Archive for the ‘swimming’ Category

With Labour Day approaching, I’m coming to the end of my daily swims. At some point in the next three weeks, the strata council of my townhouse complex will decide to close the pool. The gate will be locked, my daily swims will be over until next May. Meanwhile because the council never announces precisely when the pool will close, I arrive each day wondering if I will see the notice of closure and feeling a sense of impending loss.

Part of my sense of loss is simply the wish for selfish convenience. When exercise is less than two minutes from my door, I have few excuses for missing it. Even if I arrive home exhausted, I have a hard time convincing myself that I can’t stagger out and do a few laps. And, once I’ve done a few laps, I’m usually in a rhythm that makes finishing my daily quota easy.
Another part, equally selfish, is my wish for variety. For eight months, I’ll only have running, walking, and the exercise bike for aerobic workouts. Having a fourth choice for a third of the years is always welcome, and swimming is the best of my usual choices for recovering from leg or foot injuries.

However, the major reason for my sense of impending loss is that I feel that I am just getting used to the laps. I am not an especially graceful man; my exercise is usually proof of dogged determination than any real ability. But after a few months of regular swims, I feel a certain power and grace creeping into my swimming. I know the rhythm of my swim, and the distance a single stroke of the arms and legs will send me. What, I wonder, would I be like if I had another month or two? I have a sense of an enhanced state of fitness and consciousness that is beyond my reach, yet one that I am inching inexorably towards.

Of course, I could see if this sense is an illusion by going to a public pool. There are four within ten miles of me, including one that is ten minutes’ walk away. Yet none are free, and none are as convenient as the pool just beyond my door step.

Moreover, the one within walking distance is part of a basement complex that is half dark and full of joyless exercisers. Going there would would be a constant struggle against the physical and emotional gloom of the place. So, the likelihood is that I won’t go to any of them regularly.

Meanwhile, my pleasure in the exercise is tinged with a sense of its impermanence. Each time I finish could easily be my last until next spring.

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One of the few services we receive for the maintenance fees in our townhouse complex is a swimming pool that opens a third of the year (I’m excluding the landscaping service that cuts the grass every week and consistently destroys the beauty of the cherry blossoms by pruning the trees down to nothing a month before they bloom). For me, it is basically a lap pool where I can enjoy an alternative exercise, but I am clearly in the minority. For almost every one else, it is place to socialize more than swim.

I don’t know why people feel compelled to gather at the pools. In theory, they could lounge on deck chairs and booze and smoke and suntan anywhere. Yet, somehow that wouldn’t be the same for them. If they are going to laze, apparently they need a body of water to laze beside. Somehow, setting up on the lawn or under a tree wouldn’t be right.

One thing is clear: They don’t need the pool to swim. On hot days, the pool is full of children and their aquatic toys, which probably outweigh the children by a ratio of two to one. Often, especially in the first days after school is out, teenagers up to the age of sixteen or so, will swim too – occasionally, clusters of boys and girls nervously flirting with each other, but, more often, all-boy gangs who play endless games of Marco Polo and never tire of jumping off the practically springless diving board.

But adults – almost never. You sometimes see a parent with a newborn, or standing in the pool near their children. Very occasionally, the local drones might stand up to their waists and toss a tennis ball back and forth. But none of these activities last for very long, and most of the time they don’t involve swimming, either. Most adults don’t even get that wet.

Yet every single one of them insists that their children learn to swim. I don’t know why – with the example they are giving, their kids will never come near the water. Presumably, the hope is that if the kids ever fall into a disused well and Lassie isn’t around to get help, then half-forgotten instincts will kick in and they will be able to tread water long enough to be rescued.

