fitness

Why is it So Hard to Find Athletic Swimsuits for Larger Swimmers?

A couple of weeks ago, this question came up as some of my friends and I were swimming. None of us are particularly large, but definitely at the top end of size ranges for most manufacturers (40-42 European, or 14-16 Canadian). Often, it is a luxury to be able to pick a suit because you like the colours rather than madly clicking away to get it in your shopping cart before someone else does. Supplies are extremely limited even though we are pretty sure there is a huge demographic (pun intended) that swimsuit companies are missing out on.

We want actual swimming suits because we are athletes. The roundest in our group is also the fastest and, around the age of 60, she completed SCAR. That’s a four-lake challenge over four days, for a total of 40 miles swum.

I put the question out to medium-larger swimmers who identify as women on Did You Swim Today, a very popular Facebook group for swimmers from around the world. I asked for their favourite suppliers of suits suitable for more athletic swimming, with a preference for companies worldwide or shipping to Canada.

Most of the answers were for brands I already knew, with maximum sizes being 40-42. A few people commented about specific challenges even in those sizes, such as having a longer torso than average. Others noted that options for fun prints disappear in the larger sizes, with most offerings being in plain blue or black.

Many commented on the difficulties of finding a suit to accommodate larger busts. One company was suggested because it does three versions of its suits, to accommodate a broader range of bust sizes. But expensive and maybe not really for athletic swimmers.

There were a few other interesting suggestions, though I’m not convinced that they offer the flat seams and snug fit with no chafing that I would require. One was for a company that has a unique fabric capable of stretching (and returning to its original size) to accommodate life changes including pregnancy. Another does bespoke suits catering to women above UK size 14, at fairly accessible prices but in only one style.

The last word goes to a contributor from Australia: At size 18-20 Australia (14-16 Can) it’s rare for companies to even stock suits in my size (and I can’t afford to order from overseas – shipping is a killer). If I do find something it’s plain black and I suspect not so much a ‘swimmers’ suit as something a more mature swimmer would like (ie lots of coverage, low leg cut, wide straps). It’s so annoying not being able to choose from the same range as my smaller friends. I compete in half Ironmen – I may not be the fastest but I’m definitely fit under my extra layers. Don’t get me started on trying to find a swimming wetsuit (I’ve so far managed to avoid needing one). I’m sure the demand is there – but it’s hard to measure demand if you don’t make the product available…

That last point bears repeating. It’s hard to measure demand if you don’t make the product available.

Back view of a woman in a black bathing suit walking into a lake on a grey day.

Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa

fitness

Marathon Swim Plans Update

So far, I’m mostly on track! I looked up some training plans for a marathon swim, and decided that what i need to do is 3-4 swims per week, with one long swim and some shorter swims that incorporate drills and speed work.

I did my first 5km swim last weekend, and I have tested out three different recipes for snacks plus one for drinks. Because staying fuelled and hydrated is at least as important as swimming, right? I’m still working out how often to eat and drink, but right now I’m happy with a bottle of liquid every couple of loops of my route (I take it with me so I can have smaller drinks along the way). Snacks are less frequent, but I like stopping for a couple of peanut butter/oatmeal balls every hour or two.

A friend who has done marathons says I’m on the right track, so that feels good. And my friend Aimee has been bringing out her giant swan to keep boaters away.

White woman in a yellow bathing cap and goggles, with river and a large inflatable white swan in the background

Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa.

fitness

Marathon Swim Plans

I have dreamt about doing a marathon swim (10 km) for several years now. I have done a few 8 km swims and they were fun. But in late July two years ago I broke my arm, so no serious swimming for quite a while. Then COVID hit, which put training on hold for last year. At first it was fear of potentially adding to the health care burden. Then it was the difficulty of getting to my usual lake to train. I did manage a 5 km swim in the Ottawa River, but that was it.

This is going to be my year! I turned 60 on my last birthday, so I zcan make this a birthday goal of sorts. Many swimmers do 100 M for each year of life for their birthday. That’s a mere 6 km, a reasonable training distance for later this summer.

Instead of simply swimming lots, I’m going to try following an actual training program. I’m going to aim for a mid-late August swim date, which gives me about 14 weeks to get ready. My first two weeks will be about establishing consistency, with two or three swim sessions per week (average swim distance 2.5-3 km each time). I’m not quite up to 3 km per swim yet, but I know I can do that pretty easily this week, if the weather holds up and I can get into the water.

