A Meditation on Swimming Faster
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on August 26th, 2010

My recent post Marathoning as Meditation talked about how seeing less—intentionally or by happenstance– can contribute to the meditativeness of swimming by turning your gaze inward.  Some may have inferred that meditative swimming is necessarily unhurried. But training for speed can also induce pleasurably meditative states, as I’ve been reminded in the past week.

For most of this summer I’ve done little fast swimming, largely because an autoimmune condition called polymyalgia rheumatica caused muscle inflammation and sapped my energy.  I made peace with that by figuring this was a good time for restorative swimming.  I turn 60 next March and will likely train with intensity and focus in coming months to ‘make a splash’ in my new age group. Using this summer to recharge my batteries felt like a good thing. But once my condition was diagnosed and properly treated, I felt such relief that I decided to swim my first races of the summer, on August 14 at the Betsy Owens Cable Swims in Lake Placid.

Predictably my results reflected lack of training, a fair 25:09 for the 1-mile, followed an hour later by 56:21 for 2 Miles. Ouch — 8 minutes slower than last year, and over 10 minutes back of my best since age 55.  But I felt better the next morning, when I swam up and down Mirror Lake with Neil Brophy, Bruce Gianniny and Kim Skomra. Our 45-minute swim was a relaxed cruise for Neil, who had  set a new USMS 45-49 mile record of 20:03 and Bruce who broke the 55-59 record (which I had set four years ago) with 22:51. For me it was instructive to see their stroke length.  I couldn’t come close to matching Neil’s (consoling myself that he’s 3 inches taller) and needed to focus intently to match Bruce’s.  Doing so felt strikingly salutary. That was fresh in mind when I resumed swimming in Lake Minnewaska later that week.

New 45-49 record holder Neil Brophy

55-59 record-holder Bruce Gianniny

At Minnewaska, I can monitor efficiency by counting strokes along a 200-yd line. Prior to Betsy Owens I’d been taking an average of about 180 strokes per length, as I tried to pack the two weeks during which I felt healthy again with rehearsals of race-like tempo and effort.

But with the race behind me, and encouraged by how good extending myself to match Bruce’s strokes felt, I’m now striving to keep my average at 160,  a habit I’d had several years ago but had since lost. I soon decided that the best way to prepare myself for the fast swimming I hope to do next spring and summer is to strengthen my neural efficiency foundation by continuing this way through the fall.

Smooth  Stroke, Clear Mind

This didn’t just feel good physically. Striving to reach the end of the line in 160 strokes brought a simpler, clearer focus than I’d had in some time.  After enough practice, a lap of 160 strokes or less acquires a recognizable feel—bodyline sleek and stable, catch patient and firm; even the water around me feels calmer. When any of those sensations feels slightly off, even for only a short patch. my count increases by up to 10 strokes.

Thus I start each length of the line, with a clear set of sensations-to-maintain then spend 3-plus minutes trying to hold onto the feeling . . . and striving just as intently to stay locked in mentally. Such powerful focus has made my swimming more meditative than it had been in a while.

While some may picture meditation as sitting on a pillow in a quiet room, anything you do with great awareness is meditation. “Watching your breath” is meditation; listening to chants is meditation. And so is swimming that’s focused on banishing distraction. Meditation describes any state of consciousness that’s free of scattered thoughts. The key is to choose a targeted focus.

Start narrow. Expand gradually.

Those who have only recently begun TI Practice will find more success by keeping that focus very narrow. Visualizing a laser beam projecting from your head-spine line is one example.  Slicing your hand into a “Mail Slot” is another. As your practice hours mount, your focal points can become gradually more  encompassing or consolidated as mine are.

Shinji - Mail Slot (from OTB ebook)

As your powers of focus — and your neural circuits — strengthen, you can test both by swimming faster. After 90 minutes, over two days, of striving only to hold the 160-stroke-sensation, I attempted some Speedplay practice. (Learn more about Speedplay by reading Chapter 11: Develop Speed Gears with Speedplay of the Outside the Box ebook. See it illustrated in the Outside the Box DVD. )

I began by alternating sets of 10 strokes easy, 10 strokes ‘brisk’ (which means “How fast can I swim without losing the sensation?”) I also monitored how many strokes that added to my count.  When I could consistently complete a length of Speedplay in 165 or less, I began taking 20 strokes brisk at a time. Soon I was sustaining stretches of 40 strokes brisk, with only a slight degradation in the sense-of-control I was aiming for.

This deep internal focus kept me in a meditative state, something virtually impossible while training to swim a particular time., the traditional way to train for speed.

Finally, if you race triathlons, strength of focus gains its greatest power by insulating you from the potentially-paralyzing distraction of hundreds of churning bodies.

5 Responses to “A Meditation on Swimming Faster”

  1. Morten says:

    Its hard, its not going forward right now…. need motivation, any tips anyone??

    Well, maybe its just for a period… chear up! 🙂

  2. julian says:

    i agree that swimming is like meditation. the constant breathing in and out clears my head out a lot

  3. todd says:

    I recite the 23 psalm during a race ( tri). each left hand entry is a word. I can do 350-400 yds per psalm. It brings focus, quiet, serentity in the midst of chaos.

  4. Robin Davies says:

    Wow! I do 2km a day but very slowly, 50 minutes. At first it was just to get fit and as swimmers have the best bodies of any Olympic athlete, it must be the best exercise to make soft, but reasonably strong muscles with stamina. Perfect! But now it is my consciousness during the swim I am addicted to. After a few laps, swimming becomes automatic and my body feels full of pleasant pain-relief chemicals and rather than, “I am swimming”, I am observing swimming taking place. I am so calm I feel exactly just before you sleep, just aware of your surroundings but paying no attention to it. This can last from 200m to 800 metres. The feeling of time changes, the noise of the water with every stroke is unique, the magical qualities of water are felt by all senses and I feel the timing of my arms and breathing is like a chant, and energy feels boundless. My consciousness feels expanded but also I wonder where this consciousness exists as when swimming, it feels like it is from my whole body and beyond and certainly not just in my brain. My sister is a yoga teacher and talks about the chakras through the spine. Jogging is fun but is basically a sport for the lower half of the body but doing crawl and pushing my fingers as far forward as I can seems to massage the muscles and maybe my “chakras” whilst I swim which might add to this state of mind. Sitting meditation is always something I try to do but my mind wanders easily but swimming, sometimes I close my eyes when they are out the water so I am in a blue world with the sun shimmering on the bottom of the pool so it is easy to focus the mind and the body is busy enough to keep wandering to a minimum. I ALWAYS feel BETTER after a swim/jog than BEFOE-100%

  5. Robin This is the most eloquent description of the experience of Flow produced by Mindful Swimming I have ever read.

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