The real reason, I suspect, that the parents never swim is that going to the pool is a part-holiday from minding their children. Just as parents used to park their kids in front of the children’s section in the book store where I used to work (then go off to shop and complain if the staff didn’t watch their little darlings), the pool is a place where they can relax their guards. If their children are screaming from a gnash in their shin, or are systematically drowning a sibling – well, someone else will handle it, surely. Meanwhile, they can read their book or make calls on their cell phones or discuss sports (if they’re men) or diets and TV shows (if they’re women) in lazy, bored voices. Until it’s time for dinner, their children become strangers at the pool, and someone else’s problem.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to swim my lengths, and not making much headway against the sea of tots. When they’re under six, they don’t have much idea of sharing, so the hope that they might leave me enough space to swim if I steer clear of their play area rarely gets realized. They dash into my path, breaking my rhythm. If I change positions in the pool, after a length or two they are back in my path. I sometimes think that I swim twice as far as I actually credit myself with – and, of course, there’s no use appealing to the parents, who have disowned their kids for the duration.

The lack of courtesy used to infuriate me, especially since all I want is a quiet bit of exercise after a day of work. Nowadays, though, I try to be more philosophical. Doing my steady breast stroke, I mentally shake my head about the foibles of pool society, and look forward to the next rain day, when I’ll have the pool to myself.

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Today, I suddenly realized that I was enjoying swimming – enjoying it immensely. The reaction comes as a surprise for several reasons.

To start with, I learned to swim under what I remember as the most miserable conditions when I was a child. In my mind, all the swimming lessons I took in the local outdoor pool occurred in the pouring rain and freezing cold, when all I really wanted to do was stay huddled in my towel in the cabana where the class met.

To make matters worse, I was a poor learner. Or so I thought, because I took forever to struggle up the hierarchy of lessons. It was only in my last year of lessons that I had an instructor who was built like me, with an long torso and short calves, and that I realized that much of what I was learning was useless for anyone of our build. The instructor taught me some alternate kicks that actually worked, so I could tread water for the first time in my life.

Yet, even then, I didn’t care much for the crawl, which was the dominant stroke in those days. I found the swift glimpses above the water disorienting, and I didn’t care much for the sensory deprivation of swimming in general. For years, my main technique was a modified breast stroke that kept my head above water.

Then, just to make me even less inclined to enjoyment, I started swimming regularly a few years ago when I realized that I needed a more varied exercise regiment if I hoped to save my much-battered knees more wear. After years of long-distance running, swimming was definitely second best, and something I endured more than I enjoyed.

Several things have made me change my mind, though. For one thing, after swimming daily since the Victoria Day weekend, I’ve reached the point where I fall into a rhythm while doing my laps, and don’t have to think about what I’m doing. It’s only at this point, I’ve learned from other exercises, that working out stops becoming a grim duty. However, I’ve reached that stage every summer for the past few years without more than mildly enjoying my swimming on most days.

But, over the past couple of weeks, the weather has turned hot suddenly, without any gradual build up that would let me get used it. Walking from an air-conditioned building to the outside, I can feel the heat wrinkling away from me as though it’s a skin that I’m shedding, and, after a run or a session on the exercise bike, my singlet is a sweaty mess that disgusts even me. Under these conditions, the coolness of the pool is luxurious. When I duck my head completely under, a delicious ring of coolness seems to encircle my forehead and temples.

Most importantly, this year I’ve been under considerable stress for several months. While most of the time, sensory deprivation seems hellish to me, as I cope with stress, this year it’s relaxing. In fact, it’s so relaxing that I’ve dropped my modified breast-stroke for the proper thing, dipping my head into the water and coming up for air. Propelling myself face down along the pool, I can see reflections from the sun, like a shimmering chain link fence of gold along the bottom, and not much else. Now, it’s a glorious sensation, being cut off from much of my usual sensory input while feeling my legs and arms moving in rhythm.

I’ve got to the point now where I can swim two kilometers, and, although my muscles know they’re had a workout, I feel like I could easily do as much again. I especially like the solitary feeling because the gym where I ride the exercise bike is usually so full of inconsequential chatter and posturing.

What I will do when the pool in my townhouse complex closes in the fall, I don’t know. But I’ll want to make some effort to find another convenient pool for the winter months.

