Research publication

KarenTKarenT Charter Member
edited September 2012 in General Discussion
Dear all,

As many of you will already know, with my sociologist's hat on, I've been working for the last three years on a project called "Becoming a Channel Swimmer". The research phase of the project is now coming to an end, so no more glorious research trips to California for me in the foreseeable future! However, to mark the end of the project, I've just published a magazine setting out the key findings. If you would like to have a look at it, you can download it at:

I'd also like to take this opportunity to thank those who have helped out with the research project - I've swum, talked, eaten and generally hung out with many members of this forum over the last few years, and it's been a total pleasure.

I'm still working on the swimming research, and for the next year, I'll be concentrating my energies on the book from the project - "Immersion". And after a year off serious swimming, I'm back in training - I don't see how I can write a swimming book without it!

Congrats to all those who've swum this year, and thanks to everyone who's helped with the project.

Best wishes


  • loneswimmerloneswimmer IrelandCharter Member
    edited September 2012
    That's my reading for tomorrow sorted. Thanks Karen!

    Edit: As @david_barra says below it IS a great read.

  • david_barradavid_barra NYCharter Member
    A great read.
    Thank you Karen!

    ...anything worth doing is worth overdoing.

  • heartheart San Francisco, CACharter Member
    Thanks, Karen!
  • heartheart San Francisco, CACharter Member
    Karen, has any of your interviewees brought up the issue of weight and body image? I ask this because there's a gender angle to the work. This sport does not typically lend itself to slim, yogini figures (though some of us might possess them), and there's a form-follows-function aspect to the discussions about weight on this forum that makes me feel vain/shallow about even bringing this up. But I was wondering if this has come up as an issue for others as well.
  • MandaiMandai Charter Member
    In this regard, I was wondering if there is some info or even a list on BMI's of EC swimmers (ideally even broken down by successful and failed attempts). For the skinny/slim swimmers there is often the question "how much weight to put on?". Certainly the BMI alone would be a poor guide, though I'd be surprised if we have many skinny EC swimmers...
  • dc_in_sfdc_in_sf San FranciscoCharter Member
    edited December 2012
    A few years ago a study was done of Hypothermia in Rottnest Channel Soloists. It basically confirmed the "fast or fat" theory of longer open water swims showing significant drops in risk of hypothermia with increasing BMI or decreased time in the water.

    The water temperature for the Rottnest Channel swim is typically in the low 70s so we are not talking EC temperatures here, though there is probably a lot less cold water acclimation done by Rottnest swimmers - open water adventures of a very ordinary swimmer

  • heartheart San Francisco, CACharter Member
    I'm wondering how much I'm sacrificing in terms of speed by being, well, plumper. Insulation definitely feels better, but speed is not improving. And then there's the body image thing to throw into the mix, just to make everything more interesting. :)
  • oxooxo Guest
    edited December 2012
    Thanks dc_in_sf for the link to the PDF. Here is a snippet:
    Table 1. Baseline characteristics of participants
                                    Male        Female        All           P value
    Body Mass Index (SD), kg·m2     25 (2.8)    23.4 (2.9)    24.4 (2.9)    .246

    ... and links (mostly pubmed) to the 10 references:

    1. Nuckton TJ, Claman DM, Goldreich D, et al. Hypothermia and afterdrop following open water swimming: the Alcatraz/San Francisco Swim Study.
    Am J Emerg Med. 2000; 18:703–707.

    2. Keatinge WR, Khartchenko M, Lando N, Lioutov V. Hypothermia during sports swimming in water below 11 degrees.
    Br J Sports Med. 2001;35:352–353.

    3. Federation Internationale de Natation Amateur. FINA Handbook 2005–2009.
    Lausanne, Switzerland: Federation Internationale de Natation Amateur; 2005.

    4. Nuckton TJ, Goldreich D, Rogaski KD, et al. Hypothermia from prolonged immersion: biophysical parameters of a survivor.
    J Emerg Med. 2002;22:371–374.

    5. Tipton M, Eglin C, Gennser M, Golden F. Immersion deaths and deterioration in swimming performance in cold water.
    Lancet. 1999;354:626–629.

    6. Rogers IR, Brannigan D, Jacobs I, et al. Tympanic thermometry is unsuitable as a screening tool for hypothermia after open water swimming.
    Wilderness Environ Med. 2007;18:218–221.

