Getting used…

“Getting used… getting used… getting used… got used!” is what we used to say as small children as we eased into my dad’s unrelentingly scorching bath water. It’s what I’ve heard myself mutter too as I get into cold water at the start of my winter swim adventure.

Winter swimming is catching on. Mainstream media broadcasts its benefits, like in this article in the Guardian, and the first episode of the BBC’s Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs which aired last month.

The benefits seem manifold. Boosting circulation, immunity and libido, as well as fighting off depression, thanks to a release of lovely endorphins. “One thing that encourages people to endure the pain is the accompanying cocktail of endorphins that arises in the brain, resulting in a lasting sense of euphoria and calm,” says the Guardian’s Jonathan Knott.

There have to be enduring benefits, or nobody would do it. Risking the cold shock response, hypothermia, and possible heart attack is one thing, but the certainty of numb extremities as your blood rushes to preserve your vital organs is quite another. You know it’s going to hurt.

Yet it’s a risk worth taking. The benefits of swimming in frozen rivers and plunging in icy pools have long been enjoyed across north and eastern Europe before it became hipster cool. The “epiphany swimmers” in Russia, and the Scandinavian sauna tradition, as well as traditional swims and plunges undertaken by pretty much everyone: the young, the old, men and women.

While the health and well-being benefits are difficult to prove scientifically, the anecdotal evidence is strong. What’s more, they’re benefits anyone can enjoy; unlike most extreme sports, anyone can take a cold dip. In fact women with a good layer of subcutaneous fat seem to make the best chilly swimmers.

That’s what makes me happy, at least. It’s November, and a cold one at that, and I’ve thus far got as low as half an hour at 10 degrees centigrade without my beloved wetsuit, so it seems that bit of extra timber I’m carrying has its uses. The cold shock response is evident for about a minute or two: that dramatic in-breath, followed by some mild hyperventilation. You want to be able to hold on to something or touch the bottom until this effect has subsided.

After that, it takes a few minutes and a few strokes, dipping in my face and grimacing at the dreaded ice-cream headache. And once that’s gone, you’ve got used! And oh, the bliss! Your skin prickles, and yes, your feet and hands gradually lose sensation. You feel slower and heavier, which is why you should never go alone, and always be aware of when your body tells you get out.

But nothing can make you feel more alive, in the moment and at peace with the world. Perhaps that right there is as big a part of the antidote for anxiety and depression as those wonderful endorphins. You feel strong too, and inordinately calm.

That feeling really does stay with you, and I find myself plotting my next ‘hit’. It’s part trying to make sure I stay acclimatised as the temperature drops further. part thrill-seeking addiction. I may make the Cold Water Swimming Championships with a silly hat, but that doesn’t really matter. For now, at least, I’m just enjoying the chill. How low can I go?!

Incidentally. The colour of my skin after a cold dip is much the same as it was after a hot bath. Only after a chilly swim, when I touch my skin, I can’t actually feel my touch, which is very disconcerting!

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Hold me!

Don’t rush it. Don’t wish it away. Don’t hurry it up. You hear these kind of phrases a lot when you have young children, mainly from old women whose glasses are distinctly rose-tinted. But they have a point when it comes to swimming.

With my older children, I measured their first lessons in the pool without me as progress. I watched from the side as they got in the pool with other small children and a teacher, and felt pleased with myself for taking this next big step. A bit like sleeping in a big bed by themselves, or taking themselves to the loo; it felt right.

But it was a mistake. My eldest, aged just three, and in expensive, private lessons where the teacher had just him and one another child, repeatedly nearly drowned himself, until the teacher told me he was ‘unteachable’. Well, dur, he’s three; he can’t be expected stay at the side for five minutes awaiting instructions.

My second was closer to four, and in council-led classes of eight other pre-schoolers. In a half-hour lesson, she ‘swam’ about four widths, suspended at the water’s surface by armbands that restricted the lovely pulling arms she’d mastered over the time she spent in the water with me in her Water Babies classes.

Now I’m a swimming teacher, I see it again and again. Strong, confident little swimmers who leave me and join mainstream classes and regress; struggling to follow instructions, limited by armbands, confidence and independence knocked.

Small children need to be held up by a parent. Not just physically having someone they love and trust to help them get the right body position and catch them when they jump in, but emotionally they are still so young, and only just starting to make their way in the world.

And why wish away that chance? Before long, they’ll be swimming on their own, and your time will be over. Yes, you may not exactly relish putting on your costume, but once in a pool with your baby, toddler or pre-school, there’s nothing more fun or satisfying than helping your own child learn to swim. The laughs, the skin-on-skin; it’s all immensely bonding.

