An "Imperfect" Swim
This was inspired by Lennart Larsson's post in the Outside the Box conference, which he described as My Best Pool Swim Ever. What I'll describe here was not close to being my best pool swim ever, but illustrates the potential to gain value -- even enjoyment -- from struggle.
There's a long tradition in competitive swimming - carried over into tri-training - that you have to swim hard and you have to hurt while training for races. I tried this in college. I proved I had a high pain threshold but I never swam very well. There's a critical distinction between swimming hard for the sake of swimming hard, and swimming in ways that test your ability to focus, and learning that a well-chosen focus helps keep possible discomfort 'off your radar screen.'
Saturday, I swam a timed 1650y (equivalent of 1500m) with the local kids team in a 25y pool. I'd swum about 12 hours in the 6 weeks since our English Channel relay so neither fitness nor sharpness were at a keen edge. I hadn't swum a timed 1650 since Oct, 2006 when I swam a respectable 20:41 in a Masters meet. In the last 2 years I'd given little emphasis to "speed-and-pace" in my training. I noticed - and lamented - the loss of speed in August at the USMS 2-Mile Cable Swim. My time of 48:45 compared poorly with the 46:20 Id swum 2 years earlier.
Gearing up for an Aug 2010English Channel solo , I've asked the advice of Mayo Clinic exercise researcher (as well as veteran marathon runner and Masters 1650 swimmer) Dr. Mike Joyner. He advised me to add two weekly doses of 30 minutes of "quality" to my otherwise endurance-oriented training. 'Quality' means metabolically demanding - taxing heart and muscles. I create metabolic demand by tasking myself with swim sets that are neuromuscularly exacting -- a combination of Stroke Length, Stroke Tempo and Duration are difficult that it takes unblinking focus to maintain.
Of late, that's been twice-weekly repeats of 300 yds or less, at a "reference pace" of 1:20/100, trying to keep my SPL at about 15 -- aiming for fewe strokes if the repeat is shorter. "Reference pace" means that's what my body is realistically capable of at this moment and I'll aim to incrementally improve on it. So I had that in mind as we began the 1650
I shared the lane with several swimmers -- all nearly young enough to be my grandchildren, if I had any.
I felt reasonably good at first, swimming 16SPL, matching the stroke count I maintained for the last half of my 1650 races several years ago. But my relative lack of fitness began to show quickly. By 250 yards I began to feel an "edge" of fatigue - greater than I would hope to feel with 1400 yds to gol. And my SPL had already climbed to 17.
Before long, even that took more than I had -- mainly because traveling far enough underwater after the turn to complete the next lap in 17 strokes was leaving me a bit more breathless each lap. So I eased pushoff to surface - and breathe - a moment sooner. This took me to 18SPL.
I took inventory when I reached 22 lengths - the one-third point of my swim. Not as efficient as I'd hoped. A bit too fatigued for comfort. Struggling a little for air . . . and still 44 lengths to go. I peeked at the clock as I went into my turn at 550yds (500m) and saw it read 7:25. I quickly calculated I could complete the 1650 in 22:15 IF I swam the next two-thirds at the same pace as the first third.
At this point the challenge became more mental than physical. I'd been swimming at a pace of about 1:20/100 for 600 yards, twice as far as in the repeats I'd done in recent practices. And I was, frankly, feeling noticable discomfort. In other words I was already overtaxed physically. So the "solution" to holding that pace could not be physical.
So far my focus had been on numbers - how many strokes it was taking to complete each lap - and technique thoughts. Now I gave myself over to creating a "cocoon" within which I felt only ease and relaxation. Relaxation in my stroke, my breathing, my turns and pushoffs, my rhythm. Countless times, the pain in my stomach, the burning in my lungs, the heaviness in my limbs would poke through my consciousness. As soon as I was aware my focus had gone there, I'd redouble my attention to feeling relaxed.
Twice I felt a slight loss of efficiency and my SPL went to 19. Each time I did an open (rather than flip) turn to give myself a bit more air and a brief moment of recovery, and was able to resume my 18SPL rhythm.
Several times I peeked at the clock to check how much time remained til my projected goal of 22:15 -- 11, then 8, then 5. When I was at 17:XX I stopped subtracting minutes and calculated this meant I had seven 50s to go and began counting them backwards. Only 6. Only 5. Only 4. Each time the number dropped I felt I could turn up the intensity ever so slightly.
