Wetsuits and open water swimming

Outdoor swimming is a curious thing. Generally, people who decide to enter the foray of triathlon have a strong background in running or cycling and often swimming is their biggest challenge. Open water swimming in particular, can make even the burliest triathlete squeak in fear as they take their first steps into a lake or the sea.

My background in running is fairly well documented (*coughs*) and I am a recently converted cyclist. But I have swum for many years off and on and although I have had to re-learn how to do front crawl properly, I do not fear the water and actually I prefer open water swimming to the swimming pool. I think this comes from the fact that I am a confident breaststroker and so if everything went wrong whilst I was swimming, I know I wouldn’t drown and would be able to get myself safely back to terra firma.

However, I am not a strong front crawler and although my lessons have now concluded, I have been continuing to swim lengths in the pool. But I seem to have got worse in recent weeks not better. Swimming in a pool is fairly dull. Even if you go with a friend, as I do sometimes, you can’t chat whilst you swim as you can with running or cycling. Death follows swiftly if you try and chat as you attempt to bi-laterally breathe (on both sides) as you swim up and down. Water in your lungs does not help with buoyancy. Apparently you can get headphones that work in the water via Bluetooth and so in theory I could listen to Take That as I swam back and forth, but apart from the fact that I have faithfully promised my husband that I won’t spend any more money on anything triathlon related, swim dancing is not really a thing in triathlon so that’s not really an option either.

Merida has shown me quite a few swim drills which do alleviate the boredom a bit eg 100m focussing on your arm technique, 100m focussing on your kick, 100m wearing little shovels on your hands which help you with your hand placement and “pull” through the water but even this wears a bit thin after a while. I find my mind wondering and not concentrating on the job in hand and then becoming fixated on the plaster I can see at the bottom of the pool at the 20m mark and then wondering what other hideousness I am swimming in. *shudders*.

With my swim confidence at an all time low, I booked a swimming lesson with John Wood who has been swimming nationally and internationally for 25 years and is also a “Good for Age” GB triathlete. He has coached some swim sessions for my tri club and is also Merida’s triathlon coach. He knows what he is talking about and is also a really nice guy, which always helps.

https://www.tri-coaching.co.uk/about-us/meet-the-coach/

I arrived for the lesson feeling quite low and extremely nervous, but the 45 minutes was possibly one of the best investments I have ever made.  The most important thing I took from the lesson is that I am not a terrible swimmer and when you are lacking in confidence and approaching the business end of your training plan, this is important to hear. I do have a tendency not to look down at the floor enough whilst swimming, which in turn leads to my legs sinking and I am told this is quite a common problem. However, given that I have been working on this now for over 4 months, it’s a bit irritating. But John gave me some drills to practice and I was feeling much better about life.

#notanad but I really recommend John if you’re thinking of perfecting your swim technique.

Pool swimming has been a staple in my weekly training plan now for some months, but, both of my triathlons are in open water this year and both at the distance of 1.9k and so I knew I needed to get out of the pool, and in England, this means buying a wetsuit.

I’ve worn wetsuits before to the beach as our family is a regular visitor to Woolacombe each Summer but a triathlon and swimming wetsuit is very different.

Firstly, even with substantial weightloss, I do not look like most triathletes. My boobs are a 34FF (I was a 42FF), I am only 5ft 3.5 (the half an inch is very important when you’re short like me) and I weigh 90 kilos. Now this is a massive reduction from the 117 kilos I was when I started running, but even so, I am much heavier than your average triathlete.

Wetsuit size charts are incredibly complicated as they work on weight, chest size and height. I didn’t care what the wetsuit looked like on as long as it fitted, but I really didn’t want to buy a man’s one as having had to buy men’s clothes for years due to my size, I didn’t want to go back there.

Unfortunately, my weight meant that I probably would end up having to get a man’s wetsuit but I was determined to try female versions first of all. I ordered from Wiggle (online store, very good and importantly free returns) so I could try them on at home. The box arrived and sat in the corner of my bedroom for over a week. I was dreading trying them on and so was putting it off. But I had also booked myself in (well Merida had booked us in actually as she knew I needed the push) for an Open Water Swimming lesson at the Triathlon Centre in North Bristol on the Wednesday evening with an experienced Ironman triathlete called George Clack, and so I had to try them on.

