Saturday, 4 March 2017

Inclusive swimming

I read today that the UK's Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) has issued a new swimwear guidance that allows for exceptions to the usual rules for competition swimwear on the grounds of religious belief or pre-existing medical condition. These changes are in response to a review requested by the Muslim Women's Sports Foundation (MWSF), who highlighted growing participation by Muslim women and girls in sport and the need to foster this interest by maximising the possibilities for access. The revised rules allow the use of textile full body suits that do not have the potential to enhance performance and which have been approved by officials in advance. This change to the rules will primarily benefit those women and girls whose religious beliefs mean that they would prefer to cover their body.

The ASA guidance includes these images of the kinds of suits that are included by the new guidance:

The guidance also includes examples of suits that the revised rules will continue to exclude: 


There has been some predictable grumbling on social media about the changed rules potentially serving as a back door to performance enhancing body suits, but this is clearly not the purpose or consequence of this ruling. It's also important to note that this is distinct from recent FINA changes to the rules about wetsuits in competitive open water swimming, which have also caused controversy in the open water / marathon swimming / triathlon communities. Instead, this new guidance is simply a way of enabling more women and girls to compete in swimming, and that has to be a good thing. 

BME communities are notoriously poorly represented in swimming (all kinds, all levels). This is due to a combination of factors including lack of access to affordable swimming lessons and facilities and the lack of perceived 'fit' with the sport (i.e. children being pointed towards other sports, or being told that 'black people can't swim' because of outdated and racist assumptions about bone density). This poor representation is particularly true for women and girls. There is also the legacy of the historical exclusion of non-white people from swimming facilities - for example, during segregation in the US (see Wiltse's 2007 book, Contested Waters, for a frank and disturbing account of this) - which has ongoing generational impacts in terms of facilities, expectations and a paucity of role models. 

So this small change in the swimwear guidance isn't going to solve the problem of the whiteness of swimming, but it is an important beginning, and signals the active valuing of participation and inclusion to those outside of the sport who might like to give it a try. 

And this got me thinking about other branches of the swimming world where strict costume rules apply, including marathon swimming. This is a sensitive and hotly contested area, but it seems to me that marathon swimming is in a position to be among the leaders in the field of amateur endurance sport by actively incorporating amendments of this kind to swimwear rules. Changes like this to the regulations by Channel / marathon swimming governing bodies are relatively costless, since they would not confer a performance advantage on swimmers wearing full body costumes, but would demonstrate an openness to the social diversity that is currently lacking. It's a small measure, but one that I think would speak volumes in welcoming new swimmers to the marathon swimming community. 


Thursday, 12 January 2017

Starting from where you are....

One of the hardest lessons of training is that you have to start from where you are, and not from where you think you should be at any given point in the training cycle. 

In my last post, optimistically entitled "Recovery", I was optimistic about having completed my functional recovery from the ankle injury and having been signed off from physiotherapy. But the reality was that this was just the beginning of a much longer, slower phase of recovery where my injured ankle inched with glacial slowness towards fuller, more reliable pain-free function. And inevitably, from time to time, I became impatient, or perhaps over-optimistic, and pushed too hard, causing it to swell and ache. Sometimes, even just wearing regular shoes to work rather than allowing myself the comfort and support of trainers, meant that evenings had to be spent with my foot up, wrapped in ice. Each setback made me feel old and useless and  I kept returning in my mind to the costly moment of inattention when I fell, wanting to take it back and have it all work out differently. 

But they're not kidding when they say that time heals, albeit with frustrating slowness. And since Christmas, I've enjoyed a step-change in my recovery and can swim, cycle and run without pain for the first time in months. I'm still proceeding cautiously, and am diligently nurturing my physio-acquired, ankle-stabilising skills of balancing on wobbly things, but at last, I feel like it's pretty much fixed and ready to really take on the work of training. Over Christmas, we escaped to the Canary Islands, and although a sustained weather pattern of lively winds made swimming difficult, I was able to taste the beginnings of the return of the comforts of being in the water....a necessary foundation for training for me. 