My challenge will be getting the training done before the water starts getting cold. One training plan suggests 13 weeks, with at least one 8 km swim before the big day. The other suggests 20 weeks, with more frequent but shorter swims.

My friend Aimee has agreed to be my support, in a kayak or on her SUP so she can carry a phone and my snacks, watch out for boats, and help me keep going in a straight line. I’ll need to figure out feeds and water. The swim will likely take me 5 hours (maybe a little more). What does 0.8 to 1.0g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight per hour translate to in snacks or gels? 500 to 800 ml of fluid per hour is on top of that, but at least I can do the calculations.

Now that I have written it all down, I feel a little intimidated. No matter. I will enjoy the swimming. Whether I actually complete a marathon swim is almost irrelevant. It would be a nice accomplishment, but I swim for fun.

Diane in a blue swim cap and dark goggles, surrounded by water and with trees in the background

Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa.

fitness

In Praise of Jessica Fletcher

I have been re-watching Murder, She Wrote for pandemic relaxation. I admired Angela Lansbury in the role of Jessica Fletcher, author and sleuth, back when it first came out, and watched the show regularly. Now that I am approximately the same age Jessica was when it was filmed, I love her character even more.

Lansbury was 58 when the show debuted, and from the opening credits of the very first episode, Jessica is casually active in so many ways. She walks, cycles, skis, jogs, rides horses, and dances. She travels widely and fearlessly. She is both clever and wise. I remember admiring those things about her when I was younger. She was a bit of a role model even then.

Jessica Fletcher, wearing a beige jacket, smiling and on her bicycle, in the village of Cabot Cove

Now that I am older, I have been noticing and learning new things about the show. Especially in the early seasons, Jessica treats a diverse cast with dignity and respect. Long before the age of Black Lives Matter, a much larger immigrant community, Indigenous issues and disability rights, Murder, She Wrote tackled some of these issues and represented all those communities on screen – sometimes because it was relevant to the plot, and sometimes simply because they were people.

Jessica is widowed, but never remarries or has a romantic entanglement despite many male characters being interested in dating her (and one offering marriage). Apparently, this was something that Lansbury herself insisted on, in order to keep the focus on her character as a mystery solver. She also has a panoply of strong, interesting older women as guests on the show. Half the fun has been checking the bios to discover (or rediscover) stars from the 30s through the 60s.

Almost 40 years after she first appeared, Jessica Fletcher is still a role model for me. And apparently for others too. Aside from articles about the Jessica Fletcher effect (cycling inspiration for women as they hit their 40s), there are websites about “what would Jessica do”, as well as Twitter and Instagram fan sites. Dame Lansbury is still active at 95. Now I have new life goals, still inspired by her.

Dame Lansbury with her famous bicycle in 2013. She is wearing a white top and long black skirt.

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa, where she is currently working from home and riding her bicycle, walking, dancing, and riding a horse as often as possible. She does not solve murder mysteries.

fitness

Pilgrimage for Fun and Fitness

Recently, I discovered a group of medieval re-enactors in Europe that was planning a “virtual pilgrimage” in the style of medieval pilgrimages to famous holy sites. While undoubtedly some of the pilgrims were walking for religious reasons or in search of a medical cure or other miracle, there was also a fair bit of holiday spirit and tourism involved. Pilgrims even collected souvenir badges.

I wasn’t able to participate in #pilgrimage21 during the official weekend of May 14-16, but I did have a bit of time before work this morning, so I got into my 16th C Flemish gear and headed out. I chose this outfit because it was the closest to what would have been worn by the first French women arriving in Canada. My destination options were very limited, so I decided to walk to the site of a former monastery that has a big statue of Notre Dame de l’Afrique.

Woman in a white headdress in front of a statue of a woman in a blue cloak

Then I went to a recently rediscovered portage trail joining the Rideau and Ottawa Rivers. The trail was in use by local Anishnabe people into the late 19th C to get around the Rideau Falls. I had a surprisingly long encounter with a deer on the trail, which was pretty exciting.

Deer on a pathway, surrounded by woodland.