The first thing to be aware of is that getting into a wetsuit is exhausting. They have to be tight, very tight and they are quite grippy and stick to your skin. If you have long fingernails, file them off as it’s very easy to put a finger nail through a wetsuit which immediately renders them less helpful.

I’d had PT at lunchtime on this day and had done cycle sprints and weights and I think getting into and out of 3 wetsuits was even more exhausting. I’d ordered 3, a cheap, middle and more expensive one and I started with the most costly: dhb Aeron Lab. I couldn’t even get this past my hips. I was gutted and had a sinking sensation about the other two. Zone3 Women’s Advance was next and it took 10 minutes to get into it with the assistance of my long suffering husband. Although it was tight (understatement – he almost had his knee in my back at one point trying to get it done up) once it was zipped up, it felt ok. I could breathe, it wasn’t too tight on the neck and I felt ok. It was like wearing SUPER spandex. I finally tried the last and cheapest on: Zone 3 Women’s Azure.  WetsuitThis was by far the easiest to get on as it seemed to be the most stretchy…..but once in it, I couldn’t really move my arms (much like the time I had to be cut out of a Boyzone T-shirt that I had bought stupidly thinking that “skinny fit would be ok…it wasn’t) so sadly that one was a no. But finally, I had a wetsuit, and I was delighted. I look a bit like an Avenger (if you squint really hard and almost cover your eyes) and I feel like a superhero in it.

So now, just to get in the lake. The following evening rolled around and I arrived at the lake with 20 minutes to spare. I have swum in the lake previously last year, but this was in the midst of a heatwave and so I didn’t need a wetsuit at all. One this evening, it was freezing cold and the sky was grey. I dragged myself off to get changed and was relieved to find a lady in the changing room who I knew from running. She helped to zip me into my wetsuit and I did the same for her. Anyone that wears a wetsuit needs help and I have discovered that people are not afraid to ask for it. On my past two visits to the lake I have zipped and unzipped 3 complete strangers, men and women into their suits. Merida arrived and we set off the side of the lake where George the coach, and 4 other people were waiting for us.

What I have learned from two open water swimming lessons so far with George are as follows:

  • No matter what the temperature is officially, the water hits you like a brick when you first get in and it’s hard to breathe. You have to take time splashing the water on your face and onto the back of your neck and try not to scream out loud as the water seaps in naturally through the zip. Do NOT, as I did, open the neck and allow a flood of water to seap in quickly. On Wednesday the temperature in the lake was 12.5c. When an Ironman Triathlete coach says “it’s cold tonight. There will be no shame if you decide to get out early. You will never have to compete in temperatures that are this cold”, you know it’s going to be a bit fresh.
  • It’s most important to swim as slowly as you can to start with, almost in slow motion. Also, and bear in mind that I have spent the last 4 months learning how to breathe on both sides after 3 and 4 strokes, in open water swimming, you breathe on the same side and after every two strokes. HALLELUJAH. I find bi-lateral breathing hard and so this is brilliant news.
  • Even better, you float in a wetsuit. Completely. This means that your legs float too so no more sinky legs for me. Hoorah. I still need to keep my core tight and be mindful of my legs, but it’s MUCH easier in a wetsuit. Swimming is easier in a wetsuit, full stop.
  • When the lake is cold (and it’s cold, make no mistake) my googles steam up. My teeth are also affected as when I open my mouth to breathe, some cold water comes in (which I spit out as I breathe out under water) but before long, my teeth go numb. It’s a very weird sensation.
  • Whilst my body gets, eventually, warm in the wetsuit, my feet, hands and face are not. You hardly kick whilst swimming in a wetsuit (important to save legs for the cycle and run so this is good news) but this means that your feet are essentially just suspended in very cold water. Arthritis in my bad ankle is affected enormously by the cold and so I’m going to get some “wetsuit material” socks to try and keep my feet warm.
  • When you leave the lake, you are cold. Much colder than when you initially got in. You need to rinse your wetsuit and so have to take it off, in the fresh air. This is a whole new level of cold. Getting changed after swimming is a challenge as I started shivering so much I couldn’t do my bra up or do my laces up on my shoes. Ugg boots are the answer and probably elastic laces for the tri. Thermal vests are important and I don’t need a hairbrush as I towel my hair off and then put a woolly hat on.
  • A post swim cup of tea is absolutely essential, as is a warm bath when you get home afterwards.

