The big one! 10km swim

By heck, I did it! Face down, legs flutter kicking, arms pulling through murky water for 3 whole hours. So, what did it take to swim a marathon?

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The pros and cons of swimming a marathon

I have a lot of love for the Outdoor Swimming Society who organises the Dart 10k. It’s quite an event with something like 1200 swimmers over two days, organised to start and with a little festival at the end that offers a hug, a hot chocolate, a hot tub, Dart 10k Sherpa fleece hoodies to buy and snuggle in when you finish. So that joy you feel at finishing lifts to ecstasy by the time you’re warm, dry and fed.

I’m sure this is a cunning ploy to make you do it again. To eclipse the hours of your life you’ve given over to training, the raw patch on your neck where your wetsuit rubbed, the pounding headache you got from a too tight cap/too tight goggles/dehydration/exhaustion* (*circle all that apply).

But actually, those discomforts and challenges at least provide interest. Once eliminated, there’s not much to think about when you’re ploughing on. I’ve blogged before about swimming being mindful, and that is part of its joy for me; and I was listening to Radio 4 programme just this morning about how good it is to let your mind wander from time to time. But it’s hard to appreciate a mindful state of being for 3 hours.

The training is boring, there’s no two ways about it. I found having to complete a certain distance in a session cancelled out most of the joy I take from wild swimming . Finding the time and the grit to stick to a training schedule was probably the tougher than the swim itself.

The swim

We started at 9am on the Sunday; the leisurely wave. I should just point out that leisurely is a misnomer. Swimming 10km isn’t my idea of leisure, and when the medium wave started ploughing past us, it was clear that we were the slow and steady tortoises of the event. I might suggest this new name.

The current was good, helping us downstream (like running a marathon downhill with the wind behind you, as I told my brother), and the first feed station came quickly. I was surprised by the water’s saltiness, and that feed station with its jelly babies and Lucozade was a glorious beacon to which I clung for a bit longer than was decent.

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Feed stations: a beacon of loveliness

The next stretch got saltier still, and the previous day’s heavy run had washed in all kinds of leaves (some very prickly: holly?), debris and, judging by the smell and stomach upsets many of us had afterwards, cow poo.

The second feed station at 7.5km was soon there, and those of us clinging on expressed amazement that we were nearly done. Mistake. We’d been warned that the finish is always further than it seems, and it was. I wasn’t that tired; I felt great physically, like a machine, almost. But after another kilometre or so, I was mentally done. I wanted out.

At one point, I spotted a slipway ahead, and became convinced that my glances through misty goggles between breaths had spotted a crowd. But we still had the last big bend to go.

My fingers touched a gravelly river bed, and I thought I must be right at the back of the pack, and the tide was leaving me behind. It also occurred to me that I could get up and walk, so I steered myself to a deeper bit, and a quick glance round showed that I was still in the middle of the pack.

As corny as it sounds, I imagined my children watching for me to finish, and that gave me that final push. Actually, I imagined how cross my eldest son would be if I finished slowly! Eventually, at last, the finish was there.

Again?

Will I do it again? Perhaps. Not next year, but I will probably do it again at some point. I’ve compared endurance swimming with giving birth before, and I’m convinced that I’ve discovered a new similarity: with time, the negative side of the experience fades in your mind, and only the glory remains. Plus, the hug, the hot chocolate, the hot tub, the Sherpa fleece… They were like the baby; the lovely, warm, gift you get to take home.

 

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Injury time

It’s sunny; it’s warming up; it should be time to get out my wetsuit. If only my arm weren’t in a sling… The big question when your injured is, is do I keep form (and sane) when I can’t go swimming?

I’ve been working out like a fiend. My first event on the season is on June 11th; a lovely starter swimming a mile around Windermere as part of the Great North Swim. Last year, I did it in 35 minutes with cramp in both calves. All year I’ve been training with the aim of getting sub-30 minutes. All year. Only thanks to a little wobble on my bike, I now have a fracture in my left elbow.

As I’ve blogged before, swimming is my time out, my escape as well as my exercise. It’s so important to me mentally and physically. So not only do I need to keep sane, I also want to be able to get round the lake in just under eight weeks’ time.

The answer for the exercise part is high impact interval training (HIIT). Following the principles of Jillian Michaels creator of the 30 Day Shred, I’ll be doing a 20 minute workout five days a week that comprise of three minutes strength, two minutes CV and one minute abs. The question is what exercises, and how can I keep my upper body strength?

