July 12th, 2014

The Purple Duck

Purple duckHow regularly do I need to practice swim technique? Read on … the purple duck theory.

It does not matter what level of swimmer you are whether you are learning freestyle/front crawl or an experienced swimmer trying to make improvements to your stroke. Every one of us needs to spend time and apply themselves in order to make permanent changes to their stroke.

Before making changes first we need knowledge. Knowledge of what we are actually doing. Knowledge about what we should be doing. And then tools, usually in the form of isolations drills, to help us understand and ‘feel’ what the right movement feels like and also importantly what the wrong movement feels like. The greater your level of understanding of these key components the greater your ability to apply this knowledge when swimming on your own ie when there is no coach around. The more consistently you perform the new movement the sooner it becomes a natural part of your swim stroke and the more exponential the results.

There are some fundamentals we need to be aware of when making stroke technique changes. The nervous system is amazing but also utterly useless. It is amazing at telling us when we are doing something we are not used to doing. It is useless at telling us whether this new movement is right or wrong. Any new movement, right or wrong, will feel weird. If knowledge and feedback tell us this new movement is correct then we need to rehearse often and accurately enough to ensure this ‘weird’ becomes our new normal.

As adults we are hard on ourselves. We expect after receiving instructions to be able to implement them correctly because as adults we are ‘smart’ and we understand instructions. The problem is that isn’t how we work. All of us will receive and interpret instructions differently. Our learning progresses when we then put the instructions into practice. Making errors is part of learning. It’s perfectly OK to make mistakes. Very very rarely will anyone execute a drill perfectly the first time. Give yourself a chance to get familiar with a drill, work out (with the help of a coach) what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong. Then refine your rehearsal to ensure you increase the accuracy.

To make permanent changes to stroke technique requires a significantly different approach to fitness training. First we must isolate the movement pattern. Don’t try and change technique while doing full swimming, you will become overloaded very quickly. Don’t try and swim miles and miles doing drills. Short amounts of high focussed high quality drills are far more productive. And finally how much drilling/rehearsal is required to make a change permanent? Enter the purple duck … if you are out swimming and a purple duck swims past will your new technique remain unchanged while you focus on the purple duck or will you revert back to your old bad habits while considering the impacts of swimming with a purple duck? You need to do enough technique so that it can happen autonomously while you ponder the purple duck.

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July 7th, 2014

Charlie’s Story


Charlie swim2

Charlie taking the plunge. Photo credit Nuala Connolly

Anyone who knows me knows I love swimming.  Most of my colleagues think I’m obsessed and most of my friends are swimming buddies.  What is less obvious is that I am not actually very good at swimming, or, shall we say, I am only just learning to swim properly at the age of 33.

I can proudly remember getting my 5 metre badge just as I started school, but from there it was all going nowhere.  Swimming lessons at both primary and secondary school consisted of “get in here – swim over there” with absolutely no consideration for those of us who were terrified out of our depth or could barely attempt to doggy-paddle.  Certainly there was no instruction as to actually how to swim.  And thus I hated the thought of even getting in the water until I was out of my teens.


For no other reason than socialising, I joined my college water polo team at university.  I was a hopeless player but at least I have always been able to throw a ball.  What did happen, however, was that I finally got over my fear of being in the water.  Thanks, Paula.  Through water polo I met another dear friend, Valérie, and we swam together in the years that followed, both at university and beyond.


By the summer of 2010, I was fortunate enough to work in close proximity to London’s Hyde Park, and some wonderful colleagues (Spike, Jools, Louise) got me started in the Serpentine.  It was just one of those things you had to try.  It was £20 a year, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, and it was liberating.  A quick holiday trekking in Afghanistan (yes, really) and I came back wondering about the next challenge.  Slowly Louise & I swam throughout the autumn, as the pond weed dissipated, and the golden dawns shone and warmed our mornings and the water reflected the colour of the falling leaves.  The water temperature dropped, and we kept going.  We had fallen in love with the world of outdoor swimming.  Goodbye heated chlorinated tanks: this was our passion.  We got to know each family of swans and geese and were even able to distinguish the herons, the embodiment of concentration as they watched the water for their catch.


