“You should try swimming.” These are the words that have buzzing between my ears. First, it was my family doctor who, years ago, gently told me that it might be time to stop running. “Swimming is easier on the joints,” he advised. I ignored him. A few months later, my sports medical doctor, who was treating me for a torn hamstring, suggested swimming as an alternate form of training. Within seconds, swimming became a form on punishment as my runner’s mind twisted those words into “Since you have gone and injured yourself to the point where you can’t run any more, you suck. The only thing that you can do now is swim.”
Two years ago, I finally heeded doctors’ advice and threw myself back into the pool (after a 20 year absence). I hated it – not because I couldn’t swim, but because I was so much slower than everyone else. I was in a fish bowl with all eyes on me, self-conscious that fingers were pointing and faster swimmers were complaining about my being in their way. But I kept going back once a week until Covid closed the pools. I didn’t miss swimming at all.
Last summer, 15 months after my last pool session, I decided it was time to start again. On July 23rd, I walked to my local pool and felt confident getting into the water but panicked in the first 20 metres. “I can’t do this,” I thought. “It is so far to the other end. I can’t swim.” I wanted to quit but I wanted to keep going. I finished the 25 metre length. Perseverance took over as I caught my breath, slowed down and did it again and again. By the end of the session, I somehow managed to swim about 700 metres, 25 metres at a time. At my next pool session, I was swimming 50 metres at a time but, as I was pre-Covid, I was slow and very self-conscious about being in a fish bowl.
I kept at it, though, and consistently booked 3 swim spots each week at the pool. My chiropractor suggested adding some back crawl so that I could build more endurance and that helped me jump to 1100 – 1200 metres, mostly front crawl, mostly continuous, by the end of the summer. I realized that I always needed about 400 metres to warm up, a mix of front and back crawl, so that I could control my breathing and find that rhythmic pace that would let me swim a non-stop crawl for the rest of the pool session. One Saturday morning in October, after a long warm-up, I was feeling unusually comfortable so I just kept swimming; today, I still smile when I think about that first 750 metres of continuous front crawl. By the end of the month, I was averaging 1300 metres per swim and 85% of it was crawl.
I still hated swimming but not as much. I was slowly beginning to recognize how much it had helped me. My body didn’t feel as tight anymore and I was able to cut back in physiotherapy from every 2 weeks to every 3 weeks. Learning to work with pool breathing transferred to running as I found my running splits were improving without conscientiously making an effort. And, most importantly, I was becoming comfortable doing something that use to scare me; swimming was making me mentally tougher and I felt great every time I finished.
Get comfortable being uncomfortable. That is really what the last 6 months in the water have been about. For me, swimming is hard but I am getting better at it. Since July 23rd when I couldn’t even swim 25 metres, I have become able to swim almost 1500 metres non-stop. I recognize that I am still slow, so speed will be a focus in the next few months. Until pool slots are longer than 45 minutes or until I can get into open water (gulp!), it will be hard for me to work on endurance, but I know that will come.
Set goals. Make a plan. And keep showing up. I’ve got this.