It was hot, even before 9 am. Still, I was fairly comfortable in my long linen kirtle and chemise, and with my hair covered. My feet were far less comfortable; my unstructured shoes work reasonably well on grass, but after 5 km on pavement, I am pretty sure there is a blister on the site of an old surgery scar on the sole of my foot. Once again, I’m sure the neighbours think I’m a weirdo, but the best part about being in historical clothing is I don’t wear my glasses, so I can’t see their confused looks.

Ottawa River looking downstream with a woods and a church on the far side

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She divides her time between working for the government, exploring lots of different fitness activities and historical re-creation.

fitness

Swimming Outdoors – Don’t Win a Darwin Award!

That advice came from a session on safety when open water swimming I attended this week. The session was organized by the Rideau Speedeaus, an Ottawa swim club, and there were three presenters.

Chris Wagg has been with the City of Ottawa as a lifeguard and trainer for 35 years. She started out with some drowning statistics for Canada. Next up was Nadine Bennett, a well-known open water and cold water swimmer in Ottawa, who blogs at https://www.wildbigswim.com/. The last speaker was Jeff Mackwood, a lifeguard and the person who set up the Swim Angel program for Ottawa’s 3 km Bring on the Bay swim, which has made it very accessible to those with disabilities, recovering from injury, or nervous about open water swimming.

On average, there are about 500 drownings a year in Canada, with 64% in May to September, 64% in lakes or rivers, and over 60% when swimming alone. The percentage of drownings among middle aged and older people swimming alone is much higher. Obviously, not all of these drownings are among open water swimmers, but it was a good jumping off point for some basic swim safety when swimming outdoors.

  1. Swim with a buddy. If you can’t then at a minimum let people know where exactly where you will be swimming and when you expect to be back.
  2. Medical emergencies are more frequent as you get older – have a buddy who can call for help, loan you a float, or just coach you back to shore.
  3. Make yourself as visible as possible in the water. Wear a brightly coloured swim cap and a tow float. If available to you, especially for longer swims or where there might be boats, having a kayaker to go alongside is even better. If you are swimming early in the morning or late in the evening, invest in some lights you can attach to your wrist and swim goggles
  4. Tow floats are not official flotation devices, but they do float, so you can use them to rest on. They are also good for holding snacks, drinks, your car keys, phone and other valuables (be sure to put them in a waterproof bag just in case the float leaks). Write your name and a phone number on the float, in case of an emergency.
  5. If you don’t have a tow float, tie a rope to a pool noodle. It won’t hold your keys, but it will make you visible and you can rest on it in the water.
  6. If you are new to swimming in open water, or out of practice, start out easy. Do short loops. Stay close to shore. Stop for a rest or snack as needed, then go back in if you are ready. If you are nervous or out of shape, find a supervised beach and swim along the buoy lines.
  7. Learn to breathe regularly even when there are waves (bilateral breathing is a really useful skill). Also practice swimming in a straight line by picking a target, then peeking up every few strokes with “alligator eyes” just barely out of the water to make sure you are still heading in the right direction.
  8. Listen to your body. Especially if you are going in the shoulder seasons of May or late Fall, pay attention to your breathing and heart rate, and whether you are losing the ability to move easily in the water because you are cold. Make sure you have a plan to get out and changed into warm dry clothes quickly. You may experience “after drop”, shivering as the blood starts circulating. Wait until that has passed before trying to drive home.
  9. Pay attention to the weather and be prepared to get out quickly if a storm rolls in. Swimming in the fog or dark can be dangerous. This is what can earn you that Darwin Award.
  10. Above all, have fun. Practice some drills. Do other strokes than freestyle. Take pictures. Admire the scenery. Revel in the freedom of being in a wide open space with glorious water all around.
Diane and her sister floating in a river.

Diane Harper is a long-time open water swimmer from Ottawa. She isn’t fast, but she has a lot of fun.

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Quick Hit Dance Workouts to Keep You Awake

Do you ever have the kind of day where working from home seems to put you to sleep? The home office set-up isn’t great so you have migrated to the comfy couch. You have no physical meetings to attend, so you just sink deeper and deeper into the upholstery. No-one ever seems to schedule breaks between those virtual meetings, so there is no chance to get up and stretch, grab a fresh cup of tea, or even go to the bathroom. Suddenly hours have gone by and you can barely move. Maybe that’s just me.

