One of my extravagancies in life is being a member of what I consider to be a ridiculously expensive gym — David Lloyd in Newhaven. I joined this gym when we moved to Edinburgh and I was training intensely for triathlon. I used to be in there four or five times a week, and as someone trying to fit a lot of training into not much time, I figured the premium price tag was worth it for always being able to get the piece of kit I wanted, even at rush hour. Two pools, whirlpool, sauna, the latest exercise machines and plenty of them, light, pleasant, airy… When I was first choosing a gym and went along to take look, compared to the gyms I’d used in the past it was a little breath of luxury. For which, admittedly, I would be paying for the nose. At the time I justified it because this is what I do. I don’t go to the pub, I don’t go out clubbing. The important things in my life* are my friends and my sport, and I deserve a little luxury.
What has kept me coming back, however, is the fact that (a) it has a 25m pool, unlike any other private gym in Edinburgh; and (b) they couldn’t give a rat’s ass what toys I take into the pool with me. Local council run facilities tend to get a bit uppity if you try taking paddles and fins into public swimming sessions, for health and safety reasons, figuring that you might hit someone in the face with the sharp edge of a paddle or kick them in the teeth with a training fin.
With a view to saving money while still being able to train with toys I did once go along to a local triathlon club (who shall remain nameless) swimming session, but it was a quagmire of thrashing and stop-start waiting for the people ahead to get a move on, while not feeling confident an unknown swimmer would be welcome in the faster lanes. As well as that I felt like no one wanted to do more than exchange minimal words with me because I hadn’t proved I could swim a sub-12 minute 750m in race conditions.†
Besides, I didn’t like being pinned down to training sessions that didn’t suit my timetable.
So. David Lloyd at Newhaven it has been for several years. Last year, as you know, was a washout because of injury, so I was paying their extortionate fees for 8 months without being able to make use of their facilities — a fact that grated, as you can imagine.
Recently I decided that I was fit enough to at least get back in the pool‡ and retrieved all my training aids from their storage crate.
I have a silly number of toys. I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to sports kit, if you hadn’t noticed. For me a trip to the pool requires a bag so large that the folks on reception grin and open up the disabled access door for me half the time rather than have to rescue me from the turnstile when my bag gets stuck halfway through. I have fins, power paddles and Finis PT Paddles, as well as the usual suspects of kickboard and pullbuoy. I don’t currently have a swimmer’s snorkel, but trust me, it’s on the list.
When I get in the pool I leave all my kit laid out neatly where I can get at it easily for the various sets. The advantage of this is that I only get other serious swimmers sharing my lane. People who might otherwise have chanced it for 10 lengths of breast-stroke will use the other lane instead. Serious swimmers, on the other hand, have no problem sharing. You can always tell someone who competes, by the way: she will have excellent lane discipline.
All of which preamble brings me to my last training session. When I turned up there was no one in the lane but there were a pair of fins, a water bottle, paddles and a kickboard already at the end of the lane. Excellent, I thought. With two of us thrashing around in fins and paddles we should discourage anyone else.
I had just completed my 400m warm-up when the other swimmer appeared. He didn’t say anything, but took to the water, and for 600m we shared the lane in silence, passing each other at progressively different points in the lane that told me I was faster than him. As this was only my third pool session after a 9 month absence, and he was a swimmer serious enough to be bringing training aids, this gave me a warm, tingly feeling.
We had a coincidental break, in which we had a brief chat. He wasn’t training for anything in particular, he told me, he just liked to swim. Usually he swam for an hour every morning at 06:30, but he had the week off work and so he was trying an afternoon session. He donned fins and paddles. I donned paddles and pullbuoy and indicated he should go ahead. “You’ll be faster than me,” I told him.
“I should think so,” he replied. “I hope to be going quite quick now.”
I gave him a third of a length and then set off after him.
I was easing off to match his pace by the end of 50m, which was no bad thing. I enjoyed 200m at that lazy pace then removed all the training aids. He was still going, and after giving him a head start of a half length I set off after him again
And kept up. Easily. For the next 200m.
There is the wake effect, which means that swimming directly behind another swimmer is easier and requires less effort, but still. I shouldn’t have been able to keep up with someone using paddles and fins. So I stopped and watched him.
Every entry he was making with the hand on the opposite side of the shoulder to which it was attached; and he was hitting the water with the heel of his hand first, as if he were holding it up to say “STOP!” at the water, which, in a way, he was. He was slower with paddles, because he had more braking surface.
If he had been in training for anything I might have said something, but he wasn’t so I didn’t. He was swimming for the pleasure of it and didn’t need some uppity triathlete saying “LOL, U R DOIN IT RONG.”
On the run and the bike technique doesn’t become a significant factor until you are trying to save energy over the longer distances. In the swim, though, you have got to get that technique sorted. Correct technique is the difference between a fit swimmer who can’t get below 15 minutes for the 750m and someone who is blistering through the water at a pace that would make a Dall’s porpoise take notice.
I did offer him the use of my PT paddles, while we were chatting. He declined. It’s probably for the best. I suspect he’d have sunk like a stone.
My technique, incidentally, I owe partly to Zoe, who used to be one of the personal instructors at David Lloyd. If you fancy some personal tuition, Katerina is lovely.
* Other than, you know, obvious survival things like breathing, eating, sleeping and writing.
† I mean, my social skills are not the greatest, but I know the difference between politely friendly and welcoming.
