolutely been the best in terms of longevity and fit. Their chlorine resistant material is wonderful; it lasts use after use. And I love the boyleg fit simply because it means you don’t have to be attentive to your lady garden. Priorities.

My hat is a Diana 3D competition swim cap. It’s actually a race cap, which I didn’t realise, but because it’s moulded, I find it easier to get on my large head. I also have my Macmillan and Great North Swim latex caps, but I feel it’s a bit like putting a condom on my head, and it gradually pops off while I’m swimming.

I actually love my wetsuit. At £280, this was my biggest, most important purchase. I got it from the Triathlon Shop in Bristol, where I asked for a suit that would fit someone with a man’s height and woman’s curves. They got it spot-on first go, and I got to try it in their brilliant infinity pool (I want one). It’s a Zoot Z-Force 3.0. I find it really easy to swim in, with good movement on the arms. excellent warmth and buoyancy. I’ve done 3.6km freestyle wearing this little beauty.

My towel is the only bit of kit over which I haven’t agonised. I would like a dryrobe and a sherpa hoodie. For open water swimming, my fleecy jogging bottoms, alpaca beanie and Uggs are essentials too.

I could spend a fortune on Wiggle, Pro-swimwear and Selkie Swim Co. I probably need a tow float at some point. And if I take on winter swimming, a neoprene hat, boots and gloves might be on my shopping list.


All togged up and ready to go!

While swim kit fantasies have infinite possibilities, you actually don’t need to spend a lot to enjoy swimming. Unlike cycling where you need a decent bike, or running where you need good trainers, all you really need to swim is a towel, goggles and something to wear in the pool.

Many open water swimmers prefer to swim without a wetsuit. I love wearing a wetsuit, and love my middle-of-the-range number. But you can hire or buy second-hand, and many places offer the chance to hire for the summer and then buy at the end if you like it.

The Oasis #favouriteplaces

It’s hard to decide if this place is retro cool like Danger Mouse, or reliable children’s entertainment like Blue Peter. I think because it lacks tedious health and safety (always felt Blue Peter would be a rule follower), and has a bit more of a slap dash approach, it’s probably more the former. This is a good thing.

I first went to the Oasis in Swindon in the late 80s, and thought it pretty much the coolest place ever. It wasn’t just the wave machine and huge leisure pool, it was being allowed on scary slides that gave you a wedgie and got water up your nose. Frankly, a slide’s not worth its salt if it doesn’t cause a bit of pain.

The main area of pleasure-pain is the Domebuster, which has three slides: the Great White, Sidewinder and Storm. In the main pool, there are three hydro-slides and an open flume. There’s also a little pool with a pirate ship complete with squirters, sprays and small slides.


Fun under the dome!

This is where I start to rant. So many water parks and leisure pools have stringent height/age restrictions for their water slides. Blue Lagoon, part of the Bluewater holiday village in south west Wales, for example, has a lifeguard with a measuring stick and the deduction skills of Columbo at the top of each slide barring the vertically challenged and under-eights.

But since when was age and height an indication of swimming ability or awareness of danger? The Oasis is much more sensible. You can take a small child down the Great White on your lap, which gives the more daring little ones a chance to go on a big slide.

Our three-year-old loved it, and after a few goes wanted to upgrade. Could he? “One of you go down first and catch him at the bottom,” said the lifeguard. So we took on the Sidewinder. You have to go down head-first and one at a time, and there’s one bit where your whole body is airborne. No wedgie, but a satisfying bumping of the iliac crest, which leaves a bruise-of-honour.

I was quite anxious to catch the expression on my three-year-old’s face as he shot out the end of the slide after me. Rapture was not what I expected. But he loved it so much I had to endure at least seven more bruises before we called it a day. I have to admit loving standing in the queue with my audacious preschooler, while children twice his age in arm-bands snivelled at the idea of going on the Great White.

We were there for a good two hours, all three children adoring it much as I had in the 80s. It’s not the most sparkly, new, flash water-park, but it’s fun. And health and safety quips aside, the lifeguards are friendly and seem to use judgement and experience rather than blindly follow rules.

Besides, its 90s indie band namesake took its name from the Oasis after seeing it on a poster for a gig by Inspiral Carpets (in the adjoining live music venue, not the Domebuster). I think that backs up the retro-cool argument rather than the tired, in need of a refurb comments made by Trip Advisor reviewers. Sure, it probably hasn’t been updated much in the last 30 years, but then nor have DipDabs, so that’s not always a bad thing.

