In my last post, Enjoyment Meets Improvement I wrote that I’ve reduced my racing schedule this summer to preserve bandwidth for writing e-books (the first, “How Swimming Works . . . and How It Doesn’t” should be released in October.) But in practice, I still focus on improvement—it’s addictive and it stokes my creative juices.
In this post I’ll delve further into the Pull vs Push principle and how that connects practice with writing—and happiness.
I began to consciously pursue the Pull Effect four years ago after reading TI Coach Grant Molyneux’s book “Effortless Exercise: A Guide to Fitness, Flow States and Inner Awareness” (available by download here.) I’d already been inclined that way, but Grant’s book provided a more detailed road map.
Grant’s core idea is that that you perform best physically when your training focuses as much on maximizing psychic energy as the chemical/physical variety. The more I align with these principles, the healthier and happier I feel and the better I swim. Here are some thoughts guiding me this summer.
Practicing My Art
It’s been years since I did a ‘workout’—of any kind, not just swimming. It’s also been years since I even thought of swimming as ‘exercise.’ Instead, for me, it’s become a blend of movement art and practice. I constantly seek to refine my art. As I do exercise ‘happens.’
I use the term ‘practice’ not as in practicing flip turns, but as an activity done with a conscious goal of creating enduring positive change in body, mind, and spirit. Which means my practice continues after I leave the water via making mindful choices about what will increase my physical, mental, and spiritual health.
In Push mode (workouts/exercise), you expend energy. In Pull mode (art, practice) you channel energy. First from the water and natural forces (gravity, buoyancy) into your swimming. Then from swimming into living.
What is Quality?
Swim coaches have waged a decades-long debate over Quality vs Quantity. The Quantity faction believes in high mileage. The Quality faction believes in high heart rates. Both approaches have produced Olympic champions, so the debate still rages.
I’ve resolved the debate in favor of Quality, but heart rates and repeat times have nothing to do with it. To me, Quality means moving through space with minimum waste and maximum joy. Working with, not against. Feeling better–physically, mentally and emotionally—during and after swimming than before. Most of all, Quality means swimming feels like play, not work.
Swimming as Play
How do we make swimming feel like play? In exercise our intent is to work. When exercise becomes training, we usually add a sense of obligation. Play brings a feeling of freedom and creativity.
In Swimming-as-Play we aim to enjoy every moment. In Swimming-as-Work, we endure fatigue, muscle ache, some degree of monotony—and often the freedom to be doing something else—today, hoping for the reward of improved performance in three or six months.
From my teens through my 40s, I willingly made those sacrifices. I always felt virtuous for keeping the bargain. I sometimes swam quite well. But I didn’t always enjoy the experience or feel deeply satisfied in retrospect.
In my 50s, I decided I would listen to an inner voice (intuition? Spirit?) and only do what I felt pulled to do on a given day—and to choose not to do anything for which I lacked that inner spark. This applied to both the content of practice, and whether to practice.
For 25 years I wouldn’t have dreamed of ‘blowing off’ a scheduled practice. But now I never hesitate to make other choices when it feels right. On a sunny day (when the air’s warm but the calendar means I must swim indoors), I regularly choose to forgo a scheduled swim because the psychic energy of enjoying the outdoors on my bicycle will be far stronger. (And I don’t replace a training swim with a ‘training’ ride; I ride just for pleasure, happy to accept that exercise still ‘happens.’)
Yesterday, I’d planned to swim at Lake Awosting, working on brisk tempos. But I felt more drawn to spend that time weeding in our vegatable garden. So I did. And though my big race—the Betsy Owens 2-Mile Cable Swim–is in less than three weeks, tomorrow’s another day.
Since making that shift to doing only what I feel my spirit moving me to do, I’ve swum much better and enjoyed every swim, bike ride, yoga practice, etc.
Start at a Stroll
A major reward of learning Balance–the first foundation of TI technique—is the ability to swim at a walking—make that strolling—pace. I start each practice that way, then allow speed to be pulled out. Starting every practice at a stroll is a foolproof way to experience the Pull phenomenon.
In 2006, my friend, Runner’s World editor (and 1968 Boston Marathon champion) Amby Burfoot told me elite Kenyan marathoners warm up at 9-minute mile pace—half their racing speed. That made me realize I’d spent 40 years swimming too fast in warmup.
Since then I’ve started every practice as easily and gently as possible. I apply featherlight pressure. I recover my hand (fingers tickling the surface) so slowly I almost stall. My kick is barely-there. I glide off each wall with legs streamlined, letting balance alone bring me to the surface.
It never fails. Not only is a faster pace irresistibly drawn out of me, as if an invisible source–like the attraction the sun exerts on the planets–pulling me forward. I also experience the most profound relaxation and connection with the water–that stays with me no matter how I might exert myself later.
And it’s not just a sensation; it’s empirically verifiable. In the practices I’ve posted on the TI Discussion Forum, you’ll see countless examples of open-ended tuneup series, on which I swim repeats at constant Tempo or SPL, getting steadily–and irresistibly–faster.
Can I still race well?
Pull-mode practice, with its emphasis on ease and enjoyment is obviously ideal if you swim only for health and happiness, but can it work if you swim competitively? Can it boost you to a ‘podium’ spot?
My blogs have probably hinted at how deep the competitive spirit runs through me. So, I do occasionally ask myself–if I swim only when the spirit moves me, focus so much on relaxation, and train ‘playfully’—can I still race to my standards over two miles of open water? I answer in two ways
1) I’m confident I’ll race well. The aspects of swimming I value most—having a sense of clear purpose and experiencing Flow as I swim; having a surfeit of physical and psychic energy throughout the day; and the overall feeling of health and happiness—come mainly because my practice is always Deep. And Deep Practice contains elements that are ideal for sharpening the skills that win races. These include laserlike focus, a high efficiency stroke, and the ability to increase Tempo while maintaining Length. At the starting line, I’m always confident that I’m well prepared.
2) But I won’t lose sleep over the outcome. This year the ‘Betsy’ is a National Masters Championship. Somewhere I have a box that holds six national champion medals and patches. In those events, the satisfaction of winning peaked within a few minutes after the race. But the good feeling that flows from how I swam during them never fades. Indeed my most satisfying national race remains one that I lost. I’ll never forget the furious, shoulder-to-shoulder (literally–our hips and arms brushed on nearly every stroke) battle over the final 300m of the 2007 Betsy, where my close friend Bruce Gianniny outsprinted me at the end, with both of us going well under the national age record I’d set the previous summer.
This summer, writing, not racing, is my priority. Yet for the 50 or so minutes of the Betsy I’ll give it all I’ve got. And during every minute of practice leading up to it, my focus will be on preparing well. But I’ve already decided that if making other choices this summer means I swim the two miles, say, 30 to 40 seconds slower, I’m happy to trade that for many hours of greater enjoyment that will come from ‘drafting off’ my inner voice over the entire summer.