Thursday, 28 May 2015

The Mecca

A few more outings this week, as planned to reboot the acclimatisation process. Monday and Tuesday  being same location as previous post (Ellerton Lake) where owing to slightly less craft on the water I was safely able to extend the size of the laps each day, which makes things easier mentally. Better for me to swim 4 laps of 20 minutes than eight of ten.

Mondays GPS track below shows a small loss of satellite coverage resulting in a blip..I promise I did not get out and walk that small triangular section. 60 mins again, water around 14.2C
Tuesday brought glimpses of sunshine, though with it a stiff breeze to whip up the surface mid lake, comfortable enough to push on to 1hour 20 minutes, recovery was good, so should be able to hit two hours in the next few days. Water 14.6C
Wednesday in the pouring rain brought a visit to what we jokingly call 'The Mecca for Open Water Swimmers'...Seaton Carew nr Hartlepool, yes that crowded resort NOT...even the seagulls had disappeared evidenced by the photo below.

Somewhat fresher than the lake at 9.1C. Swimming parallel to the shore for just a mile (1600m) in around 30 minutes, it was a fun swim despite being bracing to say the least. The good news being the angry seal did not show his face. Its also way closer to home at 10 miles compared with the lake at 25 miles each way. Notwithstanding the fact that the council have tidied the place up a little, it could NEVER be described as picturesque. Sky Sports Jeff Stelling may disagree.

As Joe Hunter (EC 2011) says."If you can swim for 6 hours here, you can swim the English Channel, nasty place" It is quite simply awful.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Open Water Tests with The Suunto Ambit 3

The Bank Holiday Weekend at the end of May 2015 coupled with Charlie being abroad getting some sunshine, allowed for my first real open water swim of the year, whilst Joe Hunter and I did have a little dip a few weeks ago in The North Sea, there was not a lot of actual swimming that day.

Having returned from Mexico only a week since, I am not afraid to admit I as rather anxious before heading to Ellerton Lake on a rather overcast Sunday. As luck (or bad luck) would have it, Saturday was in fact glorious in comparison.

Had my training been rather more disciplined I would still have been swimming the Eton Dorney 10km with Zoe Sadler which I had entered some months earlier. However after some sensible discussion the decision was made.. it would be a poor idea to travel almost 300 miles to Eton with insufficient training and or cold water exposure.

So off to the local lake for a somewhat delayed start to the 2015 open water training.

The plan was to complete at least 30 minutes whatever the temperature with a view to swimming outside most days this week in an effort to jump start my acclimatisation. On arrival I noticed a few wet suit swimmers entering and leaving the water but their numbers were very low.

Standing in speedos at the jetty I attracted the usual comments regarding the lack of neoprene as I waited for a group of four divers to make their exit.

Then it was the usual easing of oneself into the water. Feet, knees, waist then drop down to the neck before a little breast stroke to the first buoy, get control of the breathing and off into front crawl. First thoughts were 'ouch thats a little fresh' (after 30 degrees C on holiday). A short shuttle back and forth to one of the orange buoys then into laps.

I had configured the Suunto to its Open Water exercise mode, with just a few clicks I was able to switch from normal day / time mode to Openwater, Locate GPS signal and press start to begin recording data. Extremely simple on screen instructions and no doubts of the device being in operation (unlike the Finis Hydro Tracker which is situated on the back of the head, the indicator lamps of which can be difficult to see at best)
As you can see from the image above I have the Suunto set up to show, total distance (top) total time (middle) and temperature (bottom). The user can personalise to show whatever information you wish, be it pace per 100m, swolf, lap time, heart rate, you name it, the combinations are pretty endless. This just happens to suit my requirements. 

The swim it self was fairly uneventful, I had a minor mental blip around 30 minutes but decided to complete a few more laps and aim for the hour. The water was around 14degrees, I was breathing rather heavily but coped ok with the water so long as I kept moving. Once out recovery was good, the odd shake but nothing to speak of which was reassuring.

Soon as I got home I downloaded the session via bluetooth transfer in less than a minute and was able to analyse the data via the 'Suunto MovesCount App' on whichever device i.e. laptop, iPad, iPhone etc.

