Letter of Recommendation: Swimming
Inspired by the excellent New York Times Magazine series.
When I arrive at the pool in the morning the first thing that hits me is the chlorine smell. It’s not overwhelming, this isn’t a sting-your-eyes pool, it’s more of a pleasant undercurrent that lets me know I’m in my happy place.
Then I have to pick a lane. All pools have their etiquette. At the YMCA where I swim, the first lane is for walkers — usually older people who are walking or using floaties or just sort of doggy paddling around. The middle two lanes are for swimmers and the fourth lane is for whoever gets there first which usually means a swimmer sharing a lane with a walker.
If I’m lucky, it’s a slow day and I’ll have an entire lane to myself. Today the pool is crowded, each lane has at least 2 swimmers which means I’ll have to pick a lane to circle swim instead of splitting a lane.
I opt for the lane with two other women. It’s not that I can’t hang with the male swimmers, in reality, I can’t even hang with the women I’m joining. But they’re narrower in build so when we inevitably swim past each other, there’s less chance of getting hit by an errant backstroking arm.
The water is warm. I can see blue sky through a few open panels in the roof. I pull down my goggles, plunge into the silent water and begin to swim.
I have a fraught relationship with exercise. For most of life, it was something that I felt like I had to do, not that I wanted to do. So exercise meant doing something until I got a a little tired and then stopping. At the gym, as soon as a weight felt heavy, I stopped. On the bike or elliptical machine, panting was a sign that I had done enough for the day.
It wasn’t until my husband got really into personal training that I began to see exercise differently. He has a saying: When things get hard, that’s when your workout begins. It’s those last few reps or that last half mile that really matter and that means pushing beyond just being tired.
That struck a chord with me. And when I began to push myself more, I discovered that I really liked working out. I liked the feel of being really exhausted. I liked finding the strength to do one more rep or a few more minutes of work. I liked feeling strong and healthy and I also liked the way exercise really helped me deal with my stress.
But I’ve also struggled to figure out exactly which exercise is right for me. With two kids and a full-time job, the gym just became too much. I never felt like I had time to get to the gym, warm up, work out, cool down and drive home or back to the office. I asked my husband to put together routines for me to do at home but I often got bored of them after a few weeks and craved something different.
I’m a huge fan of yoga and for the past few years, I’ve been doing a form of what I call silly yoga. Classes are set to hip hop music, you move through poses very quickly and the room is kept pretty warm — not Bikram warm but warm enough that you’re sweating like mad after class. Classes are only an hour so the whole thing felt very efficient to me. I was able to get a workout and get my zen on all in 60 minutes. The studio was super close to my house so I could go before or after work and on the weekends without too much disruption.
But as much as I loved the yoga classes, I knew it wasn’t going to last. In real yoga, the teacher focuses on your alignment and makes sure that you are doing poses correctly. This studio prided itself on never correcting a student which meant if you had bad form you kept that bad form and it just got worse.
Unsurprisingly, this took a toll. I injured my back and instead of stopping, I pushed through figuring yoga could only heal, not hurt. That was stupid. Things got worse and worse until I had to take a six week break from everything except chiropractics, stretching and the dreaded foam roller.
I managed to go back but when my favorite teacher left I figured it was a sign to move on to something else.
Next up was running. I really enjoyed that exhausted feeling you get at the end of a good hard workout and running seemed like a really efficient way to get that feeling. I could go out for a run whenever I found a free half hour in my day and as a bonus, I could catch up on my podcast listening while running.
I was surprised by how much I liked running. I have terrible knees (always have) so running is something I’ve avoided for most of my life. But I found that I really enjoyed jogging through my beautiful neighborhood. Every run I tried to push myself a little farther past my last milestone. I was happy while I ran and very happy immediately after.
But then things would quickly fall apart. The day after a run I was often in pain. I bought a brace to try and help my knee and it worked for a bit. Then, during one run, my ankle started to hurt. I ignored the pain and just kept going. By that evening, my Achilles tendon was really sore and the pain didn’t go away.
Two months later, I’m writing this with my feet alternatively propped up on a heating pad and an ice pack still trying to recover from whatever the hell I did to my ankles. I looked around for answers for how to run without constantly injuring myself but I didn’t find anything that didn’t require adopting running as an overall lifestyle and that’s not what I wanted to do. My husband gently pointed out that there was probably a good reason I had never taken up running before and that it seemed like something my body really didn’t want to do. I eventually agreed and gave it up.
And then I found swimming. When I was asking my Facebook hive mind about my running problems, one friend suggested swimming instead. It was like a light had come on in a dark room.
Swimming isn’t the easiest exercise to embrace. First you have to find a pool, then you have to pay the membership and show up at lap times. If the pool is outside (as most are in Southern California) you have to contend with the morning cold, occasional rain and guaranteed sunburn.
Plus swimming takes more effort. You can’t just put your sneakers on and hit the street like with running. You need to change into a bathing suit, shower before getting in the pool, have goggles and a swim cap with you and then shower again after swimming.
And that much chlorine takes a toll and your skin and hair, even with a swim cap. I feel like I always smell vaguely of swimming pool these days and I have to use a lot more hand moisturizer than I used to.
But the nice thing about those barriers to entry is that (at the moment at least) swimming isn’t very fashionable which means it’s not very hard to get a lane.
Plus the people who are there are there for one reason only — to swim. I tend to be super self conscious but I never worry about how I look in my bathing suit at the Y because I know no one cares. People aren’t there to preen or show off or ogle, they’re there to get their swim in and go home.
Swimming is efficient. It’s one of the few exercises where you use almost your entire body all the time. In freestyle, you’re using your arms to pull you, your core to keep you lifted and your legs to propel you. You don’t have to do arms and then legs and then back etc. You’re doing everything all the time.
Swimming is gentle on your joints. So far I haven’t gotten injured. This may be the best part of my swimming regime. I’m pushing myself every time I get in the pool and at the end of a swim, I’m deliciously exhausted. But I haven’t hurt myself at all.
Swimming is meditative. In swimming, it’s crucial that you control your breath, otherwise you’ll get a lung full of pool water. The proper form when swimming freestyle is to breath every third stroke. That’s not how I learned to swim. I was taught to breath every other stroke. I’m trying to train myself to user proper technique and it’s incredibly hard. As soon as I get tired my breathing gets labored and it becomes very difficult to keep the rhythm but it gives me something to strive for and I’m seeing small improvements every time I swim.
Swimming is fun. For most of us, swimming is something we did as children splashing around in a pool. I’ve never lost my love of being in the water and even now, I get a small childlike thrill every time I get in the pool.
I’m not 100% sure I won’t get sick of swimming. I find I can’t do any one exercise for a very long time because I eventually get bored. But right now, that feels like it’s not going to happen. At the end of each swim I smile and nod to the other swimmers as I leave the pool. Showered, changed and back in my car ready to face the day, I feel a tremendous sense of calm happiness — the kind of feeling you can only get from a really good workout.