Since November, I've been doing short, 30 minute swims (with the occasional hour thrown in), mostly with a pull-buoy at first, then more recently on full stroke. I've also been walking on a treadmill and riding a stationary bike, although both at low intensity. So I still have some basic fitness, but nothing like what I am going to need this summer for Geneva 2, and the gap between my current swim fitness and where I'd like to be now in order to get where I want to be is quite daunting. 

But....you have to start from where you are. So I have a training plan, running in the first instance through to mid-April, when I'll be going to the Canary Islands for two weeks of hard open water training (with the goal of 100+km during the trip). The next goal after that is to complete the qualifying swims of 10 hours, followed by 7 hours the next day....probably sometime around mid-June. My weeks are mapped out to incorporate gradually increasing volume, and even though I'm starting from only 4 hours per week at the moment, I have to trust that by starting from where I am rather than where I feel like I should be, I will be able to stay injury free and rediscover my long swim fitness. Happily, too, I'm on research leave now until September, which should mean that I can train with a consistency that usually escapes me during the teaching term. I've also been working over the past few months on improving the quality and quantity of my sleep, and I've tweaked my vegan diet slightly to focus even more on whole foods and to eliminate (almost) all processed food. Both of these efforts have been effective, although I'm also aware that these interventions were as much about making me feel purposeful in the face of my ankle frustrations as they were about improving my well-being (although both have). 

So that's where things stand....with 30 weeks to go, I'm starting from where I am and determined to do everything I can to get where I want to be. Money is being put down for the swim, and there's no going back now. 

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Recovery

It is 7 weeks to the day since my accident in Geneva, and I am finally able to walk around pain-free with a relatively strong and stable ankle. The abrupt failure to even start the swim and the frustrations of debility have left me feeling sad and demotivated at times, but the last two weeks have seen a rapid acceleration in the healing process in ways that have completely transformed my ability to get around and enabled me to begin rebuilding my lost fitness....including, at last, a return to the pool. 

I had always thought of physio as something you did after an injury had pretty much healed rather than to facilitate healing, and so when I first contacted Mark Wilkinson of Skipton’s Paragon Physiotherapy, I asked whether it was even worth coming in while the injury was still relatively new and angry or whether I should hold off for a bit. He was emphatic that I should start immediately and offered me an appointment for the next day. This, as it turns out, was one of the best decisions I have made and Mark has been pivotal to my recovery. He put me on an intensive regime of cold therapy, and kept me off the foot for longer than I would have if left to my own devices, but then two weeks ago, the pace of treatment changed and we went from resting, to simple strengthening exercises with a stretch band, to a wobbly cushion for proprioception, to today – a session of strength and proprioception tests that had me balancing on wobble boards, doing squats on a bosu ball, bouncing on an unstable trampoline whilst boxing or throwing and catching a ball, doing walking lunges carrying a 10kg weight and jumping two-footed over low hurdles whilst trying not to thud to a landing with the finesse of a sack of potatoes (apparently, we were aiming for balletic, but let’s face facts…).

It’s such a fascinating process to go through. Weaknesses I couldn’t even feel sprang to the surface as I tried to do various exercises….or more accurately, they ran through my body as it tried to respond to the demands I was placing on it. Occasionally, my right hand would start to shake violently mid-exercise; with all my focus and energy on my left foot, it was as if the embodied effort and tension of completing the task was pouring into my unattended opposite hand. And then there was the step – a stable platform, barely a foot high, which I had to jump up onto, two-footed, from standing. The first time Mark asked me to do it, I couldn’t even get my feet off the floor – it was as if my brain wouldn’t even let me consider jumping. Apparently this is a defence mechanism – the brain knows that all is not well and that the proprioception is damaged and stops you putting yourself at risk. But this isn’t a “mind over matter” affair – you can’t ‘think’ your way out of it. Instead, you have to take the time to restore the neural pathways before the jump even becomes thinkable. The body is never simply a matter of mechanics. 

