Thursday, August 7, 2014

What's With the Turtle Head? - My First Master's Swim Class

Yesterday I took my first master's swim class at the YMCA. It was an emotional roller coaster - I laughed, I cried, I thought I might literally drown a few times. But I made it through.

I had been thinking about taking swim lessons of some kind for a couple of months, at least. I don't know if it's just the fact that I'm a relatively new runner, or if I just happen to have particularly weak knees and shins, but running too much causes me a lot of pain with shin splints and the like. I need to be able to diversify my cardio workouts with some low-impact activities. I've been getting into cycling some, which I love, but I currently have a heavy hybrid bike, which doesn't give you the same kind of workout as a road bike - i.e. I have to pedal constantly to keep that heavy thing going at any kind of speed. I'm going to get a road bike in the next month or so, which I'm really excited about.

My other big option for a low-impact cardio workout is swimming. I don't have a strong history with swimming. I am kind of terrified of the ocean, and I dislike being underwater without holding my nose. I'm Martin Short in the men's synchronized swimming skit from SNL. So I knew I had some work to do to be able to incorporate swimming into my workout regimen in any meaningful way. Also, in order to not drown while doing so.

Several weeks ago, John and I decided to make an attempt at doing a swimming workout. Armed with a "beginner's swim workout" that I printed out from the internet, we took our best shot at it. We failed, miserably. After flailing and gasping our way through the warmup - just the warmup! - we clung to the edge of the pool at the end of the lane and wondered how we would EVER get through the rest of the workout. The lifeguard was even laughing at us, albeit goodnaturedly. I knew, then, that lessons were mandatory. My technique was nonexistent, probably life-threateningly so. I certainly wasn't going to be able to complete a worthwhile workout with my current skill level.

I looked into lessons at the YMCA, where we have a membership, and eventually decided to try a master's swim course. I signed up, spent the next two weeks being terrified, and yesterday, I finally padded out into the pool area for my first class. After breaking not one, but two pairs of goggles, I met my coach. A former college team swimmer, he asked me why I wanted to learn to swim better. "Is it to be able to survive if you fall off a ship, or are you wanting to compete?" I told him that I wanted to swim as a workout and also that I maybe, maybe wanted to do triathlons one day. I later wished that I hadn't revealed that last part, as I gasped my way along the assigned laps while he assessed my skill level. After two laps, he had seen enough.

The coach paired me with one of the other two students, a woman named Yasmin, to work on stroke drills. Yasmin is around my age and probably a month or two ahead of me in ability. For that reason, she was able to show me what she was working on, and give me pointers from her point of view as someone who was probably gasping like me not too long ago. She and I poked along our laps while the coach worked with the other, more advanced, student (a woman named Sarah) in the other lane, periodically observing us and offering guidance.

My guidance mostly consisted of the coach asking me, "What's with the turtle head?", meaning, why the hell was I craning my neck and head back up and out of the water to breathe. The answer was, quite simply, because I had no clue what to do otherwise. The coach and other students demonstrated the correct technique to me repeatedly, but I was struggling to catch on. In order to breathe while swimming, one is supposed to simply roll one's head to the side at the beginning of the stroke. There's no lifting your head out of the water whatsoever, but for me, that came naturally, even if it wasn't graceful or efficient. I guess I'm trying to get my mouth as far away from the water as possible before drawing a breath; leaving so much of my face in the water makes me feel claustrophobic. ("Claustrophobic" is the word I use because I feel like it sounds more legitimate than "Afraid I'm going to drown.")

Trying to force myself into using the correct breathing method, in addition to paying attention to all the other little techniques and tweaks (keep your elbow, not your hand, up high on the stroke; pull your hand along an imaginary line down the center of your body in the water underneath you) proved to be a little much for me. I could do any one thing at a time, but the moment I got my stroke position right, I would either do the turtle head or my head would sink and I would almost drown; the moment I rolled my head to the side for air correctly, I would lose every bit of form in the rest of my body and start flailing. I was a disaster.

Halfway through class, I got to the point where I was starting to feel panicky. My tenuous grasp on technique was falling completely apart mid-lap and it was starting to scare me. Rationally, I know that I'm not likely to drown during master's swim class at the Y, with a lifeguard, a coach, two other students, and 5 other lap swimmers immediately nearby, but I don't feel rational when I'm trying to breathe and my face is in the water. I was getting tired from trying to swim too fast, and I loathe being the worst at something. Yasmin found me standing on the ledge at the end of the lane, fidgeting with my goggles and getting ready to give up. I couldn't bring myself to swim another lap; the fear and frustration was getting to be too much. The coach was swimming laps with the advanced student, so I was waiting for him to get to the other end of the lane, affording me the most time to climb out and slip out of the pool area unnoticed. Yasmin swam up and asked me if I was okay; I blinked back tears and tried not to sound like I was about to cry. "I'm just having a really hard time. I don't know if I can do this. I can't get the breathing right."

Sweet, wonderful angel that she is, Yasmin gave me the best pep talk. Her manner of speaking is very calm and quiet, so it contrasted pleasantly with her words; I was hearing what sounds like an affirmation yelled by Tony Robbins spoken very softly by a Middle Eastern woman, and it soothed me immeasurably. "It has to be difficult before it gets any easier." Things like that. And you know, it might be cliched, but I needed cliched at that moment. After talking me down from fight-or-flight level, Yasmin showed me some of the techniques she had used to get better at the breathing technique. I worked on those for awhile, and my coach continued to give me pointers. Sarah, the advanced swimmer, put in her two cents as well, and it really helped me to hear advice from three points of view, from varying skill levels.

I'd like to say that it got easier from then on out, but it didn't. I was no longer trying to sneak out of class, and I wasn't crying, but I was still struggling, and I still kind of hated it. Learning to swim correctly reminds me a lot of learning to ride a bicycle when I was a kid; it feels really dangerous and unnatural until the magic moment when the pieces all fall into place. During my very last lap of the day, the elements came together for a few brief moments: my stroke position, the follow-through under my body, and my breathing technique were all present and accounted for - probably barely passable, but still functional. I experienced just a glimpse of what it feels like when you're doing it right, and it changed everything. When I emerged from the water at the end of the lane, I saw my coach and fellow students all standing and watching me. "That was so much better!" my coach said.

"It felt better." I told him. It was true, and not just for the swimming itself. I felt better all around, because I had faced something that I was actually a little bit terrified of, if I was being 100% honest with myself, and didn't give up when I was feeling my lowest. This is especially significant for me right now as I am in the process of rebranding myself, so to speak, as an athletic person. It's not about the way that I look or act, necessarily, it's about my self-perception as being strong and capable. After a lifetime of being told that I was just naturally unathletic - and worse still, believing it - changing that idea of myself has taken more than a little bit of work. Even after over a year of running regularly and several months of weight lifting, and experiencing considerable improvements in both areas, I still have trouble identifying as someone who is capable in a physical way. I was always encouraged to rely on my smarts, not my strength, and as a result, I never fully explored the latter until relatively recently.

So I came out of master's swim class feeling pretty good about the whole thing. I feel confident that with practice, I can improve and feel comfortable in the water. Practicing on my own is a way less daunting idea now that I have an idea what techniques to actually work on, and it will be a lot less pressure to work on my laps and drills for a few days without the watchful eye of my coach on me during my inevitable bumbles. Hopefully I'll feel somewhat more confident in my ability by the time my next class rolls around on Wednesday. I'm actually looking forward to it.

Note to self: Need new swim goggles.