Is it mental to swim uphill in the canal in Maryhill, Glasgow?
What exactly is "swimming uphill" Kate? Well it's swimming 450m, punctuated with 8 obstacles up the locks, including cargo nets, ladders, a climbing wall and rope climbs, whilst freezing, dirty water gushes down in your face.
Look, I'll be honest. As someone who loves the outdoors, swimming in the grubby canal at Maryhill wouldn't be my first choice of locations. It would probably be down there with the Thames (no it's not clean, believe me, it's gross), and a stinky sea loch filled with jellyfish. But a few things attracted me to this race:
And I did!
So, is doing Neptune's Steps absolutely mental?
Well, one thing is for sure - it is fecking hard. Oh my word. I was prepared for the cold (7 degrees) and actually that part was fine. I was prepared for the sprint swims in the sense that I'm not a sprinter. Also we did 16x100s at club on Thursday, which I thoroughly enjoyed but which also gave me major DOMS in time for Saturday!
But the climbs were so incredibly tough, I can't even tell you. The current is against you, water is pouring down, and you have to rely so hard on your upper body strength - forarms, biceps, shoulder in particular - to get you over the obstacles. I struggled to get on the first cargo net and genuinely doubted I would even finish. It was exhausting. But I took a breath, focussed and hauled my injured ass up that net. The three separate rope climbs nearly killed me. I practically crawled over the finish line 11 minutes later and was gutted to learn that I was 6th and therefore had secured a place in the final - I had to do it all again!
I debated whether or not to bother, as I knew I'd be at the back of the field and I was knackered. But I chatted to my old tri coach Joel, there competing and supporting his team (all three of his girls finished in the top 10!) and he suggested I ask myself how I'd feel if I went home. And I knew I had to do it. No way could I have gone home despite the searing pain in my pelvis and my arms!
So off we set an hour later. It was colder by then as our core body temperatures had dropped in that hour. I made the decision to take it easy but as soon as the klaxon went I couldn't help myself. It was so tough but I coped better with the obstacles this time round, pushed myself much harder and didn't hesitate at the top like I had before. The battle for 15th place was hard fought between three of us, with myself coming in 17th in the end - the hardest part was getting out to the finish line - so slippy!
I am so sore today - normal pain in my upper body and my osteitis pubis is pretty bad, but it's a price I wanted to pay just to feel alive again! Being injured has slowly chipped away at my competitiveness, dragging me further down into emptiness as the months have gone on. But Neptune's Steps has given me life again and the confidence to train harder in the pool and the lochs, and try new therapies to one day overcome this stupid chronic pain.
So no, I don't think it's mental. I don't think anyone who did it is mental. I think getting out of your bed, into the outside world, switching off from the shite media, challenging ourselves and finding ways to make us feel alive and invigorated -
Yoga, knitting, running, mountaineering, baking, whatever - is completely and utterly sane.
And maybe next year I'll get that coveted place - 15th!
Sometimes in life we have to do things we don't enjoy. Somehow it seems easier to do that when we are doing them for other people or we're getting paid!
But sometimes we have to do them for our own good and that can be more challenging, especially if these actions are the opposite of a lifetime of habits.
I'll give you an example: being hungry. There are two types of hunger: actual physical hunger and emotional hunger. Many of us have enjoyed feeding the emotional hunger over decades, and breaking that habit (to lose weight for example) is exceptionally hard. One reason for this is because it feels very uncomfortable to be hungry and to live through emotions without eating.
Aside from hunger, I also find being cold a hardship. In fact, I hate it. Don't get me wrong, I love being outside and I love hiking in the snow, but I make sure I have enough clothes on. Giving up warmth and comfort is hard!
So for me to decide to carry on open water swimming through winter, something must be wrong, right?
But I have been. Why?
Well for one, as I've mentioned here before, I have this stupid long-term-hard-to-cure condition with my pelvis, leftover from pregnancy (I was so pleased to escape the stretch marks but now I'd swap them for this in a heartbeat!). So as an active person banned from doing all my favourite things, I've needed "something" to focus my messy mind on or I might have murdered my entire family.
