A Balance Lesson: (Fear of) Falling vs Sinking
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on November 27th, 2010

The college pool where I swim in colder months is closed for a week so I’ve replaced swimming practice with roller-skiing practice. It’s healthful exercise. It gets me outdoors. And it prepares me for cross-country skiing, which brings me enjoyment that is remarkably similar to that I gain from swimming.

What I love about both is their potential to create transcendant experiences known as Flow States. This is because both are rhythmic and aerobic, but particularly because the key to physical flow in both is balance. (Sculling has the same attributes. I’ve done just enough to realize I’d like to find time to do more.)

I’ve been skiing for about 15 years, but never with enough consistency to make the kind of progress I’d like. In a good year, New Paltz might have 30 days with ski-able snow. Roller skiing is a convenient way to compensate. I did it for the first time this week, and was excited to discover how well it simulates the experience, and challenges, of skiing on snow.

My training plan is simple. The first day I skied for 35 minutes — because that’s how long it took to ski the gently rolling course on our quiet country road.

Week 1 I’ll try to ski every day (consistency is critical to improvement) hoping to cover a bit more ground in 35 minutes as the week goes on. In Week 2, I’ll increase that by 10 percent, to 38 or 39 minutes. And so on.

I quickly found the key to going farther is balance.  On Day 1, it took me nearly 20 minutes to sort through all the sensations I was getting and identify those that signify balance and figure out what Ski Thoughts would produce them.  I was struck by how tiny was the margin of error. This is what I learned.

1. I need to keep my whole foot firmly pressed into the ski, with slightly greater pressure on the rear half, especially the inside of my heel. If I rock forward or back the tiniest amount I feel I might fall.

2. I must find precisely the right rhythm for weight shifts (a rhythm that becomes slightly faster on upgrades and slower on descents). I rock hips right while pressing outward on my left ski. If I rock or press a  nanosecond too long it takes a lot more effort – and time – to recover. A nanosecond too short (virtually  always because front-rear weight distribution is off leading me to feel unsteady) and I lose propulsion.

3. I need to keep my knee aligned with the pressure point on the sole of my foot. When I do, gravity and body mass do the work of propulsion. When I fail, I need to generate force with muscular effort.

This is precisely how efficiency works in swimming – front to back balance, side-to-side stability, and exploiting gravity and body mass for weight shifts.

The big difference is that the signals I get when any of these elements are off even the tiniest bit in skiing are LOUD, CLEAR and UNAMBIGUOUS.

I attribute that to (1) I experience 100% of gravity’s force (compared to 10% in the water), and (2) The penalty for losing balance on roller skis is a painful fall to the pavement. The penalty in water is working a bit harder.

Because the signals for lost balance in swimming are relatively subtle – and usually misinterpreted – it’s difficult to grasp how (a) critical balance is and (b) you can literally spend a lifetime improving it.

Two things bring that last point home to me:

In Dec 1997, I helped with video analysis at a training camp in Colorado Springs for the USA Swimming national team as they prepared for World Championships the following month in Perth.  Spending hours that week studying their strokes on underwater video, I was struck by how many still showed evidence of balance issues.  For a nanosecond a hand would tip up into a bracing action, or scull briefly at the wrong time.  Why were some of  the world’s best swimmers still showing balance problems? (1) They all began swimming at 8 or younger, with still developing skills. Some small inefficiencies were imprinted then and never entirely eradicated. (2) Once they were able to do sets like 10 x 100, their coaches focused mainly on training. (3) Balance sensations are subtle in swimming and they never noticed. Their swimming always felt pretty good and, having been successful, they never suspected anything was amiss. Elite athletes are brilliant at compensating so they’d learned to swim fast despite flawed balance.

In the past month, I’ve  spent the first 10 to 20 minutes of every practice with a laserlike focus on Balance. I used drills for a bit, but even more by choosing Focal Points that relate to balance – how weightless or supported various body parts feel, where on my body does the water feel ‘thicker’ beneath me. Twenty-one years after doing my first balance drill – and over 10 years since I thought I had balance ‘solved’  — I feel I’m once more on the steep part of the Balance Learning Curve.

Roller-skiing helps me understand why.

Lessons One, Two and Three of the Self-Coached Workshop are the Balance Group of lessons. Lessons Four to Ten reinforce the awareness you gain from the Balance Group.

Core Balance - hands at sides

3 Responses to “A Balance Lesson: (Fear of) Falling vs Sinking”

  1. Richard says:

    Very interesting! I’m sure I’d enjoy roller skiing, but equally sure that I’d fall and probably break something, so I’ll stick to swimming. I did learn to roller skate late in life but gave up because I fell too much and was afraid I’d break something. Oddly, I fell mostly when I was standing talking to someone and forgot I was on skates.

  2. The prospect of falling and breaking something has an amazing ability to concentrate the mind. Thus the compelling awareness one has of balance issues and powerful motivation to solve them in land activities.
    If you consider the hierarchy of essential qualities in swimming – Balance, Streamline and Propel – then consider other popular sports or fitness activities from that perspective, it quickly becomes clear how unique swimming is.

  3. Andrea Anderson says:

    Valid point & I’m with you on that thought. Body core strength is something that is newer to swimming and should not be neglected.

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