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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.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I came home from work last Wednesday utterly drained and so blah-diddy-blah, I was actually in the throes of PMS. Once a month, usually a few days before my period arrives, there is “Tired Day,” usually in the middle of “Rage [I Hate Everyone] Day” and “Hungry [Eat All the Things!] Day.” No matter how much coffee I consume or how many hours of sleep I get, if it’s Tired Day, I will be on zombie mode.

My first instinct when I came home that day was to immediately put on my pajamas and go to bed. Screw dinner. After all, Hungry Day wouldn’t arrive for another 12 hours! But something inside of me persisted, urged me to at least try to do something physical. I knew better than to push it, and I had no intention of even lifting a dumbbell or holding myself in a chaturanga. Then I remembered the CD I had purchased at Rudy Peirce’s yoga workshop last month, an 80-minute beginner-friendly gentle yoga class. I had yet to try it out, waiting for the perfect moment when such a practice would be appropriate.

That moment had arrived.


The practice is s-l-o-w. Circa-2004 Jennifer would probably hate the CD and throw it out the window in favor of a hot and sweaty ashtanga class. The postures are nothing new, nothing crazy. There are many moments of stillness to allow for integration. We bend to the right. We hold. We breathe. We release. Repeat on the left.

I don’t know if it’s because I know Rudy from Kripalu, whether it’s because I swear his voice alters your brainwaves into a meditative state, or (shocker!) maybe I just needed this type of practice, but man, I felt goood throughout the entire CD, like I was giving myself some kind of yogic massage. Each breath, each stretch, each hold seemed to release a “stickiness” in me, sometimes a physical stickiness in the back or shoulders or an emotional stickiness. The more I followed Rudy, the clearer my foggy head felt, as though each posture were plucking a cotton ball from my brain.

How could it be that I came into this practice so tired, and yet the more I moved the more full of energy I felt? Not an “I’m-gonna-dance-all-night energy,” but just a “Wow, I-feel-alive!” kind of energy? I was moving from zombie to human with each asana, and I loved the feeling so much that when the first 40-minute segment ended (my original self-imposed endpoint), I let the CD keep spinning and continued into the next 40 minutes to complete the entire practice. I even sat in meditation for a few minutes after the CD slowed to stillness, compelled to work with this newfound energy for as long as I could.

Slowing down is difficult for me, and most of my life I always feel like I’m running late to something. For example, last night I went into Philly with my friend to see a show. The second we got off the train in the city, I began booking it to the theater. Now, give me some credit, it was mighty chilly outside and walking fast helped keep me warm, but for some reason I felt like we were running late to the show. The performance started at 7; we walked through the theater doors at 5:58. The box office hadn’t even opened yet. Oops!

I just have a tendency to want to be fast. I drove past a girl running through the park yesterday morning, and for a split-second I really, really missed running. It was cold outside, and the girl was dressed in her black running tights, an Under Armor mock turtleneck, and her winter running hat. I recalled running in the cold-weather months, how I loved that feeling of warming up by running fast on a chilly December morning. Man, to be fast again, I thought.

However, as much as it sucks to have hip issues, maybe not running is some kind of life lesson for me, an invitation to just slow down. Maybe my walking practice is supposed to be the Rudy Peirce version of running, a meditative practice in enjoying the breaths between each step.

Actually, were it not for my long walks, I would never have the time to listen to some of my favorite iPod selections. Through walking, I am given the opportunity to listen to Christmas carols as I stroll through neighborhoods lit up for the holidays and some of the most intriguing/hilarious/inspiring podcasts. Right now, I’m addicted to NPR’s Radiolab, where each episode covers some mind-blowing aspect of science that leaves your jaw on the floor. For instance, the other day I listened to a story on the origin of AIDS and its spillover into the human race, a frightening account of a woman with transient global amnesia who couldn’t form new memories beyond 90 seconds, and a poignant story of a young man named Kohn whose voice was significantly altered after a childhood accident.

Coincidentally, the title of that last episode?

Slow.

Ever since having to give up running last year, I’ve turned to swimming as my main workout. My gym has an indoor, heated, salt-water pool with 25-yard lanes, and there I do my laps. In the year and a half I’ve been swimming, I have definitely progressed. I don’t fatigue as easily, my lap times have improved, and I feel more “in the flow” when I move, rather than just chopping furiously through the water.

I see my husband and friends competing in all these 5Ks and races and stuff and have been bummed that there’s nothing like that for swimming. (Typical triathlon relays don’t count, because swimming in the open water is nothing–NOTHING–like doing solo laps in heated, aquamarine pool.) So when I saw an advertisement for a duathlon (swimming and running) (a) with a relay option and (b) that took place in a pool, I felt like I couldn’t turn it down. My husband Bryan agreed to be my running teammate, but then once it came time to send in the entry form, I got cold feet and let it sit for a while. I don’t consider myself a competitive swimmer! I may swim faster than the 50-year-old man in the lane next to me, but then along comes a 17-year-old girl from her high school’s swim team, and she butterflies my ass out of the water. I swim because it’s a good workout. Because it doesn’t bother my hip. Because on 90 degree days it just feels darn good to leave the hot car and jump into the cool water.

