Taking on swimming challenges for the BHF

Nicola Porter, 67, took on the BHF Pier to Pier Open Water Swim. She tells Rosalie Starling how she prepared and what inspired her.

Nicola Porter and friends at the finish of the Pier to Pier swim

Nicola (far left) and friends at the finish of the Pier to Pier swim.

For the last 67 years I swam for pleasure. The thought of cardiovascular fitness didn’t occur to me. This changed last March, when my friend Sally suggested we enrol in the BHF Pier to Pier Open Water Swim, 1.4 miles from Bournemouth Pier to Boscombe Pier.

I wanted to do breast stroke, but a swimming coach warned me that this was tiring for a long swim. I booked eight lessons in ‘Learn to front crawl’ with Swim For Tri in Shoreditch. For homework, there were drills of legs only, arms only, holding floats and using flippers.

Your body is supported in the water, so you can choose to increase your heart rate or take it at a more leisurely pace

Swimming is great because you can go slow or fast. You have control, as your body is supported in the water, so you can choose to increase your heart rate by moving fast, or take it at a more leisurely pace.

The BHF suggested a 10-week training plan with five days of activity per week, including three swims, walking, pilates, yoga and gym sessions. By May I could swim 50 lengths, practising four times a week. Yoga classes twice a week helped with stiffness and breathing.

The BHF also recommends having a wetsuit for the event, which was definitely helpful in the cool sea.

The BHF fundraising support gave us fundraising ideas. Friends rallied around, knowing it was a big test for me. I ran a yoga class for donations, my students all took part and we brought plates of food.

Nicola Porter and friends with their Pier to Pier medals

Facing the fear on the day

The fear kicked in the night before the event. Could I make it? Would the current be in our favour? The day itself was cloudy but warm for the 12pm swim, and we lined up with hundreds of other red hats to get into the water.

When I reached Boscombe Pier I was exhausted and shaky, but elated – it was such fun I wanted to keep going

We waded into the grey sea at last. Though Sally stormed ahead, she turned to show me the way – “Not the Isle of Wight,” she said. “Swim towards the shore!” Lifeguards on surfboards called words of cheer: “Nearly halfway, keep going, head for the buildings beside the pier.” Having trained mostly in the pool, with lines to follow, I swam in zigzags. At first I couldn’t find my breath, but after 20 minutes the rhythm kicked in. There were a few high waves and a pleasant current.

I felt safe, as back-up support in boats and on surfboards surrounded us. When I reached Boscombe Pier I was exhausted and shaky, but elated – it was such fun I wanted to keep going. All swimmers had a special welcome from the BHF team, with water, a shiny medal and that bright red T-shirt!

I waited too long before I started swimming. Now, I really enjoy that rhythm, the stamina, the core action and meditation of front crawl. My friend once told me how she felt a real glow after a swim – alive and vibrant. That feeling is what motivated me to get to the pool on dark and rainy days.

How to take up swimming

A lady swimming in a poolSwimming is a great way to improve your fitness, strengthen your muscles and keep your heart healthy. If you don’t have access to the sea, there are leisure centres, lidos and outdoor pools spread across the UK that offer free or paid-for swimming. Find out more about where you can swim for free via your local council.

If you’re thinking of taking up swimming, it’s important to find a programme that’s right for you:

  • Take lessons to get the most out of swimming, and try different strokes.
  • Start slowly, and gradually build up your sessions as you become fitter.
  • Swim with a friend or training buddy if you need motivation.
  • Set goals, such as completing a certain number of lengths or a swimming challenge, to help you stay on track.

Swimming does make your heart work harder, however. If you’ve been diagnosed with a heart condition, it’s important to speak to your doctor before doing any new exercise.

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