And finally I was on my final 50. I touched the wall and saw 22:15 on the clock, which brought an immense sense of satisfaction.
My time was 90 seconds slower than my previous 1650. I'd experienced considerable discomfort along the way. My SPL was higher than I'd wished. But I'd taken the reality of what I encountered and used mental strength to swim better than I might have had a right to expect.
Thanks for the detailed description of that time trial.
Do you agree that, at least once a swimmer has developed a reasonably efficient stroke, swimming under physiological and mental stress causes adaptations that enable swimmers to swim more efficiently under similar conditions of physiological and mental stress? Or are you making a different point?
I take it your thinking has evolved from the old "never practice struggle" maxim to the statement in your post that there is "the potential to gain value -- even enjoyment -- from struggle." (Or so at least for swimmers at some stage of the learning process.)
In my experience, I find a close correlation between swimming-specific fitness and technical efficiency, and vice-versa. Technical breakdown wastes physiological capability; poor fitness degrades the ability to sustain technique. Each promotes the other. I think one learns things in a fatigued state that cannot be learned at all in a non-fatigued state, because the necessary conditions are not present -- mental focus and control at the top of the list, for example, the ability to perceive unnecessary strain and drag sources and replace them with more efficient movement patterns on the fly and sustaining velocity while reducing energy costs. (A different skill, mentally and physiologically, than just bludgeoning through and hoping to survive the stress.)
Thanks again for the post!
Replace Struggle with The Art of Imperfection
Thanks so much for better highlighting and articulating the key points in my post. The same sort of improvement happened with my recent blog post, Swimming Lessons from Bruce Lee thanks to a comment by TW. This suggests I should post all of my articles here first, before releasing them to a wider audience elsewhere.
(I described my imperfect swim in a mentally fatigued state just before turning in for the night and maybe there's a lesson in that too.)
Eddie is correct in saying I'm moving away from an earlier TI mantra "Never practice struggle." The updated version is "Practice the Art of Imperfection."
Conventional wisdom in swim training could be summed up in variations of these two phrases:
Get through (the set, the workout.)
Swim til it hurts.
Both speak of Surviving.
Here are the key improvement principles I can draw from my post and Eddie's:
I. Stress - physical or mental - causes adaptations. That's classical training theory. It works best when stress is applied in a thoughtful and measured way. That allows the organism -- your muscles, CV system, YOU -- a chance to adapt. Staleness, failure to improve, injury, and burnout are all symptoms of what physiologists call "failing adaptation syndrome."
II. Stress should be avoided, or applied with great care, when a swimmer is developing basic confidence, skills or body control -- comfort, balance, alignment, coordinated movement.
III. Because human swimmers are massively inefficient by nature (converting 3% to 9% of horsepower into forward movement, compared to 80% for dolphins) the most reliable way to improve is by increasing efficiency. Thus the application of "stress" should be through tasks that test your efficiency in an incremental and well-ordered way. Another way of expressing this is to tax your neuromuscular system. As you do, your metabolic system will be taxed as well.
IV. As your NM system adapts to the stress and your skill/efficiency improve, two things will happen:
- 1 You will swim longer distances at faster paces, placing greater demands on your metabolism. It will grow stronger in response.
- 2 At the same time your NM system will be learning to perform the new higher-order task more efficiently - adapting to minimize the increased drag, adapting to recruit muscle groups more efficiently to overcome the higher drag more easily.
As both "stress adaptations" occur, you can increase the difficulty of your task - the level of stress - once more.
Such choices should also be governed by your motivation for swimming. Another TI maxim is that pursuit of improvement is the highest, "purest" motivation in swimming -- indeed in any endeavor.
Swimmers will typically set personal goals in swimming on three levels:
1) Swim to learn. I can't swim now. I'd like to be able to swim and not drown.
2) Swim to exercise. Swim far enough, with sufficient ease, that I can get aerobic and other benefits. The farther I can swim, the fitter I can be.
3) Swim to improve. At this level, the goal of all swimming you do, pure and simple, is to improve your swimming. As you pursue improvement, your endurance, your speed, your enjoyment, your self-knowledge all improve as a natural - almost inevitable - result.
