Discover how INCUS enabled athlete Neil Gilson prepared for his record-breaking Bristol Channel Swim.
Neil Gilson (35) is an ex-international level swimmer, who was once second in the UK at the 1,500m. When his son was diagnosed with a little-known condition, Paediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome (PANS), he wanted to raise money and awareness for the charity that had supported his family.
Having lived on the North Devon coast all of his life he decided to tackle the treacherous Bristol Channel, “I have always looked across the Bristol Channel to Swansea and joked that one day I would swim it. When my son was ill it gave me a reason to do it.”
A straight-line route is 24 miles, further than it is to swim the English Channel from England to France. It’s not only further, it also has its own unique set of challenges, "the Bristol Channel has the second highest tidal range in the world so it can be very dangerous," explained Neil before the event. The crossing has been completed a couple of times from Ilfracombe to Swansea but Neil is the first to cross it in the opposite direction as he chose to ‘swim home’ to Devon from Swansea.
Neil’s swim took place on the 17th July and he completed the 28-mile swim from Swansea to Ilfracombe in 12-hours!
Fatigue, focus and swim technique
Neil spent a year training for this particular challenge and has been using INCUS for the last five months. “Using the INCUS | NOVA made training a bit more interesting, it was more than just getting in the pool and doing long distance sets. Having something to show for it at the end of a swim was really nice, it gave me something to look back on and compare to previous sessions.”
With a swim as long as Neil’s tiredness plays a huge part, “it was interesting to see how I swam when I was tiring. I could see I started to over rotate on one side once I started to fatigue.” Differences in technique over time can be subtle and hard to spot for yourself or by a poolside coach, but understanding and correcting them will make a huge difference to performance.
“I had a coach – he is really good in the sea as he is a former winner of the Surf Lifesaving World Championships, he wrote my sessions and came out on his board to paddle next to me. He helped me work on my stroke, and sharing the data from INCUS with him was really useful."
Data from the centrally positioned INCUS | NOVA can help identify areas to improve " I was slightly over rotating one side. A tiny amount of rotation you can’t always pick up on but INCUS clearly showed it, so that gave us something to work on and improve. The over rotation is on the side I breathe, I was putting my hand in too deep, but wouldn’t have known that without the INCUS | NOVA”
How to prepare for a long-distance swim
Training for any endurance events means long hours training, “I was going to the gym three times a week and in the pool four times a week. Toward the end of my training I was in the sea for three-hour swims.” Spending the time in the pool and getting accustomed to cold water sea swimming is essential for a channel swimmer, however, with a busy life sticking to a demanding training regime isn’t always possible, “I was trying to balance a full-time job and my kids so it wasn’t consistent. Some days I had to miss sessions.”
One of the benefits of having all your training data displayed on the INCUS | CLOUD is that you can keep track of your progress, “In the past missing a session would consume me. Missing a session changes my mood, I’d feel guilty until I did the next swim, but the data from INCUS gave me reassurance that I could miss a session and still be on track. It was nice to look back on all the training sessions I had in the bank. It helped me maintain my confidence.”
Challenges of mental focus
Very few athletes admit this but the amount of time and the type of training needed for endurance events can be very repetitive. “Training for swimming is boring” Neil expresses, bluntly, “ you have to train so hard for it and do so much. If I had INCUS when I was competing then it would have made training less boring and given me more to focus on in my swim sessions.”
INCUS | NOVA gives you a clear picture of what you have done in every swim session, INCUS | NOVA reliably recognises your sets, reps, and lengths so there is no need for wet notes or mis-remembered sessions.
Over time you have an accurate picture of the training you have done as you can see it stacking up in the INCUS | CLOUD app. At the end of every session INCUS | CLOUD offers simple, actionable coaching advice that you can apply in your next session. You always have something to focus on to improve your performance and the data records to chart your progress.
“INCUS | CLOUD allowed me to spot small things in my pitch and rotation that a coach would never be able to pick up just by watching me swim. Having this to focus on and seeing all the data from my swims and the progress I was making really helped in my preparations for the challenge.”
Techniques to support long distance swims
During the event Neil used his INCUS |NOVA to monitor his performance, “at every feed spot I changed the NOVA and the data was analysed. We would upload data and Liam from INCUS would provide feedback that I could work on in the next section. It helped with the boredom! I broke the swim down into 20-minute sections to help me have something to look forward to.”
Chunking up long distance events is a well-known sport psychology technique which allows athletes to maintain their focus, especially important for a solo swim. “Break it down,” says Neil, “Small chunks are manageable goals to keep you going.” Another tip Neil offers is mental preparation before the event, “Something is going to happen, but you can’t predict would it be. Go in with a plan but be prepared to change it. Something will happen and you need to be ready to adapt.”
Another useful skill is visualisation, “as I was getting towards the end I was picturing what the end would feel like. I envisaged running towards my wife and kids but when I got out my legs were so wobbly I couldn’t run!” You can see Neil and his wobbly bambi legs completing the swim below:
For the last few hours Neil was swimming against the tide. “I had a moment when the boat was drifting at 3 knots and I was not swimming any faster than that, even a bit slower. I couldn’t stop swimming otherwise I’d miss my target finish point."
Knowing that he might miss landing on the right beach drove Neil on, " For the last section I had to go all out. If I hadn’t I wouldn’t have arrived where my family were and that was what I was focusing on.”
The desire to see his family had a huge impact on Neil, “I arrived a little bit earlier than expected. I was so worried about missing the target I really picked it up and gained an hour.” It shows how much more is in you, with the right motivation.
Long distance swim success
At INCUS we are really proud to have been able to work with Neil and support him in this record-breaking challenge to be the first person to swim the Bristol Channel from Swansea! Monitoring his data throughout the event gave us an insight into the huge efforts Neil was going to – but we were able to do it from the comfort of the shore and with several large coffees to help us through the night! Huge kudos to the man in the water and the strong, dedicated 28 miles of swimming he accomplished!
Neil has raised £11,000 for charity to date and nearly £8,000 from the Bristol Channel swim, you can click through to Neil’s JustGiving page HERE and read more about the condition Neil’s son suffered Paediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome (PANS) HERE.