But I've also carried on because I do enjoy swimming and I want to be able to endure the Scottish waters for longer (10km) in the summer.
Sooooo - just like being a bit hungry helps you get into your desired jeans - being cold in the water is helping me not kill people.
But honestly I hate it. At no point when I'm in the water during the winter months do I think "oh that was lovely". I endure it for the greater good because I know it's helping my summer swimming and my poor circulation and my mood post-swim.
Having said all of this, being part of Vigour Events first ever Thrilled to be Chilled - featuring Scotland's first official Ice Mile - really was truly special and reaffirmed my decision to do keep practising something I don't really enjoy!
To be officially recognised by the International Ice Swimming Association, participants must swim a mile in "freezing conditions" i.e. under 5 degrees centigrade and in "skins", which means a swimming costume and no wetsuit.
Before I go any further I'll admit I did not do the full mile. In fact, I did something I've not done for about 10 years and chose the shortest distance - 450m - instead of the longest! And I did it in a wetsuit and neoprene socks and gloves! And I even sort of enjoyed it! I've talked here before about how incredibly hard swimming in freezing cold water is, physically and especially mentally. It IS painful and your body essentially shuts down - it's like swimming in mud. I'd never actually made the full 450m in training as my hands usually pack in first, but I was pleased to say I made it round and tried to go as fast as I could!
As usual, Robert and Kirsten and the team had gone above and beyond to create a unique experience - each swimmer had our own kayaker for safety and there was an ambulance and numerous medics on hand just in case - seriously, cold water swimming is fucking hard core. And I say that as someone who has completed ironman-distance triathlons, and given birth!
The support was incredible, but watching those ice milers really was one of the most special moments of any event I've been to. The physical pain of spending half an hour in that water and the strength of mind those swimmers have is incredible. Watching them get out can be unnerving, even for experienced swimmers. Intense shivering and dizziness affects most of them, maybe slight confusion, an inability to say much! As each of them finished, their team of supporters bundled them up in layers upon layers and plied them with food and hot drinks.
I felt truly humbled and in awe of those milers. We were all awarded certificates and beautiful trophies for taking part, although I must say I don't feel deserving!
The very best aspect of all of this is that we all know and respect how hard it is, and the community is incredibly supportive of anyone taking part. I'm used to the cut-throat atmosphere of triathlon where you're out to take on everyone in your group, you're racing hard, you're comparing your bike to the businessmen's £4000 speed machines, thinking about how good it will feel to blast past them on your crappy one, and you don't have much chat. Open water swimming, and especially cold water swimming just has a completely different atmosphere, and, whilst I had a nice wee unofficial race with a young lad in the water, it was never really about that (and I graciously accepted defeat!). It seemed everyone was there battling their own internal demons, pushing their bodies to the absolute limits of endurance (mine was a whole 9 minutes 😂), and proving that they could control those demons and achieve their goals.
So, sometimes we do have to do things we don't enjoy, and even if we never look back and say "oh I did enjoy that in hindsight", even if we say "actually I fucking hated that", the benefits are usually worth it. You're able to say "I didn't want to do that but I made the decision to do it anyway and here are the benefits". In terms of health and fitness, which these blogs are really about, it gives you the power and strength of mind to do it again - to be uncomfortable, whether that's by going for a run or living through a bout of the munchies, and the more you practice challenging yourself like this, the easier it becomes to create healthy habits. Even better if you can surround yourself with a supportive community to help you through.
I know I'll be back next year at Thrilled to be Chilled. I don't know if I'll be in a wetsuit but I know, at some point - maybe not when I'm in the water itself - but at some point I'll experience the benefits of it for my physical and mental wellbeing!
