A Tale of Two Workouts

Last Saturday, I was carless, and I was considering doing a workout. My choices were either to walk to the gym, which is a half a mile away from my house, and do my swim, or just walk for an hour and let that be my workout.

I decided I was going to walk for an hour. I’m lucky. I live in an area that’s great for walking and has the loveliest trail just near the gym. So, I walked the half a mile to it, walked a couple of miles on the trail and then walked home.

Now, while I do like and approve of walking as exercise, there are some problems for me. My feet tend to cramp up when I walk and I’ll usually have some heel pain for a day after a long one. I also tend to have hip pain after a couple of miles when I go for a walk. This can be ameliorated by slowing my pace a bit (which I do) so I’m walking about three miles an hour.

This is enough to make my hands and feet feel warm on a cold day, so it does get the body temperature up and the blood pumping. But it’s not enough for me to really feel my heart pounding or to elevate my breath to where my lungs feel like bellows or something. (A feeling I kind of like to go for when working out).

Still, it was exercise, and I did it for an hour, so all in all, a respectable workout, even if my feet did hurt.

The next day, I had access to the car, so I decided I was going to do a comparison workout and swim for an hour. This was about ten minutes longer than my “long” swim of a mile, but it was for science, and I was experimenting.

I took it a little easier than I do for my usual swim, but not by too much. I still did about 400 yards of freestyle sprints where I ended the sets gasping and feeling my heart pounding hard in my chest.

But nothing hurt. Oh sure, I felt the muscle effort and was even a little sore in my back, ribs and butt the next day. That’s not the same thing as it being actually painful when you first start to walk after sitting down for a bit, and it isn’t like something sharp digging into your hip. (I developed arthritis quite young)

Does this mean that swimming is easier than walking or running? (You do know that argument is part of how the Ironman got started, yes?)

Well, if you want to say that swimming is a very different sport from land-based sports, I’d agree. For many reasons, they’re hard to compare. Common wisdom says that swimming distance multiplied by a factor of four will get you a general equivalent in upright dry land locomotion.

So, my walk had me at a pace of about three miles an hour (19:42/mile, to be exact)

When we apply the multiplier to my swimming pace, it comes out to about four and a half miles an hour. (13:20/mile. Really brisk walk or a slow jog)

By this metric, yes, I’m going a lot harder swimming than walking (and no, I’m still not going all that fast. I get that!)

I didn’t do any heart rate tests, and possibly, I should. I think because the walking hurts, though, that the data might be slightly skewed.

But even perceived exertion has its place. That thing about the heart pounding and the lungs going like bellows? I don’t do that walking and I totally do swimming. I’m red in the face and gasping at the end of a swim, and not so much when I am walking (except for that damn hill up to my house!)

I’m not saying this because I think going really hard is the be-all and end-all of exercise. I’m doing this because I’m training for specific events that I want to do because of reasons, not because I think there’s necessarily any real virtue in working out hard. There isn’t, really. It might be a fun challenge, but there are other challenges available to you.

But I will say that if you think going all out and really hard might be fun, but that in some formats it is painful, there might be other formats in which you’d enjoy it.

This is pretty much why I am a swimmer.

Eighty-eight Cent Pizza

I know it’s fashionable to snark poor people who eat a lot of prepackaged food, and I won’t say I am not in favor of cooking for oneself and eating fresh. I had a salad for lunch and old-fashioned oatmeal for breakfast.


Today is Friday. And I didn’t feel like cooking. We had run by the grocery store because we ran out of eggs. In wandering around, we joked about getting a pizza, which I was kind of against (I’m trying to be frugal, what with a kid in college and all) when I ran across this.

It’s a personal pizza. 350 calories. It cost 88 cents. This amused me so much, I bought two for dinner for my husband and I tonight.

Then, I felt like a jerk for being amused.

Now to be honest, I can afford to make a full-sized pizza (oh yeah, I know how and have a good mixer to knead the dough) or really even order one delivered if I want to spend my disposable money that way. Oh, yeah. I have a little disposable money.

Let me tell you, if I did not have any disposable money, that pizza would move from being an attractive and amusing Friday night I’ve-had-a-long-day dinner to a reasonable meal option.

Eighty-eight cents for something moderately tasty that’s got enough calories to be an okay dinner? Uh, yeah!

Eighty-eight cents for something that takes no prep time when I am tired? And I assure you if I had no disposable income I would be exhausted from trying to make ends meet. I mean, get real. I stood in a comfortable classroom or sat in a comfortable office all day today, and I’m still tired. Were I poor, I’d be working a lot harder in a much more physically exhausting environment. Uh, yeah!