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I’m lucky in my choice of exorcisms. When things get too much, other people get too drunk or turn on the people around them. But through no virtue of my own, when I get restless from too long at the computer, or overwhelmed by all that I can control or haven’t done or should have done, I get rid of the tension by violent exercise. Something about the lightheaded edge of fatigue calms the frustrations that would otherwise build up like a slow poison.

The physical aspect is one aspect of the release. When I reach the point when my lungs are burning from my effort and my legs and arms are nearly trembling, not much room is left for depression or self-pity. At that point, I’m held upright by the adrenalin and the endorphins swamping my blood. To a point, the harder I exercise, the longer I can exercise – or so it seems.

But, for me, the most important aspect is the mental. All exercise, whether inside or outside, running, cycling, swimming, or walking, consists of repetitions of a few simple actions such as the movement of the legs and arms, and the regular intake and outake of breath. These repetitions make exercise a form of meditation, a heightened state of paradoxical quiet, for all I can hear my laboring breath with my ears and feel my increased heart rate. It’s rare that I don’t come back from a run with the problem I was working on solved, or with a stoic optimism replacing my doubts and uncertainty. Exercise tells me, not that my mental state doesn’t matter, but that there are other rhythms in the world that keep me going and that are somehow enough in themselves.

For most of my adult life, my exercise of choice has been running – and I mean running, not jogging, because the pace I set myself was always a demanding one. However, in the last few years, I’ve branched out more in an effort to preserve what’s left of the battered cartilage in my knees. And, in doing so, I’ve found that each form of exercise with its characteristic set of repetitive motions is its own form of meditation.

I don’t know about anyone else, but for me running is a creative meditation from which I retrieve the structure of the piece of writing I’m working on, or an idea to develop. By contrast, swimming, while often leaving just as tired as any other form of exercise, has a calming effect – perhaps because even the breast-stroke that I prefer involves a deprivation of the senses. Cycling, though, is best for an all-out assault on negative emotions of all kinds (or at least the intervals I do at the exercise room are), while walking is more contemplative, and brings a deeper awareness of trees and temperature and people. But all of them leave me focused, relaxed, and renewed. The best days are usually those that involve more than one of these types of meditation, and the main advantage of holidays is that I can fit more of them in. It’s a rare day that I don’t burn over 800 extra calories, and a satisfying one when I burn more.

I suppose that the long-term fitness that my exercise regime bestows helps me deal with tension, too (I have to get something out of it; I have a heavy build that, with my clothes on, doesn’t look fit). But it’s the day to day relief that I value the most, especially at the end of work. So long as I can exercise, I rarely have trouble sleeping or keeping motivated. I count myself lucky that my escape from myself takes such an effective and easy to obtain form.

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After fourteen months of enforced inactivty, on March 7 I finally returned to a schedule of heavy exercise. Since I’ve been fanatical about exercise since I was in Grade Three, the return is a relief. It also has me appreciating anew all the benefits I’d almost forgot about.

Not wanting to place too much strain on my knees, at least until I discover their limits, I’ve developed two different exercise regimes. On one day, I run 5 kilometers and do 24 kilometers on a stationary bike at my local rec center. On alternate days, I run 7 kilometers and swim a kilometer. On both days, I do 100 situps, 50 pushups, 60 half-squats, 80 stretches with each leg, and roll a ball up the wall 60 times with each leg. Two or three times a week, I also walk between 1 and 4 kilometers. These routines amount to less than I did when I was running 9 miles a day, but they give me a good workout without straining my beleaguered knees unduly. They take up almost two hours a day, but, since I used to spend the same amount of time commuting before I started working from home, I have little trouble fitting them in around a productive work day.

The health benefits are obvious. I’ve dropped 10 kilograms and counting, and stopped worrying about the family tendency to hypertension. I need less sleep, which makes sense: I’m carrying around less weight and more of the reminder is muscle. I also eat less, seeming to metabolize the food I do eat more efficiently.

