Swimming keeps my head above water
Not everybody is suited to running and getting to a pool is a less-laboured alternative for those wanting to stay in shape
‘There is no stress in the water, no pounding of pavements, no laboured breath.’ Photograph: Thinkstock
Something or someone has done a fairly spectacular PR job on running of late. It’s simply everywhere. You just can’t get away from it.
If it’s not some new “convert” banging on about their latest personal best beside you at work, it’s a radio broadcaster announcing their umpteenth fun run, just as you realise there’s a road closure in your area for the local half marathon. So, in the interests of fairness and equality to all sports, it is time to get lyrical about the joys of swimming: its less fashionable, oft forgotten, little brother.
I used to run, years ago. When I say run, well it was actually more of a jog, but nobody seems to use that term anymore. “Jogging” seems to have gone out with the 1980s and Jane Fonda videos. If you’re going to do anything more than walk these days, “running” seems to be the thing to do. “Fun jog” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
And don’t get me wrong. I liked running. But running most certainly didn’t like me. No matter how much I invested in orthotics, or how carefully I stretched, my body seemed to be the absolute antithesis of those Ethiopians you see in the Olympics. It’s in their DNA, the ability to run. It is most certainly not in mine. I can tell you straight up that whatever Anglo-Celt gene pool this particular mongrel originated from never caught their prey on foot.
In my case, no sooner had I got my mojo back and got back into my running routine than I would get injured. Again. My ankle would start giving me gyp. Then I’d rest it for a while, invest in physio and an ankle support, and try again a few weeks later. Then bang, my back would start acting up and I’d be sidelined again for weeks. I simply wasn’t built to run, much as I might like to have been. And I still watch people who carry off marathons with apparent ease with no small amount of envy. But I know that that will never be me.
So instead I took up swimming with which, after a career break to have kids followed by a slipped disc, I have recently reacquainted myself. And what a joy it has been. I had forgotten that feeling of absolutely contentment that follows a good swim. It is priceless.
While running always took a lot out of me, physically and mentally, swimming energises me. And while I was always proud of myself that I had managed the 5k or 10k of an evening, I would always come home knackered. It was a slog in so many ways, if a fulfilling one.
The pool sanctuary
Swimming is different. The pool is my sanctuary. There is no stress in the water, no pounding of pavements, no laboured breath. There is me gliding through the water and no one else, because the absolute glory of swimming is that it envelops you entirely, and for that half hour at least, nothing or nobody can touch you. Your thoughts are entirely your own and it provides crystal clear head space that nothing else can rival.
I love that I can hear nothing more than the bubbles escaping from my mouth and the rhythmic movement of the water around me. That my whole head can bury itself and escape entirely from the outside world into this protective cocoon. For those 20 lengths, all I need to do is look at the lines on the bottom of the pool and breathe. Nothing else. It is mindfulness underwater. It is the true embodiment of peace of mind.
It is as if the water suspends not just the weight of my body, but that of my mind. As my worries, fears, concerns, dissolve into the water around me, and I exist in a suspended reality. The water restores my equilibrium, my balance. It irons out the creases of my mind. And when I eventually see fit to re-engage with the outside world, anything that was bothering me before invariably doesn’t seem half as bad as it did.
There are few more inviting vistas than that of an untouched pool. On the very, very rare occasions I get our local pool to myself, there is nothing more satisfying than abruptly shattering the tranquillity of that oasis by diving straight in and carving up a lane. Some would see it as mundane, monotonous, trudging up and down the pool, but I find comfort in that routine, that ritual. Whereas with running, the “wall” was always hard to break through, whether that came at the start of a run, or half way through; there is never a “wall” with swimming.
After the initial brace of the cold of the water, I’m gone. No effort required. And while with running, I was always waiting for the inevitable niggle during or afterwards, the sheer joy of swimming is that it tends to soothe injuries, not generate them.
I find my mind is never sharper than after a swim. It is almost as if it simply washes away all that has been clogging up my head and allows me to think straight.
Running used to do similar, but never as effectively. And while running gave me an effective outlet for anything that was on my mind by simply venting it through the repetitive pounding of my feet against the ground, it also made me bone tired. So while my mind would be clear afterwards, my muscles would crave rest.
By contrast, swimming makes me feel energised but not exhausted, alert without being banjaxed.
The great beauty of the pool is that it accommodates everyone, from older or infirm people who use the water as a balm for whatever ailment is bothering them, to the pregnant women who make tentative strokes within it, right up to the other end of the spectrum, the crazed tri-athletes who blast their way through the water, cut through it and use its force to excise whatever within them needs to be excised. It welcomes all, and has a place for all.
Swimming keeps me sane. It clears my mind and my body of the daily grind of life, and while it may be less sociable than its trendier neighbour, swimming is my thing. For me, it is quite literally a case of sink or swim.