Wednesday, 22 June 2016


It's finally here...the real life, hold-it-in-your-hand book. After all these years of work, and over a year since completing the manuscript, it scarcely seems true. But it is....there's a happy heap of copies on my office floor (although I haven't dared open any of them up yet in case I find typos!). It is 14 years since my last monograph, so this is probably slightly overdue, but still...I couldn't be more pleased. Plus at 48, who ever thought I would find myself on the cover of a book in a swimming costume, with my back smeared all over with a US nappy rash cream called "Butt Paste". Life is strange and wonderful.

I'm not going to be flogging the book mercilessly either on or offline, not least because it's a relatively expensive hardback which is aimed primarily at libraries at this stage (with a paperback to follow next year). But, please allow me this brief promotional post.... 

If you wish to buy a copy, you can purchase it from Manchester University Press. They are currently having a summer sale with 50% off all books, so the usual purchase price for my book of £70 is currently reduced to £35. (Still expensive I know, but better). To get the discount, click the "buy now" button and enter the discount code Summer16 in the 'promotion code' box. Unfortunately, the code only applies to UK / EU purchases at the current time (the US sales are being handled by Oxford University Press).

I'm very excited for the book to finally be making its way into the world, and of course, I am very grateful to everyone who helped with the research. Books, like marathon swims, are a team effort, even though only one name ends up on the cover. So big thanks all round.  

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Fats, carbs, meat and plants....

A warning….this post is not about swimming (although, as with most things, I came to it via swimming, where discussions about diet and nutrition are rife). As I explained when I re-launched the blog in February, as my research moves away from swimming, I want to start using this as a site for testing out new thoughts and ideas about a range of projects and issues, some of which are more obviously swimming-related than others. So if you’ve come to the blog looking for swimming posts, please browse away through past posts….or come back in a couple of weeks, by which time I’m sure more swimming will have appeared.


With my swimming book now at the printers (and out in August), I’ve been working on getting some new writing and research projects going. My primary goal is a long-abandoned but recently resurrected book about obesity surgery, but as a side project, I’ve been getting very interested in radical weight loss diets – those diets which conform to contemporary anti-obesity sentiment, but which stand in direct opposition to mainstream dietary advice. I started off by focusing on low carb – high fat diets (LCHF)  (e.g. the Real Meal Revolution) which have become very popular in the swimming community recently, and then extended this to plant-based weight loss plans (e.g. Forks Over Knives). The former rely heavily on animal products as a means of limiting carbs and increasing the consumption of fat, while the latter completely reject all animal products (including dairy). In spite of this very fundamental difference, I’ve been intrigued by how much they have in common, leading me to ask how the cases for each are made, what values they appeal to, and where their similarities and differences lie.

I need a couple of quick caveats here: as a recently converted vegan, and a vegetarian for 30 years before that, I have an obvious loyalty to plant-based eating and think that it is environmentally and ethically irresponsible to promote the greater consumption of animal products.  But this is not what this project is about, and I think that while the vegan critique of LCHF is personally important to me it is not particularly interesting sociologically. For this reason, I have excluded books guided by ethical veganism and am focusing specifically on plant-based weight loss plans. Nor is the project about adjudicating the health effects of one or other regimen, but rather, to think about how those claims to weight and health outcomes are made and to what social effects. There is one final caveat – and one which anyone familiar with my writing on marathon swimming and fat will recognise. I come from an academic tradition of feminist Fat Studies and as such, approach this topic with a well-worn suspicion of the easy equation of fatness and ill-health, and a resistance to the habitual and moralising assumptions about fatness that run through the contemporary attack on obesity - a starting point that not everyone will agree with. 