I am trying really hard to break this pattern. I use an app on my phone to remind me to get up and move for five minutes every half hour – when it doesn’t interfere with those meetings, or my flow when trying to write or revise documents.

When I do use that app, or just have a few free minutes, what to do? There isn’t enough time for a yoga session or a walk around the block; I feel silly doing jumping jacks or squats. But I can get behind a quick YouTube dance video. Today it was a couple of six minute videos from MOOV, a hip-hop/street dance studio in Ottawa.

There are so many to check out on YouTube. Zumba, hiphop, salsa, African dance, Bollywood, even Disney tunes – all in 10 minutes or less. But right now my favourites are the Caleb Marshall dance workouts. Inclusive, easy to follow, and just a little bit goofy so I don’t stress about messing. They are perfect. Check this out and see if it doesn’t bring a smile to your space as you bop around on your “way to the next meeting”: https://youtu.be/zxbN_r3Xx-w

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Happy #InternationalDanceDay!

According to Days of the Year “Dance is one of the ultimate activities to destress, lose inhibitions, meet new people, and boost physical health.”

Whether it is classical ballet, Bollywood, square dance, Zumba, Jazzercise, ballroom, hip-hop, folkdance, or any of the multitude of other dance forms, today is the day to put on some music and be joyful while you move. Bop around your kitchen between meetings. Shake your bootie if that’s what makes you happy.

I love to dance. I love everything about the experience, no matter what the dance form: the music, the challenge of executing each movement perfectly, the chance to pretend I am a prima ballerina or the star of an old movie musical. Sometimes it’s an excuse to get dressed up in something sparkly and show off. It is a source of several valued friendships. It’s a fantastic way to improve posture, and build strength and flexibility. The memory work involved in learning dance patterns is also great for your brain; combined with the social aspects and the physical exercise, it may even help fight off dementia.

These days, I do an average of three dance classes a week. I would do more if my schedule permitted. In fact, I love dance so much I also celebrate World Ballet Day on October 29. I’m definitely not your stereotypical ballerina, but neither are my classmates. We are mostly middle aged or older, and many – like me – started dancing as adults (I was in my mid-40s).

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Diane wearing a black leotard and huge smile, in the ballet studio

Who inspires me as a dancer? Sonja Rodrigues, a mother of two who is still a prima ballerina at age 50. The dancers of Pretty Big Movement, a New-York based full-figured dance company that specializes in hip-hop, jazz, African and modern. Debbie Allen, the dance teacher in in the movie and TV show Fame, who is still teaching and performing at 71. And every one of my ballet, lyrical, modern, English country, Renaissance, belly, Bollywood and powwow dance teachers over the years. You taught me how to push myself to be strong, expressive and joyful.

Dance teacher in a purple shirt and black leggings demonstrating a pirouette from her home studio during a Zoom class

Happy international dance day! Everybody dance now!

Diane Harper lives and dances in Ottawa.

fitness

Virtual Challenges

In these days when gyms are closed and exercising alone at home can be dull, I have discovered the joy of virtual fitness challenges.

The first one I heard about was Ottawa Race Weekend, to replace events that had been scheduled for late May 2020. It is on again for this year, with more than a dozen different running challenges for kids through to team events. Both it and the Canada Army Run, which runs in September, are going virtual again this year, and you must complete events during the weekend or week that they would normally take place in person. There also a couple of virtual triathlons, but, oddly, I couldn’t find any bicycle events in Canada; there are virtual cycling events in other countries.

The first challenge I tried was offered by Masters Swimming Ontario, to get swimmers into open water when all the pools were closed last summer. We could do any or all of four distances from (1, 3, or 10 km) by Labour Day. I did three of the four distances, but didn’t feel ready to try 10 km in the river because of the current. Maybe this year, if I can get a friend to provide support from a boat.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been playing along on UK-based Henley Swim Brass Monkeys challenge. This series of cold water swims, which must be completed before April 30 in any unheated outdoor water, has distances ranging from 50M to 1500M, in water temperatures from under 6C to under 14C. There are 18 possible swims, with difficulty rankings from Plucky through to Intrepid. I completed the 1,000M swim on Saturday.

