Please help me work up the nerve to start lap swimming again
September 24, 2013 12:22 PM   Subscribe

I've done lap swimming very intermittently over the last 20 or so years. I think I'm an okay swimmer - I always did well enough when I was in practice - and I always liked the activity itself (made me feel a little more graceful than IRL). I can keep myself from drowning but I am way out of shape. I am motivated to start exercising and swimming is going to be the best option for my needs but I am really anxious about going.

My anxiety is partly generalized "doing something new/going somewhere new" and partly due to my physical shape (5-04, 180#). I mean I don't even own shorts and now I'm thinking of basically being in my underwear in front of complete strangers. (I have found a swimsuit that is pretty modest as far as swimsuits go but I'm still going to feel very exposed.) I'm also worried about being a very slow swimmer and sharing a lane. I feel like I'm going to be the slowest person there and in everyone's way all the time.

The last time I tried to go swimming, about 7 or 8 years ago, I couldn't even get out of the car to go inside! I told my husband about it recently and he was sympathetic but it was clear this kind of anxiety preventing me from doing something is completely alien to his Type A extroverted self and he can't be much help.

I'm pretty motivated to exercise but need something non-impact. I started the Couch to 5K program a couple of months ago and really liked it but even that was too much and I totally messed up my knee which was already weakened from a broken leg four years ago. It's not so much joint pain as muscle and tendon overuse, I think, so walking or bicycling aren't options to increase my endurance right now.

I've never liked working out in a gym so working out around people is going to be challenging (one of the reasons I liked running).

I work swing shift so unfortunately early morning hours are only an option on Saturdays. The pool I'd be going to I think will be a friendly enough environment - more middle America and less LA - so intellectually I know I probably won't be the most out of shape person there but but emotionally I feel like I'm just one big cellulite factory.

Any suggestions for ways to deal with the anxiety? Any anecdotal "I am/was in your situation" stories are welcome, too. I really want to take advantage of my inclination to exercise. Thank you!
posted by Beti to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
One thing to keep in mind is that unlike other forms of exercise, your body is mostly hidden (or sometimes it's even distorted in a more flattering way) by the water while you swim. Wear a swanky robe as you walk to the pool and take it off/hang it up as close to the pool entrance as you can. That way you won't really be in your underwear in front of complete strangers for very long.
posted by joan_holloway at 12:28 PM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I sometimes swim during the day on weekdays at my nearby community center- sort of like a local YMCA. Everyone else is either very old or very out of shape, or both. I've also gone to an occasional morning water aerobics class in the same pool and was (at 60+) one of the youngest in the class. I would urge you to find a similar pool and to find a time to swim when the pool won't be full of perfectly fit young things.
posted by mareli at 12:36 PM on September 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm about 70# overweight and I swim. It was hard at first due to my self-consciousness. My excess weight is evenly distributed, so I have very fat arms and legs and am in the morbidly obese category. Furthermore, I have a large protruding pocket of fat on my lower left thigh that draws stares even when I'm fully clothed.

Frankly, I just don't care anymore. I'm doing something good for myself and that is what matters.

Another thing I think about is how I view others. We all tend to look at things/people that fall outside of society's norms, myself included. Got a third eye or two heads? I'm gonna look. But I do my best not to judge people based on their appearances and I have the mindset that others don't either (even though many do). So I expect people to look at me since I'm outside of the norm. I smile and say hi! then head for the pool.

I still have twinges of insecurity, but the great way I feel after a workout (and the hottub) make it worth it.

Hugs to you!
posted by michellenoel at 12:38 PM on September 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Could you go watch a few times? I am fatter than you, and how I got up the courage to start working out was by, first, seeing the people in the cardio room when I was dropping off one of my kids for preschool, and how not young and thin they were. And then one of my kids took swimming lessons at a time when half the pool was reserved for lap swim, and I was really struck by the variety of people and the different ways they approached the water. Some just walked, some used kickboards and worked only their legs, some were very leisurely, some were athletic and clearly pushing themselves. And their bodies were all imperfect in interesting ways: fat, scarred, droopy, hairy, wrinkly.
posted by not that girl at 12:46 PM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I used to be a lifeguard at a very swanky country club with two indoor lap pools and let me tell you, even there, no one was looking at what one another looks like--not other swimmers, not lifeguards, not swim instructors. The nice thing about lap pools, as opposed to summertime hang out pools, is that people are there to exercise and that's it. The most fit swimmers tended to go in the early morning hours, before work, so I actually think it's going to be good for you that you can't go then. If you go during the day, the majority of people will be stay-at-home moms, retirees, etc. The other nice thing about swimming is that a lot of people have to focus really hard on what they're doing--coordinating arms, legs, breathing, their stamina, etc.--and so have almost no time to judge others. Plus almost everyone's faces are in the water!

