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The Art of Graceful Swimming

2016/7/21 10:46:57

I've recently acknowledged that I'm finding it far more difficult to swim "fast" since I began experiencing frequent bouts of rheumatoid arthritis in 2007. A positive result of this experience is that it's led me to reexamine how I think about speed in personal terms.

After I wrote about why I'm grateful for swimming my slowest time ever, where I described my reaction to swimming 1000 yards in 13:29 at a recent Masters meet, one person commented that he would be delighted to swim it that fast.

More: Why You Should Embrace Your Slow Swim Times

That made me realize it was "slow" only in relation to my lifetime best of 10:45 which came 42 years earlier, and in relation to a time of 11:51 I'd swum five years earlier. Unless your time is a world record, "fast" is relative, not absolute.

That comment made me take a harder look at various instances in recent years where disappointment at my time or placing took away the pleasure of simply being there, seeing friends, being vigorous and active, and doing my best in challenging circumstances.

More: Stuck in the Slow Lane? Try These 10 Ways to Swim Faster

After some reflection I felt more disappointment in my reaction than my swimming.

It seems this coupling of ego and minutes/seconds is most likely among a relatively small subset of swimmers—present and former competitive swimmers. It can be healthy if it prompts efforts to discover and reach your full potential, to pursue challenges, but decidedly unhealthy if it causes you to avoid challenges because you fear the impact on self-image.

Several months ago I spoke with a woman, now about 70, who was an avid Masters swimmer in her 40s and 50s, but who I'd not seen at events in 10 or more years. When I asked why she no longer swam Masters, she replied "I can't stand getting slower." Yet it's inevitable we will all do that as we age, and a shame if it causes us to walk away from an activity that's so healthful. Or even to enjoy it somewhat less.

More: Visualize Perfect Freestyle to Improve Technique

Since then, I've started adopting a values system that's more consistent with aging gracefully and healthfully. These attitude adjustments—based on the art of the possible—have proven helpful:

Swim with as much artfulness and grace as possible.

Grace has an inherent and universal inspiring quality. Strangers at the pool are far more likely to compliment a display of grace, than of speed. And when seeing a person older than me who moves with grace—I've seen examples in yoga, tai chi and swimming—I always think "I want to be just like you when I grow up."

More: Freestyle Swimming Tips From Natalie Coughlin

Nowadays I try to swim races as a "work of art" and seek satisfaction based more on my success in doing so than based on time or place. Admittedly the former is a subjective judgment, while the latter is objective, but that just means I have to be more creative and flexible in my assessment.

When measuring swimming by time, choose a current time as your benchmark.

Measure results empirically. Those who excel in many disciplines set up meaningful feedback loops so they can objectively and accurately evaluate the link between efforts and outcomes. After swimming that "slow" time in December, I immediately made it the benchmark by which I would measure improvement in the three to five months (Masters short course season) to follow, and began making constructive plans to improve it.

More: Common Freestyle Flaws and How to Fix Them

I also begin most practice sessions by doing an assessment swim or set. The data points I use to measure it always include strokes per length (SPL) and/or tempo in addition to time. The practice then becomes an exercise in achieving measurable—and smart—improvement. And when I do achieve improvement, I leave the pool with a feeling of accomplishment that provides the motivation to do it again and again and again.

Focus on the quality of time, not the amount.

A corollary of the fact that races are likely to last longer at 60 than they did at 40, is the possibility that practice sessions will be shorter. In either case, you should strive to make those minutes or hours the best they can be.

I last broke 19 minutes for 1650 yards (equivalent of 1500m) in 1992. I last broke 20 minutes in 2006. But these days it's a challenge to break 23 minutes, a pretty rapid decline for only six years. So my goal is to make a 23-minute mile feel better and more satisfying than a 19-minute mile did 20 years ago.

More: Swimmer's Guide to the Perfect Pushoff

As I've aged, I've also been unable to swim as long in pool practices. As a result of arthritic narrowing in my lower spine, my calves and feet experience 'terminal cramping' after a diminishing number of push-offs.  Where I was able to swim a 10,000-yard practice (while training for the Manhattan Island Marathon) at age 51, I could manage only 5000 yards at age 55. At 60, I can often barely make it to 3000 yards before I simply can't push off any more.

Rather than get discouraged, I've embraced the challenge of making every lap count, starting with the very first. This has given each practice a stronger sense of purpose than ever before.

More: Swim Drills vs. Swim Volume

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