Before we knew it, the water had frozen over, we walked over snow to the pontoon, and immersed ourselves in the little open water that there was away from the ice.  We had become winter swimmers.  Together with another colleague, Nuála, we spent the following seasons entering winter swimming competitions in Slovenia’s Lake Bled, in Tampere and Helsinki in Finland, and in Tallinn, Estonia’s beautiful capital.


Swimming is a very social thing and can open up a world of possibilities. By early 2013 I had reached a point where I wanted more than just socialising: I wanted to actually be good at what I do.  Not the best, just good enough for me.


The Serpentine is full of wonderful, inspirational people and that Easter the legend that is Nick Adams ran a training camp for aspiring long-distance swimmers.  I was by far the slowest in all the sessions, but I knew already deep down that I have the determination to persevere.  It was here I met the equally amazing Sal, who invited me to Jersey and gave me some proper lessons: almost the first I had had since I was a toddler.  Thanks to you both for setting me on my way.


I am also a member of the South London Swimming Club, which does lead to somewhat of a conflict with galas against the Serpentine, as I literally don’t know which swimming hat to wear these days.  The home of the SLSC is Tooting Bec Lido, funnily enough in South London.  In the summer of 2012 I had had a couple of lessons there with Dan through Swim Trek, and it had helped spark my interest that there was more than just pootling around in the ‘fresh’ water of London town or diving into the short and snappy winter swimming trips.  By the summer of 2013, there was much talk of Channel swimming; specifically relays.  I had been invited to join one team but am not ashamed to say I pulled out when I realised that the rest of the crew (none of whom was Serpentine or SLSC) were not in tune in the same way I was with the enormity of the challenge, the respect needed for the water, and the essential camaraderie and preparation as a team which was to get us all to France.


Quite by accident, as one does over a post-Serpentine breakfast one morning, my friend Dani asked me to fill the last space on a relay team for late summer 2014.  I wasn’t a good swimmer, I replied.  I would be slow.  I couldn’t swim properly, I said.  Dani said it didn’t matter.  He knew I was already getting better since I’d actually started having regular lessons.  Not coaching, but lessons, with Dan.  Being a winter swimmer, and somewhat stubborn, there was no question that I’d give up once in the water, especially as part of such a fantastic team.  Jaki, Henry, Volker, Alan, Dani: I can’t wait for this autumn.  But these past 12 months (& more) haven’t been just about popping over to the continent one day (or night) the scenic route.  They’ve been about friendship, fun and lots and lots of learning.  It’s the journey that counts.


Why am I writing all this?  Well, Dan asked me to :)  and he deserves a lot of the credit for where I am today.  He’s seen me change in the past two years from someone who could barely stand putting her face in the water (heads up breaststroke only) to someone who kicked ass in a 12C 2-hour relay qualifier (thanks Suzie and Ranie for that one!), someone who turns up to group fitness sessions twice a week and is still last in the lane, but getting faster, and someone who has worked hard and consistently and little bit by little bit is actually learning front crawl.  So for anyone reading this, if you think you’re too old, you think it’s too late, you aren’t relaxed and can’t breathe in the water, just stop, and think again.  It’s been one of the most exciting journeys of my life to date to fall in love with something that used to terrify me, and to think that one day, I might even be good at it.

FitandAbel note : For those budding adult swimmers take note of Charlies final sentences – her story is inspirational but also very achievable for the many adult non swimmers out there who think maybe they would like to take part in an open water swim adventure of some description one day. Dan Abel




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June 22nd, 2014

The BlackSwim

Swimming toward a dawn finish.

Swimming toward a dawn finish.

It’s one of those things that sounds like a good idea at the time. Dreamed up by Jeremy Laming of http://henleyswim.com/  the BlackSwim held on the summer Solstice weekend , the longest day or in Jeremy’s mind the shortest night. Perfect for an all night swim down the Thames. The swim participation was invite only. A small group, all with previous long distance and cold water experience. This was a proof of concept swim more than anything and the last thing anyone wanted was trouble on a remote stretch of river in the pitch black at 3am in the morning.