    7. Giesbrecht GG. Cold stress, near drowning and accidental hypothermia: a review.
    Aviat Space Environ Med. 2000; 71:733–752.

    8. Giesbrecht GG, Bristow GK. Influence of body composition on rewarming from immersion hypothermia.
    Aviat Space Environ Med. 1995;66:1144–1150.

    9. Wallingford R, Ducharme MB, Pommier E. Factors limiting cold-water swimming distance while wearing personal flotation devices.
    Eur J Appl Physiol. 2000;82:24–29.

    10. Gerrard DF. Open water swimming. Particular medical problems.
    Clin J Sports Med. 1999;18:337–347vii
  • MandaiMandai Charter Member
    TQ dc & oxo, quite good. Considering though, like dc mentioned, that Rottnest is hardly comparable to EC in terms of temperate or distance, EC data might be more useful. Would CSA or CS&PF gather such basic data like height and weight (e.g in the observer report)?
  • KarenTKarenT Charter Member
    The Rottnest study is an interesting one, but doesn't actually show 'fast or fat' - it only shows that higher BMI facilitates being in the water for longer. So, in short, you would expect the slower end of a marathon swim field or cohort to comprise a cluster of higher BMIs, not because fat makes you slow, but because it enables you to be slow. Slow leaner swimmers are more likely to simply exclude themselves in the first place.

    To go back to @heart 's question - yes...a lot of people talked about their concerns about the aesthetics of weight gain, as well as its affect on their ability to perform other sports at the level of comfort that they were used to. Regular runners, for example, noticed a change in comfort levels when running because of gained weight. And without doubt, many of those who started the training process relatively lean and who gained weight were constantly trying to hit a level that would be 'just enough' and no more and then dieted frantically afterwards because of body image concerns. Others completely suspended concern about weight and gained quite freely and sometimes to a considerable degree, including no longer weighing themselves, on the basis that they would gain weight for the swim and then lose it afterwards. Among many of the men, this also became a kind of competition to see who could gain most successfully, and this was accompanied by a lot of physical humour around body fat - stomach slapping, fat wobbling, and very commonly, grabbing the stomach to form a fold like a mouth, then making the fat stomach 'speak' - "Feed me, feed me". I never saw this kind of competitive weight gain or physical humour among women - probably because fat is much more risky socially for women and can't be celebrated in the same way. But even what seems like a celebration of fatness isn't really - it's often about mocking fat and demonstrating that it's 'not me'. I also witnessed a lot of very anti-fat talk, often about fat non-swimming passers-by or beach users for example. So while the community seems to be accepting of fat, it's on very specific terms - i.e. that the fat is a temporary but undesirable necessity. So my rather long-winded point is that the 'form-is-function' justification for higher levels of body fat within the swimming community does not mean that there are not aesthetic concerns around fat - indeed, you could argue that the need to justify fatness at all shows a discomfort with it. The very common phrase within the swimming community that "you can't be too vain to gain" embodies this aesthetic discomfort - it assumes that fatness is ugly and undesirable, but argues that this should be ignored in the interests of function. This is a very qualified form of acceptance that highlights aesthetic concerns.

    This puts swimmers who are already fat in a tricky position - they can't take part in the celebratory mocking of fat in the same way, and were very aware, and often very uncomfortable, about the derogatory and jokey way that fat is often talked about (both within and outside of the swimming community). More generally, while people encountered general acceptance of body fat (as necessity) within swimming, it was harder to manage outside of swimming - again, especially for women, whose bodies are generally subjected to higher levels of scrutiny, and who are bound socially by much narrower standards of acceptable body size than men. This was particularly true for those who visibly gained weight, and these comments would be fended off by telling people about the swimming. One swimmer called her Channel swim her "alibi"; another called it a "get out of jail free" card. I did, however, meet several people (both men and women) who wanted to stay in the sport of marathon swimming and who decided to maintain their higher weight to facilitate that. And even among those who planned to lose weight after their swims, several swimmers (and again, especially women, who are more likely to have longer histories of engagement with the weight loss industry, for example) told me how much they enjoyed being bigger - that they felt more solid, enjoyed taking up more space, and how liberating it felt to be able to eat freely after years of guilt and restriction around food.

    So I think that there are a number of factors in how people respond to the need within marathon swimming for a certain (but uncertain) amount of body fat: gender, starting weight, whether a marathon swim is a one-off or an ongoing practice, weight management history... etc...

