November 17th, 2016

Sunscreen: What you need to know

picture-sunscreenSummer is here and  we need to protect our skin from excess UV Radiation.  Short exposure (5 – 10 minutes)  has therapeutic effects as it improves the production of Vitamin D and this increases calcium absorption however longer exposures can cause severe damage to skin including sunburn, skin cancers including the potentially deadly melanoma (Holick 2004).

Athletes spend many hours in the sun not just 10 minutes!  One study of 290 high school students in 13 different sports found a mean outdoor training duration of 4 hours a day 10 months of the year, approximately 1,000 hours of sun exposure annually (Wysong 2012).  Sweating also increases the sensitivity of the skin to UV radiation thereby increasing the sunburn risk.

The environment athletes train in also contributes to the exposure risk.  UVB radiation increases 5 – 10% per 300 meters above sea; reflected UV radiation of snow can be as high as 60% compared to 10% off sand or 2 -3 % of grass (Chadysiene 2008).  Water also reflects a significant portion of UV radiation and both UVA and UVB rays penetrate water to reach athletes.

The best defence to UV radiation after clothing is sunscreen.  Recent studies have shown that the organic and inorganic UV filters as well as other components of sunscreen reach the marine environment directly via water activities and indirectly from waste treatment plants.  The toxicity of the UV fillers has been demonstrated in aquatic organisms. UV Fillers inhibit growth in plankton and bioaccumulate in the food chain (Sanchez-Quiles 2015)

Not all sunscreens are equal and fortunately there are brands that will safely protection your from UV radiation that do not contain the substances that are known to harm the marine environment


Sunscreens are products containing filters that help prevent the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation from damaging the skin. UV Filters can be organic or inorganic and many sunscreens will contain a combination of both.  There are 50 organic compounds allowed as UV filters.  The inorganic compounds are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide generally in the form of nanoparticles as they give an effective protection without whitening the skin.


Sun Screen impact on the Environment

On the skin organic UV filters should be photostable under sunlight, however in water these can undergo change and form undesirable by-products that  compromise their UV absorption properties (Santos et al, 2012).  Sunscreens are also a source of toxic chemicals into the environment, UV filters and other components such as UV stablizers have been found in the tissue of marine organisms. Sunscreens induce corals bleaching by promoting the lytic viral cycle, killing microalgae . (Danovara et al., 2008)

Nanoparticles are generally covered with an inert coating to avoid it breaking down in sunlight however this layer dissolves in aquatic environments (Boota et al 2011). More than 200 studies provide evidence of the toxicity of nanoparticles in aquatic organisms. (Sanchez-Quiles 2015)

The most common UVA filter is Oxybenzone and is in over 70% of sunscreens, Oxybenzone is a very fine substance that penetrates the skin, gets into the bloodstream and acts like estragon in the body.  It can trigger allergic reactions has been rated as a moderately high health hazard by the Environmental Working Group . Oxybenzone is also the most commonly detected UV filter in marine water samples and considered is a marine hazard. Oxybenzone leaches the coral of it’s nutrients and bleaches it white.  It can also disrupt the development of fish and other wild life. (

UV Filters can reach the marine environment in seawater, rivers and lakes directly through water activities or from waste treatment plants. (WTP) Showering, laundering, swimming in chlorinated swimming pools or even urinating are sources of sunscreen components discharged to the WTP where they are not completely removed (li et al., 2007.

What to look for in a sunscreen

Take the time to read the ingredients  and avoid sunscreen that contain oxybenzone, nano particales and parabens.

Buy a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 30 or SPF 50. The new Australian/New Zealand standard limits SPF claims to 50 in line with other international standards. Above SPF 50+ the additional protection is very small. High SPF values are a problem as people use them to stay out longer in the sun during which time they receive large doses of  radiation.