I was already familiar the mapping from  Gavins 'Ambit 2' which we had utilised on two of last years Windermere swims. I was not disappointed, except that I need to spend less time sight seeing and more time swimming

In summary I was delighted with the Suunto 3, the ease in its operation, how it performed and the data provided post swim. I much much prefer it to the Finis Hydro Tracker.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Mark Sheridan (Post Share) Long Distance Front Crawl Technique

I've been lucky enough to know Mark Sheridan for a few years now. He is at the outset; helpful, honest, open and gives advice freely. One thing I particularly like about Mister S is that he is 'a giver' despite having joined 'THE CLUB' he has not changed in his attitude or approach regarding helping other swimmers, be it English Channel aspirants or via his role within the BLDSA.Most recently we have been communicating about the forthcoming BLDSA 2 Way Windermere event. I have agreed to assist Mark and will be employed at the Fell Foot turn buoy together with Charlie on Saturday 1 August 2015.

Mark also writes on his long standing blog,  I keep myself appraised of his 'reminiscences' on a regular basis. The below article, the vast majority of which I agree with, written by Mark, first appeared on his site in October 2012. It is well worth a read and has proven to be one of Marks most popular posts. Thanks Mark ;-)

                                                                                                                                             photo courtesy DebH

Long Distance Front Crawl Technique

I am not a qualified swimming coach and am not necessarily the world's authority on front crawl but I've swum ca. 23 miles & almost 15 hours in cold Scottish water,  I have completed the 24 mile 2Swim4Life, swum the 21 mile 2-way Windermere and swum the English Channel wearing only a pair of trunks which is more than any qualified swim coach that I've ever met..... The swimming bit was reasonably was the dealing with the cold that was the harder more character-building bit!! There are therefore some observations I feel like sharing regarding what I've leant on my long distance swimming journey so far...

I hope you find this blog insightful as I try to delve into a bit more detail on what I consider to be an effortless technique used in long distance front crawl.....

When I uncovered this lark of long distance swimming in 2009/2010 (after countless knee surgeries and realising I couldn't run anymore), I naively thought that after 2 lessons in an endless pool learning a bit more about Total Immersion and the like, I thought I had learnt everything there was to know about this front crawl malarky...... I convinced myself I could therefore contemplate taking on 10.5mile Windermere in 2011. No guts, no wasn't pretty, but it happened.....

Is there a long distance swimming technique? Is there some kind of secret here? Well, yes I think there is and I want to help others try and avoid the mistakes, pitfalls & some of the pain I encountered as at times I felt utterly helpless as my new-found sport was going to be pointless if it was going to cause pain.

In 2011, whilst training to swim Windermere, I trained in Dover Harbour under the stewardship of Freda Streeter with the Channel Swimmers every Saturday. This comprised of being 'told' how many hours was going to be expected of YOU (everyone was different). Of course, after an initial 40 mins one Saturday in early June, I went back and got 2 hours the next Saturday but didn't struggle to complete the task UNTIL on the third Saturday when 5 hours was being demanded of me!!! Oh boy. What a ramp up and having never swum more than 2 hours straight in my life !! Agony....After 3hrs 15 mins, my shoulders had frozen stiff and I walked out of the water and up the steep beach to my bag. I was ready to walk away from the sport in a right huff (I'm glad I didn't). Little did I know that this is NOT the 'done thing' and was much to the disgust of Freda & co. I felt half-way like a failure as others (much slighter than my 17 stone) seemed jovial after 5, 6 or even 7 hours......!

To cut a long story short, I kind of ambled on and 'dealt' with the pain in my shoulders my own way and instead of going to see a proper coach, I just read what I could in my long distance swimming book for assistance (Penny Lee Dean's Open Water Swimming). I didn't give up and kept going down to Dover on Saturdays - just cuffed it and extended up to 7 hours with the wonderful assistance of the great Sue Murray who waited patiently for me & helped me through some dark moments....She, with her much slighter figure, made me realise that I COULD swim through the cold for 5 hours+ if I just swum hour to hour (and feed to feed). However, my bad stroke was still causing the shoulder pain (directly in the front of my left shoulder), or 'rotator pain' and it was, of course, getting worse (due to spending longer in the water) and lasting for days. In the end I kinda got through Windermere my own way really not knowing what I was doing stroke-wise - hence finishing a good 3 hours after the winner. I felt slightly clueless but had bags of desire.

