Pema Chodron is an American Buddhist teacher and prolific author. Last spring I ordered her book Start Where You Are. The book is based on 59 Buddhist maxims and includes such guidance as:
- Accepting others starts with accepting yourself
- Embrace the painful, as well as the positive aspects, of life.
- Unclench your heart and mind. Dare to taste defeat.
- Learning to relate to pleasure and joy–and fear and pain–helps reveal the richness of your own life — and all life.
While browsing a list of Pema Chodron’s books on Amazon I was drawn to this particular title for another reason: ‘Starting where I am’ each time I swim has been the key to (i) unlinking ‘how fast I swim’ from ‘how I feel about myself;’ and (ii) embracing—without ever being complacent about—times that have unavoidably gotten slower as I age.
In my most recent blog Permission to Swim Slowly I wrote of the liberating effect of swimming slowly as an intention. The mindset of starting where you are goes beyond that by banishing labels such as ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ or ‘good’ and ‘bad’ that we (or others) apply to our swimming, too often with negative affect.
While it’s possible for, say, head position, or balance or the coordination of your 2BK to fall anywhere on a continuum of skill–or ‘mojo,’ the aspect of swimming on which value judgments have their firmest grip is the number on a timing device when we touch the wall. You free yourself from that by viewing your time for any swim as always relative, never absolute. (Unless it’s the world record, in which case it’s definitely fast.)
Here are some suggestions to keep meaningful challenge present in your swim while viewing time as relative:
Start practices or sets by determining ‘where you are’ in that moment.
In practices or sets, in which I’ll use time as a measure, I use my first swim to establish the baseline. Let’s say that swim is a 100-yard freestyle in a time of 1min30sec, taking 13SPL. Any improvement on that — regardless of how I may have swum last week, last month — or 30 years ago–is a success. And I may define ‘success’ as swimming the same time, yet feeling easier, or needing one less stroke.
Plan sets based on ‘non-standard’ swm repeats.
I regularly plan practice tasks or sets that are ‘non-standard’ — i.e. not appearing in any meet format. As I relate in this Forum post describing one of my practices when I begin a set without a sense–from having done it 100s of times before– of what my time (or any other data point, like stroke count) SHOULD BE, I’m free to focus solely on what my time IS on my first repeat. I can then experience flow from applying mindfulness — and a measure of cunning — to improving it on subsequent repeats.
An example of this is the ‘Modified Medley’ with which I’ve recently begun each practice. This is a continuous swim where I alternate 25 freestyle, 25 backstroke and 25 breaststroke until I’ve completed 400 yards (I start and finish with 25 freestyle.) The first time I did it, two weeks ago, my time was 7:20. There was no way for me to label that ‘fast’ or ‘slow’ since I’d never previously timed myself for it. But once I did swim it, that became a standard against which to gauge subsequent tries. Since my first attempt I’ve improved to 7:11, mainly because doing it regularly helps me become aware of small opportunities to improve efficiency in each of the three strokes. I’ll continue using that as my tuneup task until I feel I’ve exploited all my improvement potential for that particular combination of strokes and distance. Its greatest value is in giving purpose and focus to my first laps.
Plan sets that reward focus more than speed.
If I swim in a baggy suit, or crowded wavy pool, my times will naturally be slower than during a practice in better conditions. Or, if I’ve done a more physically intensive practice, it’s best for me to follow it with one or two practices that are more restorative in nature. In either circumstance a set like one suggested in a post on the Forum by Coach Joe Novak, is perfect:
Using a Tempo Trainer, swim a series of 50s or 100s (or any distance) in any stroke (or combination of strokes). Time all repeats. Add .03 to your tempo after each repeat. How many times can you do that while maintaining the same time? If you can only maintain your time for a few repeats, try adding only .02 or .01 to tempo instead.
In a set such as this–combining tempo and time–success and satisfaction come from increasing efficiency, not speed, during the set. In order to slow tempo while maintaining time, you must increase efficiency on each subsequent repeat. And this requires swimming with more laser-like attention as the set continues. Any set that rewards and trains focus, is as valuable outside the pool as in it.
Start Where You Are: Isn’t it great when the ‘rules’ for swimming well apply also to living well.