‘Drafting Off’ My Inner Voice
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on July 29th, 2013

In my last post, Enjoyment Meets Improvement I wrote that I’ve reduced my racing schedule this summer to preserve bandwidth for writing e-books (the first, “How Swimming Works . . . and How It Doesn’t” should be released in October.)  But in practice, I still focus on improvement—it’s addictive and it stokes my creative juices.

In this post I’ll delve further into the Pull vs Push principle and how that connects practice with writing—and happiness.

I began to consciously pursue the Pull Effect four years ago after reading TI Coach Grant Molyneux’s book “Effortless Exercise: A Guide to Fitness, Flow States and Inner Awareness” (available by download here.)  I’d already been inclined that way, but Grant’s book provided a more detailed road map.

Grant’s core idea is that that you perform best physically when your training focuses as much on maximizing psychic energy as the chemical/physical variety. The more I align with these principles, the healthier and happier I feel and the better I swim. Here are some thoughts guiding me this summer.

Practicing My Art

It’s been years since I did a ‘workout’—of any kind, not just swimming. It’s also been years since I even thought of swimming as ‘exercise.’ Instead, for me, it’s become a blend of movement art and practice. I constantly seek to refine my art. As I do exercise ‘happens.’

I use the term ‘practice’ not as in practicing flip turns, but as an activity done with a conscious goal of creating enduring positive change in body, mind, and spirit. Which means my practice continues after I leave the water via making mindful choices about what will increase my physical, mental, and spiritual health.

In Push mode (workouts/exercise), you  expend energy.  In Pull mode (art, practice) you channel energy. First from the water and natural forces (gravity, buoyancy) into your swimming. Then from swimming into living.

What is Quality?

Swim coaches have waged a decades-long debate over Quality vs Quantity. The Quantity faction believes in high mileage. The Quality faction believes in high heart rates. Both approaches have produced Olympic champions, so the debate still rages.

I’ve resolved the debate in favor of Quality, but heart rates and repeat times have nothing to do with it. To me, Quality means moving through space with minimum waste and maximum joy. Working with, not against. Feeling better–physically, mentally and emotionally—during and after swimming than before. Most of all, Quality means swimming feels like play, not work.

Swimming as Play

How do we make swimming feel like play? In exercise our intent is to work.  When exercise becomes training, we usually add a sense of obligation. Play brings a feeling of freedom and creativity.

In Swimming-as-Play we aim to enjoy every moment. In Swimming-as-Work, we endure fatigue, muscle ache, some degree of monotony—and often the freedom to be doing something else—today,  hoping for the reward of improved performance in three or six months.

From my teens through my 40s, I willingly made those sacrifices. I always felt virtuous for keeping the bargain. I sometimes swam quite well. But I didn’t always enjoy the experience or feel deeply satisfied in retrospect.

In my 50s, I decided I would listen to an inner voice (intuition? Spirit?) and only do what I felt pulled to do on a given day—and to choose not to do anything for which I lacked that inner spark. This applied to both the content of practice, and whether to practice.

For 25 years I wouldn’t have dreamed of ‘blowing off’ a scheduled practice. But now I never hesitate to make other choices when it feels right. On a sunny day (when the air’s warm but the calendar means I must swim indoors), I regularly choose to forgo a scheduled swim because the psychic energy of enjoying the outdoors on my bicycle will be far stronger. (And I don’t replace a training swim with a ‘training’ ride; I ride just for pleasure, happy to accept that exercise still ‘happens.’)

Yesterday, I’d planned to swim at Lake Awosting, working on brisk tempos. But I felt more drawn to spend that time weeding in our vegatable garden. So I did. And though my big race—the Betsy Owens 2-Mile Cable Swim–is in less than three weeks, tomorrow’s another day.

Since making that shift to doing only what I feel my spirit moving me to do, I’ve swum much better and enjoyed every swim, bike ride, yoga practice, etc.

Start at a Stroll

A major reward of learning Balance–the first foundation of TI technique—is the ability to swim at a walking—make that strolling—pace. I start each practice that way, then allow speed to be pulled out.  Starting every practice at a stroll is a foolproof way to experience the Pull phenomenon.

In 2006, my friend, Runner’s World editor (and 1968 Boston Marathon champion) Amby Burfoot told me elite Kenyan marathoners warm up at 9-minute mile pace—half their racing speed. That made me realize I’d spent 40 years swimming too fast in warmup.

