Change Your Swimming in Three Minutes, Part Two: Visualize!
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on April 18th, 2014

In my previous installment in this three part series Change Your Swimming in Three Minutes I suggested setting aside three minutes at the beginning of practice-in most cases before you enter the pool–to calm and focus your mind. To recap, the first-stage exercise included:

  1. Nose breathing. Mouth breathing stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which activates when we’re under stress. Nose breathing stimulatesthe parasympathetic nervous system which is calming and therapeutic.
  2. Slow your breathing. This relaxes you, increases breathing efficiency, and increases oxygenation at the cellular level. As an exercise, using your watch, time your normal breathing frequency for a minute. The average is about 12. Then see if you can slow breathing to 7 or fewer per minute. (Note: Inhale slowly and fully. Hold for a moment–don’t tense–then let your breath ‘fall’ out. Pause  briefly moment–feeling relaxed–before inhaling again.) Sitting at my desk while writing this just now, I comfortably breathed six times in a minute. Practice this a few times a day for a break from your routine so you can easily recapture it at the pool.
  3. Empty your mind. Train your  full awareness on the breath. Let all other thoughts go.  If your mind strays, bring it back.

Once you are physically relaxed, psychically calm, you’re ready to fill the mentally receptive space you’ve created with a thought o accompany your breathing . . . In this case, a stroke thought.

Choose a  Focal Point with which you’re  familiar from practice. With eyes closed or open (but unfocused) imagine yourself swimming. Experience the sensation as vividly as possible.

Visualization is a skill that improves with practice.  The benefit of visualization is that the neural circuits that fire when you’re actually performing the action, also fire when you visualize. The advantage of visualization is that you can mentally rehearse perfection. (Read about a Harvard research study on practicing piano via visualization.)

A few suggestions for visualizing:

  • Head Position Visualize yourself stroking with a weightless, neutral, perfectly stable head. Visualize the feeling of connection/alignment between head and spine. Visualize the feeling of head cushioned by the water. Visualize breathing feeling the same level of support and relaxation.
  • Lengthening.  Visualize the feeling of each arm extending weightlessly as you stroke, feeling your relaxed hand ‘carving a gentle downward arc and a light forward pull on your shoulder as you reach full extension.
  • Lengthen as you Breathe. Combine the two previous sensations: Feel your left arm lengthen–as described–as your head rotates with your body to the right–as described.


NOTE: If you’re new to the practice of visualization,, choose ONE sensation to visualize. In fact, use that one visualization repeatedly, for three or more practices, until you notice real improvement in your ability to maintain the visualization for 30 seconds and to feel it almost as vividly–but hopefully even better–than when actually swimming.

10 Responses to “Change Your Swimming in Three Minutes, Part Two: Visualize!”

  1. Anna says:

    Wonderful Terry!!

  2. Steve says:

    I’ve been giving some thought to mindful swimming and swimming as ‘movement art’, so yesterday decided those would be my focus rather than any aspects of technique. Talk about an aha moment! Pre-swim I stretched a little, but essentially just stood and contemplated my swim. Once in the water I started out very slowly, consciously determined not to fall into my usual trap of peaking too early, or of worrying about my stroke or time. After about 15 lengths I found myself in the zone, relaxed and breathing right. My speed increased and then remained fixed. Everything became effortless. An hour and twenty minutes later I ‘awoke’ to find I’d done 4km freestyle non-stop. The trick for me was to visualise myself from a spectator’s viewpoint….that guy is swimming so quietly, he’s making it look so easy, he’s not splashing around, he’s keeping his head down, he’s swimming beautifully…..rather than from my internal scientific view of am I doing this right, am I doing that right. And also framing the view in jargon-free language, dismissing terms like balance and catch and SPL in favour of layman’s terms such as style and beauty etc. I guess you could call it a right-brained rather than left-brained approach.

  3. Steve Congratulations on what sounds like a blissful swim. Three of your comments really resonated with me.
    1) Your first laps were focused on getting into a zone of focus and relaxed connection with the water. You were patient about finding that zone, and–when you did–were rewarded by feeling your speed increase without even trying. It just ‘happened.’
    2) Visualizing yourself swimming — as if you were an outside observer. Over the years, that sort of visualization has become more common for me. I believe it’s a higher level of visualization, and results from much practice of visualizing.
    3) And finally your right-brained distillation of the qualities you hoped to display in your stroke. Rather than a range of technical elements, the single goal–beauty. I’ve used the word grace–which I think of as a warmer word for efficiency.

  4. Nicki O'Neill says:

    Hi Terry

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom. I found these two posts really useful. I think of swimming as mindful movement and use it as additional form of meditation practice. The only tiny thing that I think is not helpful is where your refer to Empty your mind. I understand your intention here. But as a long time meditator I find it more useful to consider settle, clear and still more appropriate words. If you think of your mind as a glass vessel of muddy ,unclear water, with bits and pieces swimming in it. You can then sit quietly until the sediment starts to settle . This takes time and eventually the water may become crystal clear. This however cannot be hurried anything you do to try to settle the mind will only stir it up again.

    When I swim I use my stroke as I would in practicing a walking meditation. My mind may go a thousand directions, but as I swim this beautiful sea, I swim in peace, with each stroke a gentle wind blows, with each stroke a flower blooms. (Adapted from a Thich Nhat Han walking meditation).

  5. Nicki
    The image you suggest of envisioning one’s mind as cloudy water in which the sediment settles and the water clears is useful and helpful. With your permission–and with attribution–I’d like to use that image in my recap of the first two parts when I do the third part — which will be Envision and Embody.
    Thanks for posting.

  6. jay albo says:

    Hi Terry ,
    Thank you for sharing this wonderful tips on how to be calm and my question is what is empty your mind?

  7. Jay
    Nicki O’Neill left this comment about ’empty your mind.’
    >> As a long time meditator I find it more useful to consider settle, clear and still more appropriate words. If you think of your mind as a glass vessel of muddy ,unclear water, with bits and pieces swimming in it. You can then sit quietly until the sediment starts to settle . This takes time and eventually the water may become crystal clear. This however cannot be hurried anything you do to try to settle the mind will only stir it up again.>>

    For me it means that I focus on breathing, until the only thing I’m thinking about is breathing. My mind feels clear and calm then. And receptive to the ‘swimming suggestions’ I’d like to introduce. Or, simply clear of the non-swimming concerns that were on my mind before I came to the pool to practice.

  8. Georgiakb says:

    Thank you for sharing Terry. I found this concept of visualization to be very interesting. I like how descriptive you were with the explanations. The step by step instructions and clear suggestions for visualization is easy to understand and follow. I am a big believer in the power of visualization helping to aid perfection. A very interesting read.

  9. Laura16151059 says:

    Thank you for this. I have recently been thinking about taking up swimming for fitness as I have ongoing problems with my knees – this makes me even more interested in doing so if it can also be used for what sounds like such an effective and peaceful meditative exercise! As a uni student with exams around the corner, it is often difficult to find time for both body and mind health so I think I will give this a go as a beautiful way to achieve both at once. Thanks again 🙂

  10. Laura
    Thank you. I’m delighted to hear this approach to swimming appeals to you. A central goal of mine is to share thoughts about swimming that can pique the interest of people who may not have thought of swimming as something they’d enjoy or find rewarding. Please visit to learn more. Or browse other topics on this blog.

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