Stopping Is Not Natural

Can you imagine running 10 km (up to an hour for some folks) or even 5 km (up to a half hour) in a race or for fitness and doing it in a basketball court? And, rather than run loops around the perimeter of the court, imagine covering that distance by running back and forth between the hoops. Run for 20 seconds, stop and turn, run for 20 seconds, stop and turn…

Isn’t that essentially what we’re doing when swimming in a pool? Back and forth, for hundreds and thousands of meters, always breaking momentum to turn every 25 meters (or 50 if you are fortunate to be in a long course pool). For those who’ve grown up swimming in a pool it is just regarded as ‘normal swimming’ but when you stop to think about it, compared to other propulsion activities, it really doesn’t seem natural at all.

Distance runners know to avoid the misery of breaking rhythm and momentum. After so many minutes of continuous running in a warm up, the body loosens up and slips into a more comfortable pattern. The longer we go without interruption, the better that pattern gets, and the more momentum we feel, compelling us to go farther. Interruptions can delay the formation of that wonderful rhythm and momentum, or interfere with it altogether.

But these short pools make it possible for most people to even swim; few are blessed by living close to suitable open water, and even then it may only be safely accessible part of the year. So most of us have to deal with it.


But What Can We Do?

If you agree with me that swimming in a pool is necessary but awkward, what can we do about it?

One of the best ways available to us to simulate the unbroken movement of open water is to quit stopping at the wall to rest.

Does that seem radical? If so, then that tells us how conditioned we are to those walls in the pool, how it has shaped what we think is normal.

When I first moved to the Mediterranean Coast of Turkey many years ago, I started to swim in the beautiful inviting sea occasionally, while still using the local 25 m lap pool most of the time because that was where the workouts I was familiar with were designed for. But within two years, by spending more time in open water I developed a different way to train, transitioned completely to the sea and gave up the pool altogether. Spending so much time in the open water completely retrained my view of swimming and training. I also realized how similar it could (or should) be to the run training I was also quite familiar with. Swimming continuously for one to three hours became the norm. Regularly, I would swim down the coast for half the designated swim time or distance, and immediately turn and swim back again.

A few years ago I moved back to Oregon and sadly found myself back in a short, shallow, chlorinated pool for all my workouts – but this is what I have and I quickly worked on my physical and emotional adaptation back to this setting. But I did not scrap my open water sensibility.

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For nearly all my practice sessions, except for a few months of the year when I work on sprint power (and then, only for those particular practices) I swim continuously. No stopping (other than to slip in a pre-set tempo trainer, or quickly change the setting). The practice plan and numbers I need are all laid out in my head and I just keep moving the whole time. I change focus, I increase speed and intensities, I slow down to recover, I change stroke styles, but I keep moving… just as I would while swimming in open water, or out running.

Already, swimming is not a very social activity. Add to that uninterrupted swimming and one is really not available for being social in the pool! And, logistically, continuous swimming would create some challenges for a group of people to do the same workout together. But we could argue that it is more natural to keep moving than to stop so often.

I am not necessarily suggesting that you should only and always swim continuously, though that may not be a bad idea for much of the time when you are alone. You can just do it occasionally, or increase your ratio of continuous swims.


Some Reasons To Not Stop

Here are some reasons why you may want to add continuous swimming to your diet:

You can get into your best swimming rhythm sooner.

Continuous movement will stimulate even better adaptations in your cardio-vascular system. You train your body to recover while still moving.

You train your mind to be comfortable with active rest, becoming comfortable with a little discomfort while still moving along.

You can practice smoothly changing swimming intensity, like changing gears, that is a common part of open water swimming and racing.  

You would remove or greatly reduce the intimidation of swimming  longer continuous distances because you would become so familiar with how the body feels and confident that it was not going to crash unexpectedly.

You would have the opportunity to improve your mental adaptation to staying moving for longer uninterrupted distances. What distances formerly felt long and boring would eventually feel more normal, if not short, and interesting.

You would inevitably be urged to practice counting and number games in your head to keep your track of laps and stages of of the workout and other metrics you are tracking during the swim. I can hear someone complaining already – but you only develop skill for doing this by doing this. Just start with small things and keep the counting games as simple as your brain needs.

You would have the opportunity to practice ‘mental intervals’, where you intentionally change focus and metric variables at certain times. You can change tempo or stroke count, or change intensity or stroke style. This greatly helps reduce the experience of time passing slowly.

You would have the opportunity to develop much stronger attention and sensitivity to detail. By this you would have the opportunity to develop much finer control over technique. Hundreds of uninterrupted strokes provide hundreds of repeats in which you can focus on one thing and gain increased sensitivity to the effects of smaller changes in that part of the movement.

Swimming continuously would help reduce the ’25 meter pause and look around’ habit I see in pool swimmers who come into the open water for the first time for the season. Stopping every 25 meters has been burned into a person’s nervous system and even without a need to do so, he stops swimming because something in the brain says that is what is suppose to happen! We can’t remove the break in momentum and turn at the wall, but we can maintain an impulse to keep working by removing those stops at the wall.

And, when you keep moving in the pool, you can cover much more distance in your limited practice time, or you can finish your assigned distance sooner.


Give It A Try

So, that was a list of the reasons that came to mind first. I am sure we could think of more. And I am sure some people could mount a rebuttal and come up with their reasons to avoid swimming continuously. Again, I am not suggesting you should do this all the time, because there are reasons to have a variety of training modes that are suited to the kind of swimming you are preparing for. But, looking at this list, you may see that you could benefit by developing some of these skills and mindset that continuous swimming develops. Give it a try for a week or two and see how it goes! 

For me, swimming continuously most of the time I am in the pool, with variable intensity, but always resting on the move, has helped me maintain strength, not only in body but in my mind, so that I do not feel intimidated about covering long distance or the ability to keep working under difficult swimming circumstances – in the pool, and especially for keeping me honed for open water when I am kept away from it for so many months a year. I am sure it could help you too.


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