Me and swimming are not friends. Since a very young age I’ve been a terrible swimmer. When I was a little kid (7 or 8) they wouldn’t pass me to the next level in swim lessons because I couldn’t float on my back. I could take a full breath of air and sink right to the bottom. Even when I used the kickboards I would actually go backwards. So I very quickly gave up swimming in favor of other sports that focused on hand-eye coordination instead of buoyancy. Suffice it to say I didn’t spend a whole lot of time swimming as a kid, I blame it on the fact that most of the water I came into contact with was actually frozen, either in an ice hockey rink or a harsh Maine winter which seems to last most of the year.
Last summer I decided to face my fear of swimming by signing up for a sprint triathlon and giving myself 3 months to train. Then bike and run would be a piece of cake but the swimming was something I had to work really hard at. I find it very hard to relax in the water, especially while exercising; I tense up, start breathing really heavily and my heart rate jumps to 180 only after a few minutes. I got to the point in the pool where I could swim the 1/3 of a mile required for the race but I hadn’t factored in the element of other people and the ocean (yeah the ocean for my first tri wasn’t a good idea). I was getting kicked in the head, sucking down water, my heart jumping into my throat, and I’m really surprised I didn’t actually drown, I think without the wetsuit I would have. Even with my wetsuit, Sarah cut my time almost in half. I only caught up to her on the bike because her bike mostly fell apart. When I got done the race someone asked me how it went, I said, “It was great! Except for that swimming part, if I never do that again I’ll be happy.”
Swimming is something that I need to make a really conscious effort to get better at. I tend to be pretty good at a lot of sports and I pick things up really quickly but swimming is definitely my kryptonite and I need to face it. So I figured this month’s fitness experiment would be a great segue into this summer’s “learn to swim” adventure. I headed to the Tufts Pool after work to see if I was truly as bad as this time last year. Last year I could only swim two lengths of the 25m pool before needing to stop. Today I could do more than four which is an improvement but still pretty sad.
I don’t know much about swimming as an exercise but I did several 4-length swims (100m) followed by short breaks. This lasted for about 15 minutes. I measured my heart rate a few times and found that it landed between 140-150bpm each time. This was a big improvement from last year when I was doing half the distance with heart rates between 170-180bpm Then I decided that I would swim continuously for as long as I could, only I didn’t need to be doing freestyle the whole time, I just needed to be moving and get out of the habit of hanging onto the ends of the pool (i.e. do I stop because I’m tired or do I stop because I’m used to the safety net of the pool’s edge?). I did 2 lengths of freestyle followed by 1 length of backstroke or side stroke followed by another 2 lengths of freestyle and repeated it for 13 minutes. This allowed me to recover aerobically, knowing that after 2 lengths I’d be able to get my face out of the water and breath calmly was a huge help. Simply staying moving in the water for more than 10 minutes without drowning was a confidence booster for me. Baby steps for sure but I’m determined to become a good swimmer so I’m going to keep working at it.