In my previous installment in this three part series Change Your Swimming in Three Minutes I suggested setting aside three minutes at the beginning of practice-in most cases before you enter the pool–to calm and focus your mind. To recap, the first-stage exercise included:
- Nose breathing. Mouth breathing stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which activates when we’re under stress. Nose breathing stimulatesthe parasympathetic nervous system which is calming and therapeutic.
- Slow your breathing. This relaxes you, increases breathing efficiency, and increases oxygenation at the cellular level. As an exercise, using your watch, time your normal breathing frequency for a minute. The average is about 12. Then see if you can slow breathing to 7 or fewer per minute. (Note: Inhale slowly and fully. Hold for a moment–don’t tense–then let your breath ‘fall’ out. Pause briefly moment–feeling relaxed–before inhaling again.) Sitting at my desk while writing this just now, I comfortably breathed six times in a minute. Practice this a few times a day for a break from your routine so you can easily recapture it at the pool.
- Empty your mind. Train your full awareness on the breath. Let all other thoughts go. If your mind strays, bring it back.
Once you are physically relaxed, psychically calm, you’re ready to fill the mentally receptive space you’ve created with a thought o accompany your breathing . . . In this case, a stroke thought.
Choose a Focal Point with which you’re familiar from practice. With eyes closed or open (but unfocused) imagine yourself swimming. Experience the sensation as vividly as possible.
Visualization is a skill that improves with practice. The benefit of visualization is that the neural circuits that fire when you’re actually performing the action, also fire when you visualize. The advantage of visualization is that you can mentally rehearse perfection. (Read about a Harvard research study on practicing piano via visualization.)
A few suggestions for visualizing:
- Head Position Visualize yourself stroking with a weightless, neutral, perfectly stable head. Visualize the feeling of connection/alignment between head and spine. Visualize the feeling of head cushioned by the water. Visualize breathing feeling the same level of support and relaxation.
- Lengthening. Visualize the feeling of each arm extending weightlessly as you stroke, feeling your relaxed hand ‘carving a gentle downward arc and a light forward pull on your shoulder as you reach full extension.
- Lengthen as you Breathe. Combine the two previous sensations: Feel your left arm lengthen–as described–as your head rotates with your body to the right–as described.
NOTE: If you’re new to the practice of visualization,, choose ONE sensation to visualize. In fact, use that one visualization repeatedly, for three or more practices, until you notice real improvement in your ability to maintain the visualization for 30 seconds and to feel it almost as vividly–but hopefully even better–than when actually swimming.