But all in all, I love open water swimming. The start waves have been published for the 113 triathlon and there are 6 waves, all setting off at 10 minute intervals. I am in wave 2, starting at 6.10am (I’m trying not to think about what time I’ll need to get up at the moment). My biggest fear isn’t that I can’t complete the swim, it’s that faster swimmers from the following waves will catch me up and swim over me or I’ll get punched in the head during the swim. I need to also work on swimming with lots of people around me. I’m booked in for more open water lessons and I know we’ll be working on this I the coming weeks. But for now, I still haven’t swum the entire 1.9k required of the tri, but I’m going to the lake after work tonight and this is what I’m intending to do.

Practice and consistency in the lake will be key over the next 4 weeks….oh and sunshine. Please keep your fingers crossed that it warms up a bit as whilst it’s just about tolerable at 12.5c, it’s always more enjoyable if it’s warmer and my teeth don’t go numb….and even more important if you’ve immediately got to jump on a bike straight afterwards. But that’s a worry for another day.

The Lake May 2019

The Triathlon Centre run lessons every Wednesday and I heartily recommend them -suitable for experienced and inexperienced swimmers and triathletes.

Details can be found on the website: https://bristolopenwater.co.uk/   #notanad

 

Plans? They’re more like guidelines…..

So as weeks go, it’s been a bit plop.

Last Friday night I was in tears, bashed up and in lots of pain. I didn’t feel up to travelling to London to support my husband in the Big Half and things were looking very desperate indeed. But, as always, things seem better after a good night’s sleep and I woke up on Saturday morning feeling dejected but determined to get to London and assume my role as “Cheer Squad”. I took plenty of painkillers, pulled on my sturdy walking boots and gritted my teeth for the train and subsequent tube rides. The hotel we had booked was a 10 minute walk from the start line and Tower Bridge and so although I wasn’t able to dart about London to spot and cheer my husband on at multiple points of the 13 mile route, I was able to stand on Tower Bridge and cheer him at seven and a half miles.

On Tower Bridge

I will say that the gale force winds and a freezing cold downpour of rain in the 30 minutes running up to the start was helping to ease my disappointment a bit, but I was choking back the tears as I waved both Husband and, then a bit later, Hattie off. I made my way to Tower Bridge. I had chosen my triathlon club hat to wear as it’s bright orange and the first rule of supporting someone in a race is that you must be easy to see. I watched thousands of runners go past me last Sunday and spotted very few familiar faces, even though lots were there. But because Husband and Hattie knew where I would be and that I had a hat on which was so bright you could see me from space, this meant that they both saw me before I saw them. For anyone who is ever going to support people in a race, this is important to remember.

I was also very lucky to witness the Majesty of Sir Mo Farrah as he glided past me, not even looking like he was sweating. I cheered enthusiastically and shouted “you’ve got this Mo” as he ran within 1 metre of me. I think he realised that he was doing ok as he completed 21.2 k in the same time it takes me to complete 7.5 to 8k, but it never hurts to be reminded!

Husband got a very respectable time considering the 45 mile per hour winds that the runners had to endure and came in a few minutes under 2 hours and Hattie smashed her time by 15 minutes. All in all it was a good day for the runners, despite of the challenging conditions.

Magic Tape

Monday morning rolled around and I decided to seek a professional opinion. I booked a physio appointment for Tuesday morning as I am someone who needs to know the facts. Even if the facts are not what I want them to be, once I know I can move forwards. The Physio was brilliant. Encouraging and understanding but careful not to over-promise anything. My foot was black, blue, yellow and green by Tuesday morning and he examined as best he could but essentially massaged the swelling away and patched me up with some “magic tape”. I was told to walk as normally as I could on it, aided by painkillers, was given exercises and asked to return on Friday.

On Wednesday morning the swelling had reduced so dramatically on my foot that it almost looked normal. This encouraged me no end. I did every last one of the exercises, multiple times and began to hope. This was dangerous of course, but in a week of emotions both high and low, I couldn’t stop myself.