If you live in Scotland and want to try open water swimming, Vigour events run weekly supported training sessions all through the year. They also offer indoor coaching for stroke development, and host a series of excellent swimming events in glorious locations around the country. www.vigourevents.com
If you think you're ready to take a wee step to a healthier lifestyle, you don't need to jump into freezing cold water. I coach people in Glasgow at Inside Out Fitness and Nutrition Coaching in the city centre - an incredibly supportive community - and we have a 2-week free trial on offer if you are interested! It won't cost you penny, just a bit of your time and a wee bit of sweat! We also offer online coaching if you live a bit further away. Get in touch for more details: email@example.com
I hate the wind. When I'm on my bike and it's windy I want to kill myself. My wonderful old triathlon coach in Edinburgh used to say to me "Don't fight the wind". It made me want to kill him too. But I know he's right. If I'm out on the bike there is nothing I can do (except get off and go to the pub: NOT AN OPTION!). Joel is right - you just have to get on with it, and if you can, embrace it. You can't win a fight with the wind when you're cycling, you just have to dig deep and hope it goes the other way soon (anyone noticed that in Scotland you're ALWAYS cycling into a headwind, no matter what direction you're going in?!).
I have also become Joel! I tell my circuits class not to fight the burpees, but to embrace them. (I think they hate me, to be fair.) Because the point is that not fighting it makes it easier to live with and deal with, and that makes us more powerful in the long run.
I have been pondering this for week sbecause we all fight with ourselves every day don't we? "Go to the gym! Don't eat that cookie! Eat that bloody cookie!" We fight with our identities all the time! But should we?
We don't always know who we are fighting because do we ever really know ourselves? We're always changing and it's hard to keep up with ourselves sometimes! I'm not sure who I am anymore, since moving, having a child, quitting my stable well-paid job and injuring myself, yet I seem to keep fighting myself anyway! Sometimes we make decisions based on who we think we are, when really we're someone different.
For example, in the past when I was overweight but not morbidly obese I'd say to myself "we'll I'm eating a Dairy Milk because I'm morbidly obese so I may as well". Whilst when I was an average triathlete thinking I was an Olympian I'd think "I'm a top athlete! I really really really want that Dairy Milk but I can't because it doesn't fit my nutrition plan". And yes I was training hard but I also really just have a sweet tooth. I'd remember back to when I was overweight and I'd fight that chubby girl that I still think lives inside me, willing me to make a chocolate cake then eat it all.
But I'm not that chubby depressed girl and I'm not a top athlete. I'm just Kate.
These internal battles often lead us to keep making the same choices over and over again that might not be doing us any favours. It can lead to tension, stress and feeling down, and often those feelings lead us to making the same choices that don't work for us, and we get stuck going round in circles, unable to stop.
Gaining and losing weight is a classic example: on Mondays we diet and go to our favourite class at the gym because we are strong, sexy and confident, but by Tuesday we're off our diet and watching re-runs of Bake-off because we are sad and old and can't be arsed anymore. Both are stories we have told ourselves about ourselves, but what should we believe?
Well of course there is no one singular answer but there are a tonne of ways we can limit our internal battles to the ones that really matter for our physical and mental health, and in the process be kinder to ourselves.
If we are really looking to make changes there are 5 steps that experts talk about. Let's say you want to give up chocolate:
You’re happy with your Dairy Milk and don’t really care about your weight. You are not thinking about doing anything to change because why would you? Dairy Milk!
You start thinking that maybe you are eating too much chocolate and it might be contributing to you gaining weight. Maybe each day you fight with yourself about whether or not you should have some chocolate, but generally the chocolate wins.
When you have managed to cut down on your chocolate habit and maybe started exercising.
This is when you maintain your momentum and repeatedly say no to Cadburys and yes to exercise, and you begin to notice positive changes to your health and happiness.
The stage where you have found yourself eating more chocolate again, exercising less, and your internal battles are raging again.
All of the above steps are totally normal.
Relapse is not a bad word, it's just something that happens to most of us and means we have to reset and go back a step or two.