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It aggrieves me that swim schools encourage classes for preschoolers and younger where the parent is absent. In my opinion, they do it for one reason alone: to make money. Rather than simply explain the many reasons why it’s better for small children to swim with their parents, they take their cash and let the children flounder.

Having a parent with them means learning far more than just swimming. Water is an incredible, sensory world that needs to be explored through singing, games, jumping, diving, splashing, playing. Just as you wouldn’t expect a three or four-year-old to sit at a desk and study all day, nor would expect them to swim width after width. Children learn through play, and that applies to swimming too.

Just as you read with your baby to give them early communication and pre-reading skills, exploring water together gives them important pre-swimming skills. At the stage, before they’re four or five-years-old, it’s about learning buoyancy, balance and streamlining.

It’s a question of safety too. Children should be supervised on a one-to-one basis. That supervision cannot and should never be substituted by flotation devices! Arm-bands are awful; giving a false sense of buoyancy, restricting arm movement, not allowing children to learn a good swimming position. That false sense of buoyancy is deadly: how can children be expected to learn how to kick up to the water’s surface, turn around and hold on? It’s unlikely they’d have on their armbands if they fell into the garden pond.

I’m still in the water with my third child, who’s just over four. That boy can jump, dive, swim on his front and back and enjoys nothing more than fetching sinkers from the bottom of the pool. He has the distinct advantage over his older siblings that I’m now a swimming teacher, and I can recognise that joining lessons where he swaps me for a piece of foam would be a disaster.

So what should you do? If you can find a swim school where you get in with your child, then go for it. Otherwise, the best thing you can do is take them yourself. It doesn’t matter what you do in the water, but avoid arm-bands and let them play and explore on their own terms. Remember that children learn through play, imitation and encouragement, and that they respond to you better than anyone else.

Safe swimming #guestblog

My first guest blog is by my favourite girl in the whole wide world. I started Water Babies with her when she was just 9 weeks old, now 8 years old, she’s pretty good in the water! See what Betty has to say about swimming…

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Betty aged 3 just as comfortable under water as above

“I love swimming! I like front crawl, back crawl and breast stroke the most. My mum taught me how to stay safe in the water and now I’ll tell you…

DROWNING

(1)If someone is drowning talk them into the side.

(2) If someone is drowning throw something for them to hold and then talk them into the side.

(3) If someone is drowning get something long and hold one end then throw it out so they can hold the other and you can pull them in.

WHEN AROUND WATER ALWAYS OBEY SIGNS!

Keep swimming!”

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Loving our massive paddling pool!

Like a true water baby, Betty loves any kind of swimming, water slides, the sea, body boarding, even spending hours in our unheated paddling pool.

I once read a fatuous argument against teaching swimming that said that most people who drowned were trying to swim or play in water; that if you didn’t go in water, you wouldn’t drown.

Clearly if you existed somewhere without water, the Sahara, for example, it would be quite hard to drown. But seeing as water is a life force, and the earth’s surface is 80% H2O, it’s better to learn to swim and stay safe around water.

I’m glad Betty enjoyed the water safety part of her swimming lesson, learning pool rules, how to tread water and call for help, how to find a branch or buoyancy aid to help someone in trouble.

I’d never be complacent, but it’s good to know that your child is safe and sensible in the water!

Bye-bye bikini bod, hello hipster bush…

Word on the street is that the term ‘bikini body’ is out, actually banned by Women’s Health magazine in the US. At the same time, women’s pubic hair is going the same way as men’s facial hair: big and hipster.

Clearly this is big news for us female swimmers. No longer will we have to a) look like we’re modelling our swimwear, or b) tame our bushes. Result.

Actually, the bikini body phrase ban is a good thing. It comes from the readers of Women’s Health who felt that defining only one body type as fit to wear a bikini was an insult to other body types. They also rejected the idea that the phrase suggests women should be getting in shape in order to look good in a bikini.

Editor Amy Keller Laird pointed out that women are more focused on feeling confident and being healthy, not working out so they can “fit into some preconceived, outdated notion of what’s sexy.” Which is quite right, if not a little slow on the uptake.

Talking of outdated notions of what’s sexy… In a bid to drum up sales for Valentines, the New York branch of American Apparel’s window display went for it in the pubic hair department (pictured above).

Yes, it was a show-stopping PR stunt. But it’s part of a wider narrative about hairy foofs. A recent survey found the majority of women couldn’t be bothered to prune their lady gardens, and their partners didn’t really care either. Gywneth Paltrow recently told an interviewer that she was rocking a 70s vibe down there.

