Category Archives: Reviews

Book & DVD reviews related to Open Water Swimming, Swimming Technique, Oceanography, Meteorology, Locations, Nautical History, Sailing

Review: Is this the ultimate open water swimmer’s beer?

Craft beers are the thing, right? Local, interesting, more flavour, more fun. One of humanity’s oldest craft’s giving the blandness of the global industrial homogenisation of food and taste a hopeful poke in the eye.

One of the better things of living in Ireland, because of the country’s still large agricultural sector, is our access to local fresh food of extremely high quality. (America, I’ve had your bacon. It’s a pale imitation of our rashers).

As a country with a proud and long tradition of making, and a not-so-proud tradition of consuming alcohol, we nevertheless suffered in the twentieth century a reduction Irish-made spirits and beers. A desperate attempt to maximise revenues coupled with a ban on selling into Commonwealth countries reduced the once proud Irish whiskey tradition to a few brands. Prior to World War II Irish whiskey was the actually the world’s most popular spirit, before being over taken by Scottish whisky. (Though Irish whiskey is once again the fastest growing).

The brewing industry in Ireland was also large and also contracted hugely over the Twentieth century though not quite as much as the distilleries. Bushmills Distillery remains the world’s oldest operating distillery, and of course Guinness stout is globally known.

Dungarvan Brewing Co

copper_bigLocal micro-breweries started to open in the 1990s, and in 2010 local brewing company The Dungarvan Brewing Company began operation. Unfortunately I didn’t discover their beers until last year, but once I did I sought out and tried them. For blog research purposes.

The various beers, different types of stouts and pale and Irish red ales  are named after local geographical features such as Comeragh Challenger, Mahon Falls, some after my swimming locations, Helvick Gold and Copper Coast, and the notorious Black Rock, the swim out to which has eluded me for a few years. Not because of the distance or the water, but because it’s in the middle of Dungarvan Bay navigation channel. All are excellent. Black Rock stout, Copper Coast red ale, and Helvick Gold blond ale are the three main beers, with the others being seasonal.

I particularly like Copper Coast, an Irish Red Ale, but maybe more than most people some of that pleasure derives from swallowing more of the Copper Coast. Something I’m sure I’ve already done more than others.

But one, like the Black Rock in the bay eluded me, the only one not named after a local feature: Their winter beer, Coffee and Oatmeal.

Just the name: Coffee and Oatmeal. Two essential ingredients of breakfast for any long swim. How could an open water swimmer not be intrigued?

I was trying to find it in off-licenses, before we finally just did what we should have done originally; I asked Clare. Clare Morrissey is the person who inveigled me into open water swimming, was on my Channel crew, and is an all-round experienced sportswoman; solo sailor, Channel relay swimmer, scuba diver and national level rower. Thus we finally settled down in The Moorings pub in Dungarvan with Clare to enjoy a pint of Coffee and Oatmeal.

Coffee and Oatmeal stout Dungarvan Brewing Company IMG_0861.resized
Stout on the bar, the glow of the wood, the babble of the craic, telling stories until my voice started to croak.

The first taste reminded me of the old Guinness pint bottle stout. Not the stout of cans with widgets, nor the extra cold stout of modern draught (draft for those of you overseas) or even small bottles. No, it’s like the single stout bottle my Grandfather used to drink a week, when I was sent up town “to do the messages“, and sent to procure a single bottle, in a small town where it was fine to sell alcohol to a ten year-old. The bottle “with the shoulders“, as it was described, or more commonly a large bottle.”I’ll have a large bottle please“, meant only one thing.  The bottle sometimes drank at home or at a wake. Not refrigerated. With a small head, and an intense taste, very different from draught Guinness stout, to which people will unfortunately compare any stout.

Dungarvan Brewing Company’s Coffee and Oatmeal has a slightly initially slightly gassy taste. It has bundles of taste and is huge in the mouth, with a big flavour. The gassiness passes and you taste the smooth richness of the oats. (By the way, the oats come from Flahavan’s, a local well-known Irish local company producing oatmeal for over 200 years). As you swallow the full oat taste is joined by  the coffee flavour, and then as you swallow you experience a slight chocolate aftertaste. It’s super. It’s a luxurious, even adult, stout, if that’s not an oxymoron, that harkens back to the great days of Irish stout brewing. It was this taste that summoned the reminiscences of my grandfather, an Irish version of Proust’s A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu and his famous madelaines,

This is far beyond the generic stout that even Guinness now produce.

Stout. Oatmeal, Coffee. Chocolate. What more could a swimmer want?

Now you may say that it’s elusiveness is a negative. But that just means that like my beloved Copper Coast, it’s here for me to enjoy.

You’ll just have to visit.

 

Review: Finis Tempo Trainer Pro

Finis Tempo TrainerThe Finis Tempo Trainer, the original (and still available  in some outlets) model, was another interesting idea from Finis that, as usual with said company’s electronics, wasn’t particularly well executed.

I first bought one back in 2008 or ’09. It’s most obvious flaw was that you couldn’t replace the battery. So it was random luck when you bought one just how long it would last. If it was sitting in a shelf for six months, your use was shortened commensurately. To illustrate, my second unit lasted only three months. And since I only used it irregularly, this represented a poor investment so I didn’t buy a third. The case was heat sealed, and while I’m a tinkerer (model-maker) who likes to try to fix things that aren’t designed to be fixed, despite the wide range of micro tools and adhesive substances at my disposal, I couldn’t replace the battery more than once and guaranteeing a seal was almost impossible once the case was split.

TempoTrainerProA couple of years ago Finis released an updated model, ridiculously called the “Pro” (TTP). I guess though they couldn’t call it the “here’s how we should have made it first time“. Of  course what adding Pro to the title really meant of course was that Finis increased the price. I was not willingly to spend more money on a new Finis  product that would likely fail.

A couple of years on I hoped that their usual poor initial product quality would have improved, and I hit it lucky on Amazon UK (£25 over the usual price of £31.49), I finally bought the new version.

The Pro has had two major upgrades: The first and most important is the ability to allow the user to replace the battery. The second upgrade is the addition of a third timekeeping mode which can be used to set stroke rate or tempo, meaning it can be used to set strokes per minute, which could be useful for developing open water swimmers.

The battery compartment takes a CR 1620, (not the most common Li-ion coin battery), which is screwed into the unit. The threads are quite narrow. Narrow thread improves water seal but when the material is ABS or a hard plastic, it also means that the threads are easy to misalign, which will result in stripping, which will of course degrade waterproof ability. A widely-spaced deep thread with less rotations might have worked better, and still ensuring that the unit is sealed. As usual I wonder about Finis’ commitment to manufacturing quality. Regardless, you better be very careful closing the battery compartment, and make sure it’s flush with the case to ensure the threads are aligned.

As with the TT, the TTP comes with an utterly useless clip, which may have more utility in other sports. But it’s not that important as you simply put the TTP under your swim cap. The beep is loud enough for the wearer to hear (and not anyone else), with two, three or repeating beeps depending on mode used.

I typically use the Tempo Trainer (TTP) twice a week for the past couple of months. Once when doing a weekly reducing ten repetitions of 400 metres set. And second for my weekly time trial, which this winter is three consecutive kilometres, slowest through to fastest (not deliberately, it just takes me longer every year to hit maximum speed, my third kilometres is always my fastest). Last winter I was doing a three kilometre continuous time trial but I don’t have that in me this year apparently.

My most common use is in Mode One, which goes from 0:02 seconds to 99:99 seconds in hundredths of a second to set a target time for a lap (two lengths).

The Tempo Trainers are regularly used and touted for improving fitness and consequently speed. And yes, they are good for that, is you can stomach listening to that beep all the time and if you can get the setting right each day. (Maybe my speed just varies too much over a week).

All negatives aside the most unexpected benefit of using the TTP, and what has made it a valuable purchase for me, has been to see how the effect of small stroke changes during a swim affect my speed.

The TTP is a relentless target. You can start how ever you like, fast or slow, but the timer will always beep the target you must hit. It promotes consistent pacing, ideal for an open water swimmer.

I have found, entirely separately from shooting video of my stroke a every year, and usually left feeling disconsolate and frustrated, that the TTP actually allowed me to find stroke improvements that weren’t accessible via my own video. One length of poor concentration is enough to slip your target. Two lengths of poor stroke is enough to build an almost insurmountable gap to be chased. The TTP demonstrated, in a way I’d never really felt previously because the feedback was available every single length, that I needed to rotate and reach more on my weak (left) side. The improvement was immediate. It actually still feels like an exaggerated stroke to me, but with the TTP I went 11 seconds faster over my best kilometre time this year (but I still have to take another nine seconds off to hit last year’s time!). I also was able to measure the effectiveness of my “good” stroke versus my 200 to 300 metres unilateral “sprint” stroke and even to improve that.

I didn’t find Mode Three (stroke rate) as useful. My open water stroke rate is pretty consistent from years of swimming at 71 to 72 SPM (strokes per minute) normal pace (up two spm over the past two years). In the pool Mode Three really needs a long (50m) pool. An SCM or SCY pool is a bit too short, once you come out of your flip turn, if you are even a fraction out when you start stroking as adjusting takes away some of the benefit. I did do an eight by one kilometre set one day just testing this, varying each kilometre starting at 68 spm, going through 69, 70 and 71 before dropping back to 70. My open water rate is one or two strokes faster. All of this was only confirmation for me, but for someone with a too-low stroke rate, it may be useful to help develop a higher rate . I haven’t yet used it during an open water swim, as winter swims are too short. I’d prefer to use it for at least five kilometre to determine any possible utility (which I expect to be minimal).

Contrary to the advertising and Finis’ poor manufacturing and quality record, while the TTP is a useful tool for fitness, it’s especially useful for stroke improvement, especially for people like myself who don’t have anyone against whom to swim.

Amazon US link, $33 + shipping. (As with everything, the US is at least 25% cheaper than Europe).

Amazon UK link. £31.49 ($53) inc. shipping.

Big bag o' paddles

Review: Swimming paddles (Yet another update)

My pool bag now includes the silly total of five four five six five different types of paddles!

(Update 2013: I added another paddle and removed one, so I’m refreshing this review).

(Update March 2014: Added another paddle, subsequently removed yet another paddle. See below for comparison of PT Paddle and Complete Fitness Coaching Palm Paddle)

Big bag o’ paddles – I really need to update this photo to the current lineup.

Warning: overdoing paddle work is a mistake easily made. I was already doing a lot of metres when I increased my paddle work, and I had shoulders able to take that increase, but overdoing paddle work, especially power paddles, can lead to real shoulder injury. Start very, very, very easy, with no more than 200 metres total, if you are not already using paddles.

Medium tech paddles

1. I started years ago with Speedo Tech Paddles, medium size. Tech or technique paddles are designed mainly for aiding water-feel. They are to aid catch, early vertical forearm (EVF), strength and pull. A bit of a Jack-of-all-trades. They are good as first paddles. Useful for getting adding extra metres pulling to build up shoulder strength. Instead of putting the whole hand in the straps, once you adapt to using them, just use the middle finger loop to detect imbalances in stroke and catch. The rubber straps didn’t last well didn’t last and had to be replaced by bits of rubber tubing. I never use these any more and they are long gone.

Amazon US linkAmazon UK link.

Power Paddle
Power Paddle

2. My next and main paddles for a few years were Speedo Power Paddles. In 2009, Eilís has us doing a lot of paddle work in Channel training. Early on I was still using the tech paddles and hating them and paddle work in general. After one session with Rob Bohane, where I was killed, I decided to change my approach. So every day for the next month, I used the Power Paddles for warm-up  After that I had no more problems. These are brutal on your shoulders if you are not used to them, injuries will result if you overdo them. You can also lose your feel for the water with these. Note: All the straps on this are only one piece of surgical tubing. When I use these I only use them with the middle finger loop. However I just left the rest of the tubing attached.

Amazon US linkAmazon UK link.

Speedo StrokeMakers are reported to be excellent and widely used by experienced swimmers in the US but aren’t available in Europe. SwimOutlet link.

Forearm paddle

3. Forearm Paddles. My forearm paddles were a cheap €1.50 generic version and consequently aren’t terribly comfortable but perfectly adequate. These ones on Amazon US are identical in shape and may be the only time in my life I’ve seen something more expensive in the US.  Finis forearm bolsters should be more comfortable, as are all some of their  non-electronic products. The purpose of these is to work EVF and maximise catch and forearm pull. I often do 400m with these, combined with 400m fist drill or anti-paddles, as part of my warm up.

