The Art of the Possible: Staying motivated as times slow with age.
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on February 16th, 2012

I’ve recently acknowledged, in several blogs and TI Discussion Forum posts, that I’m finding it far more difficult to swim ‘fast’ since I began experiencing frequent bouts of Rheumatoid Arthritis in 2007. A positive result is that this experience has caused me to examine how I think about speed in personal terms.

After I wrote the blog Why I’m Grateful for Swimming My Slowest Time Ever describing my reaction to swimming 1000 yards in 13:29 in a Masters meet last December, one commenter said he would be delighted to swim it that fast. That made me realize it was only ‘slow’ in relation to my lifetime best of 10:45 which came 42 years earlier, and in relation to a time of 11:51 I’d swum five years earlier. Unless your time is a world record ‘fast’ is relative, not absolute.

That comment made me take a harder look at various instances in recent years where my disappointment at my time or placing took away the pleasure of simply being there, seeing friends, being vigorous and active, and doing my best in challenging circumstances. After some reflection I felt more disappointment in my reaction than my swimming.

It seems this coupling of ego and minutes/seconds is most likely among a relatively small subset of swimmers–present and former competitive swimmers. It can be healthy if it prompts efforts to know and reach your full potential, to pursue challenges — but decidedly unhealthy if it causes you to avoid challenges because you fear the impact on self-image.

Several months ago I spoke with a woman, now about 70, who was an avid Masters swimmer in her 40s and 50s, but who I’d not seen at events in 10 or more years. When I asked why she no longer swam Masters, she replied “I can’t stand getting slower.” Yet it’s inevitable we will all do that as we age, and a shame if it causes us to walk away from an activity that’s so healthful. Or even to enjoy it somewhat less.

Since then I’ve become more mindful about adopting a values system consistent with aging gracefully and healthfully. These attitude adjustments — based on the art of the possible — have proven helpful:

Swim with as much artfulness and grace as possible. Grace has an inherently–and universally–inspiring quality. Strangers at the pool are far more likely to compliment a display of grace, than of speed. And when seeing a person older than me who moves with grace–I’ve seen examples in yoga, tai chi and swimming—I always think “I want to be just like you when I grow up.

Nowadays I try to swim races as a ‘work of art’ and commit to seeking satisfaction based more on my success in doing so than based on time or place. Admittedly the former is a subjective judgment, while the latter is objective, but that just means I have to be more creative and flexible in my assessment.

When measuring swimming by time, choose a current time as your benchmark. Measuring empirically is unquestionably good. A common characteristic of those who excel–in many disciplines–is setting up meaningful feedback loops so they can objectively and accurately evaluate the link between efforts and outcomes. After swimming that ‘slow’ time in December, I immediately made it the benchmark by which I would measure improvement in the 3 to 5 months (Masters short course season) to follow, and began making constructive plans for improving it.

And I begin most practice sessions by doing an assessment swim or set. The data points I use to measure it always include SPL and/or Tempo in addition to Time. The practice then becomes an exercise in achieving measurable–and smart–improvement. And when I do achieve improvement, I leave the pool with a feeling of accomplishment that provides the motivation to do it again and again and again.

Focus on the quality of time, not the amount. A corollary of the fact that any race is highly likely to last longer at 60 than it did at 40, is the possibility that the aging process may reduce the duration of practice (or workout) sessions. In either case, we should strive to make those minutes or hours the best they can be. I last broke 19 minutes for 1650 yards (equivalent of 1500m) in 1992. I last broke 20 minutes in 2006. But these days it’s a challenge to break 23 minutes, a pretty rapid decline for only six years, compared to previously. So my goal now is to make a 23-minute mile feel better and more satisfying than a 19-minute mile did 20 years ago.

Conversely, as I’ve aged, I’ve been unable to swim as long in pool practices. As a result of arthritic narrowing in my lower spine, my calves and feet experience ‘terminal cramping’ after a diminishing number of pushoffs.  Where I was able to swim a 10,000-yard practice (while training for the Manhattan Island Marathon)at age 51, I could manage only 5000 yards at age 55. At 60, I can often barely make it to 3000 yards before I simply can’t push off any more. Rather than be discouraged I’ve embraced the challenge of making every lap count, starting with the very first. This has given practice a stronger sense of purpose than ever before.


3 Responses to “The Art of the Possible: Staying motivated as times slow with age.”

  1. Juliana ("just jules" on TI website) says:

    Thank you for so clearly expressing what I’ve been feeling about “diminishing returns” (in the pool and elsewhere) due to advancing MS, and for reminding me to keep a broader perspective. I’ve never been a fast swimmer, but I am enjoying becoming a better swimmer through TI. And I do receive compliments for being a graceful swimmer. Tomorrow I’ll swim my third “Lap-a-Thon” to help raise money for our local pool. More laps = more money raised, so that is a strong motivation. But I’ve added the goals of maintaining form and enjoyment, and I’m thankful that I can still swim freestyle continuously for one hour!

  2. Ray says:

    You’re absolutely right about people complimenting graceful swimmers. I taught myself to swim as an adult and was never able to come anywhere close to breaking any speed records. It was discouraging that there are plenty of people at the gym who would get in the pool and lap me very easily, and age and injury only make that worse. But I didn’t fall in love with swimming for speed. If I wanted speed, I’d buy a motorcycle.

    I enjoy swimming because of the sense of peace and serenity I feel as I’m “flying” through the water. There’s no feeling like it in the world. That joy combined with this website is what helped me improve from only being able to swim 100 feet, to being able to swim 3.5 miles. And even though I’m clearly not the fastest swimmer at my gym, it’s not unusual for total strangers to come up to me and ask how I’m able to make swimming look so easy. Unlike most of the faster swimmers, I’m not splashing and thrashing and exhausting myself after 5 laps. I’m not trying to win any medals or get out of the pool as fast as I can. I’m just doing something I enjoy doing. If I can do it for 2 hours, then great! If I can only manage 30 minutes, then that’s fine, too. But how fast I’m going isn’t going to determine whether or not I enjoy myself and being a slow swimmer isn’t going to make me give it up just to avoid feeling bad about myself. There are too many good things about it to focus on.

  3. Paula Alford says:

    Thank you for these thoughts. You are beginning to understand how anyone with a physical or medical limitation feels doing something they love. Just as an example, I have never been able to do a flip turn, yet I still love to swim. Keep your exploration up. You are really onto something….the practice of “being” rather than doing in all you love.

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