These stages are inevitable on our journey to a healthy lifestyle and it's natural to have internal battles every day. Sometimes the chubby chocolate addict wins. Sometimes the Olympic athlete wins. I guess the challenge is to try to win the fights that really matter, forgive yourself if you fall off the wagon and try to make peace with all the conflicting sides of your personality. Easier said than done eh?
My top three tips are:
Any other ideas? I certainly don't have the answers. There is a balance to be found between acceptance and fighting for change. Somewhere that middle ground is a happy, relaxed place I hope to find!
The health and fitness industry loves the the hashtag #noexcuses. I see my peers using it all the time. They tag motivational posts about 100 year-old men running 100m races. They use it to show off their beautiful and tastey looking healthy lunches on Instagram. They use it on their posts about their 5am pre-work 20-mile run in the dark. They use it to show their 6-week postpartum client deadlifting 75kg already, before she goes back to breastfeeding her child.
And you know what, all these things are fucking brilliant! You go, mum! Hey grandpa, you are a bloody inspiration. And yes, your lunch looks DELICIOUS and puts my shitty carrot and lentil soup to shame.
But your hashtag can jog on. If it was an animal, I'd euthanise it.
Because what is supposed to be motivational and inspirational is often just another way to enable people to feel shitty about themselves: for the new mum who's struggling to walk after giving birth and hasn't slept in 6 weeks and feels gross - she's almost too tired to care but not quite; for the teenage boy who desperately wants big biceps, but isn't really sure why and is too shy to go and curl 6kg in the gym because the big lads are curling 30kg; for the 60-year-old because he's just lost his wife and doesn't know what to do with himself and can't face taking his daily walk alone.
There are infinite reasons why people don't make healthy choices every day. And YES, they ARE choices. I am not debating that. For anyone who thinks they are too busy to invest in their health I can give them a millions reasons why they should and a tonne of tactics to try to make it happen. And YES I HEAR YOU, FITNESS PEOPLE, we all feel better once we've been for a run or turned down a second piece of cheesecake (ok I wouldn't know, I've never done that but I imagine I'd feel pretty virtuous if I did).
It just concerns me that the #noexcuses is pretty inspirational to those of us already enjoying the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, but for the very people we hope will join us, it can have the opposite affect - it can be shaming and demotivational, particularly at the crucial moments in people's journeys. That period a few weeks or months in, when their weight loss begins to slow, unhelpful habits start creeping back and they need encouragement, not shamed for having an off day and eating a pizza and a cheesecake (ok 2 slices of cheesecake) and skipping a week of workouts cos they felt a bit down about life stuff.
Look, this has turned into a big rant and I don't mean it to be really - I just want the fitness industry to be mindful that one size doesn't fit all. Sometimes people do have excuses - sometimes they are sick or tired or really busy, or they just cannot be arsed. And that's fine. We have our whole lives to work on ourselves and for many people, reassurance works better than shame. Yes we must take responsibility for the consequences of our choices and change is very hard work - we are not going to get slimmer or healthier or muscle-ier or faster by sitting about moaning about our boss and eating crisps. But every single person is different and what can be motivating for some can have the opposite affect for others. And that's why you won't hear those words from me any time soon.
What do you think? What motivates you and what stops you from doing a workout?
I've been writing a blog about how we fight ourselves for 4 weeks. It's doing my head in so I finally stopped fighting it and myself and decided to leave it for a while!
And since it's December and all my friends are Christmas mad and I have a thing about After Eights, Bendicks of Mayfair, selection boxes and Port, I figured I'd write a wee post on staying on track (or not) over the festive period.
It's estimated that we consume around 4000 calories on Christmas Day, which is around about double what most of us need in a day! But what about all the other days in December - the Christmas parties, the leftovers, the social catch-ups with friends we've not seen since last December?
So it's Monday, you've done a class, you've had a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner and snacked on fruit and veggies. You keep it up until Thursday night when you get home and have a cheeky large glass of wine and some crisps (400 calories) But hey! It's nearly the weekend!