Amazon US link for Finis Paddles. Amazon UK link.

Speedo Finger paddle

4. Speedo Finger Paddles. I got these on the recommendation of Channel swimmers and coaches Jen Schumacher and Nuala Muir-Cochrane. They allow you to focus on your catch and your pull and vertical forearm. I have also found they are good for lengthening your stroke and overall keeping good focus throughout most phases of the stroke. They are also great for backstroke catch and technique. Lower strap removed as these are purely for technique. These are still great paddles that I regularly use and remain my favourites.

Amazon US link. Amazon UK link.

Finis PT Cruisers

5. Finis PT paddles, PT stands for “perfect technique”. These are also known as Anti-Paddles. Unlike all previous paddles which in some way enhance the arm or hand, these remove the hand completely from your stroke. Therefore they operate the same as fist drill .  Your stroke becomes all about felling the water and Early Vertical Forearm, EVF, i.e. the pull from your forearms. They are also very effective in engaging your core and driving your balance. The first couple of lengths swimming with these is like swimming with a live weasel in each hand. I’ve seen a lighter hollow version somewhere, but these are heavy and solid, which is what drives you to  engage your core to counter-balance them. And unlike fist drill, there’s no cheating with these. Your first few lengths after using them will give you a great feeling of power throughout your catch and pull. After about a year of year the external plastic casing on one cracked but they don’t seem to have deteriorated any further for the past two years.

Amazon US link.

Wearing PT Paddle
Wearing PT Paddle seen from above. Almost matches my hand outline

Two years on and I’ve grown to really dislike the PT Paddle. The plastic case split more, and the internal foam structures absorbed far more water than I’d realised until I took them home for this update. Each PT paddle (with water) weighs about 350 grams, 3/4 of a pound.  maybe 25% of that weight is absorbed water. Unlike most other paddles, all three “loops” in the tubing are needed to go on thumb and fingers to hold the paddle on while swimming, partially because of the weight, partially because of the design.

The weight is increasingly uncomfortable due to water absorption and the durability is typical of so many Finis products, who seem incapable of grasping late-20th Century Qualify Manufacturing tools. I would love to know that their DPPMs (defect parts per million) are on their various products. I had a look on Finis’ website (just trying to find things on their utterly crap flash website can give you a headache), and can’t find the PT Paddle anymore. I suspect it’s another product that’s been removed due to, well, being so badly made.

Finis Agility Paddles - Note that my thumb is straight not bent
Finis Agility Paddles – Note that my thumb is straight not bent

6. Finis Agility paddles. After being introduced in 2102, I first got a chance to use these in early 2013 and immediately bought a pair and have been using them very regularly since. These are now my favourite paddle and I regularly use them in conjunction with the finger paddles. Finis Agility paddles have no strap and fit on each hand using a simple thumb hole. In order to keep them on your hands during the stroke you must keep a good catch and pull through on every stroke. (Since using these I have also reduced my use of power paddles). Everyone who has tried this has felt the immediate technique feedback. These may be the best paddles on the market. And if you want just one paddle, I’d recommend these. They can also be used for all strokes.

Amazon US linkAmazon UK link.

7. Complete Fitness Coaching Palm Paddle.

Palm Paddle.resized

Coach Martin Hill contacted me a few months ago to ask if I wanted to try out his new Palm Paddle, versus the PT Paddle.

I’ve had the PT Paddles for a couple of years and as I updated above, increasingly came to dislike them. All fist drill type products aren’t particularly fun to swim with, eliminating, as is their purpose, the propulsive effect of the hand to develop catch, EVF and forearm pull.

The Palm Paddle in the antithesis of the PT Paddle. A hollow single-part blown-plastic paddle, with a single tube loop for the centre finger. It weighs one-tenth of the PT paddle. It is also significantly narrower, only about two-thirds of the width.

I have small to medium-sized hands (no sniggering there) and the PT paddle completely fills the hand, whereas the Palm Paddle sits more in the centre with the hand protruding to either side, and the curve of the paddle is less than the PT. This means it doesn’t slip as easily, i.e. it does catch the water a little more than the PT.

Apart from the weight, I like that it only requires a single finger, as this is how most paddles are better used. Also the light weight provides stroke feedback that the PT paddle doesn’t, which is that it can slip sideways on your hand, particularly at the end of the pull (for me) if the pitch of the hand is wrong. That said, I found a slight uncomfortable tensing of my hand because of the width toward the end of a 400 metre drill because I was cupping my hand.

Palm Paddle vs PT Paddle.resized

I compared my normal stroke without paddles, to wearing Palm Paddles, to wearing PT Paddle in swim speed terms (while maintaining a moderate pace). Palm Paddles added about 10 seconds per 50m, whereas the PT added double that. Since fist drills are not about speed but about learning to maximise the catch, that means the PT paddle is more effective at eliminating any propulsion from the hand. However I also think it adds too much body rotation as because of the weight and they are not pleasant to wear and regularly slip.

While the PT paddles are better at eliminating the hand to focus on EVF, the fact the Palm Paddles are more comfortable to swim with, while still performing the same task, means you will use them more regularly than the PT Paddles. I’ve now removed the PT Paddles from my pool gear bag.

So on the face of it, having five four five six five pairs of paddles seems like overkill. But each performs a specific useful technique and training task.

Review: Battle of the Jelly Babies

It was a genius idea by Dee.

Jelly babies are notorious favourites of open water distance and Channel swimmers. Tiny parcels of coloured and flavoured glucose perfectly anthropomorphised, that sate a craving.

Relatively waterproof and easy to pass to a swimmer, or for crew to snarf a few themselves, they provide an instant hit of processed dextrose for an quick burst of energy, an easily digestible treat to anticipate on a upcoming feed, and the source of one of the oldest jokes I know.

(“What’s the difference between boy jelly babies and girl jelly-babies?” Snaps fingers while saying “boy jelly babies have that much more!“).

But are all jelly babies made equal? Here at the Loneswimmer Demesne, we decided to finally end this perennial debate amongst distance swimmers with a, no … the definitive review.

In this article we pit the metaphorical Big Three of the small edible homunculi against each other and a token El Cheapo discount brand.

Don’t say LoneSwimmer.com does not strive to answer the big questions, to expose the most contested and controversial questions in the open water swimming world. 

  • Are Bassett’s Jelly Babies the Daddy?
  • What about Haribo Delicious Infants², (“Happy Happy Haribo, The Happy World Of Haribo)?
  • Or are the weighty non-humanoid creatures³ of relative newcomer The Natural Confectionary Company more morally acceptable?
  • How do vegans feel about Jelly Snakes and Monkeys?
  • In a fight between a Dino Mix Tyrannasourus Rex and a Haribo Brontosaurus, will the lesser mammal replicate the historical success of its lesser forebear over the mighty King of the Thunder Lizards?
  • What’s a Jelly Baby’s best stroke?
  • Does anthropomorphising sugar actually make taste it better?
  • What effect does the Jelly Babies colour have on its perceived taste?

We engaged in a two person two round competition, the winner of each round progressing to the final Jelly-Off.

Heat 1: A battle of classic Jelly Babies. Bassets surely go into this round as the 100 Pound Gorilla Baby favourites.

Bassets.rotated.resized.resizedBassetts Jelly Babies. Bag weight 190g. 345 Calories per 100g. €1.40 per bag.

Versus

Aldi.resized.resizedDominion (Aldi) Jelly Babies. Bag Weight 230g. 345 Calories per 100g. 55c per bag. By far the cheapest.

 

 

Heat 2: Between non-traditional shaped gums. Does not include testing those jelly and white “foam” mix confections, as these are abominations.

Haribo .rotated.resized.resizedHaribo Fantasy Mix. Bag weight 200g. 342 Calories per 100g. €1.00 per bag.

 

 

versus

Dino Mix.rotated.resized.resizedThe Natural Confectionary Co. Dino Mix. Bag weight 200g. 320 Calories per 100g. Wide range of prices from €1.25 to €2.60 per bag depending on location. Usually €1.85. Significantly the most expensive.

 

*

The arrival of The Natural Confectionary Co. into the cut-throat (well, biting heads off anyway) Jelly market has changed the manufacturer’s messages. Each proudly now boasts Natural Colours, and all except Haribo also say Natural Flavours. This may be the reason Haribo has a shelf life six months longer than all the others.

But since this is high calorie empty glucose, so I don’t really care one way or the other.

Heat One

Heat_1 jellies.resized

Bassets’ twisted confections give names to the individual babies depending on colour. The Aldi Jelly were obviously never christened. Both contain among the other ingredients, Bovine Gelatine. The Basset’s Jelly Babies have more distinct facial features and have two different shapes, a standard jelly Boy or Girl. One shape is saluting before being ingested, another sick twist that I particularly enjoy. Though maybe it’s doing backstroke? Notably the Aldi Jelly Babies have no black colour child, thought the Bassets have. Bassets are of a more uniform shape which they hold better and are a very slightly larger size. Most important though is the Taste Test.

Our independent tasters could detect NO DIFFERENCE in texture or taste. Neither displayed any noticeable variation in taste between different colours.

This lack of taste differentiation allied with the significantly lower cost makes the Aldi Jelly Babies, ironically called Dominion, the Winner of Heat One5

ITS A GIGANTIC UPSET! 

Heat Two

Heat 2 gums.resized

The Natural Confectionery Co are the arriviste upstarts of the highly-contested Jelly market. Along with the laughable conceit that they are “healthier”, monkeys, snakes and shapes and dinosaurs enhance their politically-correct middle-class offering and no actual babies (Boo!).  But dinosaurs. Each bag usually contains two or larger Tyrannasaurs. Who doesn’t want to bite the head off a Tyrannausus Rex?

On the other side of Heat Two, Haribo are so well-known that we all know and hate that damn Haribo jingle. Swimmers in Dover rave about Haribo. The Fantasy Mix is a range of animals, including two dinosaurs, a zebra, a couple of white foam half alligators, a two-tone Triceratops, an elephant, a transparent monkey, a turtle, a race car (Le Mans winner 1959), an infant soother (because that’s the perfect message for new parents; sugar-shaped soother, right?), four of the dreaded abomination of childhood, that excrescence, that shame on the global gum market: The Cola Bottle. And of curse course proving before we start that Haribo are demonic, four green Devils.

Rather than pit the mighty Tyrannosaurus we pitted the slightly larger Haribo Brontosaurusagainst a lesser TNCC baby Raptor6.

The TNCC gum was firm yet yielding. It had a dense mouth feel7, and an actual flavour. There was a slight difference in flavour between colours.

The Haribo was dense. Almost impenetrable in fact. Not chewy in a good way. Chewy in a dog-toy way. It makes a good spare rubber foot for a laptop. It was vile. I shudder at the mere reminiscence.

Winner of Heat Two is The Natural Confectionery Co Dino Mix8.

Another shock!

Final

TRex vs Baby.resized

In an extraordinary development it has to be admitted that both judges were pre-disposed to The Natural Confectionery Co. No supply of free gums was received in exchange for this favouritism though we are both open to any future bribing.

By-the-bye, dear American readers, I hope all this repetition of the words favour, colour and flavour, isn’t causing you too much distress!

The Brontosausus/Raptors having been dispatched, the Final pitted the mighty Tyrannasurus Rex versus the puny Aldi Dominion Baby.

Puny Aldi Baby put a good fight, armed as he was by his all-round Value For Money special ability which he used to fight the Mighty Thunder Lizard almost to a standstill. But the ThunderSuarus unleashed a devastating blow: The ability to retain shape better without melting in a hot car glove compartment during summer.  It was close. But then a shock. The bag only had ONE Tyrannosaur!

The gums of the TNCC were ultimately defeated however by the simple fact that jelly babies are smaller and softer so can be eaten in a single bite by a swimmer in the water.

Winner: El Cheapo Dominion Aldi Jelly Babies!

Well, that was utterly unexpected.

P.s. I’ve got a bag of Haribo Fantasy Mix left over which even the dogs won’t eat.  As to preferred swimming stroke, they’re made of sugar … so they sink.