    Sorry for the long response. At the risk of shameless self-promotion for the project, I gave a paper at a sport sociology conference last summer called "You can't be too vain to gain if you want to swim the Channel" - there's an podcast of the talk, and a pdf of the text at

    This talk will also be published (hopefully) in a much-revised version, but the wheels of publication turn very slowly and I can't make it public in advance of that.

  • dc_in_sfdc_in_sf San FranciscoCharter Member
    Really interesting research Karen.
    KarenT wrote:
    The Rottnest study is an interesting one, but doesn't actually show 'fast or fat' - it only shows that higher BMI facilitates being in the water for longer. So, in short, you would expect the slower end of a marathon swim field or cohort to comprise a cluster of higher BMIs, not because fat makes you slow, but because it enables you to be slow. Slow leaner swimmers are more likely to simply exclude themselves in the first place.

    To be clear, I didn't want to imply that fast and fat are mutually exclusive. I have experienced first hand many swimmers with a higher BMI than I who can smoke me in the water.

    By "fast or fat" I meant that if you want to swim some distance in open water, but the time it takes you to swim that distance exceeds your tolerance for the water temperature then your choices are some combination of the following options:

    a) swim faster to reduce the time taken to be within your tolerance
    b) increase your tolerance, one option for that being to stack on some weight

    Personally I know that my slow speed and cold water tolerance combine to be the limiting factors for the swims that I want to do. Anacapa Island and Rottnest Island are both 12 mile swims, but I am choosing to do Rottnest because of the likely 10F water and 20F air temperature differences.

    NB as someone who was borderline obese before I took up swimming, I do find it ironic that I actually need to stop losing any more weight to continue to progress in my chosen sport - open water adventures of a very ordinary swimmer

  • KarenTKarenT Charter Member
    edited December 2012
    @dc_in_sf I agree with you on this - there are limited solutions and adding some fat certainly helps. I think that for most people the solution is to try and go faster (although that's a long job in my experience), and / or increase tolerance. I like the notion of fat as enabling rather than as an obstacle / threat (which is how it is usually seen in medicine / sport). I think it potentially helps us to think about fat differently - not necessarily as the disaster we are repeatedly told that it is.

    @mandai in principle, height / weight is on the medical form, but is therefore confidential and not available for analysis. But I'm not sure that BMI records on the day of the swim would be particularly helpful anyway. This is in part because BMI is a pretty useless measure of anything, telling us nothing meaningful about health, body composition etc. But also, the more interesting point, and one that is un-researched (and probably un-researchable)
    is the issue of bodily change and the difference it makes (or doesn't make). Changing body weight changes biomechanics as well as cold tolerance, and depending on the speed of change, can also have negative health / performance effects that don't affect people whose weight stays stable (whether they are fat or not). The effects of weight cycling from dieting and re-gaining have been well-documented as physically damaging over the long term; this may also have consequence for swimmers that would be interesting to look would be the weight loss / gain / stability after a marathon swim. One of the findings of my research is that although many people assumed that they will be able to lose the weight they have gained after the swim, this was not always possible. Given that the mechanisms of weight loss and gain are extremely poorly understood, and the fact that +80% of all weight loss interventions except surgery end in regain even where they have produced loss, this is not really surprising. But it would be interesting to see what the pattern is on this, for example among a single year's cohort of Channel swimmers. Not a project for a sociologist, but one that a sociologist would be interested to read!
  • IronMikeIronMike Northern VirginiaCharter Member
    BMI is crap. Sorry. And if you read the National Institute of Health's note on it, you'll see that BMI can over or under report for those in good shape.
    Anecdote: The Air Force used to offer us an alternative to the weigh in and that is BMI based on height and weight.
    While this was going on, I got an appointment to have my VO2 max done. With that came body caliper measurements. The doc told me that BMI could be +|- 12 percent different from calipers. He then calipered me.
    Sure enough, I came up 14%. AF had BMI'd me at 26%.