Eighty-eight cents to have something I mentally tag as a treat that I could possibly afford to give my kids? Uh, yeah!

Now, I’m not poor, and in general, I am not too tired to make at least a veggie-egg scramble or something equally “okay” with the whole food puritans. I’ve got knife skills, and it would have taken me no longer to make huevos rancheros than it did to wait for that pizza to cook.

But on the other hand, those huevos rancheros would cost a bit more than eighty-eight cents a serving. I’m lucky enough it doesn’t matter to me, but there are people in the world it does matter to.

I believe in cooking from scratch and whole food, but I don’t have it in me to snark the eighty-eight cent pizza.

An Excerpt from “Screw Skinny, Get Fit”

Mis-assigning Virtue

Often we associate virtue and physical fitness. Blame it on the Spartans or Romans if you want, or blame it on the Puritans. But because exercise can be hard or painful, we can associate it somehow with virtue.

Muscle mags are probably some of the worst offenders for this. You’ll find lots of articles sneering at fat, lazy slobs and a great deal of self-congratulations for a great physique and by implication, perfect health. Sometimes it can be hard to wade through them to get to some genuinely good information.

Being physically fit isn’t a moral imperative, nor is being healthy. There are lots of reasons why being more active is good and they’re discussed all through this book. You may have a million reasons to do what you do (or don’t). Since you’re in charge of your life, you get to decide this.

The human body did not evolve to be sedentary for long periods of time – true enough. Many people find regular movement has the benefits of mood improvement and an increased sense of well-being. Many people also find that hard, punishing exercise just makes them depressed and wanting to quit. Plenty of people have it worse than that, and punishing type exercises is emotionally triggery. Amazing what some high school gym teachers can do to discourage health and fitness, innit?

The reality is, yes, you do have to put in some maintenance on your body for it to perform well. The reality is also that you’re under no moral obligation at all to become an athlete if it doesn’t suit you. The reality is that you’re under no moral obligation to maintain your body, either. Obviously I find being active desirable, and I do genuinely believe it leads to a greater quality of life, but I’d be the last person on Earth to choose whether or not it does for you.

A great deal of finding out what’s going to make you more fit and feel better will be a constant series of corrections. This will be a pretty fluid boundary as well. If you stop exercising, you’ll find your light workout from your fit days will feel terrible to you. While consistency is ideal, don’t be a fool. You’re not doomed to a lack of movement because you have your exercise ups and downs.

You don’t owe the world “pretty”

Part of the reason, I think, that women are encouraged to exercise and “get fit” is a bloody lie. It is not about getting fit. It is about the idea that it is a woman’s responsibility to be pretty. If it helps, I’ll let you off the hook. You don’t owe the world physical attractiveness, so don’t let anyone tell you that you do.

Don’t let people use fit as a euphemism for pretty. There are plenty of physically fit Olympic athletes who would not be picked for modeling contracts. Challenge people when they try to map pretty to physically fit, and maybe we can chase that idiotic canard out of the English language. Except in the most extreme of cases –more to do with malnutrition, you cannot tell either physical fitness (for whatever value of fit you’re discussing) or health from appearance. Being strong and healthy might do things you like to your appearance, sure. That’s dandy, but what it does to your quality of life is far more important.

Your value as a human being is not about how many people want to fuck you. Sorry for the bluntness, but that’s what it boils down to. Don’t buy into that nonsense. Yeah, yeah, people talk about biological programming, but men are biologically programmed to rape any woman that smells like she’s ovulating, too. Five men in six have never committed a rape at all. Let’s not act as if we don’t have minds and wills, too, okay?

Making a disconnect between “unpleasant” and “good”

You might have gotten the idea from gym class. You might have gotten it from someone who was trying to teach you self-discipline, but kinda went overboard. But you might be thinking that if it hurts and it is difficult, it must be good for you.


Exertion and challenge is one thing. I’m all for challenging oneself a bit during an exercise session, mind. Just don’t be an idiot about it. There’s a serious difference between challenge and punishment.

Self-discipline v. self-punishment

I’d be the first to say self-discipline is important. Except, I wasn’t. Would you believe other people have said it before me? No. Fine…

But yes, getting into the habit of being physically active when you have been sedentary for a while does take a fair whack of self-discipline. No-one is excited about their workout every single time they do it. In fact, there are many days when the best thing I can say about my workout is that I did it. Sure, sure, sometimes it feels glorious and wonderful. Other times, I plod.