And so….after all the balancing, hopping and jumping, I have finally been discharged from treatment with my foot strong and stable enough to move safely through everyday life without the immediate risk of going over on it again. I still need to be careful with it and to keep up with exercises to build on the progress already made, and it’s still a bit sore at the end of a busy day and needs to be iced, but it is a world apart from the day I hobbled home from Barcelona. I have started swim training again, and have Geneva II firmly in my (long-range) sights. 

And so, my advice to anyone who finds themselves in a similar position in the future is: find yourself an experienced, well-qualified sports physiotherapist as soon as possible and do whatever they tell you to do. I am hugely indebted to Mark for his expertise and care and learned a lot in the process.

But most of all, try not to fall down steps in the first place. It saves a lot of trouble later.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Cold feet and too much thinking time...


I've spent large parts of the last 10 days with my foot in this. It's a cryocuff - a wrap-around 'boot' that inflates with iced water run in through a valve from a cooler, providing compression and cold to aid healing. I take it off before I go to bed, and have to go to sleep with a woolly sock on or it's a bit like sleeping with a dead fish at the bottom of the bed until my foot warms up. The good news is that it's working, but oh....so....slowly. It's exactly a month today since the ridiculous, clumsy slip in Geneva that had such costly and enduring ramifications - the wasted year of hard training, the financial costs, and the ongoing problems of mobility that being on crutches and unable to drive are causing. My physiotherapist estimates that it will be another 2 months before the ligaments are fully repaired (or as repaired as they can be - he reckons about 70% recovery of strength is normal). It constantly amazes me that my body, like all bodies, can be incredibly robust while also being intensely vulnerable and fragile; it seems like a high price to pay for a 2-inch slip, but sometimes that's all it takes. 

Before I go any further I should say that I know that none of this, in the grand scale of things, is important or disastrous. Not being able to do a 42 mile swim - a leisure activity funded by my disposable income and enabled by my (generally) high levels of health and well-being - is the definition of a first world problem. Nothing terrible happened here. But having said that, you need to bear with me while I indulge in just a little self-pity. I had considered not being able to swim because of the weather (although this is unlikely in Geneva), or even having to cancel earlier because of acquired injury during training, but I was utterly unprepared for the possibility of not being able to start the swim because of an acute injury so close to the swim. Consequently, although the couple of weeks immediately after the injury were filled with the more pressing and occupying demands of the injury itself and coping with my work trip to Barcelona, I was really knocked for six when I got home. I wasn't expecting this, and didn't even really register how sad I was feeling for a while, but I slowly realised that I felt embarrassed by what had happened, and very down in the face of the rather exhausting work of the everyday and my newly acquired dependence on others to get around and look after myself. 

As the new teaching term has started to kick into gear, and as my foot (and therefore, my mobility) is slowly showing signs of improvement, I am feeling much better and much more positive, and I have a much better sense of perspective on the whole affair. It's a good learning experience about the vagaries of the swimming, the riskiness of big plans....and the fragility of ankles. 

And so...one consequence of the cryocuff and my immobility is that I've had far too much thinking time and that can only end up one way. On some level, I had hoped that I was sufficiently grown-up to be able to look back on the Geneva venture as a good idea that just didn't work out and then move on; I didn't want to feel compelled to go back and have another try. I think 'unfinished business' is a dangerous game to play, since it massively raises the stakes of the second time around in ways that probably aren't healthy emotionally and which risk leaching the fun out of the whole process of training and swimming. This, after all, is why I do it - because I love the swimming. But then again, I also came to realise that my desire to go back to Geneva was not so much (or at least not only) about redemption from this year's failures, but also about the very real desire to do the swim - to swim here: 


And here:


And here:


And here:


And here:


And so it's done - I'm booked in for August next year for Lake Geneva II. And this time, I will be wearing walking boots and wrapping myself in bubble wrap in the days leading up to the swim!

Friday, 16 September 2016

Are women 'quietly dominating' marathon swimming?