Since then I’ve started every practice as easily and gently as possible. I apply featherlight pressure. I recover my hand (fingers tickling the surface) so slowly I almost stall. My kick is barely-there. I glide off each wall with legs streamlined, letting balance alone bring me to the surface.

It never fails. Not only is a faster pace irresistibly drawn out of me, as if an invisible source–like the attraction the sun exerts on the planets–pulling me forward. I also experience the most profound relaxation and connection with the water–that stays with me no matter how I might exert myself later.

And it’s not just a sensation; it’s empirically verifiable. In the practices I’ve posted on the TI Discussion Forum, you’ll see countless examples of open-ended tuneup series, on which I swim repeats at constant Tempo or SPL, getting steadily–and irresistibly–faster.

Can I still race well?

Pull-mode practice, with its emphasis on ease and enjoyment is obviously ideal if you swim only for health and happiness, but can it work if you swim competitively? Can it boost you to a ‘podium’ spot?

My blogs have probably hinted at how deep the competitive spirit runs through me. So, I do occasionally ask myself–if I swim only when the spirit moves me, focus so much on relaxation, and train ‘playfully’—can I still race to my standards over two miles of open water? I answer in two ways

1) I’m confident I’ll race well.  The aspects of swimming I value most—having a sense of clear purpose and experiencing Flow as I swim; having a surfeit of physical and psychic energy throughout the day; and the overall feeling of health and happiness—come mainly because my practice is always Deep. And Deep Practice contains elements that are ideal for sharpening the skills that win races. These include laserlike focus, a high efficiency stroke, and the ability to increase Tempo while maintaining Length. At the starting line, I’m always confident that I’m well prepared.

2) But I won’t lose sleep over the outcome. This year the ‘Betsy’ is a National Masters Championship. Somewhere I have a box that holds six national champion medals and patches. In those events, the satisfaction of winning peaked within a few minutes after the race. But the good feeling that flows from how I swam during them never fades. Indeed my most satisfying national race remains one that I lost. I’ll never forget the furious, shoulder-to-shoulder (literally–our hips and arms brushed on nearly every stroke) battle over the final 300m of the 2007 Betsy, where my close friend Bruce Gianniny outsprinted me at the end, with both of us going well under the national age record I’d set the previous summer.

This summer, writing, not racing, is my priority. Yet for the 50 or so minutes of the Betsy I’ll give it all I’ve got. And during every minute of practice leading up to it, my focus will be on preparing well. But I’ve already decided that if making other choices this summer means I swim the two miles, say, 30 to 40 seconds slower, I’m happy to trade that for many hours of greater enjoyment that will come from ‘drafting off’ my inner voice over the entire summer.

20 Responses to “‘Drafting Off’ My Inner Voice”

  1. Ellen Childers says:

    Terry, my son,Will, (Fitzhugh)posted this on his facebook page so I read it. I was really impressed with your use of mindfulness. I hope Will will learn something from this and put it to use. His time is taken up in large part with Maddie at this time and I’m afraid he may not be taking care of himself as I would hope he would. (Obviously, I wouldn’t want you to say anything to him about my concerns.) You were a good influence on him in his teen years and I’m grateful you were his coach. I wish you and your family well.


  2. GW says:

    As always TI has help me, I now have 4 Alcatraz swims done because of TI and 6 to go before turning 70 in 4 year, I am going to “Pull” my way to make that happens,

  3. Hi, Terry
    To write a book is quite a rewarding activity, when Flow state sets in. But I do know how hard the work is. Compared to the creative activity of writing à book, translation is rather grim… I spent the last 6 months struggling with the translation in French of a book signed… Terry Laughlin & John Delves, after signing a contract with Simon & Schuster for publication in French. I am a French publisher, specialised in maritime books, but I love swimming and I am happy to inform you that the book will be published September 2d. in France. http://www.ancre-de-marine.com
    I tried to get in touch with you last summer, but my e-mail was probably drowned or lost in translation. The text will go to the printer on August 15th and I am revising it from now on. May I ask you your e-mail address ? I might need to ask the author a few questions to adjust the text for French readers. And, by the way, do you have any illustration other than the original ones in the 2004 edition ?
    Yours sincerely
    Franck Martin, publisher

  4. Absolutely spot-on Terry.

    I will never approach your analytical or swimming skills but , more importantly, I would have your peace of mind over both of these. I have mentioned before that psychic energy was something I discovered in ultra-distance, 50 plus mile running races when all the normal energy systems were no longer working very well. On more than one occasion, after 35 to 40 miles, for no apparent reason I found myself running at a level well above my usual standard – for perhaps 10 miles and with less effort, gliding along the roads with feet just stroking the tarmac. It was always associated with a piece of music I had imprinted on my brain for several weeks before the big race. Unfortunately I could never replicate this extraordinary sensation voluntarily, it either came or it didn’t. But it was real.