Look for a sunscreen that is highly water resistant and  for verified product reviews as not all water resistant sunscreens are equal. Sunscreen’s receive the water resistant rating with exposure to water with moderate exercise only.  The water resistant time stated on products is also unreliable as sunscreens made in Europe or the USA can only claim 80min water resistant even if it provides 4+ hours of protection.

Try to find a sunscreen that is also  biodegradable as this is more likely to be reef friendly.  There are no specific test to determine if a sunscreen is reef friendly but sunscreens that promote they are biodegradable must have certification of this from approved laboratories.

Also avoid sunscreens that contain Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate)  as scientists have found that vitamin A can spur excess skin growth, known as hyperplasia and that in sunlight retinyl palmitate can form free radicals that damage DNA (NTP 2000).

Avoid sunscreens that contain insect repellents as they have has been shown to reduce the effectiveness of the UV fillers.

Finally Select  lotions rather than sprays as it is easier to get an even coverage and they are generally  kinder on the environment.

Further research is needed into the impact of sunscreens on the marine environment but we do know  they are having an impact so select your sunscreen brand carefully.

Remember where possible cover up, if you can’t avoid the midday sun put on  a sun hat and sunglasses, wear a wetsuit or a long sleeved rash vest when swimming, apply your well considered sunscreen purchase generously 20 minutes prior to UV exposure, use lipbalm and check your skin regularly and have anything unusual seen immediately. 

Author:  Katherine Greer, Managing Director of Hydro Surf.   “When I started surfing 30+ years ago, there were no water resistant sunscreens on the NZ market.  I sourced Aloe Up, a sports sunscreen made specifically for active people, to protect myself and my children  while surfing.   Hydro Surf now distributes Aloe Up in New Zealand.  Aloe Up SPF 30 and SPF 50 lotions  have the biodegradable certification and are reef friendly”.   For more information go to



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October 25th, 2016

A Panorama of Blue

20161014_103517This is so much more than I ever could have imagined.  The Cook Islands.  Rarotonga, quite magical.  The sea the most blue of blues offset by shades of turquoise and the verdant mountains beyond.  Wow, warm water.  Mesmerizing life under the sea the likes of which I had never seen.  And then on to Aitutaki where the panorama of blue above and below the water line defied definition despite our best efforts.  I was blown away.  We lacked the necessary adjectives.  ‘It’s ridiculous’ was voiced frequently together with ‘insane’.  In the end we were reduced to silent appreciation.  What a destination!


Ringing Dan three years ago was one of my better decisions.  The goal, tentatively expressed, to swim three consecutive lengths of the 92.4m Tooting Bec lido in London.  Set within the context of recovery from a period of illness this took two years to achieve; but we did it.  Water is a wonderful medium.  Expert coaching is a gift.  What’s possible redefined.  And this UK summer during a 1 to 1 session at the lido when least expected I relaxed fully in the water.  Swimming transformed, again; which was perfect timing for travel to the Cooks for a RealSwim adventure.


The RealSwim ethos; swims are fun, social and sportive.  Excitement and passion the undercurrents #nailedit. Our swim group gelled within hours of meeting.  Supported, inspired with personal journeys; the fun and funny moments flowed.  As did the pre-, pre-dinner drinks!  Swims were choreographed beautifully and nature joined in; the fish getting bigger as we went deeper.  Napoleon Wrasse lurking as we swam the outer canyons beyond the reef the sea bed undulating far below us.


The water clarity in the lagoons was sublime.  Turtles; territorial trigger fish, happy to bite to prove the point!; the far more sociable and banana loving zebra fish; and the majestic Giant Travelly.  As I floated face down one passed close directly under my mid-line.  Looking that fish in the eye an extraordinary experience.  Let’s take a moment here to delve into the world of vibrantly coloured giant clams.  Check out the restoration programme headed up by the engaging Charley Waters, which concerns enhancing the marine ecosystem by planting live corals and giant clams on near shore reefs.  Please support or get involved where possible


A final word on the swimming.  The first swim of the week at around 3.3K was longer than planned as we explored, marine adventurers, zig zagging our way through coral teeming with life and surprises.  The pattern was set.  The distance surpassed anything I, or some others in the group, had swum previously.  By the end of the week we had all sunk lower in the water as we found a new swim rhythm.  All very celebratory.