It seems like a weird topic of conversation to bring up with an A-lister; body hair equality has traditionally been a topic for more hardcore feminists. But it’s about time the world shrugged off the taboo and started talking about it.

Shorn muffs come from the porn industry alone. Not, then, from any sexual preference, or for better hygiene or odour, which has been one of the more fatuous reasons given for hair removal.

Through porn, which is where most of us first see a vagina, Brazilians became the norm: what boys expect, and what girls think boys want. In her book How to be a Woman Caitlin Moran says, “Hairlessness is not there for the excitingness. It’s not, disappointingly, there to satisfy a kink…the real reason porn stars wax is because, if you remove all the fur, you can see more when you’re doing penetrative shots. And that’s it. It’s all down to the technical considerations of cinematography.”

In New York, you should now ask your wax technician for a ‘full bush Brazilian’, which is essentially the short back and sides of hair removal – a full muff and a bald undercarriage.

This is, of course, no less ridiculous than a landing strip or full Brazilian. But give the hair removal industry credit for creativity: if men go fully bearded and women leave their pubes to grow as nature intended, they’re going to be left twiddling their thumbs.

I’ve never cared enough for fashionable pubes to put up with utter faff of removal, or the sheer itchiness of the regrowth. Nor have I been put off wearing a bikini by the fact that I don’t have a bikini bod. But I would be pleased if my children grew up knowing muffs are hairy, bodies of all shapes can flaunt swimwear, and healthiness is more important than looks.

Love this tat! I might get it next Muffember…

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Yoga for swimmers

Thinking about land-based exercise to support your swimming might lead you to the gym for strength or other cardio-fitness disciplines like running and cycling for endurance. But yoga, with its focus on strength, breathing, flexibility and self-awareness, is one of the best ways to compliment your training.

If you’re under the misconception that yoga is just about ‘stretching’, go along to a class and you might rethink as you lower slowly in a plank position, abdominal muscles trembling! Yoga stregthens your core, shoulders, back, chest, arms and hips. It focuses the mind, helps breathing patterns and stamina, as well as restoring well-being.

Good body alignment, which is integral In swimming, is often thrown off kilter when we mainly practice freestyle, and perhaps breaststroke for recovery. A great example is that the pectoral (chest) muscles are mainly contracted, which weakens the opposing rhomboids in your back leading to tell-tale rounded shoulders.

You can counter this imbalance by swimming backstroke at the end of every session, but learning proper alignment through yoga can help even more. Restorative yoga can counter all those areas of stress and imbalance caused by swimming such as tightened Achilles’ tendons. There are some good exercises here.

The other problem with ‘wet-side’ training, is that the body doesn’t get to use gravity to get stronger, lacking the resistance it needs to build muscle and bone strength. Yoga poses (asanas) use your body’s weight as resistance, and take it through a full range of motion, making your muscles more flexible and less prone to injury.

By practicing yoga regularly, you extend your muscles, rather than contracting them, as you would when running or cycling. This helps you fully extend your arms and legs in each stroke you make, propelling yourself more efficiently.

Yoga and swimming are two of few practices that ask for carefully considered breathing patterns. The yogic skill of using your breath to engage your core and stregthen your movements is a very helpful skill to use when you swim.

There is also an invaluable benefit for the mind. Swimming is a mindful activity, which is based on a sensory experience that draws you into yourself, and into the present time and place. Ditto yoga. The difference is that when swimming, you’re used to doing, pushing, achieving. In yoga, you practice just being, which is wonderful for recuperating and focus sing your mind ready for your next training session.

Here’s rather awe-inspiring Olympian core yoga workout.

You could also try this more general, bite size routine for before or after a swim.

Find yoga classes near you, and mention that you’re a swimmer.

Fossil hunting #favouriteplaces

Every Friday, I’m going to explore a great wild swim, pool, open water swimming spot or beach. Seeing as I’m not prepared to take the plunge in the UK this early in the year, I thought I’d start with some fossiling fun.

East Quantoxhead is on the Somerset coast, about 13 miles west of Bridgwater. The village itself has a church, grade I listed manor house and pretty thatched cottages its own duck pond and mill house dating from 1725. The manor was granted to an ascendant of the family that still owns it in around 1070, since when no part of the estate has been sold. The village used to have a small harbour which brought in limestone and exported alabaster. It is thought that it was also used for smuggling.

From the village, you can walk down a track that leads to the coast path, from which you can walk down steep steps to the beach. If you turn left and walk along the beach for half a mile or so, you start finding small ammonites in the flat rock sediment. There are also much bigger ammonites to be found.