I did all this just so I add this as new banner pic
I did all this just so I add this as new banner pic, Aldi are the left four, Bassett’s are the right five

_______________________________________________________________

May not actually be a real debate.

² Not the actual Haribo product name.

³ If you are a bluebottle.

Me ‘n Dee.

Except for you borderline cannibals for whom accurate sugary replication of human infants is important.

Yes, I know there was no such thing as a Brontosaurus. Paleontologists please use the site’s Contact Form to send me your classification of the TNCC dino’s.

7 I read heard this phrase on a cookery program.

Unless you are a fake-Satanist, in which case the Haribo is the preferred choice.

How To: Swedish goggles (fit and review)

I’ve written a couple of previous annual posts reviewing various goggles, (one, two) that I’ve used, of which it seems there have been quite a few. (There are few greater swimming pleasures than wearing brand new goggles!)

I am a relatively recent user to Swedish googles (aka Swedes), I’ve been wearing them for less than a year. I had worn some Tyr Socket Rockets many years back but they didn’t last very long and never made it in a serious google review here. The Socket Rockets were possibly the coolest looking goggs on the market back then. They worked fine for about two months before starting to leak.

The Tyr’s were a modified-Swedish design (my own term), utilizing the socket design of Swedes but with a thin layer of silicon as a gasket. During last year’s open water season I was given a pair of modified-Swedish design goggles to try from a new American google company called Nootca. These were similar to the Socket Rockets in also having a thin silicon layer. They are also anti-fog and I choose a clear pair. I immediately liked them and have been using them for pool training until they began to approach end of life.

Only nine months use, so why are they dying? Mea culpa, partially. They suffer from two problems that most of my goggles have shared.

Anti-fog goggles

1. We all know anti-fog is a bit of a misnomer in goggles. It’s never 100% effective. With older goggs whatever is present deteriorates and more and more saliva or otherwise is needed. In the pool I take my goggs off a lot so I’m constantly licking the inside to clear them again.

2. The primary reason most of my goggles and swim caps die is mould (aka mold/ fungus)! I am not good at remembering to dry out my stuff after swimming, and combined with the damp of my swim bag, and the low ambient temperatures here in Ireland, means mould will eventually build up.

Nootca goggles with mould
Nootca goggles with mould. Time to throw out the goggles when you can taste it!

Regardless of what swim companies say, silicon is not completely mould-resistant and must be kept dry to be effective. Swedish goggle wearers tend to be evangelistic about them. In the Sandycove group Finbarr and Craig wear them. But here’s something that I confirmed with a few different Irish swimmers: Many of us had never heard of them until fairly recently (the last five or six years due to swim blogs). What I take that to mean is we may have heard the casual term sometime but we never saw them physically, never saw them in use in the local age-group club, never knew what Swedes meant, and probably all dismissed brief mentions of the term. Yet it does seem that they are hugely popular in the US where they are primarily used amongst competitive and former competitive swimmers.

So what are Swedes? Swedish googles are so-called because they are made by a Swedish company called Malmsten, who only have 16 employees, since the mid-1970′s. They are the simplest available goggle on the market. And the most complex. AND the cheapest. And, depending on your viewpoint, the best. They are in many ways the epitome of the Do One Thing and Do It Well and/or Swedish Minimalism schools of design.

Swedes out of the box & unassembled
Swedes out of the box & un-assembled

Swedes use a bare hard-plastic eyepiece. No silicon or rubber gasket. No case. They use string as the nose-bridge. You assemble them to your own supposedly perfect and unique fit.

The Australian company Speedo, the world’s biggest (somewhere between 100 and 250 employees, ten times the size) and oldest (99 years) swimming company, synonymous with the sport must have found the pervasive use of Swedes at Olympics and World Championship by many elite swimmers to be a significant marketing problem, because in the last few years they released Malmsten goggles under the Speedo label, and they are now finally and widely available to us commoners.

Ah, but that initial fitting. Well, that’s where the dissatisfaction comes with Swedes. With a pair of Aqasphere Kayenne open water goggles you open the box, slip them on and pull the strap for your fit and you are done. A button loosens the strap if you are having a massively-distorted-head-day, as we all apparently have had occasionally!

I like tool shops. I like tool catalogues. I like tools. I like the specificity of a tool designed to do a specific job. I like the heft of a drill, the knurled grip of a screwdriver in my fingers. A blue-steel standards-compliant set-square is to me a thing of purity and beauty, even if I am not a carpenter. It has an exact purpose for which it must be manufactured exactly and to which it should be applied exactly. Therefore I am attracted to the idea of Swedes, the simplicity and clean lines, the stripped-down but apposite functionality.

To get Swedes to function (i.e. seal) properly, you may need to take a different approach. You may have regular symmetrical ocular orbits, into which the googs sit perfectly. I don’t and that was part of my problem. Goggles leak mostly into my right eye, my eye socket must be less symmetrical under the skin. The approach below works well for me and isn’t in the very basic instructions Speedo include in the box.

The injection (flash) line is the very fine while line peeling up off the bottom lip
The injection (flash) line is the very fine while line peeling up off the bottom lip

1. Injection-moulded plastic produces a fine line of plastic where the mould halves meets called flash, familiar to model-makers. Take the back of a scalpel or box-cutter and scrape along this seam until this seam is removed.

2: Using an emery board (nail sanding board) sand along the seam until the edges are smooth under your fingertips.

3: Do a quick test of the eyepieces onto your eyes. Suction holding the briefly eyepieces in place show how they fit.

Nose string being attached
Nose string attached to one side

4: Run the string through one side and extrude both sides through the rubber tube.

5: Run the string through the other side from the top of the hole.

6: Loosely tie the ends of the string together by a simple over-and-under (the very first part of a bow-knot that you use to tie shoelaces) and slip onto your eyes. You can squint to hold the eyepieces in place if necessary, or hold them in place while someone helps. Pull the string a little tight but not to pull the eyepieces closer together than they already are.

Loosley tying the nose string
Loosely tie the nose string

7: Complete the knot by another over-and-under in the opposite direction to the first. This is a simple and secure square knot.

8: Rotate the completed knot back into the rubber nose-piece.

9: Insert the strap into the two side holes of the eyepieces and tie in place around your head. DON’T tie it too tight or it’ll be too uncomfortable and may in fact leak.

Square_Knot_animated

10. Once you have your fit I’d recommend  that you test them in the poor for a couple of days while having a backup pair ready. I’ve found that if I don’t have another pair to compare strap length against, I’ll usually tie them too tight initially. Some goggles like Finis or the Nootca’s use a plastic buckle that makes adjusting straps easier than retying them.

I’ve found the effective seal of the Nootca and the Swedes to be about the same, which is better than any other googles for the pool. Except my one pair of now retired and sadly irreplaceable in Europe, View Fully Sick goggles from Oceanswims.com which are just too expensive to get shipped to Ireland.

I don’t completely buy the “100% fantastic” recommendations but I do appreciate them. In a purchase of two pairs of Speedo Swedes, one clear and one mirrored, the anti-fog in the mirrored pair lifted off the plastic and cracked immediately that I got in the pool while wearing them. Also I think the mirrored are too dark for most Irish days and certainly too dark for the pool. The clear and blue pairs have excellent visibility however. I also still have other goggles that I like and use, such as Vanquishers and Lightnings.

Swedes are mould resistant, though if you look carefully at the Nootca’s, mould still builds up slightly in the angle between the front and side so it is likely to also do so with the Swedes. (Yes, I do rinse them daily). If anyone has any good tips for control of mould on swimming gear in a damp country apart from air-drying everything every day, or ways to clean the inside of goggles, please let me know. (I have used a slice of potato or carrot, yes really, to clean off some of the much that builds up without destroying the goggles).

Take your time to get Swedes properly adjusted though and you will certainly have a pair of googles that will be excellently suited to all uses, pool and open water and that will last longer than any others for significantly less cost.

Swimovate watch review

This is an update to my original review from a couple of years ago. I always place reliability at the forefront of product requirements, and too many reviews are based on initial experience. -

When I started putting in big metres some years back, because I swim by myself and am slightly OCD about many things, I always tried, yet failed to count my laps. One big hurdle I face to lap counting is that I swim in an odd-length pool so I am not always finishing eery set at the same end of the pool. After many repeats you forget which end you stated or finished   last set. A standard 25m pool is easier, but on long sets, I still lose count.

sportcount-finger-lap-co-17668-975oAfter initial Heath-Robinson-esque lap counting methods that failed, I next tried a Sport Count waterproof finger counter. I would press the button every 2 laps. It worked well, gave me the total lap counts and the time for each double lap, and by the end of a session it gave me the average, fastest and slowest periods. I got used to using it, and it was cheapish and I used it for two years. But the Sport Count had no pause, no stroke count or watch, & you couldn’t change the battery but it apparently lasts for ever. It’s still going years later sitting in my swim bag.

As my metres went up, especially from 2009, I needed another solution. And just then the Swimovate Pool-Mate Watch arrived on the market. I got my first one in The Edge Sports shop in Cork and it immediately became invaluable.

Swimovate-Pool-Mate-automatic-lap-and-stroke-counter-for-swimmers

It’s designed specifically for pool swimmers. The useful functions include;

  • Automatic lap counting. (Yes, it does work.)
  • Adjustable pool length
  • Session totals
  • Set totals
  • Pause & Stop
  • Calorie counter (based on body weight – adjustable). I’ve long stopped believing or even looking at this)
  • Stroke efficiency counter
  • Watch and alarm

However…

You’ll notice I said my first one?

I had to return it after six weeks because of leakage in the case. The manual had specified to never depress a button underwater, so I never did. Yes I read the manual. Manuals are fun. But it leaked anyway.

Simon had no problem with replacing it with a second. One feature of the watch is you can see the reported battery capacity. When I got the replacement, it was at six. (The scale runs up to eight). I used it everyday in the pool until May when I moved to the sea. Remember that was a LOT of use, 2/3/4/5/6 hour sessions.

When I came back to the pool in September, the battery was at five. The manual had said about a year depending on use.

However after three weeks it dropped precipitously to three, and the display started fading. Next day it was at two and the display was almost unusable, I was barely able to see the battery display. There was also at this stage some slight condensation inside the face again.

I emailed Swimovate, explained I had really only used if for six months, and they offered to replace the battery gratis, “this one time”.

I posted it off and went back to losing track of my lengths.

When I received the watch back it wasn’t the original watch. It was a new replacement! I had actually been wondering if this would happen so I had made no mention of the slight leak.

I suspect there was a leakage problem with maybe the early Swimovates, as they are dependent on seals. If they sealed the watch in a low pressure chamber it would be better but also more expensive. Less though than the amount of returns I imagine they got.

It’s two and half years since the original review finished there. I still have the Swimovate. I’ve swum about four million metres using it. It’s still going. I get about late autumn, winter and spring out the battery. The last few summers I’ve only been in the sea so it went unused for a few months.

For the past couple of years I’ve changed the battery myself. There are four small Phillips only screws to be removed. I’ve had no further issues.

The Swimovate became essential to my swimming. The cost is ok at about €80 euros, but the battery life is really short. If it had provided me only 6 or 8 months swimming though with no replacement, I’d be far less happy.

There’s a Pro version for almost double the price for the ability to sync to a PC or Mac and special swim tracking software with the results. One friend of mine uses it, but I’ve never remembered to ask him his opinion.

By the way, the Swimovate uses an accelerometer so your arms must be moving. If you are doing kick drills the watch won’t know. Also, it determines the lap count based on your glide at the turn. If you don’t glide enough (at least one sec) it will get confused, but you should be doing this anyway.

The efficiency counter is like swimming golf, a score is given calculated from stroke and distance in a given time. It’s a good way for long distance swimmers to monitor how they are feeling for long sessions. Under 30 it gives as Professional or Expert, 30 to 40 as Very Good, 40 to 50 as Good, 50+ Needs Improvement. It’s something that’s useful for a Lone Swimmer.

The plastic face scratches easily. The only way to fix this without adding a more expensive lens would be to add a bezel around the edge, but the face is fairly easily polished out should you care, which I don’t.

Pros

  • Counts laps automatically for all 4 main strokes
  • Can adjust for different pool lengths and metres or yards
  • Stoke efficiency counter (useful for monitoring your stroke)
  • Calorie counter
  • Session and set tracking
  • Watch
  • Stop & Pause
  • Customer service was pretty good
  • Blue, black or pink

Cons

  • Short battery life
  • Leaked too easily. But second replacement has worked for three years.
  • Can’t use it for Open Water except as a watch, or kicking
  • Face scratches really easily

Buy Swimovate on Amazon UK.

