February is here. You know that, I am sure, but it feels significant to me because it marks the end of a swimming challenge.
Swimming has, for a long time, been a serious weakness. When I first took up triathlon it was probably my strength – I had swum a lot as a teenager and, as a result of thousands of lengths at a tender age, my technique was ok.
However, then I started getting cramp. It began with the usual calf cramp with twitches in the arch of the foot but within 12 months I was suffering full leg cramps after just 400m of pool swimming. My hamstrings and quads would cramp at the same time meaning stretching out was impossible.
That went on for four years. I had all the sage advice from clubmates at Oxford Tri – eat more salt’, ‘eat less salt’, ‘drink apple cider vinegar’ etc etc but nothing worked.
In the end, I could only really compete in Sprint Triathlons for fear of a major cramp attack if I went longer than 750m in open water or 400m in a pool. My swimming reduced to three or four times a year, including events themselves.
But last year I started to see a breakthrough. It came when I was being treated for a tight glute which was causing hamstring problems and impacting on my running.
The physio, Pete Quartly at Physio Lab in Oxfordshire, was very interested in my problems with swimming and set about working out the problem.
In his opinion, it was caused by a poor lower back flexibility which, in turn, pinched nerves and brought on the cramps. He gave me some exercises to do and I studiously carried out his instructions.
It helped. I no longer had that tightening after just a few lengths and I could suddenly swim at least a few lengths in a relaxed state.
The second revelation was brought about by Sean Nicolle, a coach at Oxford Tri. He filmed me from all imaginable angles and succinctly pointed out that as a swimmer I had the shoulder rotation of an elite swimmer and the lower back flexibility of an 80-year-old.
These two elements combined to ensure that every time I breathed I nearly flipped onto my back and had to put in two big kicks to right myself. Those kicks were inducing cramp which my lower back flexibility was exacerbating to the Nth degree.
So, my swimming started coming back last year. It is pain free, I am getting faster every week, and, most importantly, I am really enjoying it.
The challenge was to swim more in January 2017 than in the whole of 2016 and I have just managed it. I swam 35km last month, compared to 33km in 2016.
Now if only I can stay on top of the running and the cycling I might actually have a decent triathlon this year. Those are two big ‘ifs’ though as I am frequently very, very lazy.