Day 171 of the Great Big Marathon 10k Swimming Adventure: The importance of screwing up – and how to cure insomnia

Have you stuffed up today? It might be a good thing. 

But first things first: One of the many features of the Garmin Fenix 3 is that it tracks your activities (yep, just like all those other gadets, doo-hickies and bands do nowadays, including the ridiculously over-hyped Apple Watch to some extent). Anyway, I thought this was pretty useless, given two things:

a) I usually get up at 5am and fall into bed around 10pm anyway,

b) have calculated how many hours I slept the night before like a bad habit for about 20 years.

But you know what? I am actually finding this useful and I am definitely keeping better taps on my sleep patterns.

Since I have had a few days off, I have slept much longer hours – on average 8 to 9 hours a night – and better, too. Plus the odd nap, yay. I kind of knew that 6 to 7 hours a night is not enough given the crazy amount of stuff I need to get done every day. My beautiful wife often goes to sleep before me and gets up around 6am, and has done so for over a decade. But this sleep tracker has given useful numbers to the subjective experience and counting habit.

One crucial point to note here: Since I have embarked on the swimming adventure, I have not only gotten rid of my back pain but also my occasional instances of insomnia. Yes: regular swimming also cures insomnia, people. Of course, we all know that sleep (and rest) is vital to a good exercise regimen. As is nutrition, stretching (ahhh, those ham strings!) and the actual practice.

In theory.

(CC Image by Betty Nudler via Flickr)
I could think of worse spots for a bit of contemplation!  (CC Image by Betty Nudler via Flickr)

In practice, I screw all of that up on an irregular basis. And that is a good thing. Let me explain. Yes: Sometimes I will not sleep enough, I will eat and drink things I shouldn’t (but love and am grateful to God that he made them…looking at you, Bavarian beer), I often will work too much on too many things and get stressed and distracted, I will go to bed too late and will slack off in practice, not keeping to my intentions as planned. Let’s put it this way: I am fairly immune to pedantry or the sin of scrupulosity – maybe that’s why I am such a happy Catholic. But jokes aside, I do recognize the drive to perfection, as good as it is, is detrimental when it comes to exercise in general or swimming in particular. Here’s why:

  • Swimming is not a purpose in and of itself, but a means, a tool to keep you happy, healthy and sane. That includes Great Big Swimming Adventures!
  • Therefore, like meditation (or contemplative prayer as described here [or many more here] if you’re religious like me), it needs to fit your life like a comfortable pair of jeans. Not the other way around – beware of exercise narcissism as much as religious bigotry. (Side note: dear triathletes, given the amazing work load and gear required for this sport, you’re perhaps particularly at risk of the type of narcissism I am alluding to here. Not to mention the game of Golf or Football! Neither are an actual raison d’etre, gentlemen).
  • Recognising that we all are fallible and stuff up is the first step to actually both respecting yourself and trying to improve by making resolutions / setting goals and working towards them. Like a Great Big Marathon Swimming Adventure!

Ok, enough philosophising for today. I need to fire up the barbecue in a few minutes, as our neighbours are coming over for a little barbie/braaivleis/grillfest. I might even enjoy one of those brilliant beers or two.

We have been blessed with another perfect summer’s day today. So this morning I went to mass in our village church, did some errands and then rocked up at the outdoor pool a few minutes before it opened (that being 10am, as is quite common in Germany, unfortunately) and actually was the first to hit the water. When I left 1.5 hrs later, the place was chockers and a long line at the entrance. But I got to put in an uninterrupted session (apart from some friendly chats).

Here is the summary:

And the actual sets:  


Day 100 of the Great Big 10k Marathon Swimming Adventure: Cracking the 1k in under 15 minutes – and some lessons from the first hundred days

OK, first off: Yay! I did it! In less than 15 minutes!

Yesterday, on the morning of day 99 since setting out on this adventure, I reached a major milestone: I swam the 1k in under 15mins. The watch says it took me precisely 14:50 minutes to do 1000 meters (in the 25 meter pool I train most mornings). Yes, dear haters, distinctly un-impressive by some standards, but for me, personally, an achievement that took a lot of work.

(In case you haven’t noticed, I am bloody pleased with myself.)

(CC Image via Flickr by uberof202)
(CC Image via Flickr by uberof202)

This is not just a personal best, but a milestone that I set for myself many months ago. It feels good to set goals and then work towards achieving them, then reaching them. Especially when trying to achieve them has many side benefits, like keeping you happy, healthy and sane.

Since today marks the 100th day since I set out on this adventure, let me draw up a quick summary of the main points/events on the journey so far:

  • Gradually increased the swimming load from hitting the pool 2-3 times a week for practices over 1-3.5k to a daily 4-5k every morning, Monday to Friday. Which means that I swim about 20k a week currently. And I plan to do more.
  • Cracked the 5k distance in the 25m pool
  • Changed my daily routine to get up at 5am and swim from 6am to 7.30am-ish every morning (not weekends).
  • Changed my diet to a liquid breakfast and eating within a 12-hour-timeframe during the week
  • Given that I burn about 1500 kcal every morning in the water, too, I have lost almost 10kg of weight
  • I have not experienced any back pain since Day 1 of this adventure, and feel much healthier, fitter, etc.
  • Unlike normally, I did not succumb to any of the bugs and viruses that family members, friends and colleagues fell ill with

And, yep, I learned some important lessons so far that I hope to remember when the going will get tough (as it invariably does). Here are four that I want to share with you:

