Swimming’s a poor substitute for running – apart from the sweet ache afterwards
IT’S COMING UP to a month now since my right knee flared up again, and stopped me from running.
And while the mashed ligaments are healing, my half-century-old cells are knitting together much slower than I’d like.
Which is a problem, as running is one of the major pillars that holds my life up.
I am not completely sure that I would be here – and I certainly wouldn’t be quite as intact as I am – if it hadn’t been for running.
Putting on my bright blue trainers two or three times a week and starting up the 300-metre slope at the end of my road has kept despair more or less at bay for about a dozen years now.
And in the really dark times, it saved me.
Even when I was spinning out of control, I knew that if I could just get out and run then I would – eventually – end up in a place where I liked myself again. Even if that place was a lot of miles away.
After my injury, I had to cope by taking long, slightly sore, walks for a couple of weeks. But then my Physiotherapist said I could try a bit of exercise that didn’t involve twisting my knee – like cycling, and swimming Front Crawl.
I used to swim a lot, as well as run. At my peak, a few years ago, I would do more than a hundred lengths of crawl non-stop.
But, after a year away from the pool, I now do them in bunches of eight and have a little breather in between.
Also, while I’d been away, I’d forgotten that I don’t actually like the process of swimming crawl all that much.
I had to re-learn how breathing right helped you fight the shock of holding your head underneath another, hostile, element.
And, strangely, when you are fighting for oxygen, breathing out as much as you can underwater seems to be key.
To me, the best thing about swimming isn’t how you feel in the pool – it’s the feeling afterwards, which hits you once you have dragged your sopping ass out of the pool and towelled off.
In the mirror after a long-ish swim, arms, pecs and shoulders look just a bit firmer – while the slight burn of the chlorinated water invariably lends my face a rosy, healthy, glow.
And then the sweet ache begins.
It’s not a pain, as in a pulled muscle. It’s an all-body thing: the hum of endorphins singing deep in the big muscles of your back, chest, hamstrings and thighs.
It’s a sensual tiredness that lasts for the rest of the day and keeps reminding you – like a book that entertains for hours and hours, or a picture that takes you back to a special holiday – that life can be good.
It is an awareness of your body that is all positive: the polar opposite of catching yourself looking pale, or fat, in the mirror.
It’s a deep-seated certainty that you are looking good – even if you’re not – and it’s easy to spot the magic working on other people, too.
Once, my wife and I were in the café of a suburban leisure centre, waiting for our son to finish karate, when a middle-aged woman in her cardio gear sashayed by and sat down at a table near us with a salad.
My wife, who is not a Gym Bunny, but does possess an Eleventh Dan in Watching People, whispered: “Her bod’s not all that hot. Why is she walking round like she’s God’s gift?”
I looked at the woman, still pink from her workout, and I knew exactly how she felt.
I could sense in my own midriff how the muscles underneath her muffin tops were singing, convincing her they were hard and lean when – as my wife had pointed out – she still had a bit of work to do.
But I felt jealous of her, and her body. I thought: I’ll have what she’s having!
Because all I had was a thin, over-sugared Cappuccino – and she had the sweet, sweet ache.