I’m not much of a morning person, but recently I’ve found myself getting up at the insane hour of 4:30 a.m. a couple of times a week. Normally that kind of wake-up call leaves me with my face obstinately buried in the pillow as I hit the snooze button seven times, but that hasn’t been the case for these wake-ups. That’s because I’ve been getting up to go swim with my local Masters team.
Masters swimming, for those who don’t know, basically consists of organized swim workouts for grown-ups. You are assigned to a lane depending on your ability, and then everyone in your lane does the same workout. It’s got its own nomenclature that takes a bit to figure out, you often feel like you want to puke your guts out at the end of a set, and you go to work reeking of chlorine with big goggle marks around your eyes, which makes your attempts at applying nice eye makeup look all the sillier.
It’s also one of my favorite things to do, and here are five reasons why:
1. It’s made me a better swimmer.
If you ask any experienced triathlete or coach for tips on becoming a better swimmer, almost all of them will say, “Join a Masters team” and there’s a good reason why: because it works. It only took a few sessions before I started to see a dramatic improvement. The coach gave me lots of specific feedback and physical cues to correct my crappy form, and I listened to him and made a real effort to put that feedback into play.
In a matter of months, I went from white-knuckling my way through the swim to handling the swim with strength, confidence and assertiveness. Now I’m at the point where the swim is one of my favorite parts of triathlon, and it’s because I know how to move through the water without thrashing around and panicking. I’m still learning a ton but I am light years from the woman who refused to even consider triathlon because of the swim.
2. I push myself way harder.
You might think you push yourself plenty hard when you are alone, but unless your name rhymes with Schmatie Schmedecky, I can assure you that you aren’t. That’s fine! I’m the same way. There’s something about the presence of other people that makes me dig deep into my soul so I can pull my guts out for the world to see. (Metaphorically speaking, of course.) There’s a reason why all my best times come in races – because competing with other people raises the stakes in a way that doesn’t happen when I am alone.
But this holds true even if you aren’t directly competing with one another – and with Masters swimming, you usually aren’t – and you are simply working out together. The mere threat of having a lanemate’s fingers brush the bottoms of my feet is motivation enough for me to swim harder. And when someone passes you? Or laps you? Just try not to swim faster when that happens. These are not things that happens when you swim by yourself, that’s for sure.
3. Sharing the suffering lessens the suffering.
Swimming can be pretty lonely: just you, the black stripe on the bottom of the pool and hundreds of thousands of gallons of chlorinated water. Sometimes this can be exactly what I need, particularly after a stressful workday in a loud newsroom that leaves me in desperate need of a break from human voices. But sometimes, especially when the swim workout is so hard that you’re left gasping for air at the end of a set, all I want is to be able to look at the person hanging off the gutter next to me and know that they understand exactly how I’m feeling.
Plus, if you have good lanemates, you’ll supporting each other through the workout, telling each other that you only have one left in this set, telling each other “good job” and “way to hang in there” and “man, that set really sucked ass, didn’t it?” This is what team-sports athletes have always known – that sharing the suffering with your teammates makes it a hell of a lot more tolerable than if you have to bear it alone.
4. I feel great whenever the workout is over.
This is basically true for any of the training and workouts I do, but it seems to particularly hold true for swimming. No matter how crappy I might feel during the workout, no matter how much I’m gasping for air during breathing exercises or how much my muscles are burning with lactic acid, I always feel fantastic for several hours afterwards. I go to work and handle my shit like a boss, I’m all chill and relaxed, and I’m generally very pleasant to be around. I once left a Masters swim to sit in three hours of traffic from Clearwater to Orlando, which is a situation that would normally have me screaming until my eyeballs bleed, but this time I was just like, “Oh well, whatever” and then I turned up the music and sang along with “Southern Cross” while I admired the sunrise and sipped my to-go cup of coffee. Like, what kind of sorcery is that? I’ll tell you what it is – a good, hard early-morning swim is what it is.
5. My arms, back and shoulders are a lot stronger.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I am now capable of doing strict overhand pull-ups. I’m just sayin’.
If you’re intrigued – and I hope you are – you can find out more information by going to https://www.usms.org/. And don’t worry about not being good enough for Masters swimming, because there’s plenty of room for everyone from total beginners to ex-collegiate swimmers. The only thing you need is a desire to learn how to swim better and a willingness to work hard.