Therefore, after I had set myself a goal to swim Loch Lomond (in the summer 2012), it was during the January and February of 2012 that I realised I had much to learn from uncle Ray Gibbs at Swim Canarywharf.

THERE IS A LONG DISTANCE SWIMMING STROKE that does NOT result in shoulder discomfort, leaves you feeling 'in control', not fighting the water, not constantly trying to keep yourself from sinking and being able to leave the water reasonably refreshed & not demoralised. I am living proof. I finished Loch Lomond with NO shoulder pain WHATSOEVER.

What I want to do is in the following break down what I have learnt as the most salient points that beginners to long distance swimming can take on board and learn for themselves if they care to.  This is not the magic pill or cure-all for everyone. Like a golfer, you cannot learn this sport from the comfort of your armchair reading a book but I hope I can convey some aspects that you can work on and take onboard.  I suppose we have to remember that front crawl is an art form that perhaps we never really perfect BUT I really think that there's some significant learnings from my experiences that I want to pass on....(Some of below assumes some basic knowledge of front crawl)

A few areas that has made a difference to my comfort in the murky world of long distance swimming:

1. The Bent Arm Catch (a. Propulsion and b. Streamlining)
2. Breathing
3. Kick
4. Hands
5. Rotation

1. The Bent Arm catch

a. Propulsion
In my experience, most pool swimmers try and blast up and down the pool cracking on with their 20 to 30 lengths complete with a straight arm leading their very carefully crafted S-shape
test-book style straight-arm catch (when I read Penny Lee Dean's Open Water Swimming Book - that's all that was offered up as advice). That might be fine for the sprinters amongst us  but for the long distance swimmer, can this can be the origin of something causing rotator pain?
I've spent more hours than I would care to admit to to studying the strokes of the greatest male and female swimmers of their generation - Sun Yang and Becky Addlington. Look at the front of their stroke - they BOTH DO NOT USE A STRAIGHT ARM!

Sun Yang:

Rebecca Addlington: 

When I encountered rotator pain in 2011 after many hours in Dover Harbour I hunted around to find answers and really genuinely couldn't find many. I surprised myself in coming back from that kind of pain to swim pain free. Indeed, when I completed the 24 mile  2swim4life the swimming was the easy bit - I finished with no shoulder pain at all and went swimming the next day. I suppose the reason behind this blog is that I just find it terribly sad when I hear people retiring from the sport in their 20s due to injury - what a shame. I wish more of that retirement (and surgery) were avoidable through coaching technique.

Why do swimmers not automatically swim with a bent arm catch? Well, we aren't taught front crawl that way from nippers and, more importantly, it requires more 'buy in' from the swimmer as it results in a temporary loss of speed as we have to develop new muscle memory. Persevere!! There are many drills that will suit here (but will be subject of another blog).

b. Streamlining
This is super interesting. If fast swimming were merely about propulsion drive then the greatest weight lifters would presumably be champions of the fastest times.....BUT the reality is something different. There are some really informative clips suggesting that terrific front cawl is actually MORE ABOUT MINIMISING DRAG and the bent arm catch really helps to this end. If only some of the swimmers down the public baths at Sevenoaks this morning knew this rather than continuing to thrash around.

There's a whole load of stuff on youtube out there that I've found and especialy from The Race Club who go into quite some detail into reducing your frontal drag. It's fascinating stuff and really thought provoking (there are 4 parts and an introduction).....

2. Breathing - Do not Underestimate - *MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF FREESTYLE*!!

One of my favourite front crawl technique companion books that I go back to time and time again is Paul Newsome and Adam Young's Swimsmooth - The Complete Coaching System for Swimmers and Triathletes. It is really interesting to note that breathing is the first section that addresses the dynamics of the front crawl stroke and the authors note:

'....It would not be an overstatement to say that breathing technique is the singlemost important aspect of freestyle swimming......'

Did you read that sentence? Are you sure? Is it worth reading again? I can't recall seeing many average swimmers working that hard on their breathing down the pool....

