Roger Cox: This swimmer swears by Tunnock’s Tea Cakes

Endurance swimmer Anna Wardley. Picture: Simon Jessop
Endurance swimmer Anna Wardley. Picture: Simon Jessop
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Meet the swimmer who swears by Tunnock’s Tea Cakes, fuelling my theory that you can eat what you like, if you exercise enough

A s a deeply unscientific humanities graduate with various friends and family members who are scientists, I spend a lot of time being gently patronised for my quaint, medieval views about how the world works. My nearest and dearest have even coined the phrase “another Roger theory” (sung like a particularly annoying radio jingle, with the last word pronounced “theee-reee”) which is wheeled out every time I hazard a guess about why things are the way they are.

Usually, I’ll admit, my big ideas begin with the words “Man in his natural state…” and have absolutely no basis in reality, but now, for once, I’m feeling just a tiny bit vindicated.

One of my favourite made-up theories is that a person can eat whatever they like, more-or-less, and still remain perfectly healthy, as long as they do enough exercise to burn off all the calories.

This proposition is usually used as a justification for eating industrial quantities of biscuits, and is frequently (and gleefully) demolished by the scientists in my life. But now I have a case study to prop up my argument: a superhuman endurance swimmer called Anna Wardley.

In a few weeks’ time, Wardley will attempt to swim a gruelling 30 mile lap around the wind-and-wave-swept Isle of Tiree, powered, in part, by Tunnock’s Tea Cakes.

This isn’t a sign that she’s underestimating the scale of the challenge, and, no, she isn’t sponsored by Tunnock’s either (although perhaps she should be). An experienced long-distance swimmer with a solo English Channel crossing and a World Ice Swimming Championships under her belt, Wardley takes nutrition very seriously, and these chocolatey treats provide her with a source of both calories and motivation.

“I have a feeding plan for these swims,” she explains. “I stop every hour for the first three hours and after three hours I switch to every 30 minutes. When you swim in these hour-long and half hour-long blocks then all you’ve got to look forward to is stopping to feed. It sounds ridiculous, but your whole world starts to revolve around feed stops. I try to have things that really motivate me, and I love Tunnock’s Tea Cakes. Knowing that I’m going to have one soon really helps.”

The celebrated Scottish snack isn’t the only thing on the menu for Wardley’s Tiree swim – the team on her support boat will also be serving up pasta, rice pudding, bananas, kiwi fruits – and also, scientists please note, fizzy snakes and chocolate pudding.

Wardley will be on Tiree from 10 to 24 August, waiting for calm enough conditions. Nobody has ever completed a swim around the island before, so if she succeeds it will be a remarkable first – and the omens are good.

Last month, the 37-year-old finished a much longer swim around Jersey – 41 miles in all. It took her 11 hours, 53 minutes and five seconds. Or, to put it another way, 38,000 strokes. In accordance with distance swimming protocol, Wardley doesn’t wear a wetsuit – just a standard one-piece swimming costume. The water around Jersey was between 12 and 14 degrees, which is about the same as it will be off Tiree next month.

“Everyone in Jersey was really concerned about me swimming in those temperatures, but it was actually really good preparation for Tiree,” she says. “Now I know I can swim that far in these temperatures it gives me a lot of confidence.”

Tiree will be the fourth stop on what Wardley calls her Five Island Swim Challenge. So far she has ticked off Dragonera off the coast of Majorca (6.2 miles); Portsea, which involved negotiating the busy shipping lanes in Portsmouth harbour (13 miles); and Jersey. After Tiree, she has the Isle of Wight to look forward to – a daunting 60 miler.

So what’s the secret to being able to swim for so long at a stretch? “For me what it’s all about is first the mental challenge to keep going, and then the nutrition,” she says. “If you can get your nutrition right and keep the energy levels up you can keep going almost indefinitely.”

So, scientists, there you have it: Tunnock’s Tea Cakes – kinda like Duracell batteries for long-distance swimmers. Who knew?