‡ Another couple of weeks and I’m hoping to get back to weight training, but I’ve taken this year off triathlon completely in a deliberate effort to stop myself pushing too hard too fast to meet some arbitrary deadline. I know, I know. Who am I and what have I done with Sam?
I have argued on numerous occasions that I am not a geek. Except, let’s be honest, it’s a lie. OK, so I don’t go into orgasmic quivers over the latest mobile phone OS, and the iPad release left me utterly cold. The thought of playing Arkham Asylum in 3D doesn’t give me goosebumps and I can turn off The Gadget Show as easily as I can turn off Iron Chef.
And yet, at the same time, I spent about half an hour obsessively comparing saddle-mounted hydration systems only last week and I have a shelf full of books that go into painfully anal detail about everything from wheel building to running technique.
I confess. It’s way past time. I’m a sports geek.
Not a nerd, not the sort of person who can recite which teams won what in which league in which year from the relative safety and comfort of an anorak: the sort of geek who makes it her business to know the latest thought on technique and performance and kit and gets excited about training aids that other people can’t even identify at first glance.
(I also like computer games, and I don’t mean Nintendogs. I mean The Darkness, Wolverine, Bioshock… you know. All those girlie games.)
So it will come as little surprise to those of you who understand the performance sports geek mentality to hear that I like my swim training aids. Of course I have the everyone-has-those pullbuoy and kickboard, but I also have other things, things that most people wouldn’t recognise. I own a pair of fist gloves. How geeky is that?
The latest toy to take my fancy was a set of the Finis PT paddles. PT stands for “Perfect Technique” and the aim is rather similar to the fist gloves: they are designed to force the swimmer to learn to use his entire body rather than just his hand for propulsion:
PT Paddles are shaped to deflect water around your hand, effectively removing the hands from the swimming equation. By removing the hand as a paddle, swimmers have to find other methods of generating propulsion.
Because your hand can no longer ‘grip’ the water, your body will need to adjust your stroke. The elbow is positioned higher, the hips roll a little further, and the forearm is activated earlier, allowing you to catch and pull yourself through the water.
Wearing the PT Paddles overtime increases your body awareness and muscle memory. Then when you swim normally without the paddles, you will feel stronger and faster in the water.
I thought I’d take to them like a duck to water (ahem), being a veteran user of the fistgloves. What I wasn’t expecting was for them to be buoyant, nor the effect of the additional weight. While fistgloves are not too dissimilar from simply making a fist when swimming, and make your hand slip through the water with alarming lack of resistance, the PT paddles somehow manage to keep the feel of arm speed through the stroke the same while still removing the hand from the propulsive effort. They are also an additional weight to carry through the recovery part of the stroke.
I didn’t find them as tiring as the fistgloves, which makes me think that I’m floundering less in the water and making better forward progress, despite the feeling that I’m not. That in turn tells me that the PT paddles are more about feel and I think that might work for swimmers who can’t cope with the loss of propulsion that comes from fistgloves. They might, indeed, be a worthy intermediate step for someone training on his own, without the benefit of coaching, who wants to try some of these more advanced techniques without resorting to fins.
In terms of construction they are fairly soft, so you might get away with them at the local pool, especially as they seem to be contained within the area of the hand. Adjusting the straps is a bit fiddly, even more so than normal swimming paddles, and it took quite some time to get them to the point where I felt they were workable. Comfortable is still some way off. They are certainly more robust than fistgloves (I’m on my third pair). Of course they are also good for anyone who has a latex allergy.
For what you get they are expensive, and I’m not sure they are worth the price. On the other hand, fistgloves are almost a tenner and are as fragile as a fragile thing called Little Miss Fragile from Fragiledonia, so if you’re as tough on gear as I am and want to try teaching yourself to use more than your hands for propulsion, give them a go. Or take a couple of squash balls into the pool with you — just don’t let go.
I’m entered in the Galway triathlon on the 25th and have been worrying about the lack of open water time I’ve managed to put in this year. After a couple of stressful days in court (as a witness, I hasten to add), I emerged today and realised there was no wind. It was utterly still.
I’d had the presence of mind to pack some training gear and so I had my wetsuit with me. I stopped off at Lower Largo on the way home to Edinburgh, just by Largo Bay Sailing Club (I used to be a member, when I was a whole lot younger), to go swimming.
Whenever you say to someone that you’re going swimming in the sea, unless he too is into open water swimming, the reaction seems to be one of absolute bafflement. Today was one of those days when I wish I could have dragged the naysayers along to see what makes it so special — only that would have meant sharing, and some things are just too good to share.
Visibility was in the tens of metres. The surface, after some initial chop left over from today’s electrical storms subsided, was glossy. The mirror finish was broken by a brief spell of rain, the sound of it hissing into the sea around me only making the experience more magical. The red lenses of my goggles brought a hazy purple, mystical quality to everything; and there were bright clouds of silver fish that drifted away in lazy formation at my approach, as well as crabs waving their armoured pincers like angry robots on the delicately rippled sand far below.
I love the sea. I’ve always loved the sea. They say it’s in your blood, and if that’s true then my blood runneth with seaweed and plankton. I would have stayed there until dark and beyond if it were not for my mum waiting for the safety call at 18:30 and the knowledge I had to make it across the bridge before the roadworks started. Swimming in the sea is a bit like riding a bike on busy roads: those who don’t do it think you’re mad if you do. Those who know how great it can be nod, smile and have that twinkle in their eyes that is the outward manifestation of happy memories.
You should try it some time. It’s one of the best stress remedies there is.