Cardio and abs are easy; high knees, high feet, jogging on the spot, ropeless skipping, and at the gym static bike and cross trainer. I can also continue with ab curls, crunches, leg lifts and so on. Strength is trickier. Unable to push weights, the focus switches to lunges in all directions, squats, core rotation, some with a dumbell in my good hand to add resistance and keep my upper body strong.

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Squat walking: hardcore!

But trickier still is the mind game. With yoga and swimming on hold, and also being unable to drive or work, the chances of getting bored are very high. Walking has to be a good start. There’s more scope for a wandering mind than when focussing on your stroke while swimming; I’ve been walking since I was 12 months old, so I don’t have to think about form. But at least I’ll be out there in the world.

I’m also going to try meditation and maybe dig out my old sketch book. Perhaps by viewing this as an opportunity to try things I don’t do normally, I won’t lose the plot!

Of course the moment I can, I’ll be back in the pool and lake. Swimming is wonderful for rehabilitation after injury, and is recommended by physiotherapists. My trouble, I know, is that I’ll push it. Starting with water walking with gentle pulling, I’ll progress to a one-armed stroke, and then a gentle stroke.

I’ve been very lucky that my radial head fracture (a crack in the nobbly bit at the end of the radius that sits in the elbow) is stable, and that means it can be exercised as the pain allows. I hope that by June 11th, I’ll be strong enough for a gentle swim around Lake Windermere.

Armless 20 min HIIT Circuit*

  • Warm-up (2 mins)
    • 30 secs running on the spot
    • 30 secs high knees
    • 15 secs neck rolls
    • 15 secs shoulder rolls
    • 30 secs high knees
  • Set 1
    • Strength: 45 secs static squat with abdo twist, 45 secs side lunges – repeat
    • Cardio: 30 secs butt kicks, 30 secs jumping jacks – repeat
    • Abs: 60 secs sit ups
  • Set 2
    • Strength: 45 secs lift left leg and raise dumbell with good arm, 45 secs squat walking, 45 secs lift right leg and raise dumbell with good arm, 45 secs squat walking.
    • Cardio: 30 secs high knees, 30 secs ropeless skipping – repeat
    • Abs: 60 secs ankle taps (with good arm – lean towards you ankle on the other side)
  • Set 3
    • Strength: 45 secs lunge with good arm bicep curl, 45 secs step through lunge – repeat
    • Cardio: 30 secs grapevine with abdo twist, 30 secs lunge jump – repeat
    • Abs: 60 secs full crunch – lifting legs as you sit up.
  • Cool down and stretch

*I’m neither a medically trained physio nor a qualified trainer – please check with your medical practitioners before exercising.

 

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.

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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.

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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

Recover and reach

This week is all about arms. Actually, it’s about the recovery and reach part of your stroke, because your arms are way too important to cover in one go. And if you’re trying to improve your stroke, this is probably the best place to start.

So, you’ve got your body position flat, aligned and at the surface of the water. Your legs are flutter kicking long and from the hips. You’re rotating with each stroke, but why aren’t you going anywhere?

In freestyle, your arms provide about 90% of the propulsion. Each stroke, that’s each turn of one arm and then the other, is made of several parts: the downsweep, catch, insweep, upsweep, release, recovery, reach and entry. The bit under the water is the propulsive bit, but it’s important to get the arm recovering and well positioned to make the most of this, so that’s where we’ll start.

When I first started training, I was doing four things wrong in this phase of my stroke alone. I’ve seen these same mistakes in a lot of adults I’ve taught. The first was holding too much tension in my recovering arm. I was then letting it cross to the front of my head, rather than in line with my shoulder, and taking my hand into the water at a rotated angle. The fourth mistake, was dropping my arm instead of reaching, so the propulsive phase of my stroke started somewhere way below me about level with my shoulder: in other words, I was losing an entire arm’s length of propulsion.

Recovery seems like an odd place to begin seeing as it’s the end of the stroke, but this is about placing your arm correctly for the next. Your arm should leave the water elbow first, and move forwards next to your body. Think shark’s fin, which helps children so why not adults too! Your lower arm and hand should dangle in a lovely, relaxed way, with your fingers trailing just above the water’s surface.

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Relaxed recovery

Once your hand has passed your head, it’s ready to enter the water fingertips first; dipping the paint brush in the paint pot, if it helps! Your hand should be straight so all four fingers enter at once, rather than rotated.

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The entry

Your arm will then follow your hand through the surface of the water, pushing out forwards, but staying in line with your shoulder. Watch that you don’t send it inwards towards your centre line, or out away from your body. You should really extend this reach, and that will help you naturally rotate. If, at this point, you need to breathe (your other arm will be just releasing ready for recovery), you can, but be really sure that reaching hand stays at the surface and doesn’t drop.

