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James's story: Making a splash on my fitness journey

James's story: Making a splash on my fitness journey

James Illingworth

Be Well member James explains how regular trips to the pool have helped him recover from a health setback and led to other unexpected benefits. 

The background

This may be a surprising admission in a blog predominantly about swimming, but I’m a rubbish swimmer.

From a very young age I’ve always played a lot of sports. Weekends during both the summer and winter mean I’m at some sort of pitch in the North West either training, playing or coaching.

But swimming has never been a strength.

Crucially, I can just about make it to the other side of the pool (although I did have a bad experience years ago in an Olympic-sized pool. One length feels longer than you'd think in one of those!). But that’s about that it. Functional, but nothing to shout about.

Anyway, last year I suffered quite a serious injury to my lower back that meant a spell away from playing rugby, cricket, football or golf would be necessary.

Following a prolonged recovery period, a physio recommended stepping up some low-impact fitness options and swimming was mentioned.

Luckily, I had a Be Well membership (at that point mostly to use the gym) and I work next door to the pool at the Life Centre in Wigan town centre.

In the pool

I managed to get into a nice routine of going to the pool before work (the Life Centre pool opens 6.30am most weekdays), initially a couple of times a week, rising to four or five times after a month or so.

I didn’t set myself any targets (in terms of distance/lengths etc); the aim was just to get into the pool and make the most of the 30 or 40 minutes I had available.

And this is where my terrible swimming technique might have helped with the workout!

My version of breaststroke isn’t very efficient, so I reckon it burns more calories than those who seemingly glide through the water with a proper honed technique.

Nevertheless, I started to feel improvement after just a few sessions. I felt myself getting stronger, more flexible with my swimming stroke and could do more lengths back-to-back.

I was able to have fewer rests in between repetitions and build up into a more rigorous workout. But, on the other hand, if I just wasn’t feeling it on a given day, I could just relax, get some lengths in and feel assured that every little helps.  

The added benefits

Many of you will be familiar with the post-workout feeling; you’re knackered but those endorphins are flowing through your body and you can give yourself a well deserved pat on the back.

That’s how I felt each day as I made the short walk across to the office. But after a few sessions I also started to realise that I wasn’t just benefitting from the physical effects of this daily routine.

The process of being in my own space for that 30 or 40 minutes each morning gave me a chance to focus my thoughts about the day ahead, reflect on what was happening in my work and home life and get things ordered in my head.

I think many of us who lead busy lives often neglect giving ourselves that time and space to switch off and give your mind a rest. I wouldn’t go into the pool each morning actively thinking: right, what do I need to do today?

Instead, focusing on doing one stroke after another, getting my breathing right and not actively thinking about anything in particular meant that, once my time was done, I would leave the Life Centre feeling refreshed and relaxed. I could let my mind wander and it’s amazing how many solutions or new perspectives you can find if you give yourself a bit of space.

Over the months I’ve been following this schedule, I’ve definitely experienced it helping me manage my levels of stress and anxiety. It has made me consider, on the days when I can’t fit a swim into my schedule, what other opportunities are there to ‘switch off’ for 20 minutes or so, whether it’s with a short walk or something similar.

Swimming with Be Well

There’s plenty of opportunities to get involved at Be Well centres across the borough. The pools are open throughout the day and evening, meaning sessions can be slotted in around your schedule.

One thing I also noticed pretty quickly was the sense of community. Each day there would be a group of regular swimmers who would have a chat with each other in-between lengths and help each other along.

Most of the time the pool is split into slow, medium and fast lanes, meaning you don’t have to be self-conscious about your swimming abilities. Just pick the appropriate lane and go for it!

Or, if you like interacting with other swimmers, you can try one of the Swim Socials and go at a more relaxed pace, stop for chats and even stay on afterwards for a brew if you like.

What’s next?

Even after all this, I’m still a rubbish swimmer! But I feel fitter and more flexible and even got so into my routine that, if I had a day off during the week and missed a swim session, I couldn’t wait to get back into the pool the next day.

And, as I said, it has made me reflect on finding other opportunities to ‘switch-off’ for the benefit of my mental health and wellbeing.

I’ll still keep trying to play all my other sports (until age catches up with me), but I know that I now have swimming as an option to keep my fitness levels ticking over and will keep trying to fit it into my daily routine as much as I can.

James - Be Well member

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Posted on Friday 21st June 2024

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