Such experiences are a team effort.  Huge thanks therefore to Dan and ‘Nemo’ for being brilliant; to my awesome new Southern Hemisphere swim friends; to ace photographer and drone pilot Barry; and to the generous locals who navigated the waters, swam with us, fed us masses of delicious food and kept the fire pit burning as together we watched the sun set and chatted into the night.  An abundance of wonderful shared memories.  I haven’t stopped grinning!

‘For adventure … simply add water’  Next Cook Islands trips are April and October 2017 – strictly limited spaces.

Thanks to Karen for sharing her journey to date … we look forward to the next installment! 

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September 25th, 2016

Don’t Set Limits

Simon swimming in Croatia

Simon swimming in Croatia

A big shout out and congratulations to Simon of London, UK. Simon came to Fit&Abel in June this year. At 52 years young he was scared of deep water, not a confident swimmer but most importantly he was uncertain as to whether or not he could ever learn to get comfortable in deep water , let alone open water. This was part of his first e-mail  to us: “At 52, I have never mastered swimming and  nervous to go near deep water. I would be really grateful if I could organise some 1 to 1 coaching to at least teach me the basics and gain the confidence that I lack. I can swim (poorly) a very short distance front crawl.

Simons goal was to go on a swim holiday off a boat. We told him that with some hard work (mental and physical) this was perfectly achievable. To Simons credit he bought in to our belief that a safe, fun, successful swim journey was very much a possibility. Simon bought three 121 lessons to begin. Our focus was on starting with the basics, showing him that he was more than capable and most importantly that even the process of learning and facing ones fear can still be a process that includes some laughter and fun.

Simon started coming more often, over June , July and August he made three lessons a week fairly regularly. We had ups and downs… “ I was frustrated yesterday… but I guess that’s all part of the equation.I know I’ve made good progress and to keep pushing on out of my comfort zone is all part of my progress.” The key was Simon stuck at the process, sometimes he was frustrated but he never gave up. It’s never linear … like any journey there are good days and better days. But as we progressed and the basics became more comfortable we were able to add more to the lessons; we covered the basics of front crawl, efficient body positions in deep water, jumping into and exiting deep water, the art and ‘secret’s of breathing , ‘go to’ positions’ for rest in deep water including sculling, treading water and floating on ones back. We set challenges and goals along the way to tick off and celebrate.

Note that all of this is taking place in Tooting Bec Lido, a ‘natural’ water temperature pool which in June means water temperatures well below 20C. We also completed all of the basics without a wetsuit. As Simon was new to swimming he didn’t know any different.  Sure he got cold to begin but the water temperature became his ‘normal’. As the water temperature naturally heated up he felt that increase and enjoyed it. In late August we added the wetsuit to Simons swim kit. Because he’d learnt the basics without one he was better placed to take advantage of the attributes of the wetsuit … and he certainly had enough experience by now to appreciate them.

After three months Simon had built up enough confidence and experience to take to the open water proper. Sure there were nerves to begin and he took it tentatively to start with – and rightly so, but again with persistence, his new found knowledge, encouragement from friends and family and a great attitude Simon continued to tick off new achievements in his swimming … until it was finally time to take on the ultimate goal… a swim holiday in Croatia. It was a pleasure to get Simons first e-mail while on his swim trip … “ The most freedom and joy …I can’t quite describe..
I was as most definitely as happy as a pig in..!
Thanks for all the incredible coaching you gave me over the 2.5 months. This water is like bath water in comparison to Tooting!”

Some final words from Simon … when we asked him if it was OK to share his journey “if I can give someone the chance to experience the freedom I felt these past few days..then it has to be done!”