Diane in a blue swim cap and goggles, floating in the river

I’m also tempted by the Lake George Virtual 32 Mile Open Water Swim, for the months of July and August. Lake George, in the Adirondacks, normally hosts a major open water swimming competition in August each year. My friend Nadine did a virtual double crossing of this virtual swim last year. She says she knows full well she could just swim it on her own, but the virtual swims through an event are uplifting and the support on social media is a bright spot for her.

Many of these events are fundraisers for local causes, and all seem to have fun swag. That’s great if it’s what gets you motivated. It doesn’t do much for me though.

I walked Hadrian’s wall through a very large organization called The Conqueror Challenge. You can do any distance-based exercise to complete 20 virtual trails on virtually every continent. The medals are gorgeous, and there are even social media groups so participants can connect and get advice or share successes. It was okay, but not has fun as I had hoped. I was disappointed by all the chat about weight loss. It was, however, the first one I encountered that was great for people with mobility issues because there is plenty of time to complete each challenge, and assistive devices such as wheelchairs are an option.

The one I am focused on right now is Walking to Mordor. It is delightfully low-tech, and perfect for this unsocial hermit. The distance achievements are simply locations along the route from Bag End to Grey Wood, as laid out in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. That’s 3,109.17 km in total, a very satisfying walk. There is no swag; there are no completion medals. It’s just a simple distance log with the feature of being able to follow your friends along the way. The best part is that it gives me a great excuse to re-read the trilogy, something that will probably be as gratifying as completing the walk.

A round white medallion from the 2020 virtual OWS challenge beside a red and gold rectangular Hadrian’s Wall medallion on a black and red ribbon

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Ramadan Kareem (Have a generous Ramadan)

Ramadan, a period mostly known to non-Muslims as a time of fasting, began the evening of April 12. What does Ramadan, or being a Muslim, have to do with fitness? Possibly a lot.

Many Muslim women feel that they cannot engage in mixed gender sports and some follow a dress code that is not welcome in certain sports. While there is little statistical data available by religion, some surveys on Muslim women’s attitudes toward sport indicate that women in traditional Muslim countries are actually far more positive towards physical activity in schools than women in Western countries. This was because of requirements to use communal showers and wear clothing considered “inappropriate”. Conservative Muslim men also have these modesty concerns, and some also avoid public gym facilities for these reasons. You can read more about the issues and ways to promote participation here: https://www.womeninsport.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Muslim-Women-in-Sport.pdf?x99836.

The whole debate about access to various sports for Muslim women athletes at all levels of ability is something that could fill many posts. Access to women-only time at swimming pools, with female lifeguards and instructors, women and girls fighting to play soccer or basketball while wearing a hijab, bans on modest swimwear, the media stories just keep coming. But there are role models too: Stephanie Kurlow, the girl who dreams of being the first hijab-wearing professional ballerina, Zahra Lari, the Emirati figure skater who has competed internationally, the 14 Muslim women who won medals at the 2016 Olympics, and all the female mountain climbers, skiers, marathon runners, cyclists, skateboarders, martial arts fighters, soccer players, swimmers, and more in places like Afghanistan – fighting against huge odds to pursue their sports dreams in an ultra-conservative society. My current favourite is Maryam Durani, who recently started a fitness club for women in Kandahar, former stronghold of the Taliban. If you do a search for Muslim women and sport, you will find many inspiring images.

Woman in a brown hijab and black sweater, holding a basketball. Photo by Yudhisthira IK on Unsplash

Of course, not all Muslim women athletes wear hijabs, but may still fast for Ramadan. Women are exempt if they are pregnant or menstruating, and everyone is exempt if they are sick, traveling, or if they are a child. So how should they maintain their fitness with no food or liquids for up to 16 hours a day for a month? Devinder Bains, a personal trainer from Dubai, recommends exercising after breaking the fast, but before the main evening meal, or early in the morning so you can eat before starting your fast for the next day. Hydrate often, and focus on resistance training rather than cardio, though a walk before Iftar (the evening meal) is fine. Ramadan is not the time to start a new exercise regime, or even worry about anything more than maintenance.

Ramadan Kareem to all my Muslim friends. I look forward to seeing you walking in the park or riding your bicycles over the next month. And when I do, I will quietly cheer you on for staying active while also carrying out this important part of your faith.

Diane Harper is a public servant in Ottawa. She has worked on women’s rights issues in Afghanistan and Pakistan.