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Arm is reaching as the swimmer breathes

I really like Mark Durnford’s swim coaching blog for technique and drills, although I don’t like the catch-up drill that he mentions, and that a lot of coaches use, because I don’t think it helps with timing. I would replace it with the salute drill that I detail below.

Drills to help with these techniques

If you recognise any of my mistakes in your own stroke, or don’t think you’re doing it correctly, then here are some drills you can practice to help. These are great drills even for seasoned pros to go back and try; no harm can come from practising good technique. If you want to, try these drills with fins to help you concentrate on your arms.

Single arms

Good for keeping the arm near the surface.

With a kick board under one hand, swim a length with one arm and then the other. Try swapping the board to the other hand every three strokes, so you swim three with your right, and three with you left. Now try this drill without the kick board. See if you can keep your hand still near the surface of the water.

Salutes

Good for holding that reach at the surface and timing. This is one of my favourite drills.

After the recovery phase of each cycle, hold your arm next to your head as though you are saluting. Your other arm should have entered the water and extended to its furthest point. This is where you hold that arm for those two seconds. This arm should then start its downsweep as the recovering arm enters the water.

Zip ups

Good for getting the elbow to lead the recovery and keep the recovering arm in the right position.

As you bring your elbow out of the water, start to zip up and imaginary zip that runs from your hip to your armpit. I pinch my fingers around that zip and everything!

Hip, shoulder, head.

Good for getting a good line in that recovering arm, and getting the elbow to lead.

As you release your arm and bring it into recovery, tap your hip, then shoulder, then head with your finger tips. Pay attention to how this makes your arm feel, and try to replicate it when you swim normally.

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Big headed stick lady doing the salute drill in glamorous and highly impractical strapless number. Yes, I drew it myself.

Legs

My most recent training session was all about the kick. Our coach said that she wanted us to leave feeling like we couldn’t walk! With so much focus on arms, why is the kick important? What does it do, and how can we improve it?

I’ve got an awesome kick. I often say I’m a rear-wheel drive, or power from behind when on kicking drills I overtake people who are normally faster than me. The problem is, in freestyle, 90% of the propulsion comes from the arms, so that’s what I’ve been focussing on lately.

Until I trained to teach swimming, I assumed that my powerful kick came from having big quad muscles. But actually, when you kick from the hip anyway, it’s the fact that my ankles hyper-extend and my feet naturally in-toe that gives me the advantage: as one of my co swimmers says, my feet are actually flippers.

Swimming in fins helps you extend your ankles so they’re in line with your shins. Try it now. Point your toes so that the line of your shins continues across the front of your feet. If you have poor ankle flexibility, your toes will hang down when you swim and create drag. Mine are as flexible as Olympic medallist Cassandra Patten’s!

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Cassandra Patten has hyper mobility in her ankles.

The other important benefit of a good kick is body position. Athletic people, especially men, often suffer from sinking legs. Why? Because while fat and less dense bones help you float, muscle and dense bones are not buoyant. A strong kick can help you keep a nice, high position in the water.

Varying the speed of your kick in session is good practice for mastering the 6-kick per stroke flutter kick, or the slower 2-kick per stroke. Your kick should always come from the hip, not the knees so that you don’t add drag and do use your stronger glute muscles.

Your kick also needs to stay relaxed. Ideally, your feet should almost flick up and down at the end of your legs, as your legs stay relaxed and your bottom does the hard work. This is exactly the action your legs will have when your wear fins.

A session on legs, wearing fins, will also give you a cardio-vascular boost because you have much more resistance. I also found that speeding up my kick while simultaneously slowing down my arms was a great hypoxic work out because you go longer between each breath. You could try breathing more frequently if you needed to.

Ultimately, if you’re racing, you’re going to want to make every part of your stroke count, and that includes your kick. Whether you race or you’re an endurance swimmer, you’re also going to want to make your body streamline and as drag-free as possible. So mastering a decent, effective kick is a must.

You can add simple kicking drills and fins to your normal set. In fact, it’s best not to become over-reliant on fins. You can also practice stretches to increase your ankle flexibility.

Legs set (You will need swim fins* and a kick board)

5 x 15om swim, 150m kick without fins

4 x 50m kick with fins on 1 minute (swim 50m, rest for however much of the minute you have left) +30 secs rest then repeat x 4

6 x 25m hard kick with fins – push your legs down so you don’t splash and feel the burn!

4 x 100m hard kick with slow arms

200m swim, no fins.

(*swim fins are shorter and stiffer than the ones you use for snorkelling/scuba-diving etc. I use Zoggs fins. There are loads available and good user reviews on the Simply Swim website.)