    Wish I could develop your attitude to competition, though, seems so much more sane than my pathological response to anyone coming up on my shoulder – which I know at 72 is insane!!

    Keep up the splendid work.

    Martin Turner.

  5. Gerry Forman says:

    Great read!

  6. Andrew Krauss says:

    How can I find discussion of hand position?

  7. cab grayson says:

    Terry, awesome commentary. i especially like the Start with a Stroll section. Keep up the great writing!—Cab Grayson

  8. Noel Olsen says:

    It seems to me I’ve read most of all you written but today’s blog impresses me the most. At age 71 I am not a young athlete anymore. I love to swim, run, bike and cross-country ski more than ever before but for the last year or so, I’ve felt the same desire to follow my inner instinct rather than a training schedule. Your thoughts put it in a context where the two goals are not mutually exclusive. Thank You.

  9. Bill Brennan says:

    Terry, your timing is perfect. Yesterday, I introduced your approach to swimming to a granddaughter. She enjoyed her swim more than when she was flutter kicking, hyperventilating and not feeling refreshed.

    Thanks for teaching the TI methods and principles. I love to swim blissfully.

  10. Ted says:

    You mentioned this on the forum and I was looking forward to the blog post. Excellent insight. I am going to start trying to put this attitude into my practice. I find that I am in the Push style workout camp. There is no question that when pushing there is a psychic drain on the body and an increased use of oxygen. On days when I decide to give myself a break, perhaps due to a heavy dry land workout the day before, I find myself less breathless. Terry, I believe you just explained it. Takes a while for this stuff to make it through my thick skull.
    Thanks and good luck at the Betsy Owens.

  11. Darlene says:

    I loved your article as it expresses much of what I feel when I’m swimming – the sense of flow and relaxation making for more of a sense of “play” rather than “hard exercise.” I’ve never understood why some individuals make swimming into such ardous work! What a waste! For me, it’s another form of meditation, a way to connect with my inner voice, and a feeling of umbounded physical and psychic freedom inevitably permeates my soul. Swimming in my pool is where I “let go” of all my inner tensions and neuroses and clear my cluttered brain. I must have been a fish in another life!

  12. […] morning I was reading a blog post about working with that inner voice, instead of against it and I have to say I’m intrigued.  What if I could find some mental […]

  13. John Bohannon says:

    I am 85 yearsold and have been swimming for 23 years. I follow all the rules and have your version of TI. But I never get any Faster and a mile is about as far as I can swim. I’ve kept a record of my miles and I swam 1,955 miles. My goal has been to reach 2,000. But not better than when I first began. It takes me about an hour and twenty minutes to do freestyle. I don’t stop but feels like I’m not getting any where. I love to swim. I seem to be able to teach others how to swim but can’t teach myself….

  14. Carlos says:

    Terry, it all sounds good. I can fell how my TI swimming has imoroved my life somehow. It has not done as much in regard to fianancial and existencial issues tough. It may help those who make TI a full time work, doesn’t it?
    Cheers, Carlos

  15. Andrew
    Thanks for your comment. The comments section of the blog isn’t suited for technique queries or discussion. I suggest you post this question on the TI Discussion Forum. Thanks.

  16. Franck
    Delighted to meet you. My email is terryswim@gmail.com
    I’ll send you an email

  17. Ellen
    What a delight to hear from you. I’ll send you an email.

  18. Kim Lundgren says:

    I think Noel Olsen expressed my thoughts – I started this mental transition in my 60s and really focus on the balance and enjoyment of swimming, as well as biking, hiking, etc. It started looking for O2 in H2O and with TI, I found that and a lot more. Look forward to next chance to meet at a class. Very Best, Kim

  19. Bob van der Mark says:

    Great article… and great title!

  20. robert says:

    Thanks Terry. It seems the conflict which you see as push pull, could be viewed as heart vs brain or maybe poet vs the scientist. Like everything in life though, it’s probably not that clear cut. Your words are thoughtful and energizing, thanks again.

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