Are there any amenities in the locker room? Maybe the first time, you could wear your suit and just hang out in the hot tub or sauna? And gradually acclimate to going into the pool once you feel more comfortable with the surroundings?

Good for you for working up the courage to get back into swimming. It is so, so good for you, not just physically but mentally.
posted by stellaluna at 12:47 PM on September 24, 2013 [7 favorites]

I think anxiety is one of those things that the more you let it built up, the worse it gets. I've put off and put off and put off doing many new activities because I'm worried I won't be good enough/what other people think or have tried to go but then turned around at the door because I couldn't work up the nerve to do said activity. The thing is, I've come to realize that basically, I just need to say, "brain, be quiet" and I just make myself walk in no matter how freaked out I feel. And it's always fine. It's just the turning off the mental chatter that's the hard part.

Also, I swim pretty much every day and it's great. Also, I sort of love the huge variety of different body shapes/sizes at the local pool-- seeing them all in motion, (sorry this is a bit weird) but it's actually kind of beautiful.

And yes, seconding michellenoel, I also find I feel way better about myself/life/my body after I've been swimming for 30 minutes.
posted by Ocellar at 12:55 PM on September 24, 2013

Swimming is one of the most forgiving ways to exercise -- both on the body and on the mind! Lots of people rehab from surgery by swimming, and obviously, older folks who need to protect their bones swim for a no-impact workout. On the other hand, you can get so strong and pilates-esque from swimming (without the judgey others!)

I like the idea of either an open robe that you leave right close by your entry/exit point, or a big towel that you wrap like a sarong. Just until you get used to the environment.

You are tempting me to go back to it, so thanks!
posted by thinkpiece at 1:01 PM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here is an anecdote: my father has lost almost 100 pounds by lap swimming 5 or 6 times a week. He swims at the town YMCA, the least judgmental place in the world. He is approaching sixty and in the best shape of his life.

As for working out around people, when you're in the pool you don't really the swimmers in other lanes, and they don't really see you. They're just colorful blobs out of the corner of your eye when you take a breath.
posted by troika at 1:01 PM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

First of all, your anxiety, while feeling real to you, is misplaced. You assume that others care about you enough to actually look at you and judge you. Most of us just want to work out and go home, we're not really focused on other people.

For now, tell your anxiety, "I am swimming for my health, others in the pool are doing the same. I don't care what they look like, they don't care what I look like."

So wear a suit that's good for swimming and get in there.

So you're slow. No biggie, the fast folks will pick a different lane.

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:02 PM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

People who have gotten up the gumption to get in a swimsuit and get fit will think you're cool for doing that, too. I know because I'm one of them. I think the cool people are the ones who do fun things, don't you?

P.S. For over a year I was saying the same things to my mom, who was absolutely adamant that she would never be seen in a swimsuit. Finally she got up the nerve to try it and she can't shut up about how much she loves it. And I haven't heard one word about how she looks!
posted by HotToddy at 1:10 PM on September 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When I started at the Y I was (more) obese (5'7", 250#) and didn't even own tennis shoes, let alone workout clothes. I felt out of place and was Incredibly anxious. But I started going in the middle of the day when there were fewer people and they weren't in a rush. I tried to not look at anyone else to see how they Must be staring, but was still acutely aware of being the fat girl.

After a few weeks I came to realize that Nobody cared. They really are there just to work out, not to judge. When I did notice others it was simply to think "go you for coming in when it's obviously a struggle". I went from talking to no one to chatting and joining group classes and evangelizing exercise and the Y to everyone I knew.