The central goal of TI is to inspire all swimmers - not just competitive swimmers - to move from the first two categories to the third. When they do, the key lessons will be:
1) You improve by practicing the Art of Imperfection - or the Art of Making Mistakes. You need to make mistakes to improve. Mistakes get your atttention. They also reveal the "edge" where the task slightly exceeds your level of skill. You should be constantly seeking - and moving - that edge.
2) Learn from your mistakes; don't repeat them.
3) The key to improvement, to enjoyment, to self knowledge is to focus on training the brain and nervous system, rather than the heart and aerobic system. The brain is smart; it's the master of all thought and action. The aerobic system is dumb - the slave of the brain. Focus on the place where control and awareness reside, which is also the place where efficiency is developed.
For every swimmer in the world - even the Olympic champion - trying to swim a mile as fast as you can at this moment MUST be an imperfect swim. The key question is whether it's an exercise in survival or of mastering The Art of Imperfection.
Thanks, Eddie. I'll let this thread marinate a bit, then take the best of it and turn it into a blog post.
Thanks so much for that thoughtful and helpful elaboration.
I think there's a difference between practicing struggle and practicing under stress. I see practicing struggle as reinforcing what someone knows is wrong; which they'd do because they believe they only need to improve their fitness to get faster.
Practicing under stress on the other hand would be trying to maintain technique when you can feel your form breaking down due to fatigue or some other factor.
Here's the good stuff:
I believe: we should always encourage our kids to follow that, not only in swimming... . It would be unfair to prevent them from committing mistakes. Yes, it's risky: they will bang their noses ... as we did ... but this is the nature of life. If we stop learning, if we stop improving - in swimming, we get stuck. In life - we get terribly stuck.
The thought dissolves...
Who and where is the 'I' that is aware of the thought, that can be aware of me swimming, that can be aware of me being aware or not ?
Who creates the thought ?
Who brought it under control ?
Is there an intention, a motivation before any action?
Who has the intention to do something, who is setting a goal for swimming, for life? Where is the intention coming from ?
Is there a mind ?
Does the mind have control over the brain, does the brain have control over the mind ?
Sorry Terry, for a little bit detonating your thread. But you said it: "The brain is smart; it's the master of all thought and action."
Now you are in trouble... sort of asking for it ...
Of course we could leave it limited to swimming alone, processes in the body, and so forth. But do we want that ?
I do think, indeed, that any action we do, could lead us into a greater perspective of our life, our being, our existence, the 'purpose of life'.
For some it is a tragic event, for some it is - swimming. That's why I inserted these slightly silly connections to swimming. But it is completely valid.
In any way, I think, the really good thing is when we do have something that reminds us of this 'there is something more in life...', whatever it is. Why not becoming wise through swimming ? It is as valid as archery.
And it always begins with awareness, without awareness nothing will ever be achieved.
Unfortunately it is unknown land for most of us. That's why we tend to get a little fuzzy when we talk about it.
And it is really a pity that English/American is not my native language, I wish I could express myself a little more elegantly, like eddiewouldgo did here, and Terry, and elk-tamer... but I enjoy your writings.
You are remarkably eloquent in a 2nd tongue. You write with more grace, suppleness and humor than many people for whom english is mother tongue.
And your "oneness with everything" thoughts are spot on. What you said reminds me of one of the central points in the book Zen in the Art of Archery, which was one of my early influential "non-swimming" books. (In the past 15 or more years all my most influential books were on topics other than swimming.)
The book says that the object of practice is to make a physical activity effortless both mentally and physically, until the body can execute complex movements without conscious control from the mind. At the highest level of skill we become egoless and non-self-conscious.
I heard about that book 'Zen and the art of archery' more or less all my life, but never made it to read it. Actually when I was young there was another one, I don't know if it was originally a German book, and the title translates as: Zen and the art to maintain a motorbike.
I haven't read that one neither, but Zen with it's surprising, and sometimes absurd approach (the sound of one hand clapping) certainly does resonate in us Westerners with our highly intellectual approach that doesn't always brings us the satisfaction we expect from it.
But as I brought up that fuzziness, I would like to make a little contribution to the subject here.
Once I was skiing, back in my youth, in Canada in the Rockys. There was a small but nice ski area, and we would avoid the piste and make it out in the woods and search for a nice path down through the trees and meadows. I often went alone, I loved to do these kind of things alone. I know it can get dangerous (but I never really believed it or sensed it), I never was that kind of fearless guy, but I think I've always been a little lightheaded (ask my wife, she thinks I still am. Maybe better don't ask her...). But I loved to be alone out there, I also love to swim out somewhere on my own, although I very rarely have an opportunity for it.
