It almost feels like something I have to whisper quietly or confess.
I can’t swim.
But soon I’ll be able to swim. Two weeks ago I started taking lessons at the local pool. And not only will I become a better swimmer, but I might become a better runner too.
I had some sporadic lessons when I was a kid. On one family holiday in Wexford when I was seven, our hotel had an indoor swimming pool. My two brothers and I had befriended another kid our age who was staying there, and one afternoon his mother tried to give us a basic introduction to the natatory arts.
I held onto the side rail, kicked a bit, derived some amusement, and then got out of the pool for another five years. Swimming hadn’t captured my imagination.
(Far more revelatory for me on that holiday was hearing our breakfast waitress singing along to ‘Give It Up’ by K.C. and the Sunshine Band on the radio – it was the first time I understood the effect of a catchy pop tune.)
Five years later, I was in my final year of primary school. Our teacher and the school principal (the same principal who had encouraged our class to do a 10K charity walk) decided to take us up to the pool at the local sports complex for a few weeks of swimming lessons on Tuesday afternoons.
Both men were good and patient teachers, but I just didn’t take to the experience even though it meant an afternoon out of class. The water got up my nose and in my ears and eyes, despite my goggles. I felt tense with the smell of chlorine and overwhelmed by the confidence of better swimmers in my class. After those few weeks of swimming, the best I could do was to kick across the width of the pool with a foam board under one arm. And there I left my efforts at swimming.
Now, years later, I have picked up that foam board again.
The motivation was simply that there’s a public swimming pool in the school right across the road from where I live, so every morning and evening I see it. That sight must have sunk in subliminally, just like my physio’s encouragement to add cross-training to my running schedule. (By learning to swim, I’ll finally be able to face my physio with a clear conscience.)
I’m definitely not planning to do a triathlon, though.
My first class was tough – physically and mentally. It’s never easy as an adult to admit that you can’t do something that most other people seem to take for granted, especially if you feel self-conscious about being in a swimming costume. (When I started running I felt self-conscious when running on the street in shorts. Now I was in swimming trunks!)
The twice-weekly beginners’ class at our pool is ongoing, and the rest of the group of six learners had already attended a couple of classes. So, the teacher kept me to the side, let the others splash haphazardly across the pool, and had me holding onto the rail and kicking. I was right back to being seven years old in that hotel pool in Wexford.
Physically that first lesson was exhausting. When I graduated to using a foam board (again) I kicked much too hard – like a runner, in fact. My leg strength meant I was able to kick across the width of the pool on a single breath, but this only left me gasping desperately for air when I surfaced.
Since then, in just two weeks I’ve improved my technique. My kicking is fine now; I swing economically from the hip and use my feet as flippers. With my arms straight in front of me and my hands joined I can kick across the pool without any flotation device.
All I need to do now is learn how to do that while using my arms and taking the occasional breath. Trying it tonight, I found that as soon as I brought in the arm stroke or turned my head to breathe, I lost control of my kick and the whole thing fell apart. But with practice I know I’ll relax and let the coordination happen naturally.
So how does all this swimming help my running?
Well, I’m using different muscles to when I’m running, which means I’m developing other parts of the body and gradually gaining a more holistic level of fitness. My core muscles in particular will see the benefit.
Swimming is a non-weight-bearing activity, which makes it perfect for a runner looking to recover. Last night I ran ten hard, hilly miles and this morning I was aching after it – so it was a pleasure to let my legs float in the water. I felt no ill-effects during tonight’s swim; I could kick freely and energetically for the whole lesson.
And swimming has made me more aware of breathing deeply. With all those single-width swims on one breath I’m convinced that I now have lungs like a pair of Graf Zeppelins. This will stand to me in the final miles of any future marathon.
Yes indeed, taking up swimming lessons has been one of my better ideas, and if you’re a runner who can’t swim I encourage you to give it a try.
One thing: remember to wear flip-flops in the changing room, shower and poolside. It’d be a cruel irony for a runner to catch athlete’s foot.