Swimming Lessons

A strange thing happened in the pool this morning.  At some point I was able to move beyond simply focusing on counting laps and not sinking and actually started to think.  Swimming is the activity at which my skills are the least developed.  I’ve been running for years, so I feel like I’ve got a good foundation there (although you can always learn more and improve).  I’ve only been riding for a little over a year after not doing it for a long time, but riding a bike is like… well, riding a bike.  It comes back pretty quickly.  Swimming, however, is a different story.  I’ve never been able to swim until now, and it really seems to require the most technical skill of all three sports in triathlon.  Or so it seems to me.

So this morning, as I was progressing through my workout, I actually started thinking about what I’ve learned about swimming, as strange as that may sound.  I was focusing on keeping my head down, timing my body rotation to make the bilateral breathing more efficient, and putting the whole package together to get faster without burning all of my energy (remember, after the triathlon swim there’s still a ride and a run to complete), when it dawned on me… the parallels to real life.  Think about it.

Keeping your head down, especially when your face is under water, is crucial to being streamlined, and reducing the effort it takes to move through the water.  When your face is underwater, you should be looking at the bottom of the pool.  My tendency has been to crane my neck and look forward, not down.  As a result, there’s more frontal area exposed to the water, hence more resistance.  More resistance makes you slower, and requires more energy to pull yourself through the water.  The problem is, most of us initially learn to swim as kids by keeping our face out of the water (also known as the Tarzan swim, since that’s how the Tarzan actors did it in the old movies).  It’s easier to breathe, mostly, but requires significantly more effort.  Real life is like that.  We all have baggage that creates drag, slowing us down… bad habits we’ve accumulated through life because they may have been the easiest way to do something.  Don’t stand up for yourself; it’s easier to keep quiet and just get along.  It’s easier to eat away your frustration than to deal with problems.  In flying we called it “parasite drag”… anything sticking out into the slipstream creates drag, and consumes energy.  Learning proper swim mechanics may take more work initially, but it streamlines you and saves energy in the long run.  Likewise, dealing with problems properly might appear to be harder, but it streamlines life in the long run.

The second swimming lesson is to coordinate your actions.  In my flying career, compartmentalizing was a common practice.  You couldn’t allow personal issues to distract you from the mission, especially if someone might be trying to shoot you down.  Most of the crewmembers I knew learned to keep the various parts of their life in neat boxes.  Going to fly?  Put the personal problems away.  Going home?  Stick the job in a box (it was a really big box).  But that only lasts for so long (probably why crewmembers had such a high divorce rate).  Real life demands that you find a way to synchronize your actions, just like swimming.  You may do pull sets with a buoy to focus on your stroke, or kicks sets to focus on you… well, your kick, but sooner or later you’ve got to put them all together to make the whole thing work.  Going back to the “keep your head down” example; when I’m doing it right, and I have my body roll timed, breathing is much easier.  I tend to swallow less water, and my face almost naturally comes out of the water during the roll without an awkward twist or reach.  I can tell at the end of a swim if I was coordinated… I’m much less sore.  But if everything wasn’t synchronized, one part is much more sore than the rest.  It isn’t easy, and requires practice and focus… just like keeping all the parts of life synchronized.  I’ll let you know when I have that one figured out.

Finally, save your energy.  There’s a time when you’re first starting to swim when everything is hard.  I remember being exhausted at the end of every 25 yard lap.  When I read that a runner should easily be able to complete a 750 yard workout within a few weeks of starting to swim (aerobically, anyway), I was really discouraged.  I thought I’d never get there.  Even after things began to click, it has still been a struggle at times.  I’m not improving as fast as I’d like, and I see myself regularly getting passed on a lap by people much older (or younger) than me.  There are times when I’ll even start pushing really hard to keep up with the swimmer in the next lane… usually getting slower in the long run because I’m less efficient when I thrash.  In the end, I’ll probably get there faster if I swim within my ability than if I wear myself out by pushing too hard.  Sure, I’ll continue to work on improving, getting a little better every time I swim… but it will take time.  And thrashing madly will likely lead to exhaustion and frustration… and quitting in failure.  I’m in it for the long haul, the whole workout, not the short term gain.

That’s a lot to think about in the pool.  Pretty deep.  Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one.

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One Response to Swimming Lessons

  1. Love it! I think about so many things while swimming. It’s a great head clearer once you start to zone out. And I have noticed that beginner swimmers think that the best way is just to thrash your arms and go as fast as you can. That’s definitely an important lesson to learn…the more you channel your energy, the longer and stronger you’ll swim!

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