swimming training

Here are the words that come to mind when I think of the gym: I’d really rather not.

The battle is constant. I know it will make me feel better, but I dread it. I loathe the slog up to the treadmill, the sweaty testosterone of the weights room and the pert butts that line up in front of the mirror in a yoga class. Changing rooms induce panic; I never asked to see stranger’s naked bodies, but there they are, thrust upon my eyes like an unwelcome visit from a neighbour. Familiar, but uncomfortable all at the same time. I queue for the small changing room (singular) feeling almost embarrassed that I’m not okay whipping my tits out in a woman’s changing room, but also fully aware that I am not okay whipping my tits out.

It all feels like an awful lot of work – pretending to enjoy myself as I wonder whether I’m stretching, lifting and running correctly. All for a solid thirty seconds of bliss that follows a sweat session where I feel like I have abs, even if they hide from the naked eye. All for two days of feeling a little like I’ve broken every bone in my body as it heals from being technically ripped apart, to be put back together again a little stronger.

Studies vary on how, where, how long and how much to exercise. Seven hours a week, to three. Running is bad for you, running is the best. Weights are the most effective, HIIT is the only way. The back and forth, to a fro of exercise trends is exhausting to a reluctant gym goer like myself. And I’ve tried them all – from doing my best impression of an open blender in Zumba, to falling down the stairs (multiple times) after a weight lifting class full to the brim with deafening pop music, to Pilates with an overenthusiastic instructor who just could not understand why my body did not bend to her will.

But this past autumn I decided not only to start my new year’s fitness resolution early so as to make it slightly less cliché, but also to search high and low for something I enjoyed. Something that through every fitness fad would stick. I ruled out running on the basis that it sucks, yoga on the basis that I am embarrassingly inflexible (I realise it would resolve that issue, but I don’t want to fix everything about myself) and anything class based on account of the fact that I already had an infinity of fines from my gym for constantly not showing up.

I settled on the pool – an equalizer of sorts, especially at my gym which is much more likely to house middle aged men and women than the next Katie Ledecky. There were lanes; slow, fast and medium. No hiding behind fancy gym wear, everyone bound by the uniform of plain black swimsuits and yes, the occasional set of speedos. I have no doubt that I look like a flailing child when I swim, but something about it feels graceful; gliding through the water, unaware of your own sweat because you’re already soaked from the offset.

The gym sometimes feels like a viewing cage – have you ever been to one of those gyms that has a window out onto the street, for the viewing pleasure of those passing by and not feeling like they’re about to blow a lung? I’ve actually been catcalled through one of these windows before. But in a pool? No one is looking, focussed entirely on the next stroke and a flapping attempt not to fall out of rhythm with the person behind and in front. There is a kind of blind focus I struggle to achieve anywhere else; gym, home or work. Submerged in soaking silence is the only place to have a half an hour with my thoughts, the only workout I will happily push through until I cannot swim another length. Swimming time has become me-time, calm-time and exercise time all in one; it’s everything fitness is sold to us as. The very nature of it being in water makes it seem funner, less serious – nostalgic of swimming lessons at school, holidays and hot summers. Through months of anxiety, taking to the water has been an adventure in focus and calm; stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke, stroke, breathe. A rhythm, no music required. There is order, a kind of queue system as we all move around in a clockwise fashion. A mutual understanding.

It is peaceful, strangely elegant and the apparatus of goggles removes any need to try and look sexy or attractive. We are all simply prune like flesh in lycra. No pretence, no competition. The results of weeks of swimming are slow, but obvious. Achievement has been tangible, moving from my out of breath slow lane days to a more speedy and efficient middle lane position. Some days I try a few minutes in the fast lane, but only if it’s empty. I have parted ways with a small amount of my back fat and my hair is two shades blonder from the sheer amount of chlorine (thankfully not green, yet). There is a beauty in falling in line, no waiting for machines or being distracted by a frustratingly attractive gym goer– simply slipping into a queue of other humans, flailing slightly but all with the same goal in mind. It is, I think, a wonderful metaphor for life as a whole.

So, might I advise for your next gym trip that you make like David Foster Wallace and consider yourself a lobster.

Follow Camilla on Twitter: @camillaackley