The worst thing that ever happened? A few people complimented me on getting fitter. I didn't like that they noticed Anything, but then I realized it was simply a compliment, nothing more. And I'd done some hard work, it was nice that other acknowledged that.

So be gentle with yourself and let yourself take it very easy at first in orienting yourself. Once you settle in to it, the anxiety will melt away and you'll be left with the happy knowledge that you are putting your self-care first.

Extra bonus: it turns out regular exercise makes me (and most folks) less anxious, too!
posted by ldthomps at 1:37 PM on September 24, 2013

I would add that I have gotten very good at giving the ol' stink eye to folks who do look at me in a judgmental way! I don't always do it, but boy, when I'm in the mood...

posted by michellenoel at 1:37 PM on September 24, 2013

I agree that the fittest go in the morning, so it's good that you cannot do so then.

I'll go if you go! PM me.
posted by jgirl at 1:38 PM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am in OK shape but I keep my towel wrapped around me up until the moment I jump in the pool (and I jump to make that fast). I wouldn't think anything of anyone else wearing any type of cover-up until the moment they got in. I also don't notice the body types of anyone when I'm swimming because I'm pretty much just trying not to die. Plus good form generally means your head is line with your spine so looking at an awkward angle to oogle someone in the pool not directly under or next to me means I slow down or sink.

Sharing lanes: If there are two people in a lane, it doesn't matter how slow you are - you are just splitting the lane.

Honestly, the hardest part about sharing a lane is getting the attention of someone to share with. People generally try to avoid your gaze. If no one invites you in or there isn't an obvious lane to try to get in (someone who is doing a workout similar to yours, someone at the same pace, someone who seems like they are finishing up), then hang out where people at your gym tend to wait or just go to the end of whatever the most appropriate lane seems to be and start arranging your stuff. If folks are still avoiding you, just sit down with your legs in or get all the way in... they can't continue to avoid you! In general, though, I find someone will flag me down and invite me in or let me know they are finishing up. (Especially if they are regulars, too.) I always make a point to stick to one side of a lane if the pool is crowded so folks know they can pop in.

The one thing I will say is try to find someone not regularly incorporating backstroke (or if you are trying to dissuade others from going in your lane, you should do backstroke). Breakstroke can also be problematic but it's pretty easy to see if there is someone doing free/breast laps like you and kinda coordinate passing so you don't end up slapping each other. I pay 0 attention to the pace of my lap mate EXCEPT for when I'm approaching the end of a lane to do my turn. Be slow, be fast, work hard... just hang near the corner of the lane if you're resting at the end 'cuz I don't want to kick you in the face.
posted by adorap0621 at 1:55 PM on September 24, 2013

I used to be morbidly obese, and lost the weight partially by swimming regularly. I don't remember anyone ever saying anything hurtful to me about my appearance. Maybe a stare or two from a child in the locker room once or twice, but I think that was just curiousity, and I have long since forgotten if it bothered me very much, so I must not have been too traumatized.

A more recent anecdote is that I just tried rowing for the first time. Felt a bit self conscious and nervous (see most recent mefi question) but I just accepted that I was going to be a bit afraid before I tried it and went anyway. Everyone turned out to be nice, although I still need to learn the correct rowing technique.
posted by thesnowyslaps at 3:11 PM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been lap swimming at the local YMCA for a little over a year now. When I started I knew absolutely nothing about it. So starting out was pretty scary. I just went for it and asked the lifeguards lots of questions. And made some mistakes. And watched lots of YouTube swimming videos. And now enjoy swimming as my main cardio exercise.

I can offer these observations:

The lap lanes are usually divided by speed, slow, medium, fast. I always pick the least-crowded slowest lane.

Most people are there to swim and get home so there's not a lot of chit-chat.

At my Y, most of the swimmers are kids, old folks and people trying to lose weight, haven't encountered any poser-types. No one's really looking at each other.

I check the lap schedule and try to go when more lanes are open. After some trial and error I've also discovered which days are less crowded (Weeknights after work are full, Sunday in the afternoon there's always a lane).