In dietary terms there is more common ground between the two dietary styles than you might expect, particularly in relation to the rejection of processed and refined foods, and both regimens have armies of acolytes for whom the prescribed dietary transformation has produced effects on the body that are experienced as both positive and meaningful (and I think it's important to take those experiences seriously). But the most interesting common ground for me lies in the programmes' self-presentations and justifications, many of which overlap strongly with mainstream anti-obesity interventions. Both share the caricatured and hysterical fear-mongering that is the hallmark of the ‘war on obesity', and both are sites of weight loss entrepreneurship, selling books and other products and plans, as well as engaging in research. Both marshall ‘science’ to shore up their arguments, as embodied in books and websites primarily through the figures of white, male doctors and scientists. Both exercise a rigorous critique of opposing scientific views but rarely extend that level of scrutiny to supporting studies or to the obesity science literature which feeds the ‘war on obesity’ more generally. ‘Science’, then, for both is usually good or bad, but rarely treated as inherently uncertain. Both rely on highly strategic and partial evolutionary accounts of what we are 'meant' to eat. Both caricature and generalise the diet of the ‘irresponsible poor’ whilst offering solutions which demand the social, cultural and economic capital of the (westernised) middle classes. Both treat weight loss as synonymous with, and a proxy for, health in ways that are fundamentally unreliable. And both rely on profoundly masculinised narratives of bodily mastery and athleticism as proof of positive health outcomes. 

My preliminary argument, then, is that while both LCHF and plant-based programmes identify strongly with their dissenting roles in relation to conventional dietary advice, they simultaneously reproduce many of the normative assumptions that underpin mainstream anti-obesity campaigns and which Fat Studies scholars have been critiquing for years.

In short, I don’t think that they’re as radical as they appear to be at first glance, and can alternatively be seen as intensifications of existing ideologies rather than divergences from them. 

And this leads me to a further question (and one which is central to my obesity surgery book), which applies to both the general audience and to the feminist and Fat Studies communities for whom the failure of diets is a core element of their opposition: What if it works?  If one or other (or both) of these regimens were to be successful in safely producing sustained weight loss and improved ‘health’ (however that’s measured), what does that mean for the fat body? What new or intensified coercions might result? What gets overlooked in the relentless focus on obesity as the motivating problem to be solved? 

These are only my preliminary thoughts, and I’ve got heaps more work to do. But even if it doesn’t come to anything, at least it’s the kind of research where you pick up some great recipes and food ideas along the way (chocolate-banana ice-cream, anyone?).

Monday, 30 May 2016

6 hours...

The 6-hour swim is a marathon swimming staple. As many swimmers already know, it is the length of the qualification swim for the English Channel (and others), and long distance training camps routinely culminate in documented 6-hours swims, providing certificates for swimmers to dispatch to organising bodies as evidence. But as every experienced marathon swimmer knows, your qualification swim should just be one of many. To have completed the qualification swim is really just a starting rather than a finishing point in your training, and as your big swim approaches, the 6-hour swim, while always satisfying, should become relatively mundane. And while there is disagreement about how many long weekends are necessary leading up to a big swim, I would definitely say that you should be able to double up with relative comfort as the swim approaches, doing back-to-back 6-hour swims across two days. If you are completely wrecked at the end of 6 hours and can't recover well enough to swim again the next day, then you're probably not ready for 12, 15, 20 hours.

In the summer before my EC swim, I did 4-5 back-to-back weekends, plus I came to love the early season 6-hour swim at Swan Pool, which I did annually until I moved to North Yorkshire. I also did 6-hour swims with Swimtrek in Gozo, and on the Cork training camp. As a result, I learned to chop up a marathon swim into 6 hour chunks; in the EC, I changed my goggles at the end of the first 6 hours as the sun came up, and in my mind, I restarted the swim afresh. At the next 6 hours, I was rewarded with a black jelly baby to mark the start of the next 6-hour block. I did the same on both of my MIMS swims; the magic of the black jelly baby to reset the clock shouldn't be underestimated.

Times have changed in my training though, and when I stopped to think about it before writing this, I realised that I haven't done a 6-hour training swim since May 2013, in the run-up to my rather unsuccessful season of cancelled and aborted swims. I have swum over 6 hours since then - on both of my MIMS swims, and then the 8 Bridges swim last year, which involved 3 swims of 7+ hours; but it's been 3 years since I did any 6-hour training swims. This is partly because, since I got the Fastlane Pool, I tend to do longer, more regular pool swims more consistently than I was able to before. I am firmly convinced of the relative value of doing frequent 2-3 hours swims over my previous pattern (from necessity) of being relatively fallow during the week then hammering out long training swims at the weekend.