And in his words… “What a holiday… I’m bushed… but I’m so glad I went…
It’s been a long time to wait, 53 years to breaking this fear.
Everyone was so supportive of me..  and I only used the wet suit once!


Don’t let a bad experience put you off swimming in the future. For you. For your children perhaps? For your health certainly. For fun and to meet new people … definitely.  The mind will always set limits the body has no idea exist. Swimming … give it go!


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August 1st, 2016

Tracking Your Swim Data

11.5km sessionThe swimmers logbook: provides an ongoing record of training. Some swimmers view them as a waste of time, an annoyance that must be added to daily. Others see the value in being able to review and compare training cycles, sets and repeat times. This can help identify strengths, weakness and opportunities. A logbook entry can record distances, times, heart rates, sleep patterns, success and failures, present and past … and just about anything the author desires in between. They can become quite a personal document recording battles, triumphs, injuries and emotions.  Sure you can get some of this data off a swim watch but a written log can capture much more.

A logbook also helps capture a point in time; a point that can be reflected on, savoured, or grimaced at in future years.  It has been a personal journey of mine opening logbooks now that last saw the light of day as recent as 1999 with some entries dating as far back as 1988. Other entries are too personal to share but some are entertaining as well as enlightening.  Everything from invisible Ink, mutated dog turd, piano factories , sun burn and some crazy sets … Here are just a few snapshots into the journey of a swimmer from way back when …

MontageRecording your swim journey is a personal thing. What you record and when depends on what type of person you are and what you (and your coach) believe will be most helpful as you progress through your season, your career, your life! You may be surprised at what patterns emerge from the data. Not sure how to log your swims? Try something that is custom made for swimmers   Whatever method you choose to record your swim data … if you haven’t done so before do give it a try and be consistent for at least a 6 month period before you make any judgement on whether is helpful for you. What are you waiting for? Get swim logging …


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July 12th, 2016

To Paddle or not to Paddle?

finis-agility-paddles-minThe Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to Swim Paddles

(This article was originally published in and is published with the kind permission of Olivier,

Swim paddles are a staple in just about every swimmer’s training. Here is everything you need to know about making the most of this piece of equipment.

“Fins and paddles!” coach called out.

A chorus of smiles and cheers swiftly followed. Some things are totally universal in our sport, and one of them is the pleasure in getting to Mach-1 while wearing equipment that throws our swimming into hyper-drive.

Paddles are one of those pieces of equipment that are found in just about every swim bag across the world, but have you ever really stopped to think about why we use them?

From how you should use them, the research behind their effectiveness, the shortcomings of their use, and even some links to some of the best rated paddles on the market, we are going to cover everything paddle related.

Here is just about everything you ever wanted to know about swim paddles.

“Please, please, please let us use paddles today coach.”

Swim Paddles: The Research

As an experienced swimmer you have used them so many times that you have never really paused to consider the point of them. But you do know what happens when you strap them on: you swim longer (in terms of distance per stroke) and you swim faster.

The research backs this up:

  • A group of female swimmers strapped on a pair of small hand paddles (116 cm) and over-sized paddles (286 m) and completed a series of 25m sprints. Both swimming speed and distance-per-stroke increased significantly.While DPS went up, the stroke rate went down. Of particular note was that the pulling phase took longer to execute, while the speed of the recovery was unchanged.
  • In what is basically a copy of the previous study, this time a group of male age groupers swam a series of 25m sprints (the oversized paddles were bigger in this trial—311cm). They were instructed to hold a consistent stroke rate via an underwater speaker that helped them it constant. Same results:increased speed and distance per stroke, and handspeed in the push and in-sweep phases were down when wearing paddles.
  • A group of nationally ranked backstrokers performed a bunch of 100s with and without paddles. When the 100s were swum at full max the rate of perceived exertion and blood lactate concentration were lower when swum with paddles compared to without. In other words, the paddles made the swimmers more efficient when they were swimming all-out, but interestingly enough, not when they were swimming at sub-maximal speed (85%).
  • If you’ve swum for even a moderate amount of time you have stumbled upon swimmer’s shoulder, either yourself or in the warnings of others. Swim paddles, as well as other shoulder-bearing exercises, were found to be one of the things that aggravated shoulder injuries when used by swimmers and in this group of 1250+ swimmers from age group to national level.