A recent article in New York magazine's "Science of Us" section, entitled "The obscure ultra-endurance sport women are quietly dominating" has recently been doing the rounds on social media and discussion forums. Many swimmers are relieved to see women's participation in the sport recognised (which I also share), and there has been much enthusiastic listing of other notable female swimmers not mentioned in the article but celebrated in the community. The article begins from the premise that unlike other ultra-endurance sports, women are 'dominating' in a way that is unlikely in, say, ultra-running, and this is ultimately attributed to the assumption (a) that women have more body fat than men, and (b) that that body fat provides a critical advantage that explains their success in the sport.

At the risk of being a killjoy in the face of an article that I know many find affirming and positive, I have a number of concerns about its claims. Firstly, what does it mean to 'dominate' a sport? In fields conventionally understood as masculine (e.g. business, politics), even a small number of successful women is quickly read as 'domination' -a marker of alarm at the disruption of business as usual. Although well-represented relative to many other sports, women are still vastly outnumbered by men in marathon swimming, and the fact that even the possibility of female parity in performance / participation warrants research articles and news stories shows how far we are from 'domination'. Although much more subtle than actively excluding women from those fields, the rush to cries of 'domination' is another means of constraining women's participation in public life by marking it as out of place.

Secondly, I am deeply uncomfortable with the rush to biological explanations. Women's high performance (in sport and other public domains) is often attributed to their bodies (high pain threshold, favourable fat distribution), but much of this is based on (unfounded) generalisations that can't be brought to bear on the very small numbers of marathon swimmers, about whose specific bodies we know very little. It is striking that the journalist (and the scientists researching this) don't stop to look at training regimes and preparation, for example. And I'm not saying that women necessarily train harder....my point is that there are other conclusions that could have been jumped to but which aren't. Consequently, we should be very wary about citing women's presumed body fat as a performance advantage. Firstly, it obscures the work of training and technique acquisition (a point made by Evan Morrison in the article); and secondly, in a social and cultural context where fat is constantly derided, this is a punch with a velvet glove. Indeed, the article cites a horribly fat-phobic encounter between Lynne Cox and a taxi driver who tells her that she is 'too fat' to be a Channel swimmer. The implied derision and unacceptability of fatness, and the freedom which this man felt to hurl what is undoubtedly intended as a casual and disciplining insult at a young girl, should make us all very wary of these seemingly celebratory explanations of women's biological advantageous body fat. 

The rush to biological explanations for women's relatively high participation in marathon swimming (particularly compared to other ultra-endurance sports) obscures a number of other social explanations. Swimming is conventionally understood as a sport appropriate for women (unlike something like boxing, for example, or rugby, which are far more rigidly masculinised and harder for women to break in to). Consequently, it is much more likely to be experienced by women as a potentially welcoming and safe sporting space already populated by other women. But secondly, the higher average performance of non-elite female swimmers in events such as MIMS may well reflect the fact that it is the stronger female swimmers who are more likely to identify themselves as participants for ambitious or high profile swims. Women are not taught to see their bodies as athletic or adventurous, and they also pay much higher social costs for standing out or pushing themselves forwards, especially if all doesn't go well. Consequently, women are much less likely to enter such an event without being particularly confident about their abilities. I suspect that the women who have traditionally taken part in MIMS (an event where you had to push yourself forwards aggressively to even be accepted) were already among the better swimmers, and it was this high performance that facilitated their self-identification as MIMS competitors and their successful swims....and not the fatness of their thighs. 

I have some sympathy with the journalist of the piece. As one of my favourite swimming journalists and writers, Elaine Howley, noted in a forum post on the article, the demands of publication are for spectacular headlines and short punchy claims within tight word limits, and there is little scope for nuanced analysis. As coverage of women and sport goes, this is an engaging and carefully written piece. But in my view, however inadvertently, articles like this end up reinforcing the egregious inequalities in our expectations of women's bodies rather than challenging them. 

As a feminist and a swimmer, I am first in line to celebrate the accomplishments of female swimmers and to encourage women's participation in the sport. But rather than treating marathon swimming's relatively high rates of female participation as a surprising, newsworthy anomaly that can only be explained through biology, a better question might be: What can we learn from marathon swimming about women's access to sport? How could marathon swimming facilitate even greater female participation? What social and structural barriers might be in place in other sports that are preventing women from participating and excelling?