But with both Geneva and, more immediately, my 2-way / 1-way Windermere weekend approaching fast, it was time to get out there and get some distance in my shoulders... Plus, the weather forecast for the Bank Holiday weekend for the Lake District was for glorious sunshine. This doesn't happen very often, and the thought of all that water-warming sunshine inspired me to leap in the van and head to Grasmere to do my first 6-hour swim of the season - hopefully the first of many in my prep for Geneva. This was also the first 6-hour training swim I've done completely solo - just doing 2km laps of the lake with a tow-float carrying a drink bottle, plus a few gels down by the back of my costume, stopping in at the beach every 2 hours to restock. I was surprised how well it all went - I felt like I was swimming well, I didn't really get cold, and my energy levels stayed high. Over the winter, I've lost some of the habits of thought that long swimming demands, and I found my mind bouncing around problems with work for the first couple of hours. But by hour 4, I had settled down and started to find my marathon swimming-ness - an embodied disposition, a state of mind.

I've been more tired today than I had hoped, and obviously still have a  lot of work to do, but it felt SO good to be back at it in such a tangible, substantive way. It feels like a very solid contribution to training; a marker of progress in a long journey.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Talking head video...

This is a piece of shameless self-promotion, but I recently made a short video at work as part of a  broader project to showcase the School of Sociology and Social Policy's research profile. Eventually it'll be posted up on the School's website, but for now, it's having its first outing on You Tube via social media.

I have to confess that I didn't really enjoy making it - this is definitely not my natural medium, and in spite of much encouragement from the cameraman, Steve, I found it a little disconcerting to gaze into the camera lens and chat about the research. I'd practiced what I wanted to say quite a bit beforehand, which helped, but I still look a little bit like I'm about to be executed, especially at the beginning. But nevertheless, I was happy with the end result, and think that we managed to capture the important points about the project and my book, Immersion (which has now gone to press and will be out in August).

I hope you like it.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Why wetsuits aren't biscuits....

I had a conversation last week with a prospective English Channel swimmer who wants to start getting some outdoor distance under her belt as soon as possible, but doesn't live close enough to an open water venue to make it worth what would inevitably be relatively short dips at first because of the early season cold. Her suggestion to some marathon swimming friends that she might use a wetsuit in the spring as part of her training had been met with derision, arguing that she needed to acclimatise, and that she risked becoming dependent on the wetsuit in ways that would damage her Channel swimming plans.

This latter is one of the core objections from within the marathon swimming community to the use of wetsuits - that they create a dependence both in terms of body position in the water and their insulating effects. This talk of the risks of over-reliance on wetsuits reminds me of the conversations that happen routinely among dieters - that some foods have to be avoided because we can't be trusted around them. The 'biscuit' (or cookie, for my US friends) is the conventional unit of risk in these discussions - that you can't afford to have biscuits in the house because of the risk that you won't be able to stop eating them.

But wetsuits aren't biscuits.

Sacrilegious though it may be to say so in marathon swimming circles, it is perfectly feasible, and, I would argue, sensible for a marathon swimmer in training for a non-wetsuit swim to use a wetsuit as part of their preparations. For example, for those (like me, and my friend above) who live too far away from open water venues to allow for short acclimatising dips, it makes perfect sense to use the wetsuit to get some distance in, in combination with acclimatising swims. So, for example, in the early season, I might do a 2 hour wetsuit swim, followed by a 15 minute non-wetsuit acclimatisation dip. Then next time, I shorten the wetsuit swim by 15 minutes and lengthen the non-wetsuit portion by the same...until eventually, both acclimatisation and the warmer weather join forces and allow full session non-wetsuit swimming of ever-increasing distances. In the mean time, in addition to ongoing pool training, I've managed both acclimatisation swims and done some good foundational distance work (and most importantly, got to enjoy being outdoors).

