It is an oft-repeated observation of many swimmers that the sport itself is meditative, with many experienced lap and open water swimmers reporting they regularly “zone out“.
Some years ago, I wrote a brief article considering the positive or enhanced state of Alpha wave production in the brain during certain physical activities such as surfing and open water swimming, (and even a comparison of Alpha waves to a calm groundswell sea and the more common Beta waves to a choppy sea). Another article Flow, The Ideal Swimmer’s State proved a very popular description of certain swimming days when everything you do seems effortless and easy.
Mindfulness as a phrase has become mainstream over the past few years, joining the more common word of meditation. Meditation or mindfulness, as I understand it, is by the deceptively simple task of spending a period of time attempting to think only about no more that the current moment and the current breath, and thereby shedding anxiety and fear, and even stress or pain. Medical texts seem to indicate that meditation and mindfulness can be very a beneficial activity for stress control, chronic pain mediation, anxiety, depressive symptoms and alleviation of other mental and even physical distress.
I was struck by the challenge of exploring this subject and after giving it some thought, I propose to do so in two contrasting posts, the first concerning a type of pool swimming mindfulness and in the second we look (literally) at open water and mindfulness.
A T60 is a difficult pool training set. In a way, though it’s shorter, it reminds me most of The Cube, the 100 x 100 set so well-known to distance swimmers and which I illustrated with the word relentless. A T60 is simply a 60 minute time trial. It’s almost the definition of relentless: How far can you swim without stopping in 60 minutes? The idea of the T60 is attractive to a distance swimmer who likes swimming at their threshold, that point of maximum sustainable aerobic activity, that depending entirely on your current fitness level is going to be somewhere from 85 to 95% of your perceived maximum (sprint) effort.
T60s are a source of fear and loathing in sprint and medium distance swimmers. The idea doesn’t cause as much dread to long distance swimmers, but in reality because a T60 takes so much effort, and because you usually only want to attempt them when you are fit, in reality we probably do them far more infrequently than we should. Or maybe that’s just me. They are done solo. No drafting is allowed (not that I have much opportunity anyway). You are naked before the clock (not literally, but if that helps and the pool management and patrons don’t object, hey, feel free).
In fact, it’s three years since I did a T60, done as part of a Postal Swim I once organised. My best T60 was also that last one three years ago, when I hit 3,950 metres in Kilkenny’s Watershed pool. I’ve never broken 4k in a hour by myself without drafting, and it is not breaking this barrier that primarily leads me by define myself as an average medium level ability swimmer despite any other accomplishments, conditioned as swimmers are to measure everything by the clock, as if it were the only arbiter of experience or ability. (World class elite swimmers such as English Channel record holder Trent Grimsey can consistently swim 5k per hour. Below about 2.6k an hour would be seen as a slow swimmer).
As mentioned in the Lough Allua article I’m only doing a moderate amount of swimming of 15 to 18k a week. My resting morning heart rate is in the high 50s rather than low 50s. I normally only attempt T60s in the winter and early spring when I am doing maximum pool threshold training. Not only that, but the two previous day’s sessions to the T60 were also threshold (1ks & 400s two day’s previous with 1.6k & 500s the previous evening, both with warm ups) so I should have been doing an aerobic easy day. Nothing was really ideal to do a T60 other than I just decided “feck it, sure it’ll be grand“, which mindset I’d consider more important than the physical aspects.
This seems like a deviation from the subject of mindfulness, but bear with me. I’m taking you somewhere where mindfulness may exist in a different form, a form that at least allows some exploration. All this is an introduction. It’s no more than the scenery and the essential context for this one journey.
I learned to time trial when bicycle racing. I learned that the secret of time-trialing is absolute concentration. I know that the only way to find that concentration for me was to get to the point of pain. And then stay there. Pain is not exactly what comes to mind when one thinks of Mindfulness, meditation or even concentration. Nevertheless, it is my possibly erroneous opinion that there are in fact substantial comparisons, and of similar interest to me is the challenge of trying to investigate such an aspect of swimming in writing.
I set my Tempo Trainer and put it under my swim cap. No sandbagging, I make as honest an estimate of the speed I hope to hold per length for an hour. No self-delusion, there’s just me here. I take my real fitness and current speed into account. The double beep will be my imaginary Red Line. I must stay ahead of it. I have not calculated what my distance my chosen tempo will deliver if I hold the line.
No dive. An in-water start.
No warm up. This will lead to an automatic penalty because as I age, my warm-up takes longer. I need 800 metres to warm up. I will not allow myself 800 metres.
Wait for the next double-beep, then start the stop watch on my PoolMate and push-off, half a second behind at the start because of that one simple action.
Two lengths, beepbeep beepbeep. Not fluid swimming.
Four more lengths and I’m further behind. The eigth beepbeep happens before I hit the wall. I am off to a bad start.
200 metres, beepbeep and I’m a metre behind target and slipping.My breathing is heavy, my heart and lungs not yet adapted. I reach forward on every stroke and pull hard for a full recovery. The Red Line is now out at about 2 metres, where I am streamlining underwater. I need to pull it back, have the beepbeep happen when I turn, or before I turn.
