I Don’t Want to Become a Stiff, Sore Old Person
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on January 22nd, 2014

 This is the second guest post by noted writer and blogger Mariah Burton Nelson.  It’s an honor to feature a respected author and thinker like Mariah. We’re delighted she’s thinking a lot about her swimming now, and making connections between her TI practice and  how she goes about the rest of her day. In  A Splash-Free Life, Mariah wrote that, after focusing on stroking with minimal water disturbance,  she was inspired to avoid  ‘messy, noisy, random’  actions outside the pool. Here she turns her focus from behavior to her physical state.

Not for nothing, do we say TI is ‘Swimming that changes your life.” Enjoy!

[PS: Notice the relaxation in Mariah’s 12-SPL for 25-yards freestyle lap in the video below.]

I don’t want to become an old person with sore joints.

Is this inevitable?

Maybe. Frankly, I’m already a middle-aged person with sore joints.

But I have a hypothesis: Stiff, sore people get that way by “baking” muscular tension into their (our) bodies.

Whatever we practice, we reinforce. By “practicing” chronic tension, perhaps we create necks, backs, and shoulders that become permanently tight and tired.

Josh Hanagarne, who has Tourette’s, explains in The World’s Strongest Librarian that it’s “exhausting” to experience a continual onslaught of muscular contractions. Maysoon Zayid, a comedian, uses the same word – exhausting – to describe what it’s like to “shake all  the time” due to cerebral palsy.

Might all of us be exhausting ourselves by inadvertently contracting, clenching, and clamping our shoulders, backs, and necks – not just at work and home but in the water, too?

As a Total Immersion student, I’m learning to swim and relax at the same time. (The video below illustrates that attempt.) During the recovery phase, for instance, Terry Laughlin teaches that the leading hand should dangle as it skims above the water.

[youtuber youtube=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWni7VSQb1I’]

Now I find myself wondering what might constitute a “recovery phase” on land. Can I achieve what Terry calls “effortless endurance” here, too? When walking, for instance, do I need to marionette my shoulders up toward my ears? When working, must I vice-clamp my jaw?

Not surprisingly, Terry’s way ahead of me.

“Since I started focusing on pinpoint relaxation (relaxing neck muscles to hang head, hand muscles at all times, the ulnar muscle for a ‘suspended’ forearm,) I find I’m much better at being conscious of unintended, unproductive muscular tension at all times, often related to ordinary living stress,” he explains.

I studied Tai Chi in college, and one day my teacher invited an 80-year-old Japanese master to demonstrate. Before he began moving, she said proudly, “Look at his flaccid muscles!”

Flaccidity had never been my goal. But she made a good point: Muscles are for motion. To tense them unnecessarily is to fatigue and even injure them.

This is not an argument against strength training. It’s an argument for conscious, efficient movement, in the water and on land. I don’t know if we can become flexible, pain-free, energetic old people, but I suspect that the actions we take – and don’t take – right now might make all the difference.


A former Stanford and professional basketball player, Mariah Burton Nelson is the author of six books about female athletes, including We Are All Athletes and The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football. She’s in charge of innovation for ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership.

2 Responses to “I Don’t Want to Become a Stiff, Sore Old Person”

  1. […] This is a guest post for Terry Laughlin’s “Swimming That Changes Your Life“ blog […]

  2. Martin says:

    Interesting read. I too am a middle aged person that has aching joints. Mainly because I have played soccer all my life and done a lot of running too, so my joints have taken a pounding. Now I sit at a desk all day and my neck is killing me.

    I love swimming but I rarely get the time to do it. I know it would be beneficial for my joints and sore muscles.

    When the summer comes around I will definitely do more swimming in the sea, even if the water is cold, and it usually is.

    Old age eh? who needs it.

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