For those who don't want to engage with non-wetsuit swimming at all, for whatever reason, my advice is to ignore the anti-wetsuit harrumphing of some parts of the marathon swimming community and dive in anyway. Wetsuits add comfort and buoyancy, and allow many more people to enjoy the water than otherwise would. For those who would like to try non-wetsuit swimming but are nervous to do so, find an experienced ally who can support you to do it safely and who will help you to learn what they find pleasurable about non-wetsuit swimming - and if you don't like it, go back to the wetsuit if you enjoy that more. And for those who are training for a long, non-wetsuit marathon swim, don't be afraid of wetsuits - they can be an effective training aid like any other. I know there are plenty of people who wouldn't be seen dead in a wetsuit, and that's their choice; but the non-wetsuit rules of marathon swimming only apply to the swims themselves. It doesn't make you any less of a marathon swimmer to use a wetsuit as part of your training.

There are many paths to successful and enjoyable marathon swimming, and wetsuits aren't biscuits.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

While I was away....

While I was away from the blog, there's been a couple of notable happenings. The first is very much about swimming - my decision to sign on with the Lake Geneva Swimming Association to have a crack at swimming the length of Lake Geneva (from Bouveret to Geneva - all 69 km of it). US swimmer, Jaimie Monahan completed it last year in just under 33 hours, following in the footsteps of two Swiss swimmers -  Vedika Bolliger in 1999 (42.45) and Alan Charmey in 1986 (22.43). It's a bit of a monster swim, and I'm slightly frightened of it, but I'm curious to see what a swim of that magnitude feels like. I've never swum into and through a whole night, and I've never swum anything like that distance in fresh water, so it's a bit of leap into the dark. But go to the website and look at the scenery - it's jaw-droppingly beautiful.

The LGSA is a new organisation, and I think that quite a few people will be having a go at this newcomer to the swimming scene this summer. My swim's not until the end of August, so I'm planning to watch and learn from others. And I'll be swimming. A lot. Key training points include a trip to Lanzarote for some early long distance training in April, and then at the end of June, I'll be trying to do a double Windermere (21 miles) followed by a single Windermere the next day, which, if all goes well, should enable me to more than meet the LGSA qualifying criteria of a 7 hour swim followed by a 6 hour swim the next day. Many thanks to Mark Robson for offering to help with the piloting and logistics of this. Otherwise, I expect you'll be able to find me hanging out in the Lake District over the summer, churning out the miles in some of my favourite swim spots. Fingers crossed for a safe, injury-free run-up.

The second development relates to the decision I made last August to become a vegan - that is, to eliminate all food sources derived from animals (meat, fish, dairy, honey etc). In the first instance, this has been confined to my diet (I haven't decided yet whether to take this further (clothing, anti-chafing products like Desitin and Sudacrem etc)) and the decision comes after 30 years of vegetarianism. I think that my move to the countryside finally tipped me over the edge (sheep bleating all night for the lambs taken away etc), but I've been bothered for a while by the inconsistency of a vegetarian position based primarily on resistance to animal cruelty and exploitation (as mine was). It's not been an entirely easy transition - I found giving up cheese in particular very difficult, and lots of entrenched habits of eating left me feeling very lost at first. But as the weeks have progressed into months, I gradually adapted to my new diet. The trick, I was advised, is to crowd out dairy with new foods; I have expanded my previously quite limited culinary repertoire and have enjoyed exploring new ways to eat and get the nutrition that I need.