Look at the great Sun Yang clip again. Look how he breathes.... There is a reason why the greatest swimmers take what seem to be the most shallowest of breaths. They breathe into the 'well' created by their head. There's no real head out of the water - barely one goggle out of the water. If you want to swim in a much more effortless manner, it's worth working on this....your head is a heavy unit that can really through the whole balance off, contort the spine, spoil inertia  - if you get this right it can really make a serious difference... Takes time and tenacity but stick with it - elite swimmers take on water at times!!

After working hard all winter on this aspect, I am now breathing bilaterally effortlessly which is improving my stroke cadence - something that I've struggled with in the past. If you are serious about swimming the channel, for example, you want to get this right you will need to be able to adapt to which side your pilot is on. If you are only a left-side breather and the boat is on your right then it might well be a show-stopper! That's one hell of a way to waste £2500.....Good breathing technique will only help in getting most of everything else right.....

3. Kick
Let's face it, this is the bit that we are all a bit lazy at? I am the King of the ultra-lazy leg kick with a mega-dodgy left knee and no use of my left quad. I swam Loch Lomond with a (vague) 2-beat leg kick and that worked just fine. I am a believer in using the kick as you swim and move in rhythm with the movement of the body (from the hip!) - the 2-beat leg kick works . Some keener individuals seem to go 'hell-for-leather' with the legs BUT even the greatest coaches reckon that 85% of front crawl is arms so perhaps we don't need to get too hung up with the leg propulsion AND if you kick like mad you will get knackered very fast and might mean you have to get out early! I have observed many swimmers kicking like mad only to get completely wiped out and not complete swims due to cramp - I was at that stage in the middle of Windermere in 2011 and it is not nice.
I think swimmers should spend their training time working harder on stroke timing, rotation, breathing (not to mention the catch).... Look at Sun Yang again - he kicks WAY less than everyone else in the race and only really kicks in the last 4 lengths where the outboard rocks into action! If a 2-beat leg-kick can work for the best in the world why not for mere mortals?

4. Hands
This is interesting as apparently a small change in the gap between your fingers can have a marked change in your shoulder pain. If you pull your fingers tight together like a clamp or a vice and use a straight arm catch then you can perhaps feel the immense tension directly? There is a school of thought out there that if you open up your fingers ever so slightly the water cannot escape through the gaps and you can still execute a masterful stroke without the resultant tension being created by being more tense than a string on a guitar. This can result in greater stroke rate and less grief....This was what I was doing in my first season and caused me untold grief!
The other important aspect to work on with the hands is where to point your fingers at the front of the stroke - look at the great long distance freestylers such as Hackett and you will observe that the fingers point down slightly at the front of the stroke. This certainly helps with engagement of the catch and improving cadence. Work on this and see if this helps?

5. Rotation
Basics...... Is it worth reminding ourselves the power of swimming on our sides versus square to the water? Perhaps not....but if you've never done it, put on some flippers and swim a length with your arms by your sides rotating from one side to the other. Note how each time you swim with shoulders 'square-on' to the water, it's like putting the brakes on big time..... Keeping to the sides creates quite a level of propulsion. Oh, if only many pool swimmers at my local baths knew this!

I really would urge you to reserve one pool session per week for drills to work on these aspects of your swimming. Perhaps there's a reason why the greatest long distance Olympians of our time have succeeded.... They have spend loads of time slowing down their particular stroke to create the best 'bang-for-their-buck'. Is it ridiculous to look what Matt Biondi did?  Count how many strokes per length Sun Yang takes versus his competition.....

I suppose the ultimate piece of advice is perhaps consider seeing a decent coach (with access to underwater cameras) reasonably regularly - we really just are not aware of the bad habits that we have created for ourselves at times! Golfers that get better at their game have constant update with the slow-motion film - swimming is arguably no different....

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Tests With Toys (FUJI XP71)

Followers on social media will be aware (and bored with seeing images) of our recent holiday to Riviera Maya, Mexico. Whilst the break had nothing to do with swimming it was ideal thinking time and also offered the opportunity for me to purchase and buy a new gadget. Whilst awaiting departure at the local airport I bought a small waterproof camera; The Fuji FinePix XP71.