    We're all just carbon, water, starlight, oxygen and dreams

  • MandaiMandai Charter Member
    Right Mike, certainly it doesn't tell you how fit somebody is.
    But if you have a BMI of 20, chances are you won't make it across the channel.
    Pretty thoughful post KarenT, you couldn't have put it any better.
  • IronMikeIronMike Northern VirginiaCharter Member
    So, @Mandai, based on my height and weight when I swam Swim the Suck, my BMI was 28.
    Based on your calculations, I won't make it across a channel. Is 10 miles my limit? Or is 10 miles the limit for a bmi of 28? What about Gibraltar?
    Have you seen the pix of some of our sport's pioneers? Some of those marathon swimmers werent skinny things. And they swam so incredible swims.
    And remember, BMI is simply a raw calculation of height and weight w/o regard to body type, muscles, whatever.
    I think it is misguided and silly to put a minimum BMI number on channel crossing.
    And by your reckoning, I'd have to lose 54 pounds, getting me to 130 lbs., a weight I haven't seen since high school, about 30 years ago.
    Sue me. I'm short.

    We're all just carbon, water, starlight, oxygen and dreams

  • IronMikeIronMike Northern VirginiaCharter Member
    edited December 2012
    Unless, @Mandai, you meant 20 is too low a number. If so, I apologize for the above. ;)

    We're all just carbon, water, starlight, oxygen and dreams

  • MandaiMandai Charter Member
    Mike, yes, I meant that a skinny guy with a BMI of 20 (or lower) will struggle with the cold :). I've a BMI of barely 21 and with an EC attempt lined up I need to gain weight to have a bit more peace of mind. There is surley no hard and fast rule as to what is a recommend BMI, but I would find just it interesting to have a simple study showing the BMI of all EC swimmers.
  • IronMikeIronMike Northern VirginiaCharter Member
    Yeah sorry. Figured right after I posted. But instead of deleting the comment, I thought I'd leave it. I believe you should stand by what you say. And if you're wrong, admit it and apologize. So, again, sorry.

    We're all just carbon, water, starlight, oxygen and dreams

  • WaterGirlWaterGirl Scottsdale, AZCharter Member
    I'm always surprised by how little extra weight helps with cold tolerance. I have seen plenty of overweight, even obese, people suffering from the cold in an 82-degree pool or freezing in their wetsuits in >65-degree water. Even if they're really swimming, not noodling.

    At Masters, there are two very lean women in their late 40s/early 50s who freeze in an ~80-degree pool. But there are plenty of men and women who are just as lean as they are who don't have a problem.

    My BMI fluctuates between 20 and 21. I don't think I could swim more than two hours in 60-degree water, but I assume that would increase if I spent more time practicing at that temperature. I don't notice a BMI of 21 vs. 20 making a difference.

    It seems to me that fitness level and cold water training are the biggest part of the equation.

  • evmoevmo SydneyAdmin
    WaterGirl wrote:
    It seems to me that fitness level and cold water training are the biggest part of the equation.
  • MandaiMandai Charter Member
    A useless fact ... Captain Matthew Webb had a BMI of 30.9 if my source is correct (5'8, 203P).
  • KarenTKarenT Charter Member
    edited December 2012
    It's very clear that gaining fat alone won't stop someone feeling cold...not least because so much of the acclimatisation process is about learning how to be cold, rather than enabling the body to not get cold. I think it's also important to bear in mind that the body's response to the cold is extremely idiosyncratic, meaning that BMI is a useless measure or predictor of cold tolerance in this context (and pretty much every other context in which it is used). We all know of lean swimmers who seem untouched by the cold, and of fatter swimmers who still struggle, no matter how hard they train. But there is also considerable anecdotal evidence that, as part of this process of enabling the body to swim long distances in relatively cold water, increased body fat can be one contributing factor. This is why, in my view, it would be much more interesting in terms of research to look at purposeful (and inadvertent) changes in body weight as part of the broader training process, rather than body weight per se. Aside from whatever genetic predispositions are at work here, it may be, for example, that swimmers living in warmer climates, or those without easy access to open water for acclimatisation purposes, that body fat, combined with hard pool training, has to play a larger part in the training strategy than for those who are able to swim in cold open water very regularly.

    Gaining body fat is often talked about within the swimming community as a kind of 'lazy training'. But in the three years I have been doing this research, I have seen no evidence to support this. As an extreme example, those who purposefully gained very significant amounts of weight (sometimes up to 30-40 pounds) did so alongside punishing training schedules and diligent acclimatisation work. I think we can see this more as a way of managing uncertainty - ticking every possible box to maximise the chance of success, rather than looking for short cuts.