The Benefits of Swim Paddles

There are generally two main benefits to incorporating paddles into your training: building power and strength in the water, and also to help solidify good technique habits.

Here’s why you should use paddles during swim training:

1. Specific development of power.

In terms of building strength and power this is about as specific as it gets. As long as you are performing the stroke precisely as you normally would (which can be hard with a slower catch and pull as shown in the research above), you are adding resistance to your stroke.

2. Teach you speed and efficiency.

You don’t need me to tell you that swimming with paddles is awesome because you get to go much faster—probably as fast or faster as race pace when going all-out. When swimming at this kind of speed you can really get a feel for how you are most efficient in the water, from keeping a rigid torso, to having an early catch, and so on.

3. Spices up your workout.

For those long, monotonous repeats of 500s or whatever coach is subjecting to you that day, throwing in some paddles is a an easy way to mix things up and keep you fresh mentally.

4. Encourages a better catch.

When you are feeling particularly hardcore use only the middle finger strap. When you don’t engage the early catch the paddle will slip off and you will be feeling like a rank amateur having to put your paddle back on mid-length. (On the bright side it will teach you what not to do.)

5. You’ll know when you aren’t pulling correctly.

Paddles accentuate everything about the pulling motion. Your catch is stronger, the pulling motion is stronger—you will be able to better focus and tune those parts of your stroke.

The Swimmers Guide to Swim Paddles

The Downsides

Everything is not all golden when it comes to your hand paddles, though. If you’ve ever had pain in your shoudlers you know that they tend to exacerbate the tenderness, and while they can encourage some good training habits in some instances they can also open the door to bad ones:

  • Oversized paddles put strain on ligaments and tendons in your arms. If you have weak shoulders, or are experiencing a fresh round of the dreaded swimmers shoulder than large paddle use is probably not for you. Think of paddles like weights: if you have bad, shaky form in the water the potential for injury increases significantly.
  • Leaves you slipping through the water afterwards. While gliding along at a reduced rate of exertion can make you feel like an aquatic superhero, taking them off—especially when rocking out with dinner plate-sized paddles on your hands—can leave you feeling like your hands are trying to catch sand the next time you push off.
  • Paddles can encourage bad training habits. Just as often as they encourage good ones, throwing the dinner plates on your hands can also develop habits you are trying to steer clear of: from spreading the fingers, to having a gallop in the stroke from a slow pull but fast recovery, and so on.

Best Practices for Using Hand Paddles

Start with paddles just larger than your hands.

We all vary in terms of natural hand size and shoulder strength. You might have small hands but boulder-shoulders, and vice versa—so start with paddles that are just a little bit larger than your hands and progress from there.

The tendency is to start with dinner plates right off the bat (guilty!), but if it means that your stroke is unbearably slow or that its straining the tendons in your elbow than the paddles become a moot training tool.

Remove the wrist straps.

The last thing you want to do is throw on some paddles and start ingraining some less-than-rad training habits. By removing the wrist straps you will find out very quickly whether or not you are swimming with good technique, particularly in freestyle.

If you aren’t swimming with your “natural paddle”—the hand to elbow, and going for early vertical forearm at the beginning of the pulling motion, the paddle will slip right off. To be sure it is annoying when it happens, but it will keep you on your game technically.

Mimic natural finger position.

A common occurrence with really big paddles is for swimmers to spread their finger sin order to more evenly apply pressure across the paddle. If you need to do this the paddles are too large.