None of these are benefits to ignore. However, I’ve also rediscovered other benefits. The most obvious ones are work-related. I have greater powers of concentration when I work at the computer than I did three and a half months ago. Just as importantly, between swimming (which means breast stroke for me) and pushups, even the first twinges of carpal tunnel no longer happen to me.

And if I have a problem with wording or organizing an article, all I have to do is take a break and go exercise until I break into a heavy sweat for 10 or 15 minutes. By the time I’m in front of the computer again, I have either solved the problem or else found a couple of ways to approach it.

Alternatively, if I’m out of sorts, a bit of exercise restores my good nature and optimism. Some days, I use that restorative at the start of the day, so that I feel energized for my work. On other days, I save most of my exercise for when I’m finished working, so that I’m renergized when I finish working.

The only way that my routines haven’t worked out is in meeting people. Vancouver had a damp spring, so often I’ve been the lone occupant of the pool in our townhouse complex. Similarly, at the gym, most people are fixed on their own routines, and don’t communicate much with each other. But I don’t mind much. Exercise has always been a meditative-like activity to me, and, on the whole, I prefer to approach it alone. Besides, the daily benefits far outweight this small negative.

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For me, one of the signs of late spring is my first swim of the year in our townhouse complex’s swimming pool. The pool actually opened on Saturday, but between the rain and Trish’s illness (worsened, perhaps, by our over-indulgence in piroshki, blintzes, and dumplings at the exquisite Rasputin’s on our anniversary), my first swim was delayed until today. I’m still not sure how it will fit into my summer exercise routine, though.

I came late to the enjoyment of swimming. One of the advantages of running is that, although it has been absorbed by consumerism like everything else in our culture, you can do it almost anywhere, anytime, with a minimum of equipment. Moreover, my eyes sting in chlorine, and I never cared much for the sensory deprivation of many swimming strokes that leave you deaf and unable to focus on much outside of the water. But with a pool two minutes’ walk from my computer that’s filled with a mixture of salt water and chlorine — and one that I can use for no additional cost on to our monthly strata fees — the reasons for my reluctance disappear.

As for sensory deprivation, I solve that by doing an old man’s breast-stroke, keeping my head firmly above water except when I want to cool off. The result is far from streamlined, and I could politely be called a rugged swimmer rather than a fast or an efficient one. Still, the stroke allows me to keep a steady pace throughout my workout. At times, I can even enjoy the lack of awareness, relaxing so much that, at night, I dream of flight that feels very much like swimming.

Besides, swimming has the advantage of being much less hard on my knees than running on pavement — a growing concern with me. So, over the last few years, I’ve learned to overcome my youthful distaste and enjoy swimming. If it will never be my favorite exercise, it is far, far better than no exercise, or even reduced exercise.

But those dreams of flight come later in the summer, when I get into the rhythm. Like running, like working with a strange animal — like anything, really — the secret of swimming is to discover a rhythm. And, this afternoon, I didn’t have much of one. For the first ten laps or so, my rhythm was irregular, and I couldn’t coordinate my legs and arms. When I’d done twenty-five laps, I felt a rhythm was just beyond me. At forty laps, I might have just found the beginnings of one.

By the time I finished, my chest muscles were strained, too, with the unaccustomed workout I’d given my arms (which is another reason for my modified breast-stroke).

No doubt, though, I’ll soon be used to these discomforts. Exercise, like any vice, needs to be continually practised so you can build up an immunity to the ill effects.

The only question in my mind now is what combination of running, exercise bike, and swimming I’ll take up over the summer. For now, swimming in the townhouse pool has an advantage over the exercise bike in that it’s largely private. However, that will change as soon as the good weather comes, and the neighbors sit drinking and smoking around the pool, making me feel Puritanical and, at times, too self-aware to get into the meditative state that a good workout brings.

Maybe I’ll swim and use the bike on alternate days, or make each of my forms of exercise a third of my daily workout. Not having a commute, I can easily afford the time to do both.

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