  1. Persistence really is key. Make yourself “auto-persistent”: Change your habits to “bake in” your workout (or whatever it is) into your day. Make it routine. Stick to it.
  2. Persistence comes from priorities! Ruthlessly prioritize your life. My – and most likely your – absolute priority, from which everything flows, is my identity. (Sidenote: Sure, you don’t have to be religious to have a sound anchorage in life and death, but boy does it help.) Knowing who you are and why you are here on this planet in turn helps you to focus. My focus is on my vocation as firstly a husband to my beautiful wife, secondly a father to those crazy kids, thirdly a professional worker, and so on. So, I hear you ask, where does swimming come into all of this? Well, it is essential! But “only” because it allows me to properly function in all these roles. Just like sound rest, good nutrition, and other things that are essential. (I wish young swimmers, some of whom get depressed from having swimming as the main goal in life, knew and understood this. Swimming – or any other activity – is not a raison d’etre by itself.)
  3. Persistence can be helped! Do what ever helps you to keep at it, within reason. Cameraderie or team training, friendships, saving up for excellent gear, finding inspiration by socialising with others passionate about the sport, online or offline….and write about it! One of the stated purposes of this blogging business is to keep me motivated and have a kind of public record out there to hold myself somewhat accountable. Your mileage may vary, but for me this has really worked.
  4. Regularly remind yourself: What would happen if I did not go down this path? How did I feel before making the change? This throws into stark relief the many fundamental motivational factors that can be clouded over by short-term concerns or moods – and makes you realise: You don’t really have an alternative that is preferable. Boom. Back to 1.

Though I rarely quote from the Bible, there is a real doozy from Psalm 103. A phrase that sums all of this up rather nicely, and using the metaphor of water no less:

inter medium montium pertransibunt aquae (the waters will pass through the midst of the mountains)

Day 22 of the Great Big Marathon 10k Swim Adventure: Dealing with sickness and more

"1918 Influenza Poster" by the History of Medicine - the History of Medicine. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
“1918 Influenza Poster” by the History of Medicine – the History of Medicine. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

A lot has happened over the last two weeks apart from Christmas. Amongst other things, I swam another 5.8k (over two sessions, one in a “new” pool which I hope to return to at some stage; it was a good experience despite a strange encounter in the locker area) and around 26 December I promptly got sick enough with a nasty cold and fever with back pain to have to lie in bed for several days. (Cue the “whiny men with flu”-jokes…or, actually, don’t as I have heard them all by now).

But first things first: Happy New Year! Have you picked a “Great Big Adventure” for yourself in 2015? Something to challenge your inner coward or sloth? Could be sporting, social, supernatural, or just plain fun. Let me know.

Ok, back to the story. I have not been in the water since 25 December. That sucks, and not just because I want to train up for a 5k distance this year. I miss the water. As it stands, I am not well enough to return to training this week…still struggling with a head-cold, running nose and niggling cough. How do you deal with this? Rest up and take it easy! Seriously. Only get back in the water when your body is ready. I intend to go for a casual swim early next week.

Obviously, prevention would have been better than any cure. However, when the ambient temperature drops to minus 10 degrees centigrade around Christmas and tons of snow arrive; when  you travel a lot with public transport; when you have several young kids sneezing and coughing in your face at home; …you get the picture. Infections  are hard to avoid. Add to that an immune system stressed by work demands, exercise (?),  family holiday pressures, and your body will be grateful for any excuse to take a time out. Certainly mine was.

(That said, I have a niggling feeling that I caught something at the pool after doing that 3k-swim. It is not the first time that I have fallen ill with fever and other cold symptoms plus back pain after a hard workout in that place. Could it be the air quality in the indoor pool area, or maybe something in the water? Probably not. Who knows. I swim there plenty and usually I am ok.)

Anyway. I need to get more rest, down-time, nutrition sorted. I did a lot of research on this online (whilst stuck in bed) of which I hope to write some more shortly – and I have started experimenting with smoothies (great recipe and more by the rather legendary Donal Buckley here).

For the record, I swam the 3k in just under 51 minutes. That is a pace of 1:42 minutes per 100m in a 25 meter pool, including jumping children, obese men who decided to simply stand in the water where I was lapping, and sudden interlopers including old ladies trying to keep their hair dry and young mothers with toddlers – in other words, typical swimming conditions in a German public pool.

Getting back into swimming

After a month and a half of mayhem and crazy hours at work, I finally got to go back into the water today. I knew it was going to be a minor revelation. But I did not know it was going to be the one I ended up having.

The moment I pushed off the wall was nothing like at a normal practice. Usually that split second I push off, the world just goes quiet. If you swim regularly, I am sure you know that glorious feeling. Not today. I felt like a puppy scrambling across a slippery floor with paws too big for his little body for the first laps. Like an insect that was trapped in honey for too long and suddenly breaks free, flying madly into the air, somersaulting with exuberance and the new thrill of unencumbered freedom. So though it was not like a normal swim, it still was absolutely bloody glorious. Just different. I slithered and pawed through the water. Then my body clicked back into its element. Like, you know, a fish to water. It is hard to describe without going all pathetic or kitschy.

On one level, I really feel more at home in the water than on land. The reason it felt different at first today probably was not just because of several weeks without swimming. I suspect the lower back pain I suffer from had something to do with the feeling of release. You see, the many hours commuting in now cold weather, the very tough work challenges (though exciting and ultimately very successful) of the last month, coupled with a lack of sleep and exercise, not just swimming, had really taken its toll.

Anyway, I swam a moderate k, just then and there. No stretching or warm ups. Took me exactly 17 minutes according to my Garmin Swim, which all things considered isn’t bad.
Then some drills, kicking and a bit of back stroke. All up just a very mellow 1400 meters, but enough to feel born again and incredibly keen to get back into the water.