Like most of us I juggle swim commitments around our real lives …  and so it was on Friday, a 1715 departure due for our pre swim arrival at 6.30pm. I think we were still stuck in London traffic on the M4 at that time talking enthusiastically about all things swimming… and missing the turn off with a 7 mile onward drive before we could get off and turn around. My philosophy after seeing athletes get frustrated when products aren’t available is to try very hard to work with off the shelf products. After losing an hour and a half of time due to the hiccups mentioned above we bought almost all our refuel gear off the shelf at a remote service station. The sports drink was dubious. Every type of energy bar and chocolate bar was purchased. And the old faithful, bananas were in the mix as usual.

Nothing about this swim was normal; The support crew ratio – about three support crew per swimmer, the frosty reception from the elderly folk watching us getting set for the start of the swim – clearly a large convoy of folk on the move at dusk down by the river can only mean trouble (Bless you England). The swim itself deliberately held all in darkness making accurate navigation essential, as in swimming the correct side of islands and avoiding night time boat traffic. Also uniquely there were four locks to physically walk around. The other options of swimming into a lock or over a weir were not really considered for obvious safety reasons. Getting out on a swim is very non-standard but in this case necessary however, imagine trying to get out of the water, no blood flow in legs, by early morning the air temp was single figures, trying to walk in the dark over the other side while your body temperature plummets. The ‘joy’ of slipping back in the water then making your body redistribute blood flow as its just worked so hard to get the legs moving for the walk around the lock. As I said nothing about the swim was normal.

The swim started up at Mapledurham. Right on last light we entered the river navigation lights flicking on the back of our heads and glowing from light sticks pinned to the back of our trunks. We were each escorted by a dedicated paddler. In my case trusted friend, accomplished paddler and provider of good Irish humour in the wee hours, Mark Byrne.

Starting out we had to sort out a navigation process – with little or sometimes no moonlight the use of senses changes significantly. The use of sight is no longer totally reliable. I wear ear plugs every swim therefore my hearing was also limited. The ‘sense’ of feel in the water is sometime unwanted; ‘what was that?!’ All I had was the nav lights on the kayak, the glow of marks head torch, sometimes the stars and often street lights or lights from a home or mansion. Sometimes things would suddenly grow much darker and intense, only for me to lift my head and find us swimming under a bridge. The imagination is more of a hazard than anything else. Those that have done ocean swimming can probably relate to my relaxed state, no jellyfish or marine life to concern myself with and a body of water unaffected by wind and swell, I found river swimming on the Thames smooth and relaxed.

The swim was challenging for me, just as many of the swims are challenging for our swim clients. I also have to balance training and work around my swim training and hardly ever get the training and preparation I would like to these days. That means the ultimate challenge becomes getting the best performance out of the preparation I have done not spending the time wishing I had done more.  The first hour was pretty easy and entertaining getting escort and swimmer communication sorted, getting in the first feeds and getting into a rhythm. In the second hour it became clear the last minute sports drink purchase was rubbish and I threw up after 90 minutes. We aborted on the ‘orange stuff’ and switched to water, whole foods (muesli and chocolate bars) and bananas. At two hours I honestly thought I would have to abort the swim but things settled down for me and we got back on with the job at hand. One classic feedback moment a banana came over to me for a feed I clutched it and went to take a mouthful realising at that moment there was nothing left but banana skin, the joys of feeding in the black.

We were extremely lucky with the fantastic UK weather providing warm river temperatures at around 19C. The air temperature to start was also forgiving to start but once we hit 3am they were nudging single figures, after you have been swimming for 4-5 hours the ability to pace oneself for endurance yet move enough to create heat becomes a finely balanced thing especially for those working on the edge of their fitness envelope. That’s when it is time to bring out a secret weapon. For me it was a cheerful Irishman in a boat with a smile and a paddle threatening to whack me if I did not keep swimming. At 4.15am for me in the growing light I swam into the Hambledon lock 25km downriver from the start point. I climbed out and started shivering straight away. No fanfare just some great support crew and the satisfaction of beating a little bit of physical pain and sleep deprivation to achieve a personal challenge. Swimming in its many forms keeps it interesting. It was great to be part of a swim with a difference. How many other kiwis can say they have swum a significant portion of the Thames through the night? Thanks to Jeremy at http://henleyswim.com/ for including me in the invite.

