I was almost instantly smitten. I loved the feeling of my arms pulling me along, the texture of the liquid all around me. I slowly acclimated myself to swimming culture—learning the lingo of length and lap, how many laps to a mile, how to use a kickboard, the way a flip turn improves your time. I never got terribly speedy, or approached Coach's diligence, but I did swim. I joined her pool, assembled my swim gear, bought a good pair of goggles. And when I did my first mile (36 laps in most full-size pools), I was inordinately proud. It sounded so grand: an entire mile. There was a ring of completeness to it, an aura of virtue.
Slowly, my arms developed a hint of muscle, a tad of definition. I got my mile down to 50 minutes—which, for a slowpoke like me, was a good time. I settled into a swimming schedule, sometimes doing just three-quarters of a mile, with half a mile as my bare minimum.
After some years of steady swimming, a job with crazy hours and a new home in a new city (with no nearby pool) depleted my resolve. The arm definition gradually, sadly, began to fade. And then came a baby, with the attendant time crunch and flaccid stomach.
A few months after my son was born, I accepted a neighbor's invitation to join a local Masters group—adult swimmers who practice together with a coach, who doles out drills and pointers. She assured me that it was very relaxed and open to anyone, at any skill level. Although the group was as relaxed as advertised, it still turned out to be beyond me. The coach's sets often involved strokes I didn't know— other than the crawl, I could do only a strange breast-butterfly hybrid that I'd taught myself.
I quit the group after a couple of months but vowed that I would someday take lessons and learn at least one other stroke. I found a wonderful teacher named Laura St. Claire, and I recently took my first lesson with her. She praised my crawl (you can imagine my joy!) and set about trying to tease apart the elements of my self-taught breast-butterfly.
I didn't want to lose the meditative aspect of my swimming sessions, but I was also interested in gaining speed and losing some of the baby-induced fat. I asked St. Claire about swimming as a workout. Her first reaction was to emphasize that the sport is a total-body exercise: "It's absolutely a full aerobic workout—it uses all the muscles in your body—and you can do it your entire life. If you go to a Masters swim meet, you'll see people in their eighties and nineties."
Then she indignantly addressed one of the most common complaints about swimming—its supposed ineffectiveness as a weight-loss method. "I've had people say to me, 'I can swim a lot, but I never seem to lose weight.' They're getting in the water and doing the same 20 lengths or 40 lengths at the same speed. They're just doing what's comfortable. They never push themselves."
I admitted to her that even at the peak of my swimming passion, soon after I'd met Coach, I never particularly pushed myself. She gave me a basic, common-sense formula to use in future workouts: "Decide on the number of laps you're going to do, and then divide your workout into thirds. The first third is a warm-up—do those laps at whatever pace feels comfortable. For the second third, do intervals: Push yourself—go as fast as you can for a lap, and then give yourself 20 seconds of rest. For the last third, mix it up. Use a kickboard for a couple of laps to strengthen your legs, or put on fins, which increase your speed dramatically. You might try practicing a new stroke or working your arms by using a pull buoy [the foam gizmo that swimmers put between their legs]."
I was afraid that once I entered the world of intervals and pull buoys, I'd lose the dreamlike, otherworldly feeling I so treasured about my water time. But then I spoke to Phillip Whitten, author of The Complete Book of Swimming, and he set my mind at ease.
"Compared to running or aerobic classes, swimming is much, much better at building upper-body strength," he said. "You're pushing against something; your body encounters resistance in the form of the water." He echoed St. Claire's imprecations against those who believe swimming can't help you lose weight, adding that it "has all of the cardiovascular benefits of running or cycling without the pounding and the injuries." I nodded politely as he enumerated the sport's many benefits. But then he got my attention. He paused before articulating a final thought, "It's almost a spiritual thing: Once you get into that rhythm, you become part of the water. It's a completely relaxing, cleansing experience. You get into this zone. It's hard to describe—you're not thrashing against it, and it feels like you can go on forever."
My feelings exactly.
Anne Glusker, a former Washington Post editor, is a writer living–and swimming–in Takoma Park, Maryland. For information on Masters swimming groups near you, go to www.usms.org. If you prefer to train yourself, read Total Immersion: The Revolutionary Way to Swim Better, Faster, and Easier by Terry Laughlin with John Delves (Simon & Schuster).
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