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Why Swimming is My Jam

When I swim, I'm 16 again. Well, not really, but I feel like it. My mother taught me to swim when I was 3, and I loved it from Day 1. I've always been a water baby. If there is water nearby, I'm in it. When I was a kid, that meant falling in fountains and mud puddles, running through the sprinklers, swimming in pools, rivers, and oceans, and water-skiing in lakes.

I started swimming competitively at six years old in the summers, and moved to year-round swimming when I was ten. I went on to swim in high school and college, culminating in All-American status and participating in some relays that stayed on the college record board for ten years. In high school, the practice schedule was swimming from 5:30-7am, lifting weights right after school from 2:15-3pm, and then swimming right after that until 5:30 or 6pm (depending on the season). My best friend was on the team with me, and we had a great time swimming together all through high school.

Swim meet

After I made All-American during my first year in college, I quit swimming. I was majoring in music (piano performance), which also demanded many hours of practice every day, and it was clear that I wasn't going to make the Olympics at that point, so it seemed like a good time to stop. I came back for a few months in my senior year, but I wasn't really into it anymore, so that was the end of my swimming for the next 30 years. I was waterlogged and ready for other things.

Then a funny thing happened. Actually, it was rather horrifying at the time, but in retrospect, it was sort of a weird combination of horrifying and amusing. I was just about to turn 50, and had borne 11 babies, the youngest of whom was 8. We were living in Malibu at the time, but we were up in Northern California for my birthday weekend visiting my mom, my sister, and my brother and his family. We went to the zoo, which had a nice park attached to it with a Japanese garden, complete with koi pond and stepping stones. We had been going to this park ever since I was a little girl for picnics, events, and of course, the zoo. So on this particular day, I was with some of my kids, and we decided to walk across the stepping stones in the koi pond. I was carrying a heavy purse, and I lost my balance. I felt like I should have been able to right myself, but I realized I had lost pretty much all my muscle tone and had no balance muscles left, as I was no longer any sort of athlete. Combine that with my natural attraction to water, and down I went, right into the public koi pond. Definitely one of the most embarrassing things I had ever done. That was a defining moment. I had visions of my future, being that old woman with a walker, falling and breaking her hip. It was now or never to get back in the pool and reclaim my lost muscle tone.

To add insult to injury, my ears were still ringing from a couple of years earlier when I was teaching my youngest to swim, and he asked me, "Mom, do you even know how to swim??" I realized that he had never seen me swim! He probably just saw me as a fat old lady running her mouth on something she knew nothing about. There is something about reality and the age of 50 hitting you smack in the face when you least expect it.

When I got home, I joined the Malibu Masters swim team. What a bunch of savages! Triathletes, ocean lifeguards, and other water babies like me, except that they were all in awesome shape. Fortunately, it was dark when we got in the water at 6am, so I felt like I had some cover, as I totally stuck out as the not-in-shape-one. After every practice for the first few weeks, I thought I was going to die. I was totally exhausted and would have to go home and take a nap. It took me a good 6 months of training 3 days a week with them to be able to keep up and claw my way back to being in the top part of the group. My body slowly started resculpting itself, and I could feel my muscle tone coming back. I started feeling strong again, I was handling my stress much better, and my insomnia disappeared (probably because I was completely exhausted!).

swim cap

I swam with the Malibu Masters for 2 years from 6am - 7:15am every Tu, Th, and Sat, and then we moved to Tennessee. I was so stressed out by that move that I didn't join a Nashville team, and all my nice progress went by the wayside. A year and 10 pounds later, I had a health scare after eating a large ice cream cone while on an anniversary trip to Florida. My heart was racing all night (presumably from all the sugar), and I felt horrible even into the next day. We stopped at a CVS to pick up something, and I checked my blood pressure while we were there. I've always had great blood pressure, so I was stunned to see that it was suddenly about 30 points higher! Another turning point. When I got home, I immediately started swimming again at the YMCA, but this time on my own without a coach or a team. I can't say I was real consistent, but I did start going at least sporadically. I also started cutting way down on sugar.

I bought myself a waterproof Garmin fitness tracker that measures heart rate so I could wear it while swimming and make sure I wasn't running my heart rate up too high. I realized that while I was working out with those savages in Malibu that I was consistently working out way above my ideal training heart rate, which explains why I was so exhausted all the time. It also explained why even though I gained a lot of muscle tone, I wasn't able to lose much of the extra fat I was carrying around. I read that when you over-train, you put a lot of stress on your body, which triggers a cortisol release, which tells your body to store fat, especially around your belly. Made total sense. So these days, I'm still getting there 3 times a week on average (last week I went 6!), but I'm doing 2000 yards instead of 3-4000, and I'm monitoring my heart rate as I go. I do some HIIT (high intensity interval training) while I'm in the pool, alternating sprints with nice and easy laps, but overall it's at a much more relaxed pace than when I was swimming with the group in Malibu.

My typical workout these days is something like this:

500 yd Free warmup

500 yd Kick with fins, first 10 laps medium, then alternating sprint lap with slow lap

3 x 200 IM

2 x 100 IM

2 x 50 - 1st lap underwater, 2nd lap backstroke

100 cool down

My stress level is back down, as is my blood pressure. My extra weight is starting to drop off, and I'm sleeping better again. But what I really love about swimming is that I feel so strong and fluid in the water, just like when I was 16 years old. Swimming is a sport that I mastered when I was young, and that mermaid-like feeling of pure grace in the water is priceless.

If you're looking for some great swim gear, click here for my favorites, and get yourself in the water for a great workout!

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