Finally, I talked myself back into doing the event, mostly because I didn’t want to be a hypocrite for whining about there not being any pool-related competitions, and then when the opportunity arises, for me to turn it down. Also, Bryan sent in the check and kind of bypassed me in the process. 🙂

After a week of above-average temperatures extending into the 90s, Saturday, duathlon day, started out a chilly 56 degrees with only a high of 79 predicted. I reached into the back of my dresser to pull out the sweatpants and hoodie I thought I had tucked away for good until at least September. Even though the swim event was taking place in a pool, the pool was outside. Outside, unheated, and chlorinated.

This picture pretty much sums up my feelings about how things went:

That’s me, after my 500 meters, panting like a dog, dubious that I had really only swam 10 complete laps and not the 25 like it had felt, and way disappointed at my time. In my practice runs at the gym, I clocked in between 7:12 and 7:38 for 10 laps; however, the lengths between the two pools are not exactly equal. My time for this 500m was 11:02.

It started off the moment I jumped in the water–it was COLD. Not Atlantic Ocean cold, but much colder than what I was used to. I instantly felt my chest tighten, and I bobbed up and down trying to warm up. Once I started swimming, I felt OK for the first half of my first lap…and then I looked to see how close I was to the wall, and there was a lot more space to go. My body was so used to hitting the wall after so many strokes, and in this bizarro pool everything was just a tad longer. The gap in between where my mind said “wall” and where the actual wall was felt like miles, and with that thought my brain went into full-blown panic mode.

The sensation that resulted was probably akin to a panic attack…not being able to breathe, feeling like you’re going to die, just wanting someone to end your misery. It wasn’t exhaustion or panting, just more like someone flipping an “off” button in my lungs. I attempted to keep swimming at this time, but it didn’t last very long. I had stop several times in the middle of the pool, stand in place, and regain my composure. Then I’d swim, swim, swim, STOP AND BREATHE FOR DEAR LIFE. I heard Bryan on the side of the pool shout my name for motivation, and that made me feel worse, because I just could not get my act together, not even for my husband.

The first five laps were a mess. At the gym, I normally follow a stroke-stroke-stroke-breathe pattern; now it was stroke-breathe, stroke-breathe. Just focus on your breathing, my yoga mind told my floundering body. Visualize that oxygen pumping throughout your body, and the rest will fall into place. I could have done an hour of pranayama practice before this event; none of it would have made a difference. (Also, it’s a bit hard to do alternate nostril breathing while swimming.) I totally lost count of what lap I was on, and because I had my mondo earplugs in, I couldn’t hear what the timers on the side were saying. I could have been on lap five, maybe lap 15. I had no idea. I just keep on swimming.

Things began feeling slightly better somewhere between Lap 6 and 7. I frantically thought of a mantra I could repeat, and I stuck with Om Namah Shivaya, the only one that came into my head at the time. It would work for a few strokes, my mind would drift off, and then I’d have to corral it back in again. I also tried to focus on fluidity–You’re dancing! I told myself. Just move with grace through the water, approach it like the Flowing portion of 5Rhythms.

It was some of the crappiest dancing I’ve ever done, but the pep talks and visualizations helped me complete all 10 laps without dying, giving up, or requesting to finish the race in the baby pool.

As I said, my time was 11:02. I pouted and moped, but then I saw someone swim without once putting her head in the water, and I felt a little better.

An hour later, it was time for the 5K portion. Bryan started off strong, but the less-than-ideal road conditions (being forced to run on the sidewalk and dodge yard sale-goers) slowed him down and flattened him out mentally. He still ran a relatively fast 23-something, but it wasn’t his normal time.

We both sulked back to the clubhouse with little gray clouds over our heads and the Charlie Brown Christmas Song playing in the background (sorry, had to throw in an Arrested Development reference there!).

However, despite our mediocre times, we came in first place for the team category of the event! Alone, our times wouldn’t have gotten us any prizes, but together we took home a $20 gift certificate for the local running/sports store.

There’s no “I” in duathlon…teamwork rocks!

**Disclaimer: If this post were to be reincarnated as a food, it would come back to Earth in the form of sour grapes.**

I eat healthy, drink and indulge in desserts in moderation, do some form of yoga almost daily, use dance as my artistic expression of emotion, swim twice per week on average, walk 30 minutes every day during lunch and up to 2 hours on the weekend, ride the stationary bike at the gym, start my days with 100 crunches on the Bosu, can do a fair number of “guy” push-ups, stretch for 20 minutes each morning, use the weights at the gym, and always “take the stairs” when I can.