Similarly, if your fingers extend beyond the edge of the paddles you are going to naturally curl your finger tips around the edge of the paddle for more stability.

The Best Swim Paddles on the Market

Alrighty, so now that we have covered the ups, the downs, the benefits and downsides of using the bad boys, here are my choices for the top three paddles on the market.

1. Speed Power Plus Paddles.

The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to Swim Paddles

I put these bad boys at number one because, well, they are in my swimming bag. The current set I have (the XL) are going on year three of working rather wonderfully.

I have taken the wrist straps in and out a few times with no visible wear or worrying that they would snap.

They would be in better shape if I took them out of my mesh bag once in a while and gave them a rinse, but hey, I’m kinda lazy when I get home after swimming for two hours.

They are available in small to extra large.

Where to Buy:

2. FINIS Agility Hand Paddles

The Swimmer's Ultimate Guide to Training Paddles

When it comes to freestyle, crushing the catch and having a strong early vertical forearm separates the top of the pile from the rest. These paddles–which have no straps–are built specifically to insure that you are catching teh water early and fast.

(These paddles are also usable in other strokes, but as a freestyler myself this has been my experience using them.)

The premise of the Agility paddles is simple: swim with good technique or you are spending half the workout stopping mid-length to put them back on your hands.

Where to Buy

3. MP Michael Phelps Hand Paddle

The Swimmer's Ultimate Guide to Hand Paddes

Since the GOAT and Speedo parted ways a few years ago you got the sense that it was only a matter of time before he came out with a full line of swim gear. His entry into the swim paddle market is a strong one, with a raised contour under the palm, and vents/holes in the paddle to maintain a feel for the water.

His coach Bob Bowman helped in the design, and counts them among his favorite so far:

They give you the feel of the hand and the way it is when swimming because of the raised portion under the palm of your hand. It’s not a flat surface. You’re actually in a much more natural position.”

Bob Bowman

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June 3rd, 2016

Touch or Tumble?

You won't find much need for tumble turns in the open water...

You won’t find much need for tumble turns in the open water…

All advanced swimmers will tumble turn when training in a pool. Most novice swimmers and a great deal of intermediate swimmers will touch and turn.

One of the things open swimmers love most about swimming open water is the ability to get lost in the continuous rhythm of the swim. This Zen like state is less likely to occur when we train in a pool. It is even less likely to occur when we train in a short course pool. *The term ‘Short course’ meaning 25M in length as opposed to long course which is 50M.

A tumble turn, when done well, is an extremely efficient ‘low energy – high return’ way for a swimmer to change directions. It will always be faster than a touch and turn. It is in essence a ‘break’ from the swim stroke. For a novice swimmer it can be a nightmare … judging the distance from the wall, exhaling air out ones nose while upside down, all the while trying to maintain enough air to get to the breakout point!

Should an open water swimmer use tumble turns when training in a pool? Here is our perspective … learning to tumble is not as important as learning to swim freestyle correctly. If you are time limited or simply exhausted from concentrating on technique … focus on the freestyle technique first.  Learning to tumble turn can help get more comfortable and competent in the water . It gets swimmers familiar with unusual attitudes and helps swimmers learn to protect their breathing spaces: by this we mean if you can stop water getting up your nose upside down during a tumble turn you are far more likely to be able to achieve this when swimming in choppy open water as well.

However … you aren’t going to be doing too many tumble turns in your open water swimming ! Therefore although adding tumble turns into your 25M swimming will make you faster and help you beat up on other swimmers in the pool it will be less reflective of the time/pace you will maintain in open water. Do tumble turns by all means if you wish but we also recommend you spend a certain portion of your pool training swims touching and turning – it can end up being much harder than tumble turning! If you gave an elite pool swimmer a ‘touch and turn only’ session they would have a canary. If you are a touch and turn only swimmer and have time and motivation learning to tumble turn is another feather in your cap but we say it isn’t essential for your open water swimming.

Have a question? Ask us


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