*promise I’ll review some proper open water swimming places soon!

Try not to breathe

If you’re a swimmer, you have probably felt that chest-busting desperation to breathe. I often end my swimming sessions with a length under water, and felt that tingle in my arms, the swimming head as my body demands an inhalation. It’s not the nicest feeling, so the idea of hypoxic training sounds horrible.

There’s no doubt that hypoxic training is contentious. Or at least the terminology: I know babies who have been brain damaged by hypoxia during birth, and there are cases of people who have drowned by attempting to hold their breath for too long. In August 2015, the incredible free-diver Natalia Molchanova, who had been able to hold her breath for around nine minutes, went for a dive and never resurfaced, proving that even the most incredible humans need to breathe.

The theory behind hypoxic training goes like this: athletes who train at high altitudes become efficient, oxygen-processing machines. Among other benefits, this means their oxygen-deprived bodies produce more haemoglobin, which carries more oxygen to their muscles, thus improving performance.

Hypoxic training is supposed to stimulate training at high altitude. You’re asking your body to respond to the same physical demands of normal training, but with less oxygen. Your body then gets better at using oxygen, so when you go back to swimming normally, you have an abundance of it, making swimming further, faster and harder easier than it was before.

It’s a really common part of swim training, and many coaches use it to help improve swimmers’ stamina and performance. Really, all it means is breathing less often for a part of a training session; every 3, 5 or 7 strokes.

There’s an argument against it, though, which says that actually all you’re doing is breathing less often rather than taking on less oxygen, and there’s a danger that you’re increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in your blood. Also, that your age and physical condition means that you might be physically unable to achieve what you’re supposed to be achieving: a swimmer in their 50s has less lung capacity than one in their 20s, regardless of training.

Another, quite persuasive argument, is that it’s really dangerous. There have many cases of qualified, capable athletes dying or nearly dying after blacking out during hypoxic drills or challenges. In New York in May, pools actually banned this kind of training. If you want to read about what happens to cause this, there’s a good article here.

But, when you swim in open water, the demands on your breathing change. The cold, quite literally, takes away your breath. If you’ve wrapped your chest in neoprene, chances are you’ll struggle to expand it enough to catch your breath again. It was the biggest shock to me when I first swam in cold water in a wetsuit; I just couldn’t regulate my breathing.

So even if the physiological benefits are dubious, there’s a strong argument that including some kind of breathing control to your pool training session will have massive advantages for when you swim in open water. You also need to learn to breathe to both sides so that you can adapt to currents and choppiness in open water.

I find a gentle build every 25 meters a good way to start. I naturally breathe every three strokes, so I’d start with 25m on three, 25m on five, 25m on seven, 25m on five, 25m on three. The most important thing is that you don’t hold your breath, you trickle out a stream of bubbles between breaths to avoid build up of CO2.

If you breathe every two strokes, try breathing every two on the opposite side to the one that feels normal. This is enough of a challenge, and you’ll really have to think about your breathing.

So the key isn’t hypoxic training, it’s learning breathing control. Slow, rhythmic, regulated breaths much like the kind you might do when practising Yoga or meditation will calm you, and help you cope with open water swimming. Try it now: take a big lungful of air right down into your stomach, then slowly exhale.

This is a skill you’ll then be able to take outdoors. I almost sing the rhythm of my breath when I’m in the lake of river because it helps me calm and regulate my breathing.

Read more here and here.


A new physicality

It’s official. Swimming has taken over. But of all the things I imagined it to be when I started on this swimming journey, birth control wasn’t one of them. Right now, feeling reflective as I near a decade of motherhood, I realise that swimming has been about more than repairing my postnatal body.

On this day in 2006 I was eleven days overdue with my first baby. Over the next fortnight my body would go through the most raw, physical experience of my life. From carrying a great weight and circulating 25% more blood, to medical procedures to induce labour, to labour itself in all its animal grit and rawness, to post-partum bleeding and repairs, to learning to breastfeed, carry and nurture my newborn son. Nothing could have prepared me for the physicality of motherhood.