We went on a cold, clear morning, parking in the church car park opposite the duck pond, and following the track the other side of the pond from the car park. Our cold children, who began by moaning, were soon warmed by the walk – and a bit of Dairy Milk for fuel helped!

It took a while to finding our first fossil, but it was all about finding the right spot. Fossil hunting is very absorbing, and we spent almost two hours scrambling over rocks, turning stones and chipping away with a small hammer and chisel. I think when your hunt is productive, it spurs you on, and fossils are plentiful here.

There’s a good AA walk you can follow, which is about 3 miles long. Or you can simply walk there and back. We parked and then walked from number 3 on the map, to 6, and then turned left along the beach.

You can’t drive to the beach, and it certainly isn’t accessible for wheels or those who are unsteady on their feet. Dogs are restricted. You have to be a bit careful of the cliffs because they’re unstable.

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Swim for life #babyswimmingThursday

Baby swimming is a big deal, and has grown in popularity in the last few years. But it’s not new. It’s been widely appreciated for years that if you swim from a very young age, it has a positive effect on your swimming ability, water safety, health and development.

The fact that some adults can’t swim, that there aren’t the facilities to make swimming accessible to all, is a source of great consternation to me. We live on a small island in a world that’s surface is 80% water. We develop in fluid in the womb, are born with reflexes to swim, and it’s such an all-round form of exercise with many benefits. Yet a survey by the ASA in March 2015 showed that more than 1 in 5 adults in the UK can’t swim.

All mammals have this amazing, reflexive response to being plunged into very cold water, called the Mammalian Dive Reflex. This response has three parts: as the water hits the mouth, the larynx closes so water is swallowed rather than entering the lungs (laryngeal reflex). The blood vessels in the extremities close (called vascular constriction), so that oxygenated blood is concentrated around the vital organs. At the same time, the heart-rate slows (known as the bradycardic response) so that the blood pressure doesn’t drop dangerously low.

This response is seen in aquatic mammals like otters and seals, but also in human infants and children. In his Reith lecture in 2014 broadcast on Radio 4, Dr Atul Gawande described an extraordinary case of the three year old girl, who went through ice and was submerged for half an hour before her parents could rescue her and was resuscitated fully with no long term damage.

Of course baby swimming classes don’t rely on this extreme reflex, and they swim in much warmer water. But they do capitalise on the laryngeal reflex, plus the baby’s natural affinity with water and instinct to ‘swim’ with their arms and legs, to gently introduce them to swimming.

By swimming from under a year old, babies work through the developmental stage around 12 months old where they would grow cautious or even afraid of water, to lay strong foundations for life-long swimming and water safety skills.

Those reflexes, as described by baby swimming experts Water Babies, means babies can safely, under the care of experts, be swum under water from birth. The benefits are huge, and go way beyond swimming and water safety, including improved fine and gross motor skills, coordination, brain development, confidence, behaviour, bonding with parents – all of which I will go into in more depth at some point.

Lots of research has gone into the benefits of baby swimming. Françoise Freedman, founder of the Birthlight movement, spend years with indigenous Amazonian families observing the way they gently and playfully introduced their babies to water.

“Birthlight believes that a life long love of water and enjoyment of swimming are best generated by a confident and loving handling of babies in water, by swimming with babies and by imparting gentle progressive methods towards unaided swimming, without ever resorting to forceful conditioning,” says Freedman. “The sooner a child discovers the freedom of buoyancy and underwater swimming, the more relaxed and independent he or she will be in water.”

Based on this foundation, Water Babies continues to research and develop baby and toddler aquatics, teaching little ones and their carers through a carefully structured programme. I was casually submerged by my mother from 5 months old, but through Water Babies, my own children have become fantastic little swimmers, my youngest (pictured at around 5 months old) being able to swim 5m on his front and 10m on his back, unaided, at the age of 3 years.

I find the science and research behind baby swimming fascinating. I also believe that it’s pretty much the only activity you can do with your child that could potentially save their lives.

Water Babies is a fantastic organisation, and there’s no beating the quality of their classes. But any swimming is better than no swimming – so long as it’s safe. If you’re confident taking your baby yourself, Francoise Freedman’s book, also called Water Babies, is good guide to what to do in the water. If you’re looking at other swim schools (of which there are many, though not all of equal quality), check they follow the BSI’s accreditation scheme first.

Happily, the incidences of drowning in 0-4 year olds has dropped by 25% (WAID stats) in the last few years, which corresponds to an increased uptake in baby swimming. All we need now is better facilities and more school swimming, but that’s another story…