Friday comes around and there's cake at work cos it was half price on the Co-op and it calls to you. A wee slice maybe, it's Friday! Plus your boss has been a nightmare so you go out for a few drinks with your colleagues, which turns into 5 glasses of wine and a pizza on the way home (1500 calories). If you're a parent maybe it just means putting the kids to bed and sharing a bottle of wine and a takeaway, before passing out on the sofa.
Saturday morning rolls around and you feel like shit so it's a bacon roll and Irn Bru (500 calories). Lunch with your mum and dinner with friends and you're out of your usual good eating habits. Throw in Sunday lunch and from Thursday night to Sunday you might have consumed an extra 3500 calories than you would have done on Monday - Thursday morning.
And that's about 1lb of fat. Do this every week and that's an extra 5lb in December.
I've dramatised this for laughs but really, it's kind of us isn't it? I have been known to do this, not just in December but for years on end. It's easy to do. And the weight creeps on.
And whilst it's easy for me to write a list of all the ways you can be an angel over Christmas and stick to your low-carb-paleo-Atkins-beachbody-cleanlean-spaceman diet, and feel totally worthy and superior, is that really much fun?
I'll tell you one thing. I am cracking open the champagne and After Eights at 8.01am on Christmas morning. Fact.
But, if we want to make changes to our lifestyle, if we want to lose weight, if we want to keep up with our kids for a wee bit longer before they stick us in an old folks home, we have to compromise. I'm sorry. Pizza and wine makes us put on weight, unless we're training like and Olympian. There's no getting around it!
So, here are some tips to help you enjoy the season of excess without adding too many excess pounds.
And remember - even if you do put on a couple of extra pounds, you know you can lose them again. Enjoy your life. It's way too short to be starving yourself or feeling guilty for a bit of overindulge once a year. Just try to stay on track as much as you can. Forgive yourself if you put on weight or overindulge, remind yourself why you are on this fitness journey and carry on with your original plan.
Any other ideas or tips?
So I thought I'd write a wee blog about ways in which to keep motivated to stay active when life is in the way.
From my perspective I am generally super motivated. Before Eilidh was born I'd walk the dog for an hour in the morning, then swim for an hour, then cycle to work, run at lunch time, cycle home, walk the dog again for 3 or 4 miles and do some strength work. A typical weekend could be 2 or 3 munroes and a long bike ride. Safe to say I am pretty motivated to keep active.
But things have changed. After Eilidh was born I spent a long time with pelvic pain that was generally accepted as an inevitable side affect of pregnancy and birth. But after numerous physios and consultants and an MRI it turns out I have osteitis pubis and the only treatment is small amounts of core work and stretching, and lots of rest. Like, two year of rest - not even walking or swimming (except gently with a pull boy). I'm on month 19 and no better than when I was pregnant. And it might never go away.
And yes in some ways I am chomping at the bit. I'm going crazy, and it's making me very depressed. I want to be running and jumping and lifting and riding. I stare at the group cycle class through the window and wish it was me on the bike, hammering it out until I feel sick. I torture myself looking at other people at the top of mountains on Instagram. I don't want to be sitting on the sofa every night, or getting up at 7am instead of 5.30am.
I am sitting on the sofa every night and I am getting up at 7am. Pretty much every night I say to my other half "make me get up and do my physio exercises..." and it takes about half an hour for me to move my butt. Honestly, I'm sick of it. Doing the same few moves over and over for months and not seeing any results despite the fact every medical professional keeps telling me to stick with it and things will eventually get better.
This period reminds me of when I really wasn't motivated - when I was three stone over weight, unhappy, and most nights involved TV and half a bottle of wine and a pudding. I had no energy and I hated exercise. I had no passion.
So maybe you're injured. Maybe you'd give anything to have an hour at the gym but you have three kids and a full-time job. Maybe you have elderly relatives to look after and a husband or wife that doesn't help around the house. Maybe your dog died (my dog died too. You have my sympathy). Maybe you look at the fitness babes on Instagram and want that life where you are confident in your own skin but you have no idea where to start, and that is enough to get you back to the relative safety of your sofa.
