The Beijing Olympics 10km marathon swimming bronze medallist answers your questions on dyslexia, diet and swimming with her eyes closed.
What does swimming mean to you?
Swimming has always been my solace. When I was at primary school, I was diagnosed with severe dyslexia. School was never a place where I really excelled, but what got me through the long days was the idea of going training in the evening. I have always loved being in and around water. My idea of a good day out when I was growing up always involved a swimming pool. Being in the water is the only environment where I feel truly free. Unfortunately I do not swim as much as I would like now, as my shoulder is still sore but I have not yet lost my competitive edge, so swimming as slow as I do upsets me.
What kind of swimming do you do now?
I do not swim much at the moment. I will get in when I am coaching and on recent trips with SwimQuest, but apart from that I mainly stay on dry land. Although I do not swim very much at the moment I’m still heavily involved in swimming and I love to help people become better swimmers. Therefore coaching for me is my dream job.
Do you send christmas cards to the Russian swimmer who won gold in Beijing?
Ha ha no, I have a lot of respect for Larisa, she is the greatest open water swimmer of our time but we have not stayed in contact.
Which non-swimmers do you get your inspiration from and why?
Sally Gunnell is my inspiration. I remember the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, I was five years old and my primary school teacher made us write a letter home asking to be able to watch the summer Olympics. I vividly remember watching her win her gold medal in the hurdles and thinking she was the most amazing person on the planet. I was lucky enough to meet her in the London Olympics and I was honestly speechless.
What do you do to calm the ‘monkey mind’ during long training swims?
I would always close my eyes during long sets as it made the distance go quicker (I do not recommend this for everyone, it takes a bit of practice to be able to swim in a straight line). I spent a lot of time concentrating on my technique as well, as you might as well focus on a positive while you are swimming long distances. My biggest bit of advice is not to think of food. I would end up singing “food, glorious food” in my head while dreaming of all the things I could be eating. My biggest bit of advice is just to embrace the distance and always see it as a means of improvement rather than a chore you have to do.
Which sports do you think are the best for cross training and in what proportion?
I always recommend Pilates as it is a great way to improve your core stability and strength without putting too much force through the body. I would also recommend a good gym circuit, as they are a great way to build cardiovascular endurance while increasing strength. I would say build it in gradually, with the 10% rule. That means you should only increase your workload 10% per week.
What part does nutrition play in your training and has its importance and effectiveness developed over the years? Do you need to bulk up as a long distance open water swimmer?
Nutrition is the key to success. When I was a professional swimmer I was a full vegetarian. I was recommended to eat meat by every nutritionist I ever met but I stuck to my guns and won an Olympic medal off it. That being said, I wasn’t the best cook and I often ate too much carbohydrate and not enough protein. I eat some meat now, but no red meat as I do not like the texture. I would load up on carbohydrates leading into a 10km as they assist in water retention. The biggest thing that you need to worry about is making sure you are hydrated. Do not rely on sports drinks as a means of hydration as often they have more carbohydrates in than a sandwich. I would strongly recommend you look up the actual function of a sports drink before you drink it.
As people do longer distances there is a tendency to over train. What can you do to prevent it? What are the warning signs?
I would train between 80 and 100km per week on average, so I know all about long distances and overtraining. The biggest thing is to listen to your body. It is completely normal and natural to ache when you are in heavy training. I believe that if the pain goes over 6/10 then you should just rein it in slightly. If you ever experience any pain in the front of your shoulders, where the tendon is, then rest it as soon as possible. Tendons and ligaments have very limited blood supply, so if you damage them they take a lot longer to heal.