I’m not a sporty person. At school I was the one who was always picked last in PE. I couldn’t throw or catch to save my life, and my coordination is non-existent. I’m basically useless at every team sport there is, and the humiliation of those PE lessons has been enough to put me off exercising in public for life. Going to the gym is my worst nightmare – all those people, silently judging my flailing limbs and sweaty red face? No thanks.
However, in the last few years I’ve begun to slowly but surely brave the whole fitness thing. Initially, to be honest, it was in a bid to reverse some of the excesses of my all-inclusive honeymoon, and subsequently to ensure that, as a full-time freelancer, I didn’t spend all day every day sat on my arse, only ever moving to go to the fridge or kettle. Freelance sloth is a very real danger – especially when you work from home, so the kitchen’s mere steps from your office.
Eventually though I actually began to enjoy it, venturing from the cross-trainer to running outside, around the lovely Olympic Park; signing up to 5Ks, and then 10Ks; taking advantage of the rather beautiful London Aquatics Centre being virtually empty during office hours. Then I went a step too far. Under the spell of Rio 2016 Olympic fever, while watching Ellie Robinson win gold, I spotted a Facebook ad for a charity swimming challenge. “I should definitely do that,” I thought.
What followed was a brief conversation on our family Whatsapp group, where my mum (at this point a regular swimmer, unlike me!) said “I’ll do it if you will” and bam, we were both signed up for the Aspire Channel Swim. During the 12 weeks of the challenge, between 12 September and 5 December, we were committed to swimming 22 miles – equivalent to swimming the Channel – in our respective local pools.
The main thing I learned was that swimming 22 miles is really, really, really tough. Two miles a week doesn’t sound like a lot until you work out just how many lengths of a standard size swimming pool that actually is, and I quite quickly found myself wondering what on earth I’d got myself in to. But I did it! On Friday 2 December my mum and I each swam our final mile together, in the Olympic pool – albeit not feeling as much like Rebecca Addlington as I’d expected to back in August! It was tough, but it was also a really amazing experience, and for a great cause – I’ve so far raised £290 for people with spinal injuries, and you can still sponsor me here if you’d like to.
So, what did I learn?
1. Consistency is key
The thing with swimming 22 miles over the space of 12 weeks is that, unless you’re David Walliams, you physically can’t just leave it all until the last minute. Learning to pace myself was therefore essential. Fortunately it’s something I’m already pretty good at – I can’t handle the stress of finishing written work right up to the deadline, so I almost always file early – but it was made a bit more complicated by the fact we already had a three week holiday booked during those 12 weeks.
Despite my best intentions, I was inevitably behind schedule by the time we got home, but sticking to a consistent 1-3 miles per week throughout the challenge meant that I could see real improvements each week. A little more speed here, a little more stamina there, as I edged my way steadily towards the French shore. It was frustrating at times to put all my energy into a swim and get out having only knocked three quarters of a mile off my target, but the tortoise always wins in the end.
I was reminded of this recently when I wrote a blog post for a client exploring the importance of consistency in daily habits and routines. Without the challenge – and without the pride and stubbornness that kept me going once I’d signed up – I would never have got into the habit of swimming two or three times a week, but it’s definitely something I’m intending to keep up now.
2. Take it two lengths at a time
There’s a great quote in season 1 of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: “I learned a long time ago that a person can stand just about anything for 10 seconds, then you just start on a new 10 seconds. All you’ve got to do is take it 10 seconds at a time.” When you’re swimming in a 50 metre pool, 10 seconds doesn’t get you very far (unless you actually are Rebecca Addlington), but I quickly learned to take it two lengths at a time.
“Just another 100 metres and then we’ll see how we feel,” I’d tell myself. If I didn’t feel like I was going to drown by the end of it, we’d try for just another two lengths. Then another two, and another, until my arms and legs felt so weak that I could bearly drag myself out of the pool. Some days washing my hair post-swim felt physically impossible.
There’s no getting around the fact that 22 miles is an enormous challenge for someone with my swimming ability. But breaking those 708 lengths down into just two lengths at a time made it all feel so much easier. It’s amazing how many “two more lengths” you’ve got in you! It’s a lesson I’m trying to apply more to my life and work too. I don’t know if it’s a writer thing, a freelancer thing, or an anxious person thing – maybe all three – but I regularly find myself feeling overwhelmed by the scale of work I’ve taken on. Broken down though, it’s always so much more manageable.
3. Swimming is great for productivity
I can’t tell you how many brilliant intros I wrote in my head while swimming up and down that pool. Swimming became my way of unblocking all those frustrating creative jams. Whenever I was struggling to construct the perfect turn of phrase, that was my cue to hit the pool. The words just seemed to flow as I swept along below Zaha Hadid’s stunningly designed roof, while all those other, distracting thoughts drifted away. The only downside of course was having to stand, dripping wet in my towel, and transfer paragraphs from my mind to my phone before I could get changed afterwards!
As a freelancer living and working on the edge of London’s Olympic Park, I’ve swum semi-regularly over the last few years, usually when work was a bit on the quiet-side. I’ve always loved going in that wonderfully deserted 1-3pm slot, when you can often have a lane to yourself and, as a member, I pay just £2.25 off-peak. But as soon as work got busier, taking an hour out of the middle of the day to swim felt frivolous, a waste of precious writing time.
What this challenge made me realise was how essential it really is to the way I work. Getting out of the house, away from screens, clearing my head, getting active – it all just made me more productive. Rather than wasting my time, swimming actually made me a better freelancer because it took me out of that post-lunch energy slump and got the inspiration flowing. They don’t teach you that at journalism school, but it’s going to be such an important part of my business from now on!
You can sponsor my 22 mile swimming challenge, in aid of spinal injury charity Aspire, on my JustGiving page until March 2017.