If you follow me on Twitter then you’ll have noticed that I’ve changed my profile picture to a swimmy one (I wrote why this was kind of a massive big deal here, please do read that if you haven’t already) and you may have also noticed that I’ve started using fancy words like “chlorine”, “chaffing” and “nose clip”. The reason? I’ve decided to do myself a favour and actually look after the limbs and organs that my soul is renting.
As I detailed here, I was discharged from hospital at the beginning of April – marking the first time in my adult life that I’ve not been being babysat by a bunch of doctor types. I wanted to celebrate by taking up a very physical challenge, to do something I’d never have been able to do before, and I chose swimming.
I chose swimming partly because it’s ‘safe’ and ‘low impact’ and blah blah blah blah if you’ve ever had injuries, but mainly I chose to take up swimming because I desperately enjoy being in the water. I guess a lot of us associate water with positive things, if you’re not a swimmer then chances are you only swim in the sea and pool when you’re on your holibobs. And we all love holidays, right?
Of course, start swimming in your local lesiure centre and you’ll realise pretty quickly that swimming ‘in real life’ isn’t quite the same as swimming on holiday. It’s less “five minutes of splashing to justify the second bowl of chips” and more “I think I’m having a cardiac arrest and I’ve only done three lengths SEND HELP SEND HELP”.
Swimming is hard.
Those of you who know all about my fundraising for Barnardo’s will know that my ‘summer of swimming’ challenges are all open water – and open water swimming is very different to pool swimming. As I have found out WAY too bloody late. (Seriously, I first swam in an 11 degree lake this weekend and my 1500m event is A WEEK TODAY. Insert a zillion swear words and twelfty panic attacks).
I’m not an open water swimmer yet (nor am I convinced I ever will be), but I am getting there with pool swimming. Enough to feel like these below Q&As might be useful to some of you.
I literally only started swimming at Easter, so it’s not even been two months since I started. But I love it. And I want you to love swimming too. Quite a few people have been asking me questions about swimming and sometimes it’s nice to get answers from someone who was themselves only a complete beginner five minutes ago, so I hope the below helps a bit…
Can you lose weight swimming?
I’ve put this question first because it’s the one I get asked the most. A lot of people only start getting into exercise because they want to lose weight and I TOTALLY get that, but once you’re into a sporty regime you realise there are so many benefits aside from weight loss. For the first time in years I’m going to bed exhausted and sleeping straight through til morning, but I also wake up much more spritely and generally feel like I have a tonne of energy, even though I’m using more energy than ever before. The endorphins thing isn’t a trick from doctors to try and make exercise sound like a fun drug trip, the happy chemical vibes that start to float around are actually real. I KNOW!
No but seriously, can you lose weight swimming? I want numbers.
Ok, the good news is that you really can. I am currently proof of that and loving it. You need to swim hard though, a lot of people I see at the pool (women especially) look like they’ve just gone with a mate for a leisurely chat in a giant communal bath. You won’t lose weight doing “I don’t want to get my hair wet” head out breaststroke. You will get a sore neck though. If you swim hard and fast for 30 minutes front crawl you’ll burn more than 400 calories. Compare that to running 6mph for 30 minutes where you’ll ‘only’ burn 300 calories. Even a slow front crawl will burn you 260 calories in half an hour. (Yes these calorie figures are averages and yes, it does depend on your current size/gender/heart rate etc, please don’t be a smart arse about it).
But I tried swimming and I nearly died?
DON’T GIVE UP! Swimming is, genuinely, one of the hardest sports there is. People often don’t appreciate how hard swimming is because they’re the pool chatters described above who reward themselves with a slice of cake after and wonder why they’re not losing weight. Swimming is really really tough and works nearly your entire body – abdominals, biceps and triceps, gluteals, hamstrings and quadriceps all get pushed HARD. (If you swim hard). I had zero fitness when I started and managed literally seven minutes before having to get out. My chest hurt ALL DAY. I honestly didn’t feel like I’d caught my breath back properly til the next day. I swam the next day though and I was a bit better. And every session you do get better. Have low expectations to begin with and stick with it, swimming is very personal and it’s about increasing distances, lengthening strokes and bettering YOUR times. It’s not about being a sexy Phelps face.
What about swimming with asthma?
As an asthmatic who didn’t fancy having breathing difficulties in a hole full of water, this was my biggest concern before starting. The good news? Swimming is regarded as the best form of exercise for asthmatics. You’re not in an artificial gaggy air con environment, instead you’re surrounded by warm moist air which is always good for asthma sufferers. Swimming increases lung capacity and the controlled breathing that you need to master for any half decent technique in front crawl/breaststroke and butterfly should only bring heaps of benefits. Put it this way, Rebecca Adlington is asthmatic. I take one puff of ventolin before any swim sesh and always have it poolside, partly so it’s directly on hand but also so that other people/lifeguards can see I’ve got asthma JUST IN CASE anything horrid were to happen. Some asthmatics find the chemicals in pools to be an attack trigger, in which case outdoor pools/non chlorinated pools are the only safe option.
But swimming is so boring!
