Something strange happened two swims ago. I was in calm, deep, clear water, making my way 2km along the cliffs to the old harbor. I had just seen my first sea turtle of the season swimming below as I started which lifted my spirit. But then, 30 minutes into the swim,  for all my highly-tuned TI training, I felt a tinge of boredom.

Yes. It’s true. My brain was bored.

I started scanning for the reason and realized that I was under-stimulated, or more accurately, under-challenged.

Providing the challenge for Kaizen continual improvment is completely up to me though. I create it by how I structure the swim- its objectives, the metrics I arrange and the measurements I take. I didn’t do a good job preparing for this swim.

It was a late-morning swim. Before I was conscious of it I was turning to look for the evidence of coming wind on the giant flags positioned at certain points of the city on the cliffs above. And there it was, a light flutter- and my heart lifted.

I then realized that I actually wanted waves. The smooth water was not what my brain wanted to work on today.

And sure enough, that wind kicked up some light waves to accompany me on my 2 km back.

So then yesterday I went down for an afternoon swim. The wind had been blowing steadily from the sea for many hours so there were strong waves churning- enough to some people seasick I imagine.

But I plunged in with the plan of making 3 laps along a 20 minute down-back course parallel to the beach. On the way out I would have waves hitting my head on the left side and on the way back, my tail from the right side.

My objective was to melt into the waves and be as relaxed and steady as possible- as if I were to have to swim through this for hours and I wanted to enjoy it, not merely endure it. So instead of focusing on getting to a certain destination at a certain speed, I was focused on how well I could blend into the energy of the waves and reduce strain on my stroke.

Blending is an aikido concept. In aikido you don’t match your opponent’s force with force, you move into your opponent and blend with his force, then redirect it.

I recalled years ago as a cyclist when I would get onto an open plain with a strong headwind, I would tuck down into aero position and then hammer my peddles with a steady, angry persistence.  I was fighting against that natural force, insisting that the wind would never make me give up- and I was proud that it never did.

In utter contrast, here I was yesterday immersed in a far more powerful natural force, and instead of fighting against it, I was blending with it and letting its irregular pattern become my own, even though I did not know exactly what each wave would be like.

Now, this is not to say I was taking it easy or sliding along effortlessly like I can in the pool. I was in total concentration for most of the swim because every single new wave presented a new variation in force and direction- I never quite knew what it would do and so I have to take each stroke with individual timing and placement.

This was tiring, but as tiring for the mind as it was for the body- yet left me energized in the end- just like aikido practice does for its deep practitioners. .

On the way out, with waves at my head, I had to concentrate on Wide Tracks and keep the head down, because the waves wanted to narrow my stroke then roll me over, and each wave wanted to lift my head up and shove my hips down. A serious contortion event unless a swimmer learns to stay down in the neutral plane with a balanced body line. I took the brunt of this in the muscles along my upper back, those that were absorbing the lateral forces to prevent over-rotating, and where the muscles had to work to plant each entry hand at a unique spot on each wave for each stroke.

We are normally channeling the force of water resistance from head downward along the spine to the toes. And in a head-on current situation, the water is more dense under each catch so though the speed relative to land is slower, the act of swimming is ‘easier’ in a relative way…

…relative to swimming with waves at my hind quarter, that is.

When the forces are coming at me from the rear they first want to lift the legs and shove them sideways, and this subsequently drives my head down deeper. All this puts a strain on my lower back trying to keep my body long and straight in 3 dimensions, but relative to the neutral buoyancy plane in rough water. That plane is still there but it is dynamic- shifting constantly as waves battle gravity. There is a balance I need to find – in each stroke – between yielding to the forces to reduce fatigue and holding a long, streamline body in neutral plane to the water to make progress.

And with a tail-on current the water under each catch is less dense and so you feel less traction per stroke. Some interesting details to get familiar with if you intend to do a lot of open-water racing.

My splits were like this:

Lap #1  was 12.26 / 8.47 = 21.13

Lap #2 was 12.20 / 8.21 = 20.32

Lap #3 was 12.41 / 8.01 = 20.42

You can see the difference in splits when I was swimming out against the waves and current and when I was swimming back with them. Over a 4 minute difference- there was that much resistance.

On #2, on the way back, I increased my effort level by increasing the tempo. I gained a few seconds. But on #3 I used a slower tempo then focused more on relaxing into the waves – my results was an even faster split for less effort.

I could imagine anyone with a conventional mindset setting out to conquer this practice set and pound through these waves, trying to swim faster and faster. On this distance they might very well cruise past me with the fighting mentality. But what I could tell inside my own body was that I was tapping into an optimal pace and pattern that I could potentially keep up for hours, with steady progress. By the end of my hour I felt totally at home in those pattern of waves- it tooks some tuning time but I became one with my environment at least in a fish-like swimmer’s way.

But my key for falling in love with waves is to not think about conquering them, but to become one with them. It sounds mooshy-mystical, but in reality it works and does wonders for optimizing energy flow and improving the enjoyment of rough water.


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