Swimming is my primary workout and I love doing it, but here’s the truth: Swimming is hard!

I used to run, and–by comparison–that was easy-peasy. I could wake up at 5:30 a.m., throw on some running shorts and a jacket, do a few warm-ups, and head out the front door in a matter of minutes.

The prep work for swimming is not as straightforward (unless you are fortunate enough to have a lap pool at home).

First, there are–ahem–bodily maintenance issues down there to worry about before you go bearing your half-naked self in a public pool. As in, you just can’t go three or more days without using a razor if you’re going to be wearing a Speedo (you may be able to let this slide if you stick to the skirted suit variety). Fact: If you’re a chick, regular swimming requires regular shaving.

Next, especially if it’s winter, it’s essential to dress in layers. Can’t just head out the front door in your suit and sandals! So, first you must remove your ever-so-snuggly-and-warm pajamas and stand stark naked before wriggling yourself into your tight-as-skin swimsuit. Cover up with pants and sweatshirt, and remember to pack a hat to cover your post-swim soaking wet head. Wear sneakers to leave the house but pack flip-flops or sandals to use within the pool area at the gym. Remember your swim cap, goggles, ear plugs, and towel, as well as any other “tools” you require (e.g., flippers, pull buoy, waterproof MP3 player).

Exit cozy and warm house, scrape the frost off your car, and navigate the snow-lined roads to drive to the gym. Cause it’s 20 degrees out and you’re going to jump in a pool. Yay!

Once you’re at the gym, exhausted from shoving your lion’s mane of hair into a 2-inch-wide rubber cap, layers peeled off, standing poolside, the next challenge is to just simply get in the water. Goosebumps, purple skin, chattering teeth…of course I want to immerse myself in a large body of water!

Hopefully, a lane will be open for you to use. Unlike running, where the entire world is your domain, swimming requires a very specific space. My gym has only a few lanes (see above), and if it’s a busy morning, your grand plans to work out may be foiled.

I try not to dilly-dally when jumping in the water. I’ll stand on the top step, water up to my shins, adjust my goggles, and…whoosh! Like ripping off a Band-Aid. All at once, just jump in, entire body submerged. Try to catch my breath. Jump around a bit to trick my body into believing that standing neck-high in water is totally, 100% normal on a frigid winter day.

The first few laps are awkward, slow, and exhausting. My body acclimates to the change in temperature, environment, and motion. My rhythm is out of sync, my arms and legs not quite yet understanding how they’re supposed to work together. I take more breaths. I want to cling to the wall after my third or so lap, but I don’t let myself. The key is to keep going until you pass the threshold of initial awkwardness.

If you’re bloated or gassy or feel a burp rising through your esophagus, everything becomes 10 times harder. Your mid-section feels like it’s sagging toward the pool bottom, a lead weight wedged between your stomach and intestines. There is no such thing as a “walking break” in swimming laps. You slow down, you sink. Unless you stop midway to doggy paddle (which can sometimes be just as exhausting), there is no choice but to keep going, dragging your lead-like body through the water, which now feels more like a thick barley stew.

For me, everything finally *clicks* somewhere between the 7th and 8th lap. My arms and legs fall into the proper choreography, my torso no longer hands like a dead weight but begins its rhythmic rotation with each stroke. I feel like a child on a bicycle as the parent lets go of the seat…I’m doing it! I’m balanced! Oh, so THIS is how it’s supposed to feel!

I keep reminding myself to use my whole body to propel through the water, even though the tendency is to focus all my strength on my arms. But the power must come from the core and radiate down to the hips, legs, and feet and up through my chest, back, and arms. Sometimes I use visualization to remind me about this, imagining a pulsing golden orb in my navel with its light expanding to all of my extremities. The moment I let my mind wander to only my arms or head or hands, the motion gets choppy again. When the visualizations fail me, I physically touch my core, placing my hand against my belly button region for a second. Work from here, I think. Sometimes I need to do that over and over again; other times, the motion comes effortlessly, and I feel like I’m dancing in water.

The exhilaration I feel after a swimming workout is similar to that from running. I feel strong; my muscles ache happily from plowing through resistant water.

But now I must get out of the water, which may be even harder than getting in. The cold air hits my wet skin; I run to the bathroom. I wring out my hair, wipe down, struggle to wrestle my clammy feet into socks for the drive home. Showering takes longer than normal because I am forced to wash my hair to rid it off that icky pool smell. My hair, stressed from being shoved into a rubber swim cap, falls out more easily in the tub as I shampoo, and now my hands are plastered with strands of foot-long wet hair, which I can only remove by sticking to the shower wall.

Lastly, I reach for my razor and shaving cream and peer down. And thus the cycle begins all over again.