    As an aside, I'm working on a long post for my blog with some amazing pictures from 1929 that a work colleague sent me. They were taken in Cap Gris Nez as some Channel swimmers gathered to depart. As part of trying to trace some of the people in the pics, I have encountered Mrs Mrytle Huddlestone, who was present at this gathering - or as Time magazine described her: "most bulbous, most famed, was Mrs. Myrtle Huddleston (240 lbs.), who last year remained afloat for 54 hours in a Bronx pool, finally being pulled out in a state of limb-swollen collapse". A character worthy of some more research, if ever there was one.
  • heartheart San Francisco, CACharter Member
    I think Mrs. Myrtle Huddlestone is going to be my new hero.
  • oxooxo Guest
    edited December 2012
    Mrs. Myrtle Huddlestone, seen here during her 21 hour attempt in 1929:
  • KarenTKarenT Charter Member
    edited January 2013
    Dear all
    I decided to get some hard copies made of the research magazine, and they arrived today...and though I say it myself, I think they're rather splendid! If you'd like one (or more than one), DM me an address and I'll put them in the post (international is fine too...)

  • jcmalickjcmalick Wilmington, DEMember
    Thanks Karen! Got mine in the post today and read through it again! Can't wait to meet you at MIMS!
  • KarenTKarenT Charter Member
    I would love to have 'aquatic sociologist' on my office door!
  • KarenTKarenT Charter Member
    Dear all
    Just a quick update. I finally received the new print run of magazines last week, so the next lot are in the post. Hopefully, anyone who has ordered one but hasn't received it yet should get it shortly.

    Also, in a few months, I have to write an 'impact report' for my research funders to demonstrate how the research has been used outside of the university. The success of this report is really important in terms of future funding applications, so I've set up a brief questionnaire on my project website. If you've read the magazine / website, your input would be greatly appreciated.

    Happy swimming.
  • IronMikeIronMike Northern VirginiaCharter Member
    Got mine today Karen. Thanks! I'll read it again then do the questionnaire.

    We're all just carbon, water, starlight, oxygen and dreams

  • KarenTKarenT Charter Member
    Dear all
    Pardon the self-promotion, but in the interests of sharing what I've been doing on with the research with the wider swimming community....

    A new article has just come out in the International Journal for the Sociology of Sport entitled "You can't be too vain to gain if you want to swim the Channel: marathon swimming and the construction of heroic fatness". It's an early online release (, but your library needs a subscription to be able to access it and copyright restrictions mean that I can't post it online yet. But if you'd like to read it get in touch and I can help you out.

    Secondly, I recently gave a seminar paper on swimming for charity called "Who are you swimming for?". It's a work in progress and I know that some people who have listened to it have had some (very helpful) reservations about it. There is a podcast of the talk here -

    Happy swimming
  • heartheart San Francisco, CACharter Member
    My paper Troubled Waters, about Diana Nyad and the global MSF rules, is available for download on SSRN. I am waiting to hear from law reviews. The link for downloads is here:
  • IronMikeIronMike Northern VirginiaCharter Member
    Just started it @heart, but I already know I'll be up all night reading. ;)

    We're all just carbon, water, starlight, oxygen and dreams

  • heartheart San Francisco, CACharter Member
    If I'd known that, @IronMike, I'd have written a shorter paper. :D
  • IronMikeIronMike Northern VirginiaCharter Member
    What's that old quote? (Pascal?)
    If I had more time, I would have written a shorter [article].


    We're all just carbon, water, starlight, oxygen and dreams

  • IronMikeIronMike Northern VirginiaCharter Member
    Yes, very good read, @heart.

    We're all just carbon, water, starlight, oxygen and dreams

  • JbetleyJbetley UKMember
    I enjoyed it a lot! Nice writing @heart!
  • heartheart San Francisco, CACharter Member
    Thank you, everyone. Please feel free to address any comments to

    I already got one offer of publication and am fishing for other ones (law reviews are weird that way.) I will inform you when I know who's publishing the piece.
  • heartheart San Francisco, CACharter Member
    Friends, my piece is getting published by the Mississippi Sports Law Review! I will have another opportunity for some revisions. Have gotten some good comments from @loneswimmer (thank you!) and am happy to hear more from other readers. For your convenience, the paper is here:
  • heartheart San Francisco, CACharter Member
    I've incorporated some changes into the piece, mostly after an interesting exchange with @loneswimmer, and you can find the piece in the link above if you like. Very excited that it's coming out.
  • marysingermarysinger Vashon, WANew Member

    @KarenT - is your research paper still available online? The link I tried didn't work. Thank you!

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