The face of someone shell-shocked by new motherhood

That was just the beginning, though. Not just that looking after a child is an intensely physical experience until they are beyond the age of needing help eating, dressing, wiping their own bum. But also that I tripled this demand, having two more babies in 2007 and 2012.

Oddly, as I passed the two-and-a-half year mark with my youngest, I found myself drumming my fingers a bit. I no longer needed to change nappies or have someone balanced on my hip. I was sleeping an eight hour stretch most nights. The relentlessly physical demands of the last eight-and-a-half years had left my body feeling, well, like a used lump of flesh.

What should I do with it now? Childbearing was something I knew I was good at doing; I had the hips and everything. So my husband’s veto of a fourth child sent me into a bit of spin. And then to the pool.

It’s probably pure biology that drives women in particular to keep on procreating. But childrearing is tough work; demanding, relentless, ageing, expensive. The more children you have, the greater the demand on your person. It’s simple mathematics. There’s also unrivalled joy, of course. And having been consumed once or more by parenthood, the idea that you won’t get to bring another wonderful person into the world can take some getting used to.

There are hundreds of blogs, discussion forum posts on parenting forums like Mumsnet, even a Wiki-how entry (with pictures) about how to cope with not having another child. Some describe it as an itch, or a grieving process. Some yearn for the pregnancy, or the newborn, others the child themselves and the ensuing chaos they’ll bring to the family like this columnist.

It wasn’t until I started swimming that I realised that being proud of my body for something other than pushing out a ten pound baby (my third. I did that!) was just what I needed. Focussing on swimming filled a void that so easily could have been a fourth baby, had my husband been less adamant.

I could write a list of the relative pros of bring human life into the world verses those of going for a swim. But suffice to say that while I do make lovely babies, and number four could have been a Nobel prize winning game-changer, for my mental and physical health, swimming has been the better choice.


Not just a lump of used flesh

A decade on, my body’s been changed by childbirth, but swimming is helping mend it: diastasis rectus abdomonis rectified by the core conditioning part; a weakened glute and wonky pelvis from all that baby carrying strengthened by the resistance of the water; and a calm mind achieved from the quiet focus that comes from bashing out lengths. I wrote this article last year about why swimming is good for post-natal mums.

Now I feel healthy and strong, I can’t imagine again putting my body through pregnancy, labour and caring for a baby. For me, it’s been about occupying myself physically, and remodelling my body from postnatal lump of flesh to one that can nail long-distance open water endurance swims. This has been wonderful for my self esteem, and while not dissimilar to labour, it won’t tear my perineum, which is a total bonus.



Do triathletes have the edge?

I’m feeling a bit grumpy about this. Having established that swimming gives me a horse-like appetite, I now read that multi-discipline athletes have the edge on pure swimmers. I’ve had a horrible hunch this might be the case since joining a tri-club (and not doing any running or cycling). But is it?

In an article titled How to Boost Your Speed Over the Long Haul, Zena Courtney is adamant that you can’t do this through swimming alone. Clearly, practising swimming and improving your stroke will help, but she says that you also need to get out of the water and go running or cycling. She says that by physically exerting the body in different ways, eg doing a sport that requires more leg-work, your cardiovascular endurance will improve.

She also points out that it will allow you to improve strength, stamina and CV fitness without getting fatigue or injury from practising just on discipline, which seems like a fair point. I’ve blogged before about how yoga helps swimming, but now I’m starting to feel I should get on my bike too.


A The Human Race race!

And that’s a really important point. Swimming is so much a mind-game; especially open water swimming. Head down, concentrating on your stroke, your focus is very much within yourself, which is part of the reason I love it. But you also only have yourself to keep you going, to settle your breathing when it feels tight, to push you on. And that’s quite hard. Runners, by contrast can train with others, keeping each other motivated and making the distance and time pass more quickly.

Josh Miller is a strength and conditioning trainer. He believes that swimmers lack “strength and explosiveness”, and advocates boxing and resistance training. His point is that what you do on land should directly benefit what you do in the water. Seems obvious, but I guess it depends on where you feel your weaknesses lie and what kind of exercise you enjoy, because there isn’t infinite time to exercise, and you don’t want to neglect your swimming.

“Boxing is a great way to develop upper body strength while also engaging the core,” says swimming coach Josh Huger.


So now I’m feeling that I perhaps don’t need to run and cycle, when I can do resistance training in the gym, yoga and perhaps try Boxfit, which sounds ace. I feel that running and cycling are too alike to swimming in that they’re pure cardio, endurance activities. But maybe it’s the similarities reap benefits as much as the differences.