I'm not going to lie, it's weird when the pool is crowded and so many people are around. But I just focus on not drowning and it helps tune everyone else out. ;)

You should go for it!
posted by shino-boy at 4:00 PM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's funny, I used to be self-conscious because I was afraid I didn't look like an "olympiad" like so many others did at the pool (I'm 5'8" and around 157lbs). I think, no matter what the body type, you end up feeling insecure about something when you get back into the gym.

I've been an avid lap swimmer for probably a decade, though I've given it a rest since I no longer have good access to a pool right now. I've been in all sorts of pools over the years, with all sorts of different people and pool "moods," if that makes any sense.

The hope is that you can find a pool that was like the one I used to go to: filled with a diverse amount of people of all body types and skill levels. Perhaps it was unique, but, at that particular pool, there was a feeling of community between all of the people -- from those who were crazy in shape to the people with weight issues who were just getting started.

My advice, if I may be so bold, is to just swim. Go in there (cover up if it makes you feel better) and make eye contact with people, smile at people. I think you might be surprised at how nice everyone is -- after all, you're all there for the same purpose.

In my experience, if you're a regular, you'll see a lot of the same people after a while and you will start to commiserate, "Christ this pool is cold!" and so on. And they may even ask you what happened if you miss a day, which is great incentive and support!

As folks have said before: go for it!
posted by MyFrozenYear at 5:34 PM on September 24, 2013

you have to suck it up and just do it. and when you do it once, you can do it again because you know the drill and what's going to happen.

i am like a trillion pounds overweight and i just started lap swimming like a month ago. yes, it sucks to parade my basket of fat rolls in front of people who are skinnier than i am. but i'm there for the same reason they are. i'm not there to sit around and eat cheeseburger cake which is what the self-loathing part of my brain tells me they're secretly thinking about me. i'm there to swim some laps and be healthy. if someone wants to hate on me for swimming and being healthy, then fuck them, they're a jerk.

and really, sometimes i AM the slowest swimmer there. but i get better every day. you will too.
posted by kerning at 5:37 PM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Maybe take a friend to help with the anxiety? I find doing new things with someone feels much better than doing them by myself.
No one will be looking at you and you're covered by the water anyhow but if you do feel uncomfortable in a swimsuit you could wear board shorts and a rash guard to cover up more.

I recently started aquafit/waterfit classes (basically water aerobics) and they are great exercise for people with joint problems. If your local pool offers that type of class it could be a good way to get in the water, get comfortable in the pool and start getting into shape.
posted by Lay Off The Books at 5:40 PM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I hope you do it. When I started lap swimming almost 4 years ago, I couldn't swim one lap and now I swim about a mile (1 hr or so). The body image thing was a big barrier for me as well as my anxiety about hairy legs. As it turns out, none of these things matter at all. As others have mentioned, once you are in the pool, you're, well, in the pool. Then the only thing that matters is finding the right lane and learning all the pool etiquette rules. Read them online and at the pool (some pools don't even permit splitting a lane) and ask the lifeguard questions. (soapbox: Good manners are crucial to sharing lap lanes and it amazes me how many people don't understand that. All you need is a little piece of moving real estate so that everyone gets their own workout and sets their own pace. Stop at both ends of the pool and let faster swimmers pass. Good luck. Swimming is the best lifetime exercise I've found.
posted by lois1950 at 7:53 PM on September 24, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for your advice and "me, too" stories. It's helping me psych myself up. My Popina tankini and shorts arrived today and I think they'll look okay. Maybe I'll swing by tomorrow on the way to work and check out the place as the next step. Cheers everyone!
posted by Beti at 12:52 AM on September 25, 2013

I've found that the close you go to closing time, the fewer people are around.
posted by devnull at 1:17 AM on September 25, 2013

Best answer: My anxiety is partly generalized "doing something new/going somewhere new" and partly due to my physical shape (5-04, 180#). I mean I don't even own shorts and now I'm thinking of basically being in my underwear in front of complete strangers. (I have found a swimsuit that is pretty modest as far as swimsuits go but I'm still going to feel very exposed.) I'm also worried about being a very slow swimmer and sharing a lane.

