“I used to be a swimmer – here’s why I’m never going back to the pool”

Like many of us, writer Dawn Nicholson found her regular gym routine thrown off-course by the pandemic. But after discovering the joys of walking, Dawn hasn’t gone back – and has no plans to in the future.

I used to be a swimmer. I swam three times a week, rain or shine, wherever I was in the world, for thirty years. Then Covid came along and, just like that, I wasn’t a swimmer anymore. So far, so unavoidable. But when the gyms reopened and lots of people rushed back to doing exactly what they’d been doing before, I wasn’t one of them.

One reason was that my (swanky, quite expensive) gym didn’t seem to be taking Covid very seriously. As an unvaccinated asthmatic, I was wary of taking unnecessary risks and though the pool was obviously safe enough, everywhere else felt less so. 

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The club had paused all membership fees at the start of lockdown but weren’t receptive to the idea of pausing mine until I felt happy to come back. I had some sympathy with their plight – they still had to pay their employees after all – but given all the years I’d already paid for facilities I didn’t use (I only ever swam), assumed we’d work something out. 

So, when the manager told me he’d need a letter from my GP to even consider my request, I was annoyed; I wasn’t 14, asking to be excused from P.E. with a note from my mum. Emails were exchanged but his final missive – a politely worded ‘suck it up’ – pushed me to into doing the unthinkable. I cancelled my membership.    

At first, it was odd. Used to rolling out of bed at 6am and heading to the pool, the mornings seemed suddenly long. For a while, I did HIIT training but there’s a difference between swimming a mile in meditative silence and jumping up and down while being yelled at by an American in a sports bra. Suffice to say, HIIT didn’t last long. 

Having discovered the benefits of being in the outdoors, I don’t want to go back to swimming at the gym.

Being outside, whatever the weather

What did stick, however, was walking. By now, I’d already been walking every day for months. I kept on going, racking up the miles until I’d done 1,000, then 1,500, then 2,000. I’ve walked for years, including some long distance routes like the Coast to Coast, but I’d never made a point of walking every day before. 

By the time I stopped counting, I’d covered nearly 3,000 miles and the count itself was redundant. In the beginning, it had been about keeping myself on track, making sure I did a measurable amount of exercise each week. But as the months went by and the country gradually opened up, I was reluctant to go back to seeing exercise as something that happened in a designated space and for a set period of time. 

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I liked being outside every day, I realised, and it made me much more aware of the seasons and the environment around me. Even in winter when it was dark at 4pm and I could only cover the well-lit streets near home, it still felt good to be out, putting one foot in front of the other. All through winter I walked, through snow and rain, sleet and icy winds.

Walking for strength, balance and mobility

When March rolled around and I hadn’t swum in nearly a year, a thought occurred: what if I never went back to the gym? What if I never swam except in the sea or a lake?  

As well has helping me to build stronger leg muscles, mixing things up has been good in other ways too. My balance is better. I can squat (by which I mean squat down to do something useful like reach behind the back of the fridge) for minutes at a time (very handy for al fresco pee stops) without collapsing in a heap. 

I was worried about losing strength in my arms when I stopped swimming, but the planks and push-ups I talk myself into doing two or three times a week seem to have forestalled the worst of any fall out and my arms and shoulders are as strong as they were before.

I’m stronger than ever, despite not swimming, and I’ve finally achieved my dream of moving to the Dales.

The strange thing about doing something for so long and then not doing it, is that I don’t miss swimming. I expected to. At the start of lockdown, people kept telling me I must be missing it but I wasn’t. It was as if someone flicked the ‘not swimming’ switch in my head and that was that.

A friend was similarly devoted to the gym but now finds it ‘boring’ and has taken up horse riding instead. My husband used to do two half-hearted sessions of yoga a week. He now does it every morning and the back problems that plagued him for years have disappeared.

These days, I do a combination of strength training and breathing exercises with a bit of yoga thrown in. If I’m feeling energetic, I might do some burpees. And I walk. I’ve wanted to move to the Yorkshire Dales ever since I knew such a place existed, but with work and family responsibilities, something always meant it wasn’t the right time. Then Covid came.

Once I was no longer a member, I didn’t need to live so near the gym anymore. And if work was from the back bedroom, that bedroom could be anywhere, right? I’ve been incredibly lucky. Finally, this year, all the stars aligned and I’m writing this from the Dales, where I now live. 

Walking has inevitably led to wild swimming

Outside my window there are lots of hills – some I’ve already walked and am starting to know, others I’ve yet to discover. There’s a community gym at the end of the village but I don’t imagine I’ll ever use it. I would like to swim at some point, but when I do, it’ll be in a wetsuit in a body of open water like the one two miles down the road. 

I walked there the other day when it raining very lightly – that mizzly kind of rain that looks like nothing and yet somehow soaks you. But the air smelt fantastic: fresh and clean, with a hint of sheep. 

I looked out at the water and saw myself gliding across it, the familiar strokes and kicks. I imagined the shriek when I get in and finding it freezing. Between the wild swimming and hill walking, I’m never going back to the gym.   

For more first-person stories, workout ideas and nutritional tips, follow Strong Women on Instagram (@StrongWomenUK).

Images: author’s own

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