One nice thing about being back in USA is that we have pools that open at 05:00 in the morning, and I love early morning swims (and runs). Upon returning from Turkey last week, I went to my fitness club early one morning to find the pool was closed for repairs. They told me I could visit another club location until our pool opens again. So, I went to another one which has an outdoor 25y pool in addition to the indoor 25y pool – and early in the morning I was pleased to find I had it all to myself. It is not ‘open’ water, but at least it is under a water under an open-sky, and it is empty and I will take what natural delights I can get.
I went again this morning to ‘my’ outdoor pool for a longer swim set – 4200 yards – since I had the time for it. 4200 would be 168 lengths in a 25 yard pool, with no rest intervals. That’s a lot of lap counting!
Now, 4200 is quite OK distance for me relative to my fitness. I was doing brisk 5.5 km early morning swims in the Mediterranean Sea a couple weeks ago and would finish only because of time. If fitness is no longer a limitation, what then might be? In the open, crystal waters of the sea around Kaş Turkey, with interesting rock formations below and a meandering shoreline, the journey has variation and there is visual stimulation all along the route. But in the shallow pool, at such distances, the mind starts to lose interest and fatigue much sooner than in such open water. Even a shorter 1500 swim in a short pool can be a dizzying experience. I am quite experienced at counting strokes and counting laps, but I still lose track from time to time. It is so easy for the mind to wander in monotonous conditions.
Divide The Distance Into Smaller Pieces
In my case, going through a 4200y swim in the pool under the conditions I set for this day was not going to be so challenging for my physical fitness, but it was eventually going to be challenging for my mind.
To prepare for that monotony and the likelihood of losing count, I had mentally divided 4200 into 14 smaller mental pieces of 300, and I divided those 300s into 3x 100. For each 100 I would then rotate through ‘synchronization’ focal points (if you have been to one of our camps where we teach synchronization, you may recognize the sync points AB, AC, AD, which I used for this set). Now I had something new to concentrate on every 4 lengths, which was much better than trying to holding attention on one thing for 168 lengths!
Give The Mind An Interesting Task
On each sync point, for 100 yards, I may pay attention to one particular nuance of that synchronization, making an adjustment and examining the effect, deciding to keep it or make another change. Though I took no physical rest I took a mental rest on that focal point for the next two 100s and then resumed the project at the next 300 interval. I cycled through this set of focal points 14 times. The challenge for me was to set the smooth sync connection which is more easily achieved early on while in the Abundant Energy Zone, then to keep it consistent as I swam into the Scarce Energy Zone where the body felt a little tired and the mind was more tempted to wander elsewhere thus allowing stroke quality to diminish. (Read Training In The Scarce Energy Zone to get more familiar with this concept of Abundant and Scarce Energy Zones).
But even that task divided into 3x 100 was going to get boring after a while! I was anticipating this. It wasn’t going to be a matter of feeling physically tired, but mentally tired.
Like most others, I too am biased toward counting quantities while I swim and taking pride in the numbers. And, I’ve written many times how a classic (perhaps biological) loyalty to quantities got me in trouble. Because of this bias and it’s liabilities I now work diligently at pursuing quality and promoting it in all my coaching. You may notice how much I talk about the necessary relationship between quantity and quality in practice and performance.
Frankly, it so much easier to concentrate on quality while swimming in the Abundant Energy Zone – at the beginning, when things feel fresh for the body and the mind. But after some distance – and that distance is personal to each one – when energy starts to feel scarce, what does your mind and body tend to do? The mind wanders and the quality of body shape and the precision of movements drops, and power leaks even faster. The remedy? Strengthen your attention. There is endurance for the body and then there is endurance for the mind – a person with true endurance must have both. One can deal with physical fatigue by tuning out, or by tuning in more deeply. I would argue that it is actually the stronger person who can stay tuned in, while tuning out is a coping mechanism for weakness (it could be described as the brain’s way of dealing with something it doesn’t have skill to manage). Which response is most suited to extending your scarce energy a bit farther? Yes, tuning-in is the only response which will put you in position to protect your body position and precision of movements under fatigue.
My normal warm-up is a 1500 continuous swim divided into 5x (3x 100) mental pieces. The first two 300s are done quite gently as I wait for all the internal performance systems to wake up and coordinate. Then I can feel the body loosen, lengthen, and energy start to flow better over the next three 300s. I am ‘pulled’ into more work then. Because I am tuned for this 1500 distance in the pool, I could feel a shift after 1500 where my mind wanted to move on to something else, some other project. But this is exactly what I wanted to work through by continuing to go much further.
Remain In This Moment
As swam past the 3000 mark I noticed my conscious mind wanting to wander into the future, counting down how many intervals I had left, and anticipating how satisfying it would feel to finish this set and have the sensations of good effort humming through my body for the rest of the day. Those are not bad things to enjoy at all. But I recognized that I was stepping out of the present and starting to let my motivation orient to a future reward instead of staying focused and making each stroke count, making each length the best it could be. As my mind wandered it could be that no one standing beside the pool would notice a change in my swimming quality. Nor would I casually notice a change myself if my stroke count remained steady. But because I noticed effort creeping up, I renewed my focus on certain key details I noticed I was indeed letting power ‘leak out’ of my stroke where it did not need to. I may be a bit more tired, but there is no reason, under these conditions, I should tolerate more sloppy swimming. One particular way I could tell I was allowing more power leakage was by simply listening to the increased turbulence of the water around me. I had the pool to myself, no lane lines and all the surface waves in that pool were caused only by my power. Physics tells me that waves have nothing to contribute to forward motion, rather they are indicators of wasted energy. At steady speed, the more waves, the more turbulence around me meant the more power I was wasting. So, I cleaned up a few details in my stroke to quiet down the water around me and felt effort reduce a bit.
The big learning moment for me was noticing how much I was drifting out of the present, and losing focus in the quality I was capable of achieving in that moment, when I truly swim at my best physically and mentally. Instead, I found myself, at some point of fatigue, falling back to that old orientation to the future satisfaction of completing the distance – an external achievement, a future reward. I realized, even after all these years of deep (quality) practice I still have a tendency to drift away to what I would label as a primitive quantity bias. In this swim it wasn’t going to be a matter of getting either quality or quantity. I was going to get the quantity accomplishment no matter what, but where I let my mind go determined whether I would also get the quality accomplishment to go with it. To get it, I had to stay present in the moment, on only these strokes, only on this length and make it the best I could make it with the resources I had in that moment. That became my challenge in the latter half of the swim.
I was pleased with what I discovered – a weakness that gives me something to work on – and I was pleased with how responded – I put in effort to turn my mind back to the present and stay more fully aware and active in protecting my stroke from these power leaks. I see room for more improvement at such distance in the monotony of a pool, but that is a cause for joy not discouragement because pleasure is found in embracing the process of improvement.
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