Smooth Strokes Blog
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In popular culture and media, when we hear the term ‘high performance’ we readily picture something like fast athletes or fast cars. That impression comes easily because getting to a destination most quickly is highly prized in our society. But we know that getting somewhere quickly is definitely not the only thing or even the main thing many of us value most, despite what they say.
I demonstrated that I can possibly keep going with good form when working in this beyond-fitness range. But the price I end up paying to operate there is much higher than normal. Indeed, I could still feel some residual fatigue 4 days later on an easy run. Not many people function in that range often (versus ‘once in a while’) without some sort of longer term debt to their body, whether that comes in the form of tissue injury, metabolic/hormonal debt, or mental injury (e.g. a decrease in the desire for that activity).
I came to the pool with an open mind as to how far I might swim this first day, and determined to be gentle. I wondered if I might do 1800 (a mile) but I firmly decided that my body would tell me, and specifically, the weakest members of the system would tell me when I had had enough if I kept listening carefully and respectfully.
…in those final 2 miles, as I kept paying attention to what my body was doing and saying, I sensed that the urge to stop was connected to another warning system, the one that monitors the internal resources for action. My body was obeying my will to keep going but I imagined it was dipping more deeply into energy reserves to do so, and that the deeper it dipped in the higher the price I would have to pay in recovery. The discomfort was not increasing in overall intensity, but I noticed the quality of it was changing. When the effort crosses some sort of line and the body dips into that reserve, I know that the recovery process afterward will become more difficult and take longer.
A day of poor performance in training, or poor output (compared to your best) is a pre-pain signal that something is wrong.
Think about that one for a moment. If poor performance is seen as an early-warning signal that something is off, what’s the consequence of not finding out what the cause is and making sure to improve that issue for the future?
It’s easy and common for instructors to tell a struggling person what they need to do, but it is critical (and unfortunately rare) to guide them in a way that both increases their skill and reduces their stress at the same time. Because it is not known how to put them at ease, the assumption is that if they can just endure the stress for as long as it takes and break through with the skills, the stress will then all go away. But for many this is not the case because that stress gets embedded more deeply into their body and becomes more detrimentally associated with swimming.
It’s not happening quite yet in my region, but for some people out there pools are starting to open for swimming again. I am anticipating being able to return, perhaps within the month, but I also realize I need to adjust my expectations when I do. Though very fit in other ways, I will not have quite the same swimming body as when I stopped and the pool swimming world we are all returning to will not the be same either.
Here are some things I am thinking about and preparing for…
As for me, I want more strength so that I can more comfortable and more safely head out into a wider range of interesting and challenging terrain. I want more strength so that I can safely continue training for the decades (I hope) ahead of me. I want to be free to explore now, and I want to be free to keep exploring for many years to come.
…this is an important time to savor what we do have, right now in this moment. Once it does open up, the water is there to welcome us back. The neural connections we invested in building are still there, ready to receive those swimming signals. The body is eager, even if a little weaker, to get back to its healthy, life-giving movements in that invigorating liquid medium.
While doing that patient, persistent work for the first few weeks what you don’t see happening is the growth of the roots below the surface which set the stage for the next jump in your capabilities, like seeing the leaves and branches spread out above . You’ve got to stimulate the system through this patient persistent work for weeks to build those roots, and then you see the leaves emerge. Every time you hit a plateau and see little progress for your efforts, this is what you need to believe is happening unseen below.
These exercises don’t directly make me a faster or more fit in running or swimming – that only comes from training in those activities specifically. What my strength & conditioning does is make my joints more stable and strong so they can safely handle more training on the road or in the pool. That is what I understand to be the main point of such training – to build a better general conditioning foundation upon which the specialized training for one’s sport can take place.
Right now many of us are prevented from swimming, and because of this forced separation many of us have strong feelings about it. Within this atmosphere of stirred up feelings it is a convenient time to examine how we feel, what we think, and how we are behaving in regards to our values and goals around it… From this examination, when you return to swimming, you might be able to make some improvement in what you spend your time doing and how because you understand better about why you are doing it.
Awareness and attention create space between a stimulus (something that might trigger you to react) and your response (how you feel, think and behave). This space enables you to notice and then conscientiously resist or cooperate with internal and external forces of influence. This space enables you to correct or strengthen movement patterns related to your performance.
Good posture, appropriate for running and swimming, and the strength to hold that posture permanently, is one of those general strengths that every person should work on before going far into specialized training for running or swimming. This is about getting the first foundation layer of fitness in place in order to build second sport-specific layer on top.
If you cannot maintain diaphragmatic breathing at rest, then without doubt, you are not doing this during exercise. Diaphragmatic breathing gives you something like 3x more air exchange than chest breathing. If you are a chest breather in exercise, then you are trying to work under extreme air restriction. And, then one wonders why he’s been suffering so much?
Now with bad news out of the way, I want to call your attention to the fact that your swimming fitness depends on a lot more than just swimming, and you can do things that can make your bounce back go a lot faster once you can return to the water again.
Swimming is enormously beneficial to one’s physical and psychological health in so many ways that one should still engage in it avidly. But to get the kind of body composition transformation that some people seek from it, in addition to an appropriate increase in volume and intensity of swimming, it likely has to be combined with a few other serious interventions…
It is sad that we are cut off from doing many of the things we were pursuing just a few weeks ago. But, there is fortune in this also – this gives us the opportunity now to work on other things that we would not have otherwise.
Consider for a moment the great aquatic mammals – seals, walruses and whales. These are not usually offered as complementary metaphors for human swimmers. But in fact, these are examples of mammals who are extremely strong in the critical strength-to-mass way that I have described, and they are much more efficient at moving their mass through the water than any humans are. Seen in this light, it would actually be a compliment to be called a ‘whale’ or a ‘walrus’.
It’s better to view the process of mastery in swimming more like you would view the process of mastery in a new language or art, no matter what level your goal is set at. Think of the commitment that was needed for the other complex skills you highly value – safe, skillful, and strong swimming deserves that also.