Oh, hello, me... I could have posted this a while back. I'm bigger than you and all my worries were the same as yours. However when I first psyched myself to go back to swimming, I was amazed and gratified to realise that no one looks at you in the changing room. People are just there to change.

No one cares at all what I look like or how well/badly I swim. The only thing is to observe good lane etiquette and you will go under the radar, trust me. I do prefer to swim at women's only hours, and you may too.

The pool is actually great for self-conscious people because your body is under water a lot of the time!

I also have been experimenting with water aerobics. This is the funnest thing ever. At 30, I am probably one of the older people in the class, and it does give you a good workout (I just went to a session yesterday and all my muscles are still feeling it!!); there's a lot of splashing and a general feeling of "Lol, don't we look silly" that creates a sense of cameraderie. I would definitely, definitely recommend it.
posted by Ziggy500 at 1:46 AM on September 25, 2013

Best answer: Another overweight swimmer here.

I read this thread this morning, before I went for a swim, felt a bit wistful because it is sad (but completely understandable) that your mind isn't allowing you this luxury, then got distracted.

I've just got back from my swim. I'm very very lucky - I live 10 minutes' walk from a heated 50m outdoor pool, and that's where I've been. I swam for about half an hour, floated on my back for a while looking at the sky, then walked back to the house with my mind calmed and my limbs heavy. On the way back I sat on a park bench to think a bit, and remembered you. I wonder whether you can remember what the feel of moving through water is like, and what it feels like to be able to turn somersaults underwater like dolphins. Please have a think about it: that's the core of swimming. Sometimes you do feel more graceful, sometimes it's all you can do to stop your mind shouting 'be more graceful' at yourself, sometimes problems resolve themselves and anxieties melt away, sometimes they don't.

I have very little idea about the BMI of the other people swimming in the pool with me today. Mostly I could only see their heads and their arms. I notice other people's physique only really if they are swimming faster than me; I want to know if my stroke was better, could I be doing better? If they're men a foot taller than me with the extra wingspan that brings, I forgive myself. I see that you've marked as best the answer that suggests that you take a friend with you, but actually one of the things I like very much about swimming is that by the time you're wearing a cap and goggles you are pretty much anonymous, in a way you are very much not in a gym. So, a friend that's seen you in a swimming costume before, brilliant! A friend that you're going to feel even more self-conscious around, not so brilliant.

Please don't worry about the speed of your swimming. Nobody minds slow swimmers as long as they don't cause traffic jams. As others have said above, if you need to, stay in the slow lane and let faster swimmers go first at the end of a length.

I really really hope you update us after your first time down the pool; let us know how you get on. I hope it sticks for you, and I hope swimming will be as life-changing for you as it's been for many of us. Be gentle and forgiving of yourself, but give it a go - if all else fails, I sometimes find that the advice given for procrastination is also good for anxiety: tell yourself that you are only going to do it for 5 minutes. At the end of the five minutes, consider whether you can stick around a bit longer. Good luck!
posted by calico at 8:00 AM on September 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Well, I did it. Thanks to everyone for your stories and advice and support!

My husband and I got out of town for the weekend and the place we stayed had a decent sized pool. I thought that it might be a good, low key way to test out the waters - ha - and start to get back in the swimming groove. We got there first thing in the morning and totally lucked out - there were four lanes and three swimmers so I got a lane to myself next to the wall - yay! My husband came with me for support/lifeguard duties and sat poolside and read.

I did okay. I swam for about 40 minutes and actually didn't feel too sore the rest of the day. I am thinking some lessons might be good to improve my technique, though, since I'm long out of practice.

The other people in the pool were my age or older and in a range of fitness levels so that kept me from feeling too self-conscious. Once I got in the water, though, I really was just focused on what I was doing (and not inhaling too much chlorine) to really be concerned with what anyone else was doing. And, like you all said, everyone was doing their own thing and (of course) not paying any attention to me.

We ended up going again first thing the next morning and I got to be the first person in the pool - what a treat! I swam for almost an hour. It really did feel good to get moving again.

I know I'll be nervous when I go to my local pool for lap swimming but at least one hurdle is cleared. Thanks again, everyone. You all helped immensely!
posted by Beti at 9:00 PM on October 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

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