In addition to all the team at HenleySwim a big thanks to my personal support crew and kayaker on the day, Mark Byrne. I could not have completed the swim without his kayak and night navigation skills, endless support and fantastic Irish sense of humour.   And to http://www.oceanleisure.co.uk/   for the great goggles and swim training gear and http://dryrobe.com/  kept me warm start and finish.

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May 14th, 2014


Stunning NZ Scenery

Stunning NZ Scenery

Seated at 36,000 feet above the Pacific…  a perfect opportunity to reflect on another summer of open water swimming in New Zealand.

The sport continues to grow phenomenally. New Zealand’s biggest open water swim series, The State Ocean Swim Series saw record numbers of swimmers. The State Epic Swim New Zealand  championships in Taupo also had a fantastic turn out. From a personal perspective the amount of new comers taking to the open water and experienced swimmers seeking new challenges provides encouragement for the sport. But why? Why are people taking to open water swimming like ducks to water? Why is the sport experiencing such growth? Some thoughts … we have spent the last 30 years carefully covering all of swim pools. We now heat them to close to 30 degrees C or slightly close to. Many of us recall the days of outdoor pools used not only for swimming but also for socialising, non-swim recreating and often a ‘hub’ for community get-togethers. It is unlikely you use your local indoor pool for any of these activities today. Most indoor pool users will arrive, swim or take a lesson and depart, very little more. For many ‘youngsters’ or even adults who learned to swim later in life a 30 degree indoor pool is all they know as a swim experience? Enter the call of the open water … a chlorine free, dynamic, raw environment. Natural water temperatures, sunshine, wind, perhaps waves, currents , colour and depth. Little surprise that for those who have ‘accomplished’ in the pool and are looking for a new challenge, a way to keep their swimming fresh and exciting , the call of the open water is a natural next step.

Fantastic swimming; Adam Walker completes his 6th  ‘Oceans Seven’ crossing with a fantastic swim of Cook Strait. Unseasonably warm water temperatures for the time of year, 16C in April and a massive pod of dolphins keeping close escort for over an hour (Adam personally told me he is 100% certain he saw a shark swimming below) . This has made one of the biggest open water swim you tube impressions with Adam Walkers Cook Strait swim hitting 4.5 million views!

Mistakes … I enthusiastically wrote a piece on the NZ Triple Crown of Swimming, NZ3. What a great idea I thought, what a fantastic set of swims for someone to try and complete. Turns out they already had … in 1984! My hearty congratulations to Belinda Shields who on the 24 March 1984 completed a Bluff to Stewart Island Foveaux Strait swim in 9 hours 53 minutes. Combined with a Taupo swim on 8 March 1980 (15 hours 58) and a Cook Strait swim on 24 March 1980, 8 hours 32min this made Belinda the first NZ Triple Crown swimmer.

Dumb people … all of us …The human race … man are we just dumb sometimes . New Zealand is a fantastic open water swim location but we are still behaving nonsensically in many of our decisions … like putting sewage directly into our rivers http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/farming/10029940/Works-filth-poured-in-river

New team members … Ollie is running the Christchurch based Swimlab over winter , if you are in Christchurch or passing through drop him a  line http://fitandabel.com/events-bookings/fitabel-summer-series/personal-121-techniquefitnessfilming-lessons/

Keeping abreast … with so much happening all over the world it’s hard to keep up with all the fantastic open water swim related activities, that’s why I subscribe to  the worlds only dedicated open water swim magazine. http://h2openmagazine.com/

Smiles … at the thought of all the fantastic swimmers, friends, family and supporters I have been privileged to have contact with over the New Zealand summer. As a coach I shared in your challenges and your successes. Your enthusiasm and energy motivate me! Thank you.

