Marathon Swimming as Meditation
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on August 17th, 2010

This morning my Facebook wall showed two consecutive posts related to marathon swimming.  In one, the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation announced “Forrest Nelson has just completed his two-way swim from Catalina to the mainland and back to Catalina in 23 hrs 01 min 06 sec’s. His first leg was 9 hrs 11 mins.”

Forrest, an experienced “channel conquerer,” set a Catalina record for a 2-way crossing with this swim. After swimming for just under 12 hours in the Tampa Bay Marathon on April 17, I have a real appreciation for the mental endurance Forrest displayed in swimming for just under 24 hours yesterday and today.

In a second post, Tang Siew Kwan,  TI Coach-Director for Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan, reported, “I swam 7×300 on Osim on Sunday and did 100-200-300-400-500-400-300-200-100 with eyes half closed and focused on relaxation and coordination.”

Tang is training for his first marathon distance, a 20-km (12.5