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.

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