Swimming to Run: Learning a New Trick at Midlife

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I’ve been a runner all of my adult life—a slow, plodding runner but a runner nonetheless. I even ran and completed a marathon back in my mid-20s. Unlike those slightly irritating chronic marathoners, who, upon crossing the finish line, declare, “That was the most life-affirming experience of my life!”, I determined around mile 20 of the 26.2 mile race, with no feeling left in my legs, that I would never volunteer for such misery again. And I haven’t. Yet I’ve consistently run, including participating in the occasional 5K race. Our local Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot is more my speed. I embrace the trot.

Like a lot of runners and former runners, running has become increasingly more challenging as I age. My main source of physical discomfort stems from an overuse injury, a pernicious plantar fasciitis. Consequently, I needed to diversify my workouts if I wanted to continue to run even a little, which I do. For me, no other workout matches the endorphin rush associated with running (and yes, it’s possible for trotting to induce such a rush, thank you very much). I set my sights on swimming primarily because I knew the sport would provide good cardio conditioning now and well into my 80s. As opposed to running, swimming is mercifully kind on your joints. But the last time I swam was at summer camp between the sixth and seventh grades. Could I pick up the sport again now?

As it turned out, decidedly not—at least not initially. The first time I swam again and for several months thereafter it was the all-too-important breathing I found so challenging, despite being in relatively good physical shape. Like a pack-a-day smoker, which I’m not, I repeatedly clung to the side of the pool gasping for air after swimming just one or two laps. I decided to take a few private swim lessons to ensure I was performing the strokes correctly and began alternating strokes—freestyle for one length and breast for the return. One of the many positive attributes of swimming, in addition to being a non-impact sport, is that if you keep at it you’re guaranteed to improve.

And improve I did. I’m not ready to race Michael Phelps but I can now swim freestyle for a solid 40 minutes and even participated in two indoor triathlons (my first) this past winter and spring. I proved to my midlife self I can still try new things with relative success. If I, someone who can barely finish a 5K race before the start of the race’s awards ceremony, can learn to swim in my late 40s surely there’s nothing we can’t do if we set our minds to it.