Zen and the Art of Breaking World (or Personal) Records
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on July 9th, 2014

What do you suppose it takes to set a world record in swimming. More to the point, what do you suppose it feels like to swim faster than any human in history?

A recent article in the New York Times Miles From Her Top Competitors, a Young Star Still Outswims Them  reported that US distance star Katie Ledecky, reigning world and Olympic champion in the 800- and 1500-meter freestyles had recently. lowered  her own world records in both events to 8:11.00 and 15:34.23 respectively. Ledecky is the most spectacular women’s’ distance-swimming talent to appear since Janet Evans a quarter-century ago.

Katie Ledecky of the U.S. is seen underwater as she swims in the women's 800m freestyle final during the World Swimming Championships at the Sant Jordi arena in Barcelona

What was surprising about her recent record-breaking was (1) it took place during a period of more demanding training, without the restorative taper usually considered necessary for that sort of performance; and (2) it occurred e at a low-key meet she attended to be with teammates, not at a gathering of elites such as a ‘Grand Prix’ event.

However this article contained one nugget of extraordinarily valuable insight for any improvement-minded swimmer. It was this paragraph:

Ledecky knew only that she was in the middle of a swim that felt Zen-like in its effortlessness. So immersed was she in the pleasure of pulling her body through the water with ease, lap after lap, the time, she said, did not really matter.


This is a superb illustration of two critical principles of swimming your best:

1) Swimming your fastest should  feel fantastic. If  you feel you’re working hard, you’re wasting too much energy to swim your best. If you have to ‘push through pain,’ you’re  swimming inefficiently. Your over-riding experience should be a calm, focused effortlessness.

In 2004, I coached a practice in Austin TX, during which four world record holders were in the pool–Aaron Peirsol, Ian Crocker,  Neil Walker, and Brendan Hansen. After practice I asked each individually how it felt to swim faster than any human in history.

All described experiences remarkably similar to   Ledecky’s. Peirsol for insurance, said “When I hit the touch pad, IO felt like I could have just kept on going.”

That told me that we should never make it a goal work hard. Working hard in practice simply programs you to work hard–and wastefully– in a race.

Instead, your goal should be to approach every task or set with a clear intention to find the easiest way to complete it. That will ‘program’ you to do the same in a race or time trial . . . and enhance your chances of setting your own personal best.

2) Focus on Process, not Outcomes. Katie said she never thought about the time she might swim. She probably never gave the other swimmers in the pool more than a passing thought. Instead she focused on experiencing maximum sensory pleasure in ther own stroke.

This is another goal all of us can pursue in practice. Before, say, a 100m repeat swim, rather than think about  the time you’d like to swim,  focus on key sensations in your stroke–weightlessness, a sense of ‘moving through the water like an arrow through the air,  and of working with, not against the water.

Once-in-a-generation swimmers like Ledecky possess a sensory awareness  most of us would find difficult to conceive. However any of us can improve our level of sensory awareness by making that a primary goal of practice.

Here’s an irony: In a few months, Katie’s coach,  Bruce Gemmell will stand on a stage at a coaching clinic somewhere. In the audience will be hundreds of coaches ravenous for details about her training–how many meters at what heart rate or pace and rest interval.

How many do you suppose will be at least as curious about how she developed a process-oriented mindset and the instinct to pursue high quality sensory experiences in her training?







4 Responses to “Zen and the Art of Breaking World (or Personal) Records”

  1. Harold Bridges says:

    A quibble. Why is it that the swimmer Ledecky apparently used the term “Zen-like” to describe her very high level of concentration during her excellent swim? It’s very unlikely that Ledecky has ever had any actual experience of Zen training or has known anyone who has. So, what she means is a level of concentration and flow which she believes, on no evidence at all, characterizes Zen training. Somehow the Zen faction has succeeded in taking ownership of the concept of intense concentration even though this is something that many Western people have experienced down the ages including athletes, musicians, soldiers, artists, and so on, all without any connection to Japanese Zen Buddhism. Using the “Zen” word inappropriately in this way amounts to a kind of mystagogery or a claim to specialness when, in fact, the subject is just excellence which is available to nearly everyone who works hard and in the right way.

    Just as we should should try to improve our swimming continuously, so we can strive to think ever more clearly.

  2. Harold
    Thanks for your comment. When I read Katie’s comment my impression was that she was using the term to refer to the sense of calm she felt–a detachment from the pressures competitive swimmers often feel in a race. Which, of course, is a product of her productive focus. Zen-like calm is a phrase on many lips.

  3. jay albo says:

    what is zen?

  4. In this instance we use Zen informally and in the way most people understand it–to be mindful, in the present moment, absorbed in the process, unconcerned with outcomes or things you cannot control immediately.

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