At first, I made a lot of mistakes, especially in relation to swimming and training. The only complete lapse came after a five and a half hour swim last summer, quite shortly after becoming vegan, when I didn't properly attend to my immediate post-swim nutrition (the recovery shake I always normally used, like most, has milk products in it) and I ended up waking up hungry and depleted and eating cheese on toast in the van at 3 in the morning. A learning experience! I've tried the specialist vegan recovery shakes but they're too sweet and sickly for me, so I've now switched to soya chocolate milk or a green protein shake made from spinach, bananas and vegan protein powder (rice and hemp proteins). I've also had to say goodbye to the jelly baby (gelatine - sob!), and will be experimenting over the summer with a range of in-swim nutrition options to supplement the carb drinks (vegan porridge, fruit bars etc) plus my usual standby - bananas. This will be an important part of my summer training - to recalibrate my in-swim and post-swim nutrition. I started off using the No Meat Athlete book and website for guidance, but have branched out since then. My approach is very simple  - I aim for as much unprocessed (or minimally processed) food as possible, with as wide a range as possible. I don't count anything - calories, or quantities of protein, carbs, fat or anything else - because life's too short. I work on the principle that a diverse range of plant-based foods will give me the nutrition I need. And so far,  it's working.

My decision to go vegan is all about animal welfare and the environmental implications of the exploitation of animals; I didn't set out with any health or weight goals. But incidentally, the health impacts have been noticeable - I am sleeping better, have much more energy and feel great. Collaterally, I have lost a fair amount of weight, but I don't consider this to be an independent health benefit and don't weigh myself so I have no idea how much my weight has changed - I decided many years ago that I never want the quality of my day to be determined by a number on the scale, and the conventional assumptions that weight loss is synonymous with improvements in health is highly problematic. I think that I lost a lot at the beginning because I didn't have the nutrition right, so I'm pleased that this has now tapered off, suggesting that I've reached a better state of stability and balance.

I'm probably going to be writing more about all this later on - I'm working at the moment on a journal article comparing vegan and low carb weight loss plans, focusing on the rhetorics that they use to recruit followers (both very similar in spite of their diametrically opposed dietary philosophies - science, primitivism, masculinity, anti-obesity, 'health'). I'm not at all interested in trying to arbitrate over which is healthier, sustainable or effective, but I'm really intrigued by their shared repudiation of the standard dietary recommendations and their appeal to new commercial weight loss markets (and particularly men). More to follow on this.

So that's my news - a big swim and a dietary change. And now I'm just waiting for the warmth of spring so that I can head outdoors where the fun swimming happens.

Friday, 26 February 2016

I changed my mind...

Back in August, I announced the end of The Long Swim, feeling that it had run its course. I've got a real soft spot for my little blog and its role in my swimming life, and I didn't want to let it just wither on the vine as I became less inclined to engage in such a public documentary and commentary practice. But recently, I've been missing it. I hadn't realised how much I had become accustomed to using the blog as a space for testing out ideas and writing more informally than I have to in my academic life. I'm currently starting a new book project, and it's a bit like wading through treacle - have really missed the chance to float ideas and think things through outside of the more stressful space of the 'manuscript'.

So, I've changed my mind and am resurrecting The Long Swim, albeit in amended form. Most significantly, I'm going to move away from an entirely swimming focused blog to cover a wider range of issues that I'm interested in. Consequently, some of my future posts may well not be of interest to readers who have come in search of swimming content, and as well as ongoing swimming blogs, I am anticipating future posts on issues of feminist body politics, fat politics and the politics of food and consumption. Some of these concerns intersect (at least for me) - for example, one of the key triggers to me restarting the blog has been the recent flourishing debates online about low carb diets and swimming. In another example, my current book project is about obesity surgery, and will inevitably draw me towards thinking about our attitudes to fat more generally - a key preoccupation in the marathon swimming community. Other topics are less obviously connected to the blog's previous swimming focus; my new research project on the menopause, for example, does not have obvious resonance with swimming... although the paucity of research of the experience of the menopause among swimmers would also suggest an interesting potential point of connection. I sometimes feel like swimming contains a little bit of everything; it is something useful for me to think with.

I had thought about setting up a new blog rather than risking changing the character of this one, but that feels too complicated, especially since I don't experience the different issues that (pre-)occupy me as distinct from each other, and I certainly I don't have the organisational skills or energy to sustain more than one blog at a time.

So, I changed my mind and The Long Swim is back.