Interestingly, while I can find loads of blogs and articles about swimming for cyclists and runners, I can find very little about running or cycling for swimmers. It appears that swimming is the most common weak discipline for triathletes. It seems that nobody is saying that you have to get on a bike or run to be a better swimmer.

This makes me feel better. I’m yet to discover a love for cycling: I find road biking equally tedious and terrifying; mountain biking looks fun, but I’m not sure I can be doing with the faff and expense of getting the right kit, transporting it, cleaning it, servicing it. And I actually can’t run. The hyper-mobility that does me a great service while swimming, impedes any attempts even to jog. My four year old can run further and faster than me.

But there can be no doubt that my physique and swimming ability would benefit from doing other sports. I quite like spinning for getting a sweat on, I love yoga and Pilates, and I’m growing to enjoy resistance training in the gym. And I can’t believe that any of that will be bad for my swimming efforts.

That leaves me to conclude that my fellow triclub members have the edge because they’re fitter than me, not specifically because they run and cycle. It’s clear that dry-land training is important for swimmers, and so long as it includes strengthening, flexibility and stamina, it’s best to choose exercises you enjoy, that make you feel good.

Get your chill on

This weekend is the Big Chill Swim across Windermere. I want to get in to open water swimming all year round. It’s the exhilaration, the way your skin prickles and makes you really feel. I’ve plunged into cold water; I totally get the thrill. But I’m yet to brave it…

Standing on a rock in the Picos mountains in Spain, I looked down at the beautiful turquoise pool below. It seemed infinitely deep, and with the heat of the Spanish summer sun on my back, it was so inviting. But in the mountains the temperature of the water so close to source was fricking freezing.

Still, the plunge, the mind-numbing, body-shocking plunge, was exhilarating. The change in body temperature awakening the mind and focusing the senses. It’s the same principle as having a cold shower or plunge pool after a sauna; and it’s supposed to be good for your bodily functions and circulation too, which you can read about here.

But plunging or showering in cold water when you’re hot is very different to swimming across a pond on Hampstead Heath in February as described in this blog (with which I’ve completely fallen in love: beautiful photography, great writing).

So why swim in freezing cold water on a freezing cold day? Your limbs feel heavy and sluggish as your body decides your vital organs need warm, oxygenated blood more than your extremities. A friend of mine did an open water swim where you weren’t allowed to put your head under the water or you’d die. Extreme.


Lewis Gordon Pugh: the world’s best open water swimmer

And don’t we just love an extreme? I’ve been reading blogs and articles by cold swimming affeciondos like this, and I can’t find any actual physical benefit to cold water swimming like those of the sauna then cold shower. Rather the benefit seems to be mental, feelings of euphoria, strength and confidence. So really the same reasons anyone does an extreme sport or activity.

Of course, we shouldn’t be dismissive of these kinds of mental and almost spiritual advantages. While to some cold swimming might seem like torture, if you read the words of those who do it, it’s easy to see why it becomes a kind of addiction.

Having been inspired to try cold water swimming, it’s tempting to grab my wetsuit and head to the nearest body of water (which wouldn’t be far as we’re currently on flood alert!). But I’m not going to. Not yet, anyway. It would be more sensible to start after a summer season of open water swimming, where you swim regularly getting used to the temperature as it slowly drops.

The Open Water Swimming Society has a fantastic article on getting in to cold water swimming, including a section by a doctor on what the cold water does to your body. It sounds a little daunting, but actually he’s not saying much more than you’ll need to pee more, you’ll gasp, shiver and be really, really hungry afterwards.


Swimming, I mean enduring, the sea with friends in Bantham in March

I prefer swimming in fresh water to salty, but the marine lake in Clevedon has a group that swims all year round. I have just requested to join them. My cousin has membership with Henleaze Swimming Club in Bristol, which has events throughout the year.

But my ultimate goal is the Big Chill Swim. “There is a long tradition of open water swimming around the world and we feel that the uplifting experience of long distance swimming and winter swimming should be experienced by everyone.” These words just goad me into thinking my open water swimming experience won’t be complete until I’ve frozen off my very own tits swimming across Windermere.

Finally. The world swimming under ice record. Amazing. Insane.