Well honestly, I don't have a magic answer that will get you making that first step and keep you making those steps towards a healthy lifestyle. But I do have a few things that work for me and would love to hear your ideas:
Well that's 9. And lord knows it's easier said than done. I promised myself I'd do 30 mins on the rower today but I got bored after 20 and went and did something else. And EVERY DAY is a battle to do my physio because it's so mind numbingly boring. So if you have any other ideas, let me know! I have been slipping into bad habits and need a kick up the arse. 😁
Winter is coming... and it's f*@%ing cold. 12 degrees in the sun and 9 degrees in the water today at Pilmuir Quarry, Glasgow. I hate the cold and have Renauds in my hands and feet, so of course I had to go for a dip...
To give you some context, I love swimming and have done a few long-distance events and triathlons, but I always really struggle with the cold. Scotland is so insanely beautiful and a sunny day on the white beaches of the north-west coast can look like the Caribbean, but the water still feels like the Arctic.
The coldest I ever managed was during an iron-distance triathlon - an hour in 12 degrees (wetsuit, hat, gloves, socks) but I was freezing and it took about 3 hours on the bike to feel my legs again (not exaggerating).
But the benefits of cold-water swimming have been researched and discussed for decades (and I love this blog post from my pal Shona at Cool Fit Happy www.coolfitandhappy.com/can-cold-water-really-make-you-happy) and for me I am using it as an excuse to bypass my physio's recommendations: I developed Osteitis Pubis when pregnant, which takes years to heal and the main treatment is rest rest rest, which you can imagine is driving me batty. The other treatment is ice therapy so this must count right??!!
So if you feel like you might be ready to take the plunge and not pack away your wetsuit just yet, where do you start? Luckily for those of us in Glasgow, Scotland's leading open water swim company runs sessions every week through winter at Pilmuir Quarry in Newton Mearns and Bardowie Loch near Milngavie. They have just this week also launched Scotland's first ever Ice Mile in February 2017, which founder and coach Robert Hamilton assures me I will die if I attempt the full, non-wetsuit mile as I'm not used to it yet (but I'm allowed to do the 450m in a wetsuit. Yay?).
So, today I rocked up at one of his sessions to find loads of other sensible, regular people (ie total nutters) out for a paddle. Robert helped settle my nerves (ridiculous considering I've swum there a few times over summer). He warned me to just acclimatise today, paddle a bit if I can to the first buoy (150m) and see how I feel. There's always a kayaker out on the water just in case you do need help and it's so clear in the quarry any swimmer would see you if in trouble.
I nervously got in, swore a bit, and splashed my face to try to get used to the burning sensation as others glided past me effortlessly as if it was the South Pacific. Then I took the plunge. I'm always surprised at how much it burns your face and and exposed skin but you quickly get used to it. I managed the first loop and checked back in with Robert, who gave me the go ahead to try another loop.
This all sounds easy but a bit daft right? The thing is, we're talking about a tiny 150m loop that takes a couple of minutes to swim - I swam 50km once and I'm planning on 10km next summer so really this should be easy. But I was so surprised (despite Robert telling me 45 times) that your body slows right down in these temperatures and you should allow for a drop in your normal swim times if you are not used to it. My arms very quickly became heavy and I knew it was time to get out.
So, there we have it. I survived. I got out and tried to chat to Robert and he hurried me away back to my car to stop a catastrophic drop in body temperature. And I was fine. And I really enjoyed it and I felt super smug to be doing something (anything) on a Sunday morning. Honestly, I have struggled a bit with depression since I got my diagnosis and doctors orders to rest for the foreseeable future, so it felt amazing to be doing something that feels like the old me that would not aggravate my pelvis. Can't wait to go back next week and try for 500m. Who's up for it?
For some really helpful information on cold-water swimming see
To enter Vigour Events Ice Mile in Bardowie, near Glasgow see