Ultimately, what matters is not that I felt glorious or that I plodded through it. Nope. The important thing is that I did it. My body will not care how I felt about it, but muscles will be stronger and the heart will be pumping better because of the work I put in.

There’s a difference, however, between self-discipline and self-punishment. Even if you hate working out, it is not supposed to hurt. If you’re going for any sort of pain, it is because pain is your kink, not because your body needs it to get a good workout or enough movement to stay in good shape.

I won’t even push the “hurt so good” feeling some people (including me) sometimes go for. You don’t have to do it to get a productive workout. People who do it are going for an adrenalin high. You don’t have to do this to get fit. Some people just don’t get this feeling, and it is okay. While you do need to move your body to keep it in working order, anyone who says it has to hurt is a little maso. If you’re not, you can safely ignore them.

Now, that’s not to say that challenging yourself a little is bad. Challenging yourself some is a good idea. It’ll keep you interested, and boredom is often a problem with exercise, especially among geeks. I think it is no accident that when we do work out, we tend to gravitate towards sports that can be translated into a lot of math like weightlifting, or tend to be very physically technical, like martial arts or swimming.

Are you experienced?

To keep myself interested in swimming, and to make it pretty much impossible to drop out of working out pretty regularly, I’ve signed up for a couple of open water swims next summer.

The first one I will do is Son of a Swim — a two mile open water swim through Kingdom Swim at Lake Maphremagog. It’s meant for new open water swimmers and signups are limited. This just suits me for a first open water event. It’ll be in late June, so I am going to have some time to get some open water practice in before I do the swim.

The second one is going to be the Boston Sharkfest. While it’s a race, I’m going to have to admit I’m really only swimming to complete this one. It’s 1500 meters, so is almost a mile.

I’ve asked some questions on a message board dedicated to marathon swimmers. (You, like people who swim the English channel and stuff). They’ve been very kind and have offered some advice, mostly that I need coaching to get my speed up. Annoying, but unsurprising. I didn’t really want to join a swim team, but for something as technical as swimming, I obviously need someone to critique my technique. So yeah, coaching.

I’ve also been advised that I need to bring up my swimming volume on some individual workouts. While common wisdom says you can swim in a day what you swim in a week, it’d be a good idea to make sure I really CAN do a couple of miles in a pool at some point before I try the open water stuff. So, I need to plan for a few much longer swims in the months ahead. That’s cool. I can deal with that.

The last part is relevant to the two mile swim, but not the shorter one — feedings.


I swim on an empty stomach most days. In the pool at five thirty, I really have neither time nor inclination for breakfast until after my swim. Given that I am generally hungry with a strong adjective in front of it after a swim, I’m okay with this.

But for longer swims, food of some sort is generally thought of as a good idea. Depending on the length of the swim, most marathon swimmers eat every half hour or so. Now, a two mile swim is by no means a marathon. (Cutoff for that is 10K, I think…) But, yeah, it’s going to take me a couple of hours to do the swim. I dunno… The idea of eating on such a short swim makes me wince.

On the other hand, this is advice given to me by people who are majorly into this, and ya know, like swim the English Channel and stuff. I can’t say they don’t know what they’re talking about. They do. They totally do.

What I am wondering is how that advice translates to me, the fitness swimmer who is signing up for a pretty small event just to keep herself interested enough to work out most days. I tend to snark non-elite athletes imitating what the elite athlete does. (Gatorade after a normal fitness class, or protein powder when you’re not a competitive bodybuilder, ferinstance).

Yet, these elite athletes are actually advising the whole feeding thing for this tiny little swim. (Not that it’s tiny to me. It’s huge to ME. But I’m comparing what they do).

Like the coaching, I am probably going to suck it up and follow their advice. Until I have experience doing this, I can’t know better, and I realize that.

The reality is that these swims are going to be a little dangerous. Not hugely so, of course, but there is risk involved. I could get hypothermia, I could get a cramp and have a hard time keeping afloat. I could panic out in the open water (yes, I’m a good swimmer, but being scared before an open water swim is not too unusual, and panicking happens among the inexperienced sometimes, and I am inexperienced). I could get too tired to go on in the middle of the swim, and it’s not like running where you can slow down and walk. You have to keep up the pace to stay afloat and keep up your body heat.

So, with all that in mind, I figure I don’t really have enough personal experience that might trump someone else’s knowledge, and until I do, it’d be suicidally stupid not to follow advice.

I’m still resisting the idea of sports gels, though… Lynne Cox got by on oatmeal cookies and warm apple juice, darn it!