7.01.2011

Swimming the Distance

I've loved swimming my whole life, but I never did it for sport--never even really tried to--until the last month or so, when I finally decided it was time to start using that YMCA membership I've had for the last year. One thing or another kept getting in the way. Transportation was an issue at first, but my husband got his own car a few months ago, so I really had no excuse after that.

All I knew was I desperately needed to get my body moving again. I'd become so sedentary this past winter, it was painful to even get out of bed in the morning. It's easy to slip into that when you do a job like mine, which requires no athleticism apart from limber fingers and the ability lift a coffee cup to one's mouth. And when you don't like exercise in general. Walking/biking/hiking/treadmill/elliptical wasn't going to do it this time. One day of that would do me in for the next week. And that kind of exercise feels like an utter chore to me.

There's one important mantra about exercise that I think everyone should keep in mind. Any consistent exercise you enjoy doing is far better for you than inconsistent exercise that you hate doing, even if the exercise you prefer is not exactly the most effective one. The key is to be consistent. And I knew that swimming was it for me. And you can't burn more calories with such low impact unless you move into orbit.

But when I first began, I had no concept of proper technique, and I only have an inkling of it now. I had no idea how to do that whole keeping my head in the water until it's time to come up for a breath thing, and coordinating kicking with the strokes is something I'm still working on. I had no goggles or swim cap to start out with. I also didn't have the proper bathing suit for swimming laps (I still don't, but that will be remedied in a few days). Basically, I got into the lane with my baggy swim dress on and paddled my ass from one end of it to the other until I couldn't do it anymore.

Then I started looking at the way some of the more polished people were swimming, and I wanted to be able to do what they did. And I wanted to move more efficiently through the water to reduce any strain on my shoulder joints. I got on the internet and YouTube and watched tutorials on how to do front crawls and backstrokes, and I bought a good pair of goggles and hit the pool again. This time, I was going to swim "properly."

But it wasn't easy. I inhaled or swallowed about a gallon of water as I taught myself how to time my breathing with my strokes, and how to keep from bringing half my body out of the water when I wanted to take a breath. It took about a week of consistent swimming before I found an actual rhythm at it. I'm far from perfect now. I'm still occasionally inhaling water, and my form could still use work, but I'm a far cry better than I was when I started this a few weeks ago.

In order to conserve my stamina, I alternate front crawls with backstrokes, which helps a lot, but I'm about to start spacing my backstrokes out more. Even after the first month of doing this, I've noticed a big increase in stamina.

As far as distance goes, I could only do five laps (ten lengths of a 25 yard pool) when I first started. I was surprised by how much of a workout even that was. A few days later, I was doing anywhere from eight to ten laps with minimal breaks in between. I celebrated it as a small milestone. Increasing my laps day by day, a little here and a little there, I'm holding steady at 18 laps, or a half mile. I'm well on track for the full mile within the next three weeks. I haven't been following any strict regimen of laps. I'm just listening to my body, pushing myself when I know I can, but remembering to enjoy myself.

I'd had no concept of how difficult this sort of thing was for some people. I though anyone could swim a mile.  Then I later read that swimming a mile is in water the same benchmark as someone running their first 5K. I'm steadily training myself, and soon I'll be able to get to that mile and beyond.

I should note -- there are conflicting reports out there on the internet about what constitutes a lap and what doesn't. At first, I was counting lengths as laps. I've now learned I should be counting a lap as two lengths, so what I thought was a mile was actually a half. I've chosen not to let this discourage me, however. When I do make that true mile, the moment will feel even more momentous than it did the first time.

You could of course forget about counting laps entirely and just focus on your time spent swimming and maybe honing your technique. However, I'm a person who's pretty driven by milestones and deadlines, so counting laps works to keep me motivated. Like writing or any other pursuit, the key is to do it in a way that keeps you wanting to come back.

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