Fitocracy; a swimmer’s review

fito iconWhat is it?

Fitocracy is a “social media fitness website”. It is intended as a fitness goals and tracking site integrated with an online community. I received an invitation for the beta (test) version in 2011 but didn’t avail of it for about a year afterwards. I signed up on a whim in January of 2012.

The day that I signed up was the first day of a 50k training week, 10k per day, which was probably the origin of the whim. After signing up I figured out the navigation pretty quickly and then entered the first 10,000 metre swim. Once that was saved I was met with a slew of popups and notifications. I’d apparently been awarded a range of Swimming Achievement badges and a lot of Points and Level-Ups.

How does it work?

At this point it’s worth explaining that the idea of Fitocracy was to replicate the idea of a video game, with Bonuses, special Quests, Achievements and Levelling Up. One enters each workout that one does and the Fitocracy system allocates a number of points to the account. The number of points allocated dependent on sport, duration and difficulty. You can’t enter previous workouts more than I think 10 days old though it may be two weeks. If you are entering workouts regularly this isn’t important and stops people entering a lot of fictitious history/workouts when they signup.

Apart from the regular ongoing training one can set out to reach Quests, which may be a combination of sports. And there are cumulative Special Achievement awards when you reach particular targets like running or cycling a total distance. Each of the Quests and Achievements are accompanied by badges.

Levels are awarded by total points, and each level is progressively harder to reach. The lowest levels may take only a couple of hundred to reach, by the time you pass above Level 40 each level is over 100,000 points and still climbing.

I can’t recall exactly but what I didn’t realise for a couple of days that by having my very first swim that I entered as 10k, I’d collected all the swimming achievements on my very first day. I also went immediately to about Level 5. By the end of the first week I was Level Ten. Over the next few months my upward climb was apparently pretty steep. The Administrators/Designers are constantly on the watch-out for trolls who join up and spent time logging lots of activities to get on the Leader-board and annoy the general members and these are nearly always obvious.

It should also be noted, that as with most Social Media sites, the designers need to be paid. In Fitocracy this is achieved by converting free members like myself into paying month repeat customers. Paying customer have more options such as their full workout history, special Fitocracy Hero titles, and the ability to duel each other. I did not convert to being a paying member.

There are Leaderboards for weeks, months, 90 day and all-time periods to facilitate tracking. Afterall without the tracking the points accumulation is useless.

The other key aspect of the site along with fitness tracking to be mentioned is the Social aspect. There are Groups and Friends and Followers and a feed like a Twitter Feed. There’s a Swimming Group and an Open Water Swimming Group, the former is large, the latter is tiny. Any member can start a group so there are the humourous groups, and shared interest groups or Location groups etc, with no limit on the number of groups you can join. And there are Props which are like, well, Likes, I guess.

So when you log you see the Feed of Everyone or your Fitocracy Friends or Groups (you can choose). The Feed includes the details of their workouts and comments recently also images and video links. All very Twitter-like. So you can interact with similar people to yourself, or people whom you think you can help or learn from.

Fitocracy Feed
Fitocracy Feed

How much did I use it?

I used Fitocracy from the middle of January until about June. I logged my training every day, which was easy for me and second-nature, as I’ve been logging my swimming into a by-now complex spreadsheet of my own for years, so I’d give a couple of minutes logging into the site. Then, just about the time swimming Manhattan last year I stopped for a few reasons I’ll outline below. I restarted about November of 2012 and stopped again a couple of weeks ago.

By the time I’d stopped using it the first time, I was in the Top Twenty of the all-time leaderboard, the only swimmer in the Top 50 at that point. When I restarted in November it was more a challenge as many of the leaders had continued to log and I’d dropped my mileage. By the time I stopped a few weeks I was back at the entry to the Top Thirty and I’d accumulated just over 1 million points. That’s sounds, well I don’t know what it sounds like. I stopped playing PC games after X-Wing in the mid-90s if that means anything and I have zero interest in them. I guess it does indicate that a swimmer with a constant training schedule can easily accumulate points.

The Pros and Cons of Fitocracy

Fitocracy’s utility is dependent on a few things, not least of which is your level of experience. I think the less experience of fitness you have the greater the benefit as you can follow and interact people with a greater level of knowledge. You can get advice on food, technique and programs. (At least, I gave advice to people on those subjects). Another benefit for those with less of a lifetime of exercise behind them may be the actual design, the incentive of chasing points or achievement badges. The social aspect will certainly appeal to many people.

If you are into gym work (why are you here) Fitocracy seems like it’s a far better fit. The gym people are by far the largest group and have a lot of granularity in their workouts, because the designers come from that background. However the site is really poor at understanding swimmer’s capabilities and goals. One of the reasons I stopped logging was that every day the default swimming distance measurement was …. fathoms. It wasn’t even a joke and it couldn’t be changed and it became increasingly frustrating. Every single time. That got fixed while I was away but the current default for swimming workouts is that it’s calm open water with assisted drills, what can only be called an unusual setup for any swimmer. So you have to change that every time you log. And the Swimming Group size is almost 30,000 with an average level of 8. By the time I stopped I was Level 43, the last swim I logged was 17k with Gábor and the system still wouldn’t let me do that would breaking it down.

There are four swimming Quests, the biggest individual Quest for swimming is 10k. There are three cumulative swimming total Achievement, which are 5km, 100k and 500k. Given I swim about a million metres a year… that 500 isn’t extraordinary. And recall I achieved all the Quests the very first day I logged on. Swim workouts are capped at either 20k or 5 hours. Sure, for most people those are inconceivable targets. But to the readers of this blog they are quite common. To work around this you could enter lots of individual sets but that again shows that a year after me starting doing these swims, and communicating with the designers, I’m still too far out from the mainstream to accommodate and I was never interested in breaking my sets down into the individual components to maximise points (which a lot of people do). If you are interested, as a distance swimmer, I can guarantee you will climb the leaderboard pretty quickly, even just doing a 20 or 25 kilometres per week average. I was, to the best of my awareness, the only marathon swimmer there, and while there were swimmers faster and younger than me the distance work accumulates points. But I doubt like me that as a distance swimmer points will make much difference to you. It was somewhat entertaining but that was pretty much it. If you cross sports more than you can find plenty of quests. I think I logged hiking once, never bother logging anything else.

Pros and Cons.

Pros: Fitocracy is free to join and will stay free if you don’t wish to become a Hero. It has interest groups, which can be on any subject, not just sports or fitness. The commenting and navigation is easy and quick if you are interested. There are nice supportive people on there and I didn’t see much of any aggressive or bullying behaviour and what I did see was in the earlier months of 2012. If you are getting into a program of exercise and fitness it’s probably a good supportive place. At the top of the leader-board, maybe the top 100 or 200, of the million plus subscribers, there is a lot of knowledge about various aspects of exercise and fitness and experts in many. There are both iPhone  and Android apps, though I never used either. You can change User name without losing anything else which is a nice feature more sites should have. The later you join the less chance you have of moving high up the leader-board. In fact I’d say there is no chance of anyone joining now making it into the Top 30 or 40, if that’s your goal. Though you can still target the shorter duration leader-boards for motivation.

Cons: Fitocracy, make no mistake, is geared for gym goers and beginners. The social aspect may be to more or less of your taste. The restriction on swimmer’s requirements in logging is frustrating and are specifically annoying for distance and open water swimmers. The forums which still existed when last I looked were useless. On the opposite usability side to the User Name change, there’s no way to delete your account. You have to ask in the useless forums and hope someone does it. On a free you don’t have full access to your own history. I see no reason to spend money on more detailed tracking which will always have less detail than my own logs which don’t cost anything.

happy-fred-414x444
This annoying animation now comes up everytime you log a workout.

Fitocracy failed for me in a few main areas.

  1. Lack of awareness or response to swimmers needs. Just a lack of understanding of swimmers in general, with little apparent signs of improvement despite the numbers of swimmers. I didn’t really learn anything from it. In retrospect it was only habit that kept me logging.
  2. The social aspect deteriorated. I knew maybe 20 people before I joined from elsewhere and none of them were swimmers. The feed became full of people thanking each other for Follows and Props. A bit like Twitter can be some days.
  3. The tracking gave me nothing I didn’t already have in my own log, where I have more detail. Sharing what I was doing didn’t really mean much to me, there are always people swimming faster and more distance than I am.
  4. Most importantly, the key let-down for me was that I did nothing as a consequence of being on Fitocracy that I would not have done anyway. If I compare Fitocracy with Blipfoto, which a friend convinced me to join to improve my photography, I’ve found myself tramping across fields and rocks, through mud to places I’d otherwise have avoided to photograph things I’d otherwise have ignored, and I’ve tried things I may not have and continue to learn. Since I’m not interested in other fitness exercises, this was limiting for me. The same limitation won’t apply to others.  

Fitocracy is very much dependent on your experience level and desire for more social media interaction about your swimming. It can become an easy habit as it did for me and if you don’t log your workouts already that may be of use to you, though without paying for membership that’s limited. It may be better if your sport is other than swimming.

Review: SwimSmooth.com One Day Swim Clinic

In late Channel season 2011 I was in Varne Ridge to crew a solo. Present for that tide were a bunch of Channel Aspirants from Western Australia, advised by seven-times world open water champion Shelley Taylor-Smith. They had had a long wait with bad weather. One of the swimmers was UK-born but WA resident Paul Newsome, the coach behind the popular swimming website SwimSmooth.com and we got to chat the day after his Solo, which had been in very challenging Force 5 conditions, (making him, like me, a member of the unofficial Force 5 Channel club).

swimsmooth swimtypesSwimSmooth takes the rational approach that there isn’t a single style, that in fact there are different ways of swimming, especially for new and intermediate swimmers, and that there are appropriate progression paths for those styles. It doesn’t try to squeeze everyone into the same (useless) mould. SwimSmooth sets out six initial styles but the coaches aren’t tied into insisting that everyone is one of the styles, as people can demonstrate aspects of different styles. SwimSmooth also specialises in open water swimming, realising that there are many other aspects of open water swimming outside just the stroke that affect swimmers. A well-known aspect of SwimSmooth is their use of technology, (driven mostly by Paul’s SwimSmooth partner, Channel crew and swimming coach, Adam Young). These include their famous Mr. Smooth animation (at which I’m sure thousands have stared for long periods), the integration of Paul’s Feel For the Water Blog, and the thorough use of video comparison technology for stroke analysis, that previously would only have been available to elite swimmers. Video analysis is probably the most powerful technique tool of all apart from having your own elite coach. SwimSmooth doesn’t engage in Trademarking of well-known swim drills as some others have done. Instead a small selection of appropriate drills are used to address each swimmer’s deficiencies, something many new swimmer’s have no idea how to approach.

Mr. Smooth
Mr. Smooth

Unlike Total Immersion, of which I’ve already written some (but not all) of my criticisms, Paul has walked or more precisely, swam the talk. He took on the Channel in Force 5 winds and prevailed, still achieving  a fantastic time, better than most on a good day.

Last week I saw on Paul’s Twitter feed that he was heading for the UK’s swimming centre for excellence in Loughborough (pronounced Luff-burr-o). Last week he tweeted that he was also coming to Ireland for Coach and swim clinics and needed some guinea pigs for video analysis. I saw the Tweet too late and responded but I’d missed the opportunity. I also told Paul I’d hoped to add his autograph to the bookBut it all worked out because two days later Paul offered me a cancellation place on the March 17th St. Patrick’s Day swim clinic.

The University of Limerick Pool is one of Ireland’s only three 50 metres pools, and one of the two High Performance Centres, where Irish International Marathon Swimmer Chris Bryan trains, along with some of Ireland’s Olympic swimmers and hopefuls. Paul made the point that the Perth centre alone where SwimSmooth is based has three 50 metre pools, and over twenty 50 metre pools to serve its population of 1.2 million. The almost total abandonment of our sport is of course something most Irish swimmers feel keenly. For example Waterford Institute of Technology, (the nearest college to me), has been building a large Sports Campus. A Sports Campus … with no pool. But instead of a pool there’s a (now abandoned) business conference centre.