Friday, 26 August 2016

Cancellation...

It's done. I finally made the decision yesterday to cancel my Lake Geneva swim. My foot and ankle are still very painful, swollen and bruised, and even though a big part of me just wants to just get out there and give it a go no matter what, the rest of me knows that 24+ hours of swimming is unlikely to improve an injury that I can hardly bear weight on even before we've started. It also risks exacerbating the injury with potential long term consequences, and I don't think any swim warrants that, no matter how much time and money has gone into it (and in this case, it's a lot of both). Even though, like most long distance swimmers, I don't really kick much, the habitual work of stabilisation in the water places constant demands on the ankle in ways that I hadn't really appreciated until now. I've tried swimming holding it still, but this puts new and assymetrical demands on different parts of my body to manage rotation etc - fine if that's how you've trained, but it's an invitation to further injury otherwise. 

And so, I decided to put an end to the uncertainty and to move on. There's nothing that I can do about it other than lick my wounds for a while and then turn my attention to ankle rehab and new (or old) goals.

Thanks to everyone who's sent encouraging messages over the last few days, and especially to the Lake Geneva Swimming Association, who've been very supportive in the face of my inability to make it even to the start line. I'm down but not out, and in this spirit, last night, we took an evening cruise from Lausanne to Geneva, saw the lake in all its glory and toasted the spectacular gap between my aspiration (to swim 42 miles) and my accomplishment (to fall 2 inches). If you're going to be injured and disappointed, there are worst places to do it. 


Wednesday, 24 August 2016

An unexpected turn of events....



Well...this wasn't how I expected things to go.

The story begins with the fact that Peter and I were walking out of a lakeside bar yesterday evening.... It was the end of a disappointing day. We were scheduled to start our Lake Geneva swim today (Weds), with perfect conditions forecast, but sadly, a mechanical problem with the boat put paid to that and on Tuesday afternoon, we heard that the swim would have to be postponed to either Thursday or Friday. It was frustrating, but it's just one of those things - an occupational hazard in a sport that has a lot of variables in play and lots of moving parts. It is also a million times better to identify a mechanical problem in advance rather than mid-swim. So, knowing that everyone was working hard to fix the problem, we brushed off our disappointment, headed off for a swim in a deliciously lovely 50m lakeside outdoor pool, and then sauntered along the shore, stopping at a bar for a beer and to watch the sun set behind the mountains. It was a lovely end to a disappointing day, and we decided to head back to our Airbmb flat to eat and prepare ourselves for the possibility of a Thursday swim. To be honest, I was feeling quite proud of myself for keeping my focus after the change of plan - I hate the lead-up to a swim, and am not good with spontaneity, so I felt pleased that I had been able to keep my positive focus (although it turns out that a bit more focus on my surroundings instead of the swim would have been more productive).

And then it happened...  I slipped off a small step at the edge of the decking - just a matter of a couple of inches in height - and wrenched my left ankle over. I knew immediately that I'd done something more than just tweak it and my heart sank. I was able to hobble home, but it was sore and swollen, and by morning, it was still no better, with bruising starting to come through and limited mobility. I decided to go for a morning swim in the hope that it would be fine in the water without my weight on it, but the stabilising work of the legs made my foot ache on every kick, however gentle. The pain rose over the 20 minute swim, and I soon came to the reluctant conclusion that I needed to face the possibility of having to cancel the swim. A 24+ hour swim is unlikely to be forgiving of such an injury.

So I currently find myself in the tense position of waiting to see if my ankle can recover sufficiently for me to swim on Saturday (the last possible day open to me). I'm sitting in the flat with my foot wrapped in a compression bandage and up on a cushion, dosing myself with ibuprofen and willing it with every ounce of my being to get better.

This is really not how I had expected this to go, and I am utterly mortified by my own spectacular oafishness.

Time will tell about what happens next. In the mean time, I'm just concentrating on trying to keep the rest of me in one piece.