Five years ago I decided to take up swimming. It kind of started with my Dad (for that matter, so did skiing…..hmmmm…..). For years, Dad’s been swimming a half mile three or four times a week. He still does, even though he’s 90. Maybe that’s why he’s managed to stay so healthy.
I figured, hell, if the old man can do it, so can I.
So I started swimming at my local fitness center. They have a really nice pool that’s generally underused. There’s the occasional lap walker or intimidating super swimmer from out of town, but most of the time, I have it all to myself. Which is fine by me.
I started swimming without benefit of coaching. This was probably a mistake. I know there are ways to start and there are ways to start, and I’m sure I could’ve done a lot better if I had a little help. But I figured I learned to swim as a kid, and that was probably enough. So even though I eventually worked my way up to 72 lengths — that’s a mile, folks — I learned a few things the hard way. These are probably pretty basic to anyone who swims, but because I discovered them myself, to me, they were pretty revelatory:
Lesson #1: Swimming is hard.
Don’t let anyone fool you: swimming isn’t for sissies. It’ll kick your butt. Maybe it’s the resistance of the water, maybe it’s the breathing, maybe it’s because you’re doing a lot of things with your body, moving your arms and legs simultaneously for a long period of time. Could be a combination of all these things. I don’t know. Just take it from me: even if you bike or ski or lift weights at the gym — all of which I do — swimming is tough. If you think you’re going to jump in the pool and be Michael Phelps, you’re in for a big surprise.
Lesson #2: Pacing is everything.
When I first started, I went as fast as I could right out of the box. Bad mistake. I was burned out in pretty short order.
I finally figured out I could go farther and longer if I only slowed down. Then I took it a bit at a time, increasing my distance each time I swam. It took me a few months, but I managed to work up to a mile. And though I’m not burning up any speed records — in fact, I’m terribly slow — I manage to go the distance. That might not be enough for some people, but it is for me.
Lesson #3: Chlorine stinks.
Literally. The pool I swim in is pretty heavily chlorinated, as I guess many of them are. Chlorine is awful. It makes my nose itch for the rest of the day. And I can smell it on my skin even after I shower. It can also wreak havoc on your swimsuit. Here’s some advice: buy one that’s chlorine resistant. The first year I swam I wore a very nice blue and white print suit, and after a few months it was almost completely white. The power of chemicals. Also important: protect your hair. Chlorine is extremely drying. Before I get in, I rinse my hair in fresh water and coat it with conditioner. This acts as a barrier against the chlorine. I also rinse, rinse, rinse as soon as I get out. And I wear a swim cap. And goggles. It’s very important not to forget goggles. Your eyes won’t forgive you if you don’t.
Lesson #4: Swimming is b-o-r-i-n-g.
Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. Repeat 72 times. To me, this is the biggest drawback of lap swimming. It’s hard not to zone out. Which wouldn’t really be a problem, but then I’d lose track of how many laps I’ve swum and that’d really stink. I don’t know; maybe there’s a trick in keeping it interesting. If there is, I haven’t found it yet. Why keep at it? It’s good for me. And I love how I feel when I’m done.
Lesson #5: Use it or lose it.
Swimming is one of those things you have to maintain. If you lay off for a month or so, you feel it the next time you hit the pool. This happened to me only recently. I didn’t swim for a month, initially because I was out of town, and then because I had a bad cold. My first time back in the water, I thought I was going to die. After that it wasn’t too bad.
Lesson #6: It wouldn’t hurt to get some coaching.
I haven’t done this yet, but it’s definitely on my list. I’d love to improve my breathing, my stroke, and the way I turn. There’s no doubt I have lots of bad habits. And I’d love to learn to swim more efficiently.
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I’m going to Florida soon to see my parents, and I’ll definitely swim with my Dad. He’s very, very slow, but he perseveres with a grace that comes from decades of experience. If nothing else, taking up swimming has allowed me to do this. And that makes it all worthwhile.