Finally my thanks to Air New Zealand for flying me back and forward between New Zealand and the UK each season and for bringing the many RealSwim Adventures participants to New Zealand.

Dan Abel is head coach for www.fitandabel.com and www.realswimadventures.com founder. He is based at the famous Tooting Bec Lido June – September. Dan coaches, writes, swims and talks endlessly about all things open water swimming.


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April 24th, 2014

Inaugural 10km Swim

073Easter weekend saw the addition of the 2014 Inaugural Auckland  Central Masters Marathon  (10km) swim  http://www.aucklandharbourswims.org.nz/    Run not for profit but for participation. This first event was limited to 63 competitors with plenty of unlucky swimmers left on the waiting list. Three days before Auckland was hit by one of the worst storms in living memory. Not the ideal build up, especially if you are the race director. Luckily he already had the grey hair.  Not ideal but acceptable conditions greeted organisers and participants on 19 April.

For me the interesting factors in this swim were the relaxed atmosphere, swim first, race second. And there were only two turn buoys for the entire swim, this made it far more interesting than a 4 x 2500M lap course. Because of this the field would be far more spread out and each swimmer was required to have a kayaker providing direct escort.  63 swimmers and 63 kayakers made for an interesting start but the field soon spread out. For those that know Auckland New Zealand the famous Rangitoto Island was visible to the swimmers throughout the swim while to the right were changing views of Auckland cities East Coast shore line.

Another unique dynamic was the navigation duties and each ‘team’ chose to do this differently. For some the kayaker took sole responsibility for the navigation. For some it was shared. For others the swimmer navigated the entire way and the kayaker shadowed.  All 63 swimmers completed the swim, finishing at the lovely St Helier’s beach. Sunshine , a bbq, snacks aplenty and a great crowd  of cheering family and friends quickly helped replace sapped energy reserves. As corny as it may sound the real winner was open water swimming . The organisers have committed to running a similar swim in late April 2015.  If you are passing through Auckland New Zealand next year it’s well worth dipping your toes in for this event. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Auckland-10km-Marathon-Swim/1449837718564994 074

Authors note; Think a 10km swim is too far for you? The mind sets limits the body has no idea about. With the right training, preparation and encouragement ANYONE can do it. Ask us how bookings@fitandabel.com

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April 8th, 2014

Swim or Hibernate?


IMG_1591As the Northern Hemisphere emerges from the winter darkness the Southern Hemisphere enters its ‘cool’ time. For many of us winter does not conjure up excitement when it comes to swimming. Extra time under covers, hot soup and additional clothes are more ‘realistic’ images. One therefore can seriously pose the question, is winter the time to keep swimming or to enjoy some well-earned rest time? Winter swimming is the perfect time to hit the pool and revise and improve technique, connect with a swim group and add that social element to your swimming. It is a super time to build fitness ready for spring.


We can still swim outdoors … just the other day I was enjoying a swim in Lake Wanaka or if this 2 minute video is anything to go by you can realistically swim anytime in any temperature (with the right training and attitude) … Winter World Swim Champs 2014  Is swimming in cold water a good idea? Depends on a number of factors; Most important always good to get checked out from the doctor before undertaking any exercise that is significantly different from the norm. The cold water swim championships are extreme. Swimming in 17C/62F for a large number of people isn’t so extreme. For many of us who can remember the good old days of outdoor unheated swim pools it is all we knew. These days with many 30 degree indoor pools providing our ‘normal’ swim environment a dip in the outdoors can seem like a trip to Mars.  Like any new climate only time will increase adaption and comfort. Swim later in in the Autumn/Fall and earlier in the Spring will help you adapt to the outdoor water temperatures a lot easier. Is it good for us? This author seems to think so ‘It may add years to your life’  If the cooler water temps really aren’t your thing join us where the water really is warm all year around http://www.realswimadventures.com/adventure-tours/paradise-in-aitutaki/


My advice … if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere and you have got a swim goal for next summer then NOW is the time to start putting in the swim work, maybe a couple more outdoor dips then hit the pool.  If you’re in the North … congrats it is summer, time to hit the open water.


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