Despite all of the above, I’m having a hard time accepting myself as a healthy, fit, and active woman, primarily due to one word missing from the previous paragraph: running.

It seems these days that everyone with two feet (and with increasing technology advances, even amputees) has suddenly decided that life is not complete without a 5K under their (Spi)belts. People who openly abhor running still get up at 4:30 every morning to do so. Reader comments on fitness blogs say things like, “I HATE running. I’m starting the Couch-to-5K tomorrow!” Status updates from my Facebook friends have turned into proclamations about mileage and run-walk ratios. Most recently, my mother-in-law, already a fit and toned woman through regular walking, biking, and hula-hooping, has declared that she would like to run a marathon for her 60th birthday. What happened to old-fashioned bucket list goals like visiting the Grand Canyon or taking a month-long European cruise? (Side note: I’m not ragging on my MIL at all; she’s a freakin’ ninja.)

The more I am faced with everyone’s running resolutions, the less I feel like a complete human being. “Anyone can run!” many fitness resources proclaim, as if not doing so makes you a lazy, incompetent Homer Simpson-in-training. “If you can walk, you can run!” (Well, thanks for making my vigorous 6-mile Sunday walks feel completely inferior.) The truth is, I can run…but it would be followed by several months of physical therapy, more ice than the North Pole can offer, and enough ibuprofen to create some serious stomach ulcers.

Before I injured my hip, I had a consistent running routine, averaging 16 to 25 miles per week. When it became clear that surgery was my only key back into running (and after doing the research, I was adamantly against it), I gradually began accepting the fact that my life would have to go on without running. I went through all the stages of grief (twice, after each round of physical therapy), felt like I lost my identity, and dealt with a period of anxiety and depression that had me taking Ativan before bedtime. But through this loss I gained swimming, and my yoga and dance/movement practice became even more sacred.

What’s funny is that when I evaluate myself alone—without comparing myself to others, whether they be real-life friends or 2-D blog-world acquaintances—I’m ridiculously happy and feel pretty darn good about myself. I feel strong when swimming, and sometimes a simple forward bend in yoga class makes me feel as blissed out as a headstand. But then I open my eyes a little wider and see what everyone else is doing—and suddenly I feel like nothing I will ever do will be as praiseworthy as making the commitment to run. It’s not in my nature to post on Facebook, “20 asanas in 30 minutes—whew!”, yet I twinge with jealousy when people get props for declaring they’ve run half a mile. I will never get a medal for dancing my ass off and heart out for 2 hours straight, and walking briskly for 90 minutes while listening to NPR podcasts won’t earn me a ribbon. I’m living in a world where all personal feats are suffixed with either a “K” or a “thon,” not “Ommmmmm.” I don’t run, therefore I am not fit, active, or human. At least that’s what my ego is telling me.

And once again, it all comes back to the principles of yoga. (Oh, those yamas and the papas niyamas.) Most important, Ahimsa/nonviolence: I don’t run because it causes harm to my body. Satya/truth: I have to stay true to myself and value what I love and do. Just because the rest of the world loves Zumba doesn’t mean I have to be a fan. Aparigraha/nonpossessiveness: I have to let go of Running Jen. I didn’t care about people running before I ran, but the moment I couldn’t do it anyone, everyone’s running was in my face. Running Jen was an important part of my life, just like College Jen and Community Newspaper Jen. But I can’t cling to them forever. Santosha/contentment: Honor what I have. How fortunate I am to have access to twice monthly 5Rhythms classes, even more if I commuted to the city. My gym has a pool. A yoga studio exists two minutes from my workplace. These are all wonderful things.

I totally, 100% realize this is MY problem, not others’. My husband only decided to like running after I hurt my hip; yeah, that was a bummer but I’m certainly not mad at him. I do sometimes question people’s motivation for doing something they hate when there are so many other forms of pleasure out there, but I’m not really one to talk: After all, I am the person who will leave a half-read book on my nightstand for months because I just don’t like it yet I’m too stubborn to let it go and start a new book I actually do like.

In the meantime, I will bookmark this link, written by a blogger who runs marathons but does a fine job explaining why endurance events, and even running in general, isn’t for everyone. My husband can keep 5Ks; I have my 5Rhythms. Together, we’re a perfect 10.


About the Author

Name: Jennifer

Location: Greater Philadelphia Area

Blog Mission:
SHARE my practice experience in conscious dance and yoga,

EXPAND my network of like-minded individuals,

FULFILL my desire to work with words in a more creative and community-building capacity;

FLOW and GROW with the world around me!

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