Thursday morning came and I was able to walk normally. My foot ached but it didn’t hurt. This further fanned the flames of hope. On Friday morning I virtually skipped to the physio appointment. My foot had almost returned to something resembling normality and so the Physio was able to examine it thoroughly. The basic facts are that I have ripped something complicated sounding on both sides of my foot, by the ankle and the outer foot and the upshot of it is no running for 8-10 weeks. I didn’t hear the next couple of minutes worth of explanation as I was desperately trying not to cry and process this information. But then I started asking questions.

I might be able to run in 4 weeks’ time, and it might be fine. But the emphasis is heavily on “might”. After you have sprained your ankle severely it is very weak and if you roll it again, apparently this could end up with a very long break from running (as a best case scenario) or surgery (worst case scenario). Therefore, to be able to run “safely” (and that’s a direct quote from the physio) it’s an 8 week break.

But, I can swim and I can cycle. Cycling needs to be gentle at first with little or no resistance for a couple of weeks but after that, there are no limits. The Physio was also on my side about how far can I “push” my body through exercise also. An aching foot is fine but a painful foot is not. The foot will need to ache as it rebuilds itself and I test it out, but pain is clearly not good and if this happens I need to stop immediately.

The triathlon is 12 weeks away, which means that I would be running a 13 mile final leg of the competition not having trained for it, which simply put means that the triathlon is not happening. I was devastated and was not looking forward to my PT appointment with Dr Crane at all. I had thought about cancelling it, but Dr Crane assured me that there was lots we could do that wouldn’t involve the foot. So fearfully anticipating 60 minutes of bicep curls, I set off.

It turned out that going to PT was the best thing I could have done. Dr Crane immediately understood what I was going through, gracefully ignored my tears and had some practical ideas. I’ve made massive progress working with him and much of my panic is not wanting the progress to slide. He knows this and so made some very good suggestions.

  • Try to get a deferral for next year or refund for the 113 triathlon. It will be frustrating if I try and complete it not having been able to train properly and these races are expensive.
  • Getting my ankle back up to speed will take time and the pressure of “maybe I will make it to the start, or maybe I won’t” is not helpful and is distracting – PLUS I don’t want to be rushed into running sooner than I should­. (his words, not mine you realise!)
  • Find an alternative race in September/October time. Keep training and make this the goal.

I left PT (after 30 minutes of arm weights, my shoulders feel reassuringly sore today)  feeling much brighter as I had a new plan.

I am very lucky in that I have many ladies and friends that are in touch with me and offer support, experience and guidance. One of these ladies, Triathlon Mum (yes I have named her this) messaged me last night with a suggestion that I would not have thought of in a million years. I contacted the 113 to request a refund as per Dr Crane’s suggestion, but as I hadn’t taken out cancellation insurance (Note to self – ALWAYS TAKE THE INSURANCE) I was only eligible for a small refund. These races are not cheap and although the fault is entirely mine, it was disappointing. Triathlon Mum suggested to me that as I can still swim and cycle, why not still compete in the 113 anyway? Do the swim, then the cycle and then stop. Do not take part in the run and plan for it this way – apparently some people do this. I wouldn’t be eligible for a medal but it would be strong training for whatever event I chose to go for later in the year. She competed in the 113 last year and as she has lots of small children and so doesn’t have lots of time to train, had focussed all her training on the cycle and had barely run at all. It can be done (although I suspect she is a much better runner than I am!) She also contacted me earlier in the week when I originally fell, to reassure me that as long as I could cycle, all was not lost. In her words “train for the cycle and you will complete the triathlon, train for the run if you want to WIN the triathlon, because you can always walk on the run”. Very wise words and words I needed to hear.

Quickly a plan began to form. I could do this. I would do the swim and the cycle. It would also keep my training on track which, in a week when I had been stress eating chocolate quicker than a 6 year old on Easter Day, was important.

So now the only question to answer was, what race for my “A” race? Merida is competing in the Weymouth 70.3. It’s the official Half Ironman race, fully branded with cut-off times. She and I had discussed it previously on a run, but I am a bit scared of a sea swim and the cut off times so had dismissed it in favour of the friendlier 113. But that was then and this is now and so as of 25 minutes ago, I am registered for the Weymouth Half Iron Man on the 22 September.

I better get back in the swimming pool and onto my bike next week.

Plans are more like guidelines anyway……..

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Thank you for reading.