UL Pool SwimSmooth clinic IMG_20130317_112030
UL HPC 50m pool.

The twelve swimmers on the course arrived at the pool at the 10 a.m. opening (St. Patrick’s Day, national holiday) and met Paul and his SwimSmooth partner Adam Young, UK Swim Smooth coach Emma Bunting, and another twelve coaches who were on a three-day SwimSmooth Coaching course, which included English Channel relay swimmer and Solo Aspirant? Jill Bunyan. The swimmers were from around Ireland but the coaches were more geographically diverse, including Jill from the Isle of Man, coaches from Ireland, UK, Scotland, and as far as Hong Kong.

We spent about an hour on introductions, everyone speaking  about their experience and their own stroke problems.

As I’d said to Paul earlier in the week, I have no local club to swim with, and no coach. Since swimming is really a two-person sport, the swimmer constantly requiring the intervention of a coach, I knew my stroke would have problems. Though I didn’t say it, in my own mind, every single aspect of my stroke was likely to have issues. All the training I do only reinforces any poor technique where I am not aware of it. And most swimmers are not aware of their technique problems. We were also quickly introduced to personal swim coaches from those on their coach’s course, my coach was Cassie.

There followed a quick discussion of stroke, deliberately short so Paul would not be putting clutter into people’s minds just before swimming. We also saw some fantastic video that Adam and Paul had taken of Becky Adlington’s and Shelly Taylor-Smith’s strokes.

I warmed up, enjoying the luxury of the 50m length, since I’d be one of the last recorded, while Paul videoed each swimmer using a remote camera on a boom, recording front, side, over- and underwater angles.

Example of the video stroke analysis during the clinic. Neither of these swimmers is me!
Example of the video stroke analysis during the clinic. Neither of these swimmers is me!

After a working lunch, (there was no wasted time in the entire day) Paul started stroke analysis of each swimmer’s video. The last time I have video analysis of my stroke I felt terrible embarrassment when I saw myself. But I prefer to improve more than I care about embarrassement. I hoped there had been improvement since then, and there was in some areas, but other areas had deteriorated. My cruising open water or long pool distance bilateral stroke was okay (later in the pool Paul said it looked smooth and like I could go for ever, which is what I train for and which was a relief) but the video of my single-sided “speed” stroke showed ( I asked him to do both) appalling and multiple stroke errors.

Paul made some suggestions. I could already see, based on all the EVF work I’ve been doing for the last year, how in fact I’d caused the other problems, and some problems were utterly invisible to me (such as a slight left arm crossover when breathing right) . On Paul’s YouTube Channel there’s a good example of his analysis and tools in a long video.

I don’t have Paul’s coaching experience obviously, but I have enough swim experience and coaching knowledge to analyse someone else’s stroke. This is the irony of swimming, that what we see in others we can’t see in ourselves. For an experienced swimmer, seeing their own stroke says more than any words.

Donal, underwater
Donal, underwater

Paul also spent some time on open water skills and advice, addressing such issues as turning, rough water, and anxiety.

Cassie & Donal
Cassie & Donal (& Trish, elite pool swimmer in the foreground)

Next we moved back to the pool and did a range of drills, none of which were new to me, but some of which I hadn’t done in a long time and which were good to revisit. These drills were chosen by Paul to address the issues of the range of swim abilities present on the course. That range of abilities never became an problem, spread as we were across three 50 metre lanes, and we all had a chance to work more with our individual coaches. The drills included using Finis Freestyle and Agility paddles and pull-buoys. Already being a paddle addict I was hugely impressed by the Agility paddle, (which I’d planned to try anyway after Evan recommended them). I’ve since bought a pair.

One of the swimmers on the course, Trish, is an elite swimmer, in time and stroke, and I certainly have plenty of open water experience, even if my swimming speed is average. Yet neither of us felt that anything we did was a waste of time, or in any way dumbed-down, and the time didn’t drag. To satisfy relative beginners through intermediate level, to advanced and elite levels, all in one course, is no mean feat and usually only comes in a squad with time. Swim ability questionnaires filled out by the other swimmers beforehand certainly facilitated this and assisted the excellent organisation on the day.

Due to the public holiday UL were keen to shut the pool early so there wasn’t a lot of time to chat.

We  each came away with a stroke analysis from our coaches, an individual DVD that Adam had generated for each swimmer which included not only the video of our own swimming, but also all the comparison videos, the computer notes and audio from the analysis, and specific drill and swimming advice for each swimmer dependant on Paul’s and the individual coaches assessments. Oh, and a SwimSmooth open water swim cap. (Find the cap).

swimsmoothlogoConclusion

I’ve recently seen someone pay for video swim analysis in which they were only recorded from the side and front from above the water, and the remaining time was spent by the “coach” and swimmer talking on the side of the pool.

The SwimSmooth one day swim clinic is so far beyond that as to be almost like comparing two different sports.

The clinic offered time-efficient, personalized and top-class stroke analysis, expert coaches, specific open water and drill advice, and stroke remediation, for all levels of ability and experience. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Alternatively, if you are not in a location where you can participate in one of these clinics in the foreseeable future (but remember I’m in the middle-of-nowhere, so you never know), the SwimSmooth blog, has some excellent free technique and drill resources for all levels, and there’s the SwimSmooth DVDs and books, also highly recommended.

Paul & Donal. Not only is he faster, he's younger and better looking.
Paul & Donal. Not only is he faster, he’s younger and better looking. And now finally added to my marathon swimmer’s autograph book.

I expect a Top Five and very possibly a Top Three place for Paul in this year’s MIMS when the large Irish and Aussie contingent will account for over a third of the entire field.

Review: Amphibia Sports Ring

The simple ideas are often the best ones.

I’ve previously reviewed Irish Company Amphibia Sport‘s excellent Evo Sports Bag and I recently received in the post one of the company’s long-awaited (for me) silicon Sports Ring.

I forgot to test swim it the weekend after I received it, so it had to wait until this past week to be taken for a swim. And no better weekend to test it. How did it perform?

Before I answer, I’ll explain further what it is, and why it’s necessary.

Amphibia Sport ring protector
Amphibia Sport ring protector

Technically, it’s a ring itself, as it goes around your finger. But it could also accurately be described  as a ring-protector for sport, to wear over and protect a metal ring.

I used to wear a ring all the time, a thick silver band that I had custom-made many years ago. I learned early in open-water swimming to remove it (well most of the time I remembered), as shortly after immersion it would feel like it was going to slip off my finger and I would have to swim with my fingers tightly closed, something I don’t normally do. All my concentration would still be on whether the ring was still going to slip off, not a comfortable way to swim. The ring wasn’t oversized, so it wasn’t a case of being too loose. Metals, particularly precious metals, have very well-defined thermal properties, their expansion and contraction in heat and cold.  We don’t think of organic materials as have expansion or contraction properties to anywhere near the same degree. We don’t for example think that our pants might fall down if the weather is colder!

So why does your well-fitted ring feel like it is going to fall off? (And in fact there are many cases of this actually happening to swimmers).

As we’ve often discussed about cold, cold immersion leads to various physiological responses, amongst which the most important is peripheral vaso-constriction, the reduction of blood-flow in the extremities. Another that goes along with this it he constriction of external blood vessels. This constriction causes other responses, (on which I’ve written a post that I still need to publish), but the relevant one here is the reduction in diameter of the fingers. And that contraction occurs in relatively warm water (for us Irish skin-swimmers) such as 12 to 14 degrees Celsius. In fact the diameter of the finger seems to contract more than any ring diameter will contract, so the ring becomes loose. Wedding bands, engagement rings and more have been lost this way.

The alcove at the Guillamenes. Toasty.
The alcove at the Guillamenes. Room for one.

Test conditions at the Guillamenes were pretty ideal for experimentation. The air temperature had been dropping for a few days. The water was a quite acceptable 8.6 degrees Celsius, warm for the time of year, slightly up from where it had been for the previous weeks. But the air temperature was 4° C, with a biting northerly wind whose wind chill contributed to making it feel sub-zero. I put the ring on before I arrived and spent a short while taking some photographs (nothing much useful) so my hands were cold before I swam, something I usually try to avoid. I’ve also lost some weight recently so the ring hadn’t to be forced on, though I’d given up wearing it about two years ago.

And the water was rough, despite the off-shore wind, there was about two metres of swell incoming, with plenty of surface chop on top of it. 

Cold Guillamenes.resized.rotated

I swam for about 30 minutes, and with the wind it felt the coldest swim of this winter thus far. With the Amphibia Sport Ring protector in place, my hands could take their normal shape with fingers slightly parted (the optimum spacing for fingers while swimming is about half a centimetre). If I thought about it, I could feel the silicon protector comfortably touching the adjacent fingers. I never once felt like I was going to lose my ring, and in fact, and this is the important part, I very quickly forgot about the ring.

 

 

 

I’d hazard that maybe Amphibia Sport didn’t get to test the product in what many people would consider to be such extreme conditions, but not abnormal for Irish open water winter swimmers!

That’s a lot of words to say that the Amphibia Sport Sports Ring (protector) performs extremely well for open water swimming, a simple idea very well executed. Highly recommended.

Review: Kodak PlaySport Camera

Soon after starting to write this blog, I realised I really wanted to share some of the great sights of Ireland’s Copper Coast where I mostly swim. I actually remember the first day I wanted a waterproof camera was when I came across a YouTube video of Sandycove Island by Ray Terry with Finbarr Hedderman, Danny Coholane and Mike Harris. Low resolution and short, but featuring four serious and very experienced open water swimmers, three of them English Channel soloists and the other (Mike) holding the Sandycove Island lap record of well over 2,000 lifetime laps, not to mention being the first Triple Crown of Prison Breaks swimmer in the world.

Red PlaySport

The specs of the camera are that it shoots HD Video at 1080p and still photographs at 5MP. The lens is 39mm, without any optical zoom, as is common for many lower-end waterproof cameras. There is a 3x Digital Zoom. It’s charged from a micro-USB cable, and comes with a charger, and you can also charge it from a USB port or car-charger. Memory is an SD card. The controls are simple as required when you are swimming in sub-ten degree winter water with poor fine motor control in your fingers. There’s also a microphone which works underwater, and there is an underwater video correction setting. Controls and memory storage slots are behind two slide-lock doors on either side. It also has a Share button for apparently easy uploading to Flickr and YouTube, though I never needed to try that.

You’ve seen plenty of video from it on various posts here in the past nine months. The PlaySport shoots excellent video. Clear, crisp and responsive. The underwater microphone however works erratically. Many times it’s just a series of squeaks, sometimes it picks up the underwater bubbling, breathing and movement clearly and occasionally it’s both like this one where I’m trying to make it through the tunnel in Sheep Island. But I could never figure out the reasons why either happened. Underwater colour correction looks well in clear still water, but since my video was always the Atlantic, grey, green, brown or just impenetrable I couldn’t detect any difference.

Battery consumption on the internal battery, charged via micro USB was good, recording about an hour of video.

It transpired however, despite the excellent video, that I would prefer to use the camera more since apparently people prefer to look at images rather than video on a blog. And photographs were the camera’s Achilles Heel. At 5MP the camera was capable of images good enough for the web, but the lack of stabilization proved a big issue, since the water here is rarely flat. And the days with the most movement when out swimming were often the days when I most wished to use it. Though I did capture at least one image that I loved.

Rain on water Kilfarassey.resized

I’ve deleted many many images which looked like they had been run though a Photoshop filter to give a subtle Oil Painting finish.  From a distance or on the camera LCD monitor they look fine but at standard resolution on a monitor, they lack detail.

PlaySport sideThe camera last just under a season. It was always difficult enough to open, often requiring a key or screwdriver to open the latch. The sliders for the two doors became increasingly stiffer and finally a month ago, when I took the camera out in the water to try to shoot an approaching cloud front, there was no response. I thought the battery must be flat but when I got out the camera was flooded because one of the doors wasn’t tightly closed. The weak point of any waterproof design will be human interface.

I was glad to have the PlaySport a few times this year, not least on the memorial swim for Paráic, cave swimming with Lisa at Tramore, Trent’s and Alan’s Channel swims, and let’s not forget The Day of the Creeps.

Ah, well, I had fun with it while it lasted. But I wouldn’t buy another.