So one day I climbed out a long way, it was late, it was obvious that no one would come that day any more, it was getting cold, I went too far and was absolutely at the end of my tether. But I had to go down, there was no choice. Spending the night out there was none, definitely.
It was an interesting ride. I remembered cutting out any unnecessary waste of energy, mentally and physically. I didn't care about a lot of things any more, I just reduced every movement to the least minimum effort, I didn't even spend a thought unnecessary. Interesting enough even thoughts I experienced as a waste of energy, I just tried to stay relaxed, mentally and physically, and made my way down. A couple of times I ended up wrapped around a tree and had to unwrap myself, that was an incredible effort in my condition.
I made it, yes, and it was quiet some experience. Just to see what was really necessary, mentally and physically, how much you can actually cut down in your effort and still function, that alone was worth it. And the fact that I was alone brought me quite some fear at times, but also sometimes a surprisingly strong feeling of comfort in my environment, which was nature. It felt a bit as if the nature was an extension of myself, and I felt completely at home in it at some points. Not always. This does not happen when I am not alone, then things happens in a different way. So I am still very much in favor of doing certain things on my own. Although I am really not that lightheaded any more, more for my wifes sake than for mine.
Do you understand what I mean? It is a little hard to describe.
But in short, there is - as Terry and eddiewouldgo mention here - something you can only learn when you are in a fatigued state, and I might add, when you are alone it adds something to it, some sharpness, or clarity of experience I would call it. It stays better. And when you do your laps in the pool, although it is a different situation, but actually you are just with yourself.
The other thing I thought about is this: why swimming? Why try to make experiences like this:
I think there are good reasons. What we talk about, I think, is something we could call: the doer dissolves in the doing. Like the swimmer dissolves in the swimming, or the meditator dissolves in the meditation (I had a friend who was a strong smoker and used to say: when the smoker dissolves in the smoke...).
And I couldn't describe it more precise: it is when we become ego-less and non-self-conscious. Ego I would describe as a collection or bundle of characteristics, qualities, non-qualities, pecularities and so on that we think form our character. We refer to that as 'I'.
I also find it a precise description that we can experience this state only in movements that we can carry out without control, otherwise we have to put awareness on it, that keep us self-conscious.
So why swimming? I think it has several advantages (actually same advantages that archery has).
- It provides us with a protected environment. Nobody disturbs us, not in the lap and not in OW. There is like an unspoken set of rules: do your laps and you are left alone. Maybe not in the break in between, but while your are swimming - no problem. That helps us relax, I think.
- We are on our own - but we are still in the world, we are not cut off from our environment. That prevents us from feeling lonely.
- We move, we are not motionless. Being motionless is a challenge for our mind: it wants distraction. Swimming means, the mind has to do something. It has to coordinate very complex movements, check balance and so on. It is like given a banana to the monkey. The monkey is busy and will not disturb us.
And then it can happen: we loose those egoistic tendencies, we are just one with swimming, there is no separation between swimming and swimmer ( I am referring to other experiences as my swimming is not good enough for that (yet) ).
We cannot do it, it happens.
And it gives us interesting insights:
- we loose our sense of 'I' - but we still exist! we are complete, we don't miss anything, actually we are better off than before. That can teach us that our usual reference to 'I' or our ego, is a rather fake identity. That in turn can help us not to take ourselves too seriously.
- we experience profound peace and profound joy. I think that comes from becoming closer to who we really are, that is a joyful state.
- we get inspired to look for more of that.
So, Zen or the art of swimming.
I am still at Zen switches. Same word, other implication. Although - you never know...
Hope it was a contribution.
If English isn't your first language, it must be a very, very, very close second -- what you say is a pleasure to read, as is the way in which you say it. I hope you keep on posting.
I think we are all hitting on a point that helps define the art of training, learning, life generally -- the often fine line between experiencing something fully and destroying the experience (or even ourselves). We can encounter that so many ways -- pushing a set of 100s in the pool, rock climbing at our limit, playing a piece of music at a fast tempo, loading up our work and social schedules, you name it. If we stay out of the equally sad camps of those who never approach the line, and those who perpetually overstep it, we end up with a pretty good set of abilities, skills, and experiences, and many days we'd love to live over again.
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