I find myself having to defend swimming a lot, how much fun do people want exercise to be?! Yes, swimming in a pool is a lot of up and down but when you’re training hard you have NO TIME to think about being bored. No, you can’t watch telly, you can’t easily listen to music (underwater MP3 players do exist, though I’m yet to try one) and you can’t ogle at fellow sexy exercisers. You CAN play games to beat your best though, and surely that’s all the entertainment anyone needs?
So what DO you think about when swimming?
Not dying. Seriously, if I’m swimming hard I have no space in my brain to think about anything other than breathing, stroke counts, lap counts and not passing out. That’s actually why I love it, it’s the only hour in my day where I’m not in my usual echo chamber of nonsense and self doubt. You CAN’T think about work when you’re trying not to drown.
But swimming doesn’t feel like proper exercise the way running does?
I like swimming but it makes me eat ALL THE FOOD. Help?
It’s normal to feel hungry after exercise, you have just burnt a heap of calories after all, but it’s particularly bad with swimming. Some people literally feel like they’re starving after a swim…it’s to do with the water temperature you exercise in apparently. The key thing is just to not stuff your face after a swim, it really is that simple. If you want to lose weight then burning 400 calories is negated when you reward yourself with 1000 calories of pizza love after….you’re still 600 calories up. Your body may have gotten a work out but weight loss wise, you’d have been better off on the sofa without the extra 600 calories. Have an apple, have a banana or do what I find works best and swim just before a meal – then you get the food reward after exercise but it’s one of your meals, not just a random 700 calorie blow out in the middle of the day.
What about my lovely hair?
Yeah, the hair thing 🙁 High maintenance blondes might not be feeling too compelled to rush towards the giant vat of chlorine. Anyone that colours their hair (or just gives two hoots about it) will need to take steps to protect their hair. The best thing you can do is get your hair sopping wet in the showers before entering the pool, the hair will soak up so much fresh water that the chlorinated water won’t penetrate so deeply. You can also lather on some conditioner to wet hair before putting on a swimming cap, to act as even more of a barrier. Just remember that swimming caps aren’t designed to keep your hair bone dry – they’re to keep hair off your face, your head warm and your body streamlined.
How can I protect my skin?
I swim in a particularly chlorinated pool and my skin went cray when I first started, it was sad and scaly and scabbed – LOVELY! I had to start putting Sudocrem on my shins and arms before swimming (to act as a barrier) and then wash well in the showers after and then apply a very plain emollient cream – like E45 but I think I bought a pikey Boots pharmacy version. My coach recommends showering again later in the day, but she’s beautiful and Austrian and I’m lazy.
What do you wear to swim?
One of the great things about swimming is how cheap the kit is, you don’t need a wardrobe full of gorgeous gym gear or £200 trainers, you just need a swimsuit. You can’t swim properly in a bikini (well, I’m 99% sure you can’t) so invest in a proper ‘sports’ swimsuit, as opposed to a hot Topshop one. You want one that claims to be chlorine resistant, but either way you still need to thoroughly rinse it out in fresh water as soon as you’ve swum (i.e in the showers, not hours later when you remember at home). Then it needs to air dry. I wear the same Reebok swimsuit every day and it hasn’t given up yet. (Though I’m bloody bored of the sight of it).
What about goggles?
You need goggles, they’re a must. Once you’re happy with the fit don’t fiddle with them, I haven’t adjusted mine once since first getting them ‘right’. The other important thing which is sometimes hard to do is to not take them off once you put them on for your session. Leave them on (and leave them alone!) until the very end of your sesh and they’re less likely to steam up/leak/drive you mad.
Is it worth bothering with a swimming cap?
I didn’t think so until I got one and now I would say ONE MILLION TIMES YES. It makes swimming so much easier. I have a silicone Speedo one. They’re cheap and make a big difference. Again, rinse in fresh water after use.
What equipment do I need?
You just need googles, a swimsuit and, ideally, a swimming cap to start with. But moving on to toys is fun! (Oooo errrr). I will write more about ‘toys’ in a separate post. (Update: said post is written! See here)
How do you start swimming?
It’s important to research swim times at your local pool, it’s a real pain in the arse when you’re all psyched up to swim and then you realise once you’ve paid that you’ve turned up during the one hour where the kids go mental with inflatables. Look for lane swimming times for adults and try to go then if you can. Once you’ve had a few sessions on your own I HIGHLY recommend getting a coach, even if just for a one off lesson. Again, your pool will have adult coaches and they should be able to organise this for you. Even one half hour lesson could make a world of difference to your swimming. Your stroke probably will need improving if you haven’t swum since childhood! And it’s a lot easier to make stroke adjustments as you first get back into swimming than it is later down the line, start with good habits rather than try to break old ones later.
I hope the above helps as a starting point for those who are tempted to start swimming for exercise, I’m going to try and write more about swim drills and training toys and then, of course, bloody open water swimming. GAH GAH GAH.
I’m doing all of this swimming malarkey to raise money for Barnardo’s. I would be honoured if you’d sponsor my endeavours, even a quid will make a massive difference to the UK’s most vulnerable children. Read more about the work Barnardo’s does (and then donate, yeah?) over on my JustGiving page. If it’s easier you can donate two quid right now just by texting POPS98 £2 to 70070.
Thank you! And hope to see you in the pool 😀
You can find more of my swimming posts here.