Priced around £90 with the additional requirement of an SD card, it easily fits into a pocket (or your swimwear), has wireless transfer for photos and videos to your device, has a rechargeable battery similar to a mobile telephone via mains supply or USB, the zoom is adequate. I had a little play around in the pool and the beautiful Caribbean. I am very pleased with the camera and will hopefully get lots of use this summer as the swim season progresses. Here's  a few shots with the new toy.

and a short video clip, its not exactly Dover harbour but you get the idea.


Tuesday, 5 May 2015


Jason (one of the most reliable blokes I have ever met) and I drove the 280 miles or so to Guildford, leaving Friday morning, the trip was more or less pain free except for some traffic hold ups on the road to hell (M25). Arriving around 4pm we quickly pitched the tent, off loaded the vast majority of kit and food, then headed off to freshen up at the premier inn which was literally over the road from The Lido.

Before long it was time for our evening meal at the adjoining restaurant, I was delighted to see some of my favourites in attendance, the likes of Zoe Sadler etc and also to meet lots of new swimmers with the same rather crazy interests.

Having socialised a little (the food I chose was horrid) it was time for bed, a good nights sleep would be required if I was going to have a successful day. Alas..sleep never really came, I will save the individual embarrassment, suffice to say this old post is relevant

The next morning looking like death warmed up, we attended the Lido around 7:45 for registration. In the blink of an eye it was 9am and the first wave headed off on mile one of a possible 24.

My wave began at 9:30 prompt, if memory serves I was initially sixth, moving up to fourth swimmer, we more or less swam in a train with the lead swapping each 400m. The water felt comfortable, it was reported as 23 degrees C though my watch read nearer 20C.

Mile 1 complete on 26:38 somewhat fast for my plans. I quickly exited the pool to dry off and rest, I was tired out already ! this was not a good omen.

The half hour start times came around all too quick, I was caught up in the pace of the other swimmers and really should have moved down a lane very early in the morning. I either forgot to start the watch a couple of times or had a recording error but the times were as follows.

  • Mile 2 : 26:44
  • Mile 3 : 26:38
  • Mile 4 : record error
  • Mile 5 : 29:12
  • Mile 6 : record error
  • Mile 7 : 29:06
  • Mile 8 : 29:57

During Miles 4,5,6,7 and 8 I was suffering physically with general fatigue, pain in the left forearm and front deltoid. Deb Herridge provided some excellent massage gel which gave some relief to the forearm for around the first 1000m of each swim.

The most obvious tell tale sign of weariness for me personally came in the shape of my breathing pattern, the more I swam the more I reverted to right side only, the increase in anaerobic effort meant I was unable to maintain the economical bi lateral breathing I had worked on over the winter.

As can be seen above I was beginning to slow to the extent I was lapped on mile 8. This did absolutely nothing for my state of mind or confidence.

Returning to the tent I had a mini breakdown and had to get a real emotional grip to re start. In 2011 I had only really began to suffer after dark, this year things were very different.

Mile 9 was much better at 28:44 I stayed with the train and had the half hour to think about what I was going to do. I decided at this point that if I was going to achieve some of my bigger goals this season then I was stopping at 10 miles.

I had some great support and advice from the Graeme Schlacter and Sam Jones especially the piece regarding shortening my stroke to ease the forearm pain.

Attending the poolside for the start of Mile 10, The first 5 swimmers had started around 30 seconds early, this doesn't sound a great deal, however I was already 40m or so behind the last swimmer in the train. This left me swimming alone, bored, frustrated and only led to confirm the idea that after 10 miles I was done. Mile 10 30:15

I was content with 10 miles, disappointed for Jason who had travelled so far from home to stand on sentry duty yelling support from poolside. But content all the same.

We said a few goodbyes and before too long we were headed North, Jason and I fully debriefed the days events. All was well and I live to swim another day. Providing I train !

Thankyou to Lesley Zimmerman and Jim Boucher who organised a superb event, to Guildford Lido and their staff, the numerous sponsors and supporters of the event and to all my swimmy mates some of whom swam the whole 24 miles (Jenny Z et al) some who didn't.

Special Thanks to Jason, Graeme, Deb and Sam your support is much appreciated.


PS Follow Graemes SCAR challenge here