300 metres. beepbeep. Further behind, I’m still backsliding. I think about rotating more to my right hand side. It’s my preferred breathing side but I always feel it also the side my stroke is weakest, with an accumulation of errors from my bent wrist recovery to my tendency to slide my arm out after catch to under-rotation to my too-short pull. In my head I’m a rubbish swimmer.
400 metres. beepbeep I think, I’m losing count, losing metres I’m over 3 metres behind. Maybe 3 seconds lost.
500, beepbeep, 600? beepbeep. I slip further. beepbeep when I’m under the flags. I don’t notice a sudden improvement but my breathing is easing out incrementally.
beepbeep, The Red Line hasn’t moved. I’ve stopped the slippage.
Another 100 metres, maybe, beepbeep. I hold the line. My reach is easier now. My pull is stronger, my breathing calmer.
800 metres I think. I will say I am warmed up, and act like I am. beepbeep
I start to attack the Red Line. Keep the streamline off and don’t move my head. beepbeep
Long reach, strong pull, fluid rotation and recovery. beepbeep
Thigh scrape with my right hand. beepbeep
The Red Line moves. Back a tile length. beepbeep
I guess a kilometre has passed. I’m reeling in the Red Line. One tile, two tiles.
There’s a woman swimming a good breaststroke on the other side of the lane line. I didn’t notice her start. beepbeep, a tile length is lost.
I pull it back, and continue to pull. The Red Line is back to the streamline, the bottom T. beepbeep
beepbeep. I guess the time again and decide to look at the clock on the wall at breakout off to the right to verify.
20 minutes. I’m into the “main set” in my head. Warmup is over. I’ve slipped a tile. What is it about an endurance swimmer, that they know their pace for any one day? Somehow know what is the pace they can sustain into the future, though they don’t know what the future will bring? That time tiral cyclist in me might say that it’s because swimming has no hills, but that cyclist in me didn’t know that swimming could be harder than cycling and that swimming is all one hill.
The Red Line is when my feet are leaving the wall. beepbeep. When they are solid on the wall. beepbeep.
Streamline. Reach. Catch, Pull,Rotate. beepbeep.
Streamline. Reach. Catch, Pull,Rotate. beepbeep.
I keep driving. The Red Line moves out in the opposite direct as I advance, beepbeep. Centimeter by centimeter, clawed out of the water. beepbeep. I drag and push the Red Line out to five metres in the opposite direction, five metres ahead of the Red Line.
The weight in my shoulders builds. My mind wanders as I wonder about writing about swimming as I’m swimming. I lose a metre. After an interminable time, I think I must be into the last quarter. I check the clock.
42 minutes. beepbeep.
Get to the last quarter. Then start again. Just three minutes. Bloody hell, I need to go the toilet. Oh no! beepbeep. I’ll just see if I still need to go after four lengths. beepbeep.
I swim for 10 minutes and check the time and three and half minutes have passed and I’ve lost another metre. beepbeep.
I’ve got the most annoying itch in the world, right on my arse. The Red Line is back to only a metre in front of the wall. beepbeep.
I have no idea if this will work in an article. beepbeep.
My shoulders are starting to hurt. My shoulders never hurt. My mind starts to jump to the end. beepbeep.
53 minutes. beepbeep.
I oscillate between gaining and losing, each gain harder and driven by sacrificing more, each loss further and not even noticed until I hear the beepbeep. 55 minutes. beepbeep.
The Red Line has retreated to the wall. If I was a golfer, this would be par, if I was gambler this would be break even. I guess 300 or 250 metres to go. I throw my last dregs at it. Sprint breathing, extra pull on my right arm, deeper kick. I move the Red Line forward a metre. beepbeep.
I look at the clock, verify on my Pace Watch, which I haven’t looked at all swim. I should have gone for the final sprint 100 metres earlier. beepbeep.
One hour and 15 one-hundredths of a second later. 3,800 metres. 150 metres short of my best two years ago. An easy swimming distance for a better swimmer. Probably only 300 metres more that if I had a straightforward continuous swim. So little reward for so much effort.
I’m done, no interest in a swim down. I gather my stuff, drink most of a bottle of water, stop the Pace Clock and by the time I reach the dressing pool at the far end of the deck maybe only a minute later, my breathing looks completely normal, even if it will take hours for my heart rate to settle to its usual, and even if it will take a couple of days to recover from the swim.
On the short drive home, I wonder if this article will work. (I still don’t know), and think that once again, when I thought I had nothing left to write that I still found something through swimming. I briefly reminisce about the time I almost broke 4k, something trivially easy for some of you. I tell myself I should do this again soon, and much as I love the feeling of depletion that follows a time trial or the exhilaration during, love most especially that period of extended burn when you feel like you can swim forever, when your lungs are capable of anything and your shoulders can lift the world, before the lactic acid ghosts coalesce from your blood, I know I probably won’t and will go back to occasional 1k and 1 mile times trials. And then I start to I think about the things about which I am really worried or stressed but that never once entered my mind while I was doing the T60.
It may not be mindfulness and it’s certainly not meditation. But yes, not always and not without effort, sometimes the water rewards me, or rewards my…dedication? Perseverance? Desperation?
But I am no longer in the water. So I think.
Nato ergo sum. Cogito ergo sum.