Review: Amphibia Sport X-Bag

I have an overwhelming aversion to so-called Reality TV which extends to any program that could remotely be considered related so I had never seen nor knew about Irish Sport’s Company Amphibia Sport and its founder Adrian McCreevy appearing on (and winning, I think or is that the relevant term?) Dragon’s Den for new businesses, until a conversation with Guillamenes local Tadgh Cronin, whom I’d met in the depths of Waterford’s coastal winter. Adrian had designed a sport/gear bag specifically for the exploding triathlete market and Tadgh introduced me to it.

Long, short, I got an Amphibia X-Bag, their top-of-the-range messenger-bag style product. Designed primarily for triathletes it’s perfect for the travelling swimmer and I got one just the day before I left for New York and MIMS. (Notice, the website is flash-heavy, bit of a pain if you have a flash-blocker installed, like I do, static links are generally best and far easier to link to).

The bag has a couple of cool features, but one of the best is the internal removable dry bag which has a Velcro closing, which is good because zips and salt water don’t mix  (as all my surf-board bags are now proof of, the zips having all clogged and broken). So the reliability (if you’ve read my reviews you know I rate reliability second only to function) is excellent. The dry bag is a heavy vinyl type material, with the opening at the top. Perfect for carrying wetsuits but also for us skin swimmers, your damp swim gear and towels. Any swimmer knows even a mildly damp towel will eventually soak everything in the same bag if it isn’t sealed.

Another feature I love, and important here in Northern Europe in the depths of winter, is a removable neoprene changing mat. I can tell you from painful experience that when the sea is 5° or 6° Celsius, the ground will regularly be 3° or 4° degrees. Ow. Trying to change  standing on that is not a mistake you make repeatedly. I’ve previously used a rubber car mat but this neoprene mat is great for travelling, easy to store in a bag and more comfortable for numb feet.

Apart from those features, the bag is heavy-duty and tough and the outer bag is water-resistant also. I used it as carry-on luggage for New York, it has a side pouch for a sports bottles, and a nice phone/money holder integrated in the strap and a few internal mesh pockets also, just the right size for my Kindle.

I’d posit the bag has another (but very small) market; swim crew. On my last visit to Dover I reverted to my old wheelie suitcase, that I’d used for years of travelling. On the return I had to fly Ryan Air having gone over on Aer Lingus.  And while my luggage was within weight restrictions I still got caught by Ryan Air’s predatory baggage size restrictions. I was one of those people you see in airports, and ended up throwing a towel and pair of sandals into the rubbish. (Approx cost €15/20 versus the €50 Ryan Air would have charged me. Had I taken the Amphibia X-Bay I’d have had no such problems because it would have easily passed Ryan Air’s Luggage Capture & Extortion Device™. Bloody Ryan Air, I hate them. Never again, my X-bag will be the bag of choice from now on.

Would I make any changes? A couple. A second outside mesh pocket would never go astray because … pockets. And because in airports and boarding planes it’s often easier to carry luggage by hand (or maybe it’s just my preference) I’d add a hand strap to the top or the opposite side to the Velcro equipment strap. And I’d guess since the bag is so useful it will very popular with triathletes so Amphibia could add an option to personalize the bags for individuals, something that would be useful for triathlon transition areas, and an option to order custom bags for clubs …

Pricewise, they are not the cheapest, but a lifetime of various sports has taught me that you get what you pay for and any time I’ve bought cheap kit I have always regretted it. I went through a few cheaper swimming and gear bags before I wised-up. And the Irish people reading this will understand this but Amphibia don’t screw us on the Sterling-to-Euro conversion. Too many times as we all know, we see a Sterling price and the Euro price will be heavily marked up (Tesco, M&S etc), a £10 item could well be €20. If you are unfortunate enough to have an endurance athlete in your life and you are looking for an present for them, this is ideal. The bag is also available on Amazon of course. (Purchasing an item from an Amazon link on loneswimmer.com returns a small fraction to the site to help defer running costs).

Amphibia have a very cool, small and highly desirable and useful product for open water swimmers and triathletes coming soon. The Ring, a simple ingenious idea, a silicon ring that fits over any ring you are wearing to stop you worrying about losing it when your hand contracts in cold water and meaning you don’t always have to remember to take your rings off beforehand, just keep it with your goggles. Simple genius.

I really like the look of their Evo bag also, looks like it would be great for a pool kit bag, and perfect replacement for my badly battered and worn Zoggs pool bag. With all the swim toys to carry and endlessly getting wet, pool bags get quite a battering. I’m open to testing it out! Anyone?

All in all, I love the X-Bag, highly recommended for open water swimmers (and those triathletes it’s actually aimed at, I guess).

Second (updated) goggle review

I’ve previously reviewed Aquasphere Kaiman and Kayennes for open water swimming and that I hadn’t previously been successful with using low profile goggs. I had settled into my Aquasphere use over years.

After I wrote that article Paul Ellercamp of oceanswims.com in Australia sent me a pair of his favourite goggles, low-profile competition/racing View Visio aka Fully Sicks. Paul said they lasted him very well (the biggest problem with the Aquaspheres was their shortened lifespan) and that they fit perfectly out of the box with no adjustment. And he was correct. Despite my oddly-shaped noggin and huge nose, they also fit me perfectly immediately. They had excellent visibility and unlike some mirrored goggles, weren’t too dark. I love these goggs. Damn you Paul Ellercamp, for getting me used to great goggles! :-)

Visio View Fully Sick mirrored goggs

I swam in them in pool and open water from November until last month when the heavy usage was starting to take its toll with the mirror finish wearing off. I went looking for a replacement pair but discovered that View only sell in the US or Australia and with rather expensive shipping costs, which would have made replacements almost the cost of the new Speedo Fastskin goggles, i.e. the most expensive goggles on the market, so I had to discard the idea.

The advantage was that I now had a good idea that competition goggles would fit me fine, and were in fact quite good for open water if you were comfortable with them, and that I knew which type to choose.

Thanks to two vouchers for writing an article for an online swim shop and a gift voucher, I selected a few pairs that seems closest.

All these goggles come with adjustable nose bridge pieces. Most were tested over the course of a few weeks, in both pool and sea.

Maru Pro mirrors

I started with a pair of Maru Pro competition googles. Maru are especially popular as suppliers of swimming equipment and basic goggles and caps to pools for kids in Ireland and the UK. They are obviously trying to break into a wider swimming market. They were also the cheapest of the lot.

Unfortunately while the fit was okay, they were far too dark. It was like swimming just before dark. The red plastic confused my peripheral vision, I couldn’t tell if some was passing me in the lane and even my arm was barely visible. The gold trim and straps may appeal to some kids people. I am not one of them.

After staring at all the range available in a Cork sports shop (which shall no longer named), most of which were useless, I picked up a pair of Finis Thunder goggles, black with smoke lenses (almost clear). I would have chosen a pair of Mirrored ones, but the only pair were accidentally on the shelf after being returned for a broke strap.

Finis Thunder, Black with Smoke lenses

I loved these. They were very similar to the Fully Sicks. But the end of the strap snapped  off the second day. That pair that were returned to the sport shop obviously weren’t an aberration.

But they were comfortable with fantastic visibility, so I got a pair of the mirrored Jade ones online using my voucher. It got odd. The mirrored pair of the same goggles just wouldn’t seal. I took them to the pool where they leaked immediately. I did get them to fit over a couple of days by changing the nose piece … twice. So on one pair I use a medium bridge, and on the other an Extra Large.  Though once I had them fitted, the visibility on the mirrored pair was fine, clear and not too dark. When I added a third pair, I needed another different size nose bridge, large. They look great but this is typical of my experience with Finis products. Their design is unparalleled, but they are regularly let down by reliability (SwiMP3 which died, PT paddles which split, & now odd goggles). In this case at least, spare straps aren’t a big deal.

Since the first Thunders had been so good, I ordered one pair of Finis Lightning googles, which were only available in blue when I was purchasing.

Finis Lightning Blue

I think the Lightnings are meant to be slightly above the Thunders (duh). These were fantastic. Similar to the Thunders, the translucent white silicon gasket of the seal was softer. These were super comfortable and perfectly fitting immediately, with the same great visibility of the Thunders.

I still had a pair to test. You’d probably never do this, buying a bunch of goggles at the same time to try them out, without having a gift voucher of some kind. I’ve certainly never done it before, but I found some great advantages from doing it. And it made me wonder, if then I was going through the fifteen or so goggles I tried in 12 months when I was starting, if everything I’d chosen had been just leisure swimming goggles. They’re all long gone so I don’t remember.

Speedo Vanquishers

The last pair was the famous Speedo Vanquishers. Renowned in competitive swimming, I bowed to finally try them (I kind of dislike Speedo’s synonymous-with-swimming branding, so had restricted myself to Speedo Endurance swim briefs, the best chlorine togs, bar none, that I’d tried).

They were worthy of the reputation. These were also great, comfortable, the blue frame and lens were a little dark for the pool but the fit of the nose bridge was better than any of the others, due to that slight concave shape on the bottom.

So out of all, only the Maru Pros failed. The rest were all good or great. I went through this so I could get at least two pairs tested for Manhattan, with which I would be most comfortable.

In the usual pre-swim panic, I’ll probably have brought most to New York. My first choice will be the Finis Lightnings if the day is brighter and possibly the Speedo Vanquishers as the probable choice for a duller day.

Update: I’ve been using each pair of Thunder and Lightning googles now for over a year in open water, the blue Lightning on dull days and the mirrored Thunders on sunny days, and both are excellent recommended with the Lightning placed ahead as the Thunder does occasional separate at the nose-bridge when putting them on (but never in the water).

Lima swimming with The Bull, Rob Bohane, at Sandycove last saturday

Gabriel House, home from home for swimmers visiting Cork

Dover’s best known swimming Bed & Breakfast accommodation is Hubert House, but the B&Bs in Cork are better, (naturally, says a chorus of Corkonians). I know, I’ve stayed in both, and unlike Hubert House, Gabriel House on Summerhill in Cork is owned and run by an English Channel Soloist, Liam Maher, the tallest of The Magnificent Seven, and wife Kaye and it’s home-from-home for many of us when staying in Cork for swim-related events, (specifically parties). Apart from being a Channel swimmer, Liam and myself are the two recipients of the new-ish Sandycove Island Swim Club Hardship Hat Trophy, of which more below.

Liam is rarely noticed around the house, it’s day-to-day operation is by a small staff, but if you see a man who looks like he’s had half of another man stuck on top, that almost’s certainly Liam.

Liam (right) swimming with The Bull, Rob Bohane, at Sandycove last Saturday

The Bed and Breakfast is a noble part of the Irish accommodation vista and none are finer than Gabriel House. With the first annual Sandycove Island pre-season party (because we really needed another reason to have a party) at the weekend, a large group swam at Sandycove in the afternoon, kicking off “the season”, even though we’ve all been swimming through the winter.

Gabriel House

I love staying at Gabriel House. It’s a lovely building high on Summerhill overlooking the city and above the Port of Cork. It has a large garden outside where Liam also keeps a flock of fowl (hens, geese, and turkeys) for the breakfast eggs, and grows fruit and vegetables as well as having a patio for guests to sit out.

Garden patio

You know the way everyone has some places that they only associate with sunshine and good weather (even in wet and windy Ireland)? Both Sandycove and Gabriel House are like this for me. I know I’ve been at both places when it was wet and cold, but I only ever remember both with the sun shining and a blue sky. One of the things about Gabriel House, is when I’m there, there’s often other swimmers staying there, because hey, it’s where we stay in Cork. At this stage it falls into that tiny category of places, where as soon as I arrive I feel like I am home. I’ve made breakfast for myself here in the kitchen at 5.30 am before a big swim, eaten last in the kitchen after a long a swim, slept almost half a day, and once partied all night when Liam shut the place down to the public, to celebrate the Channel swims of The Magnificent Seven of 2010.

Newly re-decorated reception

The house is big, bright and spotlessly comfortable.

Bright and homely

And then, there’s the Gabriel House breakfast. Anyone who’s travelled through B&Bs in Ireland know the breakfast is important and also knows it doesn’t always meet the requirements of Irish people. The breakfast in Gabriel House is the best. Ever. Their Full Irish is a thing of beauty, glorious to behold with free range eggs from outside, and the best of sausages, rashers, and even more rare, black and white pudding, instead of the cheap supermarket version many B&Bs serve up.  We Irish people love our full Irish, (even though it scares many others, all that protein).

The full Irish - a thing of beauty

But if you are too scared for the glory of the full Irish, Gabriel House’s most popular item is porridge. Yes, humble porridge, but elevated to gourmet quality, the Gabriel House speciality is the Porridge cooked with Bailey’s Irish Cream. It should be on Masterchef. It should have its own Sunday Supplement article.

Dining room, overlooking the garden and city

Gabriel House is, according my extensive research, 4 minutes walk from MacCurtain Street and the Shelbourne bar, scene of many a swimming piss-up, down in the city, but is above any noise or traffic (Cork is a city of hills, pubs and churches). It’s 35 minutes drive from Sandycove for anyone who prefers to be city based than out in Kinsale.

Mmmmm...fresh eggs for breakfast

Is this article an ad? No, because Liam or Kaye didn’t know I was going to do it and have had no input into it, I sneakily took the photos and I wrote it because I love Gabriel House like a Cork home, like Varne Ridge is my Dover home.

If I could change only one thing about Gabriel House? I’d put a large chart of Liam’s English Channel swim map in the hall!

Next time you are visiting Cork, make Gabriel House your home from home.

The Sandycove Hardship Hat Trophy, to date, the only two recipients are Yours Truly and Liam.

The Hardship Hat Trophy, awarded to swimmers who suffered undue hardship during a swim, awarded by the three Sandycove swimmers who've ended up in hospital after a swim (Ned, Lisa & Rob), me for my EC solo and Liam for last year's Sandycove Island challenge.

Review: A book about swimming that is not about swimming

I’ve covered a few of swimming books a long time ago, two of the big books of our sport Kathy Watson’s The Crossing and Peggy Lee Dean’s Open Water Swimming and Bill Sweetenham’s Championship Swim TrainingA few of the guys are excellent at covering open water swimming books, particularly Mark Robson‘s links of the classics of our sport and Evan recently had a great review of Wind, Waves and Sunburn.

I’ve recently read and really enjoyed Haruki Murakami’s short What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I’ve long had an interest in books about adventure and endurance and have found wisdom about swimming in many books in other areas.

Murakami is Japan’s most famous and successful novelist and he’s been a marathon runner all his life. Anyone who has spent thirty years at endurance running is sure to have words of wisdom and being an author, just as important, they will be able to articulate something so many of us struggle with.

It struck me immediately that in much of the book you could replace the word running with swimming and it perfectly would describe long distance swimming.

Since I have an e-book version, it was easy to verify and display this hypothesis. I just converted the file type and replaced the words run, runner and running with swim, swimmer and swimming.

One swimmer told of a mantra his older brother, also a swimmer, had taught him which he’s pondered ever since he began swimming. Here it is: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re swimming and you start to think, Man this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the swimmer himself. This pretty much sums up the most important aspect of marathon swimming.

The author also has done some triathlons, so he actually talks about swimming a bit, but from the triathlon point of view, which may be of use to triathletes and beginning open water racers, (he talks about the full contact nature of open water racing), but there is an irony that when he is speaking about swimming it is of less interest to me.

Murakami prefers marathons and the book is partly his writing life and how he finds running essential to maintain his energy levels for what he considers both a physically and mentally tough job, that of writing but it is also partly about training for a specific race, the New York Marathon. Of particular interest to me was his description, written just days after finishing of running a 64 mile Ultramarathon in Japan. I wrote my own English Channel description up pretty quickly, something now everyone does, and Finbarr recently mentioned in his guest article, the details fade. Writing my own account down was one of the most personally valuable things I’ve ever done, (and no it still hasn’t appeared on anywhere publicly) and have given me access to my feelings and memories, in the way that writing down a dream immediately after you wake gives you entry back into your dream state.

I found a great convergence between Murakami’s description of his ultramarathon and my own English Channel. Once again I’ve changed runner to swimmer and changed the distance to the  distance of my Channel swim.

Either way, when I look back on that [swim] now I can see that it had a lot of meaning for me as a [swimmer]. I don’t know what sort of general significance swimming [forty] miles by yourself has, but as an action that deviates from the ordinary yet doesn’t violate basic values, you’d expect it to afford you a special sort of self-awareness. It should add a few new elements to your inventory in understanding who you are. And as a result, your view of your life, its colors and shape, should be transformed. More or less, for better or for worse, this happened to me, and I was transformed.

I’ve used that word transformed myself previously, though I’ve used other words like redeemed also. The value of this book for any endurance athlete should be obvious. It’s short, concisely written and in a very clear and almost deceptively simple voice. I highly recommend it to distance swimmers because as we know the mechanics are less important than the mind. Knowledge of or interest in running is utterly unnecessary.

Review: Biofreeze Gel

Hurley and sliotar

I’ve mentioned before that regular icing is a great way to address the knots and aches that build up in a swimmer’s body when they are doing regular hard training. For myself these start to occur once I start to regularly go to 25,000 metres a week and over.

I’ve also mentioned the tennis ball and tights method, which I occasionally find invaluable for working on inaccessible knots in my back. Someone me told a lacrosse ball works even better, but lacrosse isn’t played Ireland and an Irish hurling ball (sliotar) with its raised ridges is hardly useful. :-)

As swimmers also know the third and most essential step of massage is essential for ongoing maintenance of muscles and to avoid injury. When I started regular massages some years back, my masseuse, Vinny Power, occasionally applied Biofreeze gel at the end of a massage, usually where a particular difficulty arose in my deltoids or neck and I was still sore.

In Ireland you grew up with Deep Heat wintergreen lotion, applied for every ache and the lingering and overpowering smell of it was a giveaway for field athletes and seemingly beloved of older folks.

But we now know that cold is far better for muscular aches by reducing inflammation and may help reduce lactic acid.

Biofreeze is a mix of volatiles that when applied evaporate quickly and the area gets cold.

It works very well for aching arms after a long swim.

It need to be used with a small amount of care. If used for more than about five or six days continuously you might develop a rash, but the products warns against continued use. It is also useful if you don’t want to be applying direct ice late at night in mid-winter! I find the cold sensation lasts for about twenty minutes from a small amount.

I’ve also found that if applied directly after a pool swim, the residual chlorine on the skin, even after a shower, makes the cold sensation even more intense and possibly very unpleasant for some people. Eddie Irwin, Sandycove swimmer and English Channel and Manhattan soloist, and also a pharmacist, said it shouldn’t be used DURING a swim, because it will cause the muscles to tighten too much.

It’s not cheap in Ireland if you buy from a Pharmacy or Supermarket, where it is an off-the-shelf product and the containers are very small.

However I have found the larger 16oz pump container, about half a litre, for better value in eBay, and the last time I ran out, I bought directly from Vinny since he gets it at trade prices so I recommend pursuing this idea with your physio/masseuse. A 16 oz container will probably last years.

 

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Magic Cups

Review: The “god bottle” & other bottles

Rob Dumouchel does a great series of high-tech reviews for open water swimming, so, never being too proud to steal an idea, I’m concentrating on the low tech stuff, like lights, goggles, ear-plugs and more to come.

I read a question online: “I need a water bottle. Not just any water bottle – the King of Bottles“.

The King of Bottles? I’ll show you a bottle. This bottle. The god of bottles. The god-bottle!

The god bottle

Let me tell about that bottle:

It survived an English Channel solo when its mate was lost (the whole getting run over by the boat extended episode thing).

It has been used for two years training that included a 24 hour pool swim, all my pool training and numerous open water swims and has outlasted and outperformed all other bottles.

This summer, it was my only assistance on my longest ever unsupported  swim, of 3 hours and 5 minutes, in Force 3 onshore, when I towed it behind me on that string and a d-clip, on a completely new never-swum-before 10k. Just me, the Atlantic and the bottle. That bottle was a literal lifeline.

It’s an OTG (On-The-Go) 750ml Nalgene (but of the newer safe unleeching variety of Nalgene) that Ned Denison found in the States originally now available in the UK from Amazon. It has a wide screw off top so you can add anything in easily, including messy Maxim/maltodextrin. It has a wide flip-top. This means no sucking the liquid and adding air into your stomach, really important for endurance sports, especially distance swimming, for some people anyway, of whom I’m one. The top is secure in very rough water. Because it’s wide it’s easy to clean. It seems virtually unbreakable, it’s certainly taken a lot of knocks and emerged unscathed. Unlike the similar Camelbak bottle, it has no straw reaching the end. This makes it better, as the Camelbak therefore requires that the bottom of the bottle must always be below your mouth, not possible in open water. It’s bright yellow, which is the best contrast colour against a dark background. The tape and label on it were to mark that I owned it during a long pool swim with a few swimmers, and it was numbered in case I was using different feed mixes during a swim.

(Test and think about everything, even the colour of the bottle if possible).

That bottle, my friends, has been through more than many people. It’s been tested. Against all other bottles, it has come out on top. It was, in fact: The god of bottles.

Unfortunately less than a week after I took the photo and wrote the first draft of this article, the god-bottle was lost! Appropriately though, it was lost at sea, joining its mate, as I swam warily between all the reefs on the way from Ballydowane to Bunmahon on a dropping tide, dragging it behind me,at some point it must have snagged on seaweed or rock and the bottle came loose from the head.

Since the loss of the god-bottle, and since they are only available online (for Ireland anyway), and not cheap, I recently picked up a pair of Rubbermaid flip-top Chug bottles. 650 ml, plastic body rather than Nalgene, but a secure flip top. And much cheaper, (only £6) compared to almost $20 per bottle inc. shipping for the Nalgene.

You can of course just use a cheap squeezy sports bottle if you don’t have a problem with swallowing air over a long period.

Also a very cheap substitute, that works very well for feed bottles of a boat for long swims are simple plastic milk cartons, again with a wide neck, and easy to attach a string.

Available on AmazonUK.

Chemical lightsticks

Review: Adventure Lights; Lazer Stik and Guardian

The first time I ever swam at night was a Sandycove night swim in 2008, organised by SISC member John Conroy. Everyone had to have their own chemical lightsticks for safety and identification.

Chemical lightsticks

Chemical lightsticks are plastic tubes with a mix of chemicals inside, available in red/orange, blue, green. You bend or snap the plastic to mix the chemicals and activate the phosphorescence. There are downsides to lights sticks. They are single use only so if you are doing a short night swim for 30 minutes, and though cheap for one use they can become expensive if using many. They are also difficult to dispose of safely. From our point of view the illumination is not great, it’s really just a dull glow.

For the Channel relay in 2008, I picked up a then-new Adventure Lights Lazer-Stik in Varne Ridge in Dover, and three years and once successful solo, one failed solo and a few other shorter night swims, it’s only had the batteries changed once and is still going strong.

Prior to the Solo, I bought one of Adventure Lights Guardian lights, which fits perfectly and easily onto google straps. It’s brighter than the Lazer Stik and very versatile, as you can see from the image, you can easily slide it onto goggle straps with the clip, or thread it onto the goggles, or attach it to an ankle or wrist strap or togs. I bought each in green as I decided this is the colour least-likely to be replicated by any other light source.

Both of these lights can be seen from a kilometre away, and while you would not plan to be that far away from your pilot during a Channel swim, there is a comfort in that and it’s very useful on a night-swim without a boat.

Each Adventure Light type has two modes, flashing and steady, selectable by flipping around the battery polarity. With the advent of “white” LEDs the range has increased to clear lights and the colours have increased. But a warning, I luckily bought green lights in both.

Each is easily switched on and off by just twisting the light.

Some Channel pilots do NOT like you to use blue, red or clear lights as they could be confused with other lights. If you are buying them for serious swimming, get green. Also rather than buying two Guardians, I recommend one of each, as the longer Lazer-Stik is quite distinctive when attached to the back of togs.

There is something about owning such a specialist piece of equipment for such a specific role. Speaking for myself, just buying something like this made me feel like I was a serious marathon swimmer, (if all the sea metres hadn’t made that obvious). How many swimmers need to buys lights for night-swimming?

And you can always wearing them while dancing at your annual swimming party.

First open water goggles swimming review

Some things are so important, yet so mundane.

Wherever you gather a few swimmers together, you can be certain the subject of goggles will arise. And pool swimmers and open water swimmers often differ quite widely.

In pool swimming people often go for smaller goggles, either Swedish or goggles based on the Swedish design. For those who don’t know, Swedish goggles are the cheapest goggles you can find. They are made by a Swedish company called Malmsten and often sold under other labels such as Speedo, as Swedish Style Goggles. Indeed the Speedo double-pack from Amazon are good value since they come in a two-pack of mirrored and clear.

Various types of Swedish style goggles.
Image via Wikipedia

They have no frills, just plain plastic with string as a nose guard, no rubber gasket or seal, usually no anti-fog. Some people literally can’t wear them. They can take days to get the fit right, with people going so far as to file down edges to get the fit correct. They are light and low profile. For those who can wear Swedish goggles, they swear there is nothing better and they never come off and are the most personalised goggles possible.

However … as said above, some people can’t wear them or get them to fit correctly. They are not really designed to wear for extended periods of time like a marathon swim. And the lack of anti-fog is a problem. The growth in triathlons worldwide meant that pretty quickly there was growing demand for goggles for open water. Goggles that would stand up to rough water, be anti-fog, be easy to fit and comfortable for long periods of time and yet still be 100% watertight. Ease of adjustment is often a consideration.

In my first year I went through <a lot> of goggles trying to find the right ones. I actually gave them all away last year to my local pool to use for school kids who came in having forgot their goggles. There were twelve pairs if I recall, all practically unused. (The first thing that happened was two of the staff took some for themselves and their kids, but the local pool is a different and longer and more depressing story!)

And then I finally found Aqua Sphere Kaimans. (Mainly because some of the other guys started using them).

Three pairs of Kaiman Goggles

These were designed specifically for open water. They have good visibility, anti-fog, secure no leak, and most importantly, I can wear them for ever with no problems whether swimming the Channel, or doing  a 24 hour pool swim.

I have bought one pair of the mirrored ones, which had no anti-fog on them and were useless. I’ve used clear, dark and amber ones though. They come in different frame colours and different sizes,  Junior, Lady, Regular and Small Face. They are also very easy to either loosen or tighten. I prefer clear frames with amber or blue lenses for open water and clear or amber lenses for the pool. There was one problem with the some of the straps splitting at the back in the same place after six months, but I complained to Aqua Sphere and got a bag of straps in return.

Where Kaiman straps always split

I get about 9 months to a year from a pair of heavy use. I’m good at remembering to rinse after the pool, but not after the sea, so they tend to grow a mold line inside the lenses.

Inside the skanky goggles

The Aquasphere Kaimans have been superceded by the newer Aqua Sphere Kayenne, which are slightly more expensive. The frame is lower profile, the visibility is still excellent. I’ve only used them in the pool so far. The box is better and the living plastic hinge should last longer that the Kaiman box before I have to duct-tape the halves together. I wore them for six hours yesterday and can report they are just as good. I’m struggling to understand, other than styling and box, why they are €4 more expensive.

I know some of the guys like Karen Throsby use Blue Seventy Vision goggles, also designed for open water, and swear by those also, but I haven’t tried them, since Aqua Sphere work so well, I see no point in changing anymore.

EDIT: I’ve since added another goggle review here and I haven’t used Aquasphere myself in a few years, though I still believe they are excellent open water goggles for those who prefer a fuller gasket-type goggle.

Review: Ocean Giants

It is a fact widely acknowledged that the BBC makes the best television nature and science documentaries. David Attenborough’s name has become a global watch phrase for excellence. But it is always the whole BBC team bringing in the best nature writing and filming and locations, in this series using the Planet Earth Polar camera-man, and Jacques Cousteau’s front-line camera-man.

Recently the Beeb has begun using other presenters to fill void the looming void that will be left when Mr. Attenborough retires; Brian Cox, Alice Roberts etc.

In Ocean Giants, the BBC uses Stephen Fry to narrate a three episode series about Cetaceans, the charismatic megafauna of the ocean, to use a favourite environmental phrase.

It is of course stunningly filmed at worldwide locations. Fry is understated and doesn’t try to overwhelm the reason that we are watching. And the subject matter is more than just a images of whales and dolphins, with each episode taking a different theme. The first episode Giant Lives uses extremes as the subject, size, duration, temperature, depth, distance. The second episode, Deep Thinkers, focused on cetacean intelligence and was my favourite of the three, with some fantastic footage of dolphins who had learned and passed on skills appropriate to specific locations. The final episode Voices Of The Sea, is about the sounds of cetaceans and what we’ve learned of them.

It’s another fantastic series from the BBC and one which I really enjoyed.

The life span of an ear plug

Silicone ear plugs. Ear plugs. Made out of silicone.

Little balls of silicone. That you squish into your ear. To block and protect your ears. From cold water.

Got that?

In the box:

On left, two new and unused plugs.

Next two from top second left, plugs used during winter.

Next two, bottom centre and top right, still in use from last year.

Bottom right. One left from last summer.

Middle right. Left over from early last summer. Half the size, because I lost the other on a choppy rough day in Clonea (I still remember it, I actually lost two other plugs the same day. Yes, it was rough).

So I split the remaining one in half while out in the water and replaced in ears. And later lost one again.

Boots Pharmacy. Box of 3 pairs.

Gritty, sandy, dirty, waxy, with occasional dog and cat hairs and maybe insects and all round nasty. Still effective. And cheap.

Spring in the Ocean

Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in the 1960′s, one of the most important and influential books of the 20th century. But ten years previously she wrote another best-seller, The Sea Around Us. Carson was a biologist and in The Sea Around Us she stepped out of her familiar world and into the marine world.
Amongst Carson’s strengths were her ability to convey scientific ideas to a mass audience coupled with a clarity of language and an eloquence about the natural world.
The Sea Around Us hasn’t endured in the same way that Silent Spring has, primarily because some of the science is outmoded. Primarily that of the then accepted models of continental formation.
It’s odd to read The Sea Around Us with our clear understanding of one of the 20th Centuries great scientific ideas missing, that is Alfred Wegener’s Continental Drift or as we now call it, Plate Tectonics.

On that basis I wouldn’t recommend it wholeheartedly unless the reader has a reasonable science background.
However…
…all that was a preamble to the fact that there is some beautiful science writing in there, and not all of it inaccurate. I came across her chapter The Changing Year, about the seasons in the ocean in last year’s Oxford Best Science Writing of the 20th Century, a really great book, and decided to read the original.
That chapter stand as being both accurate and lyrical.
Here’s an extract:

“Spring moves over the temperate lands of our Northern Hemisphere in a tide of new life, of pushing green shoots and unfolding buds, all its mysteries and meanings symbolised in the onward migration of the birds, the awakening of sluggish amphibian life as the chorus of frogs rises again from the wet lands, the different sound of the wind which stirs the young leaves where a month ago it rattled the bare branches. These things we associate with the land, and it is easy to suppose that at sea there could be no such feeling of advancing spring. But the signs are there, and seen with understanding eye, they bring the same magical sense of awakening.

In the sea, as on land, spring is a time for the renewal of life. During the long months of winter in the temperate zones the surface waters have been absorbing the cold. Now the heavy water begins to sink, slipping down and displacing the warmer layers below. Rich stores of minerals have been accumulating on the floor of the continental shelf – some freighted down the rivers from the lands; some derived from sea creatures that have died and whose remains have drifted down to the bottom; some from the shells that once encased a diatom, the streaming protoplasm of a radiolarian, or the transparent tissues of a pteropod. Nothing is wasted in the sea; every particle of material is used over and over again, first by one creature, then by another. And when in spring the waters are deeply stirred, the warm bottom water brings to the surface a rich supply of minerals, ready for use by new forms of life.

Just as land plants depend on minerals in the soil for their growth, every marine plant, even the smallest, is dependent upon the nutrient salts or minerals in the sea water. Diatoms must have silica, the element of which their fragile shells are fashioned. For these and all other microplants, phosphorus is an indispensable mineral. Same of these elements are in short supply and in winter may be reduced below the minimum necessary for growth. The diatom population must tide itself over this season as best it can. It faces a stark problem of survival, with no opportunity to increase, a problem of keeping alive the spark of life by forming tough protective spores against the stringency of winter, a matter of existing in a dormant state in which no demands shall be made on an environment that already withholds all but the most meagre necessities of life. So the diatoms hold their place in the winter sea, like seeds of wheat in a field under snow and ice, the seeds from which the spring grow will come.

These, then, are the elements of the vernal blooming of the sea: the seeds of the dormant plants, the fertilizing chemicals, the warmth of the spring sun.

In a sudden awakening, incredible in its swiftness, the simplest plants of the sea begin to multiply. Their increase is of astronomical proportions. The spring sea belongs at first to the diatoms and to all the other microscopic plant life of the plankton. In the fierce intensity of their growth they cover vast areas of Ocean with a living blanket of their cells. Mile after mile of water may appear red or brown or green, the whole surface taking on the color of the infinitesimal grains of pigment contained in each of the plant cells.

The plants have undisputed sway in the sea for only a short time. Almost at once their own burst of multiplication is matched by a similar increase in the small animals of the plankton. It is the spawning time of the copepod and the glassworm, the pelagic shrimp and the winged snail. Hungry swarms of these little beasts of the plankton roam through the waters, feeding on the abundant plants and themselves falling prey to larger creatures. Now in the spring the surface waters become a vast nursery. From the hills and valleys of the continent’s edge lying far below, and from the scattered shoals and banks, the eggs or young of many of the bottom animals rise to the surface of the sea. Even those which, in their maturity, will sink do to a sedentary life on the bottom, spend the first weeks of life as freely swimming hunters of the plankton. So as spring progresses new batches of larvae rise into the surface each day, the young of fishes and crabs and mussels and tube worms, mingling for a time with the regular members of the plankton

Under the steady and voracious grazing, the grasslands of the surface are soon depleted. The diatoms become more and more scarce, and with them the other simple plants. Still there are brief explosions of one or another form, when in a sudden orgy of cell division it comes to claim whole areas of the sea for its own. So, for a time each spring, the waters may become blotched with brown, jellylike masses, and the fishermen’s nets come up dripping a brown slime and containing no fish, for the herring have turned away from these waters as though in loathing of the viscid, foul-smelling algae. But in less time than passes between the full moon and the new, the spring flowering of Phaeocystis is past and the waters have cleared again.”

Review: The Crossing by Kathy Watson

The story of Capt. Matthew Webb is the starting point for modern Open Water swimming.

While there are other famous open water swims from before this time, Byron & Hellespont being the most famous, the dream of swimming the English channel was alive and well in the late 19th century, with other attempts before Webb’s first successful swim.

Watson’s book is a brief affair and an easy read, focusing on Webb’s biography as well as the successful Channel Swim itself, following an unsuccessful initial attempt.

Webb’s life was not a happy event. He was successful in his Merchant Navy career and a decorated hero for a mid-Atlantic life-saving attempt. After the Channel swim made him famous though he spent the remainder of his life chasing further fame, to lesser and greater degrees of success, but never to the same level as his Channel swim had achieved.
He drowned attempting to swim the rapids below Niagara Falls. It’s a depressing enough life but the book is enlivened by such items as the story of Paul Boyton , the “Fearless Frogman”, & Webb’s main rival, (and funnily enough to us), not a swimmer and wearing a an inflated rubber suit, who papers reported appeared before 100,000 people in Ireland.

This isn’t the definitive book on Channel swimming, which hasn’t yet been written, but it of interest to swimmers nonetheless. My main problem with it was the workman prose, which never matched the flow of its subject.

Championship Swim Training.

by Bill Sweetenham & John Atkinson.

Sweetenham is the coach behind the Australian swimming success and the recent edition of this book has a foreword by Ian Thorpe. I bought an older edition but it’s a very good competitive swimming book.

The book is in 2 parts, I Techniques & Drills, and II Workouts & Programs.
It’s aimed at competitive swimmers and coaches.
Obviously this isn’t about Open water but I bought it because of the Drills and workouts originally.
The Drills are drawn, and as such, often easier to understand than photos, whereas dryland training is covered by photos.
I haven’t used the contents for a few years, since I met Eilish, but I picked up a few drills both for myself and that I use when helping the occasional swimmer who asks for help improving.
It has some good stuff on benchmarking, set and training planning and specific training programs and dryland conditioning.
I would say of the swimming technique books I looked at, this was one of the best for competitive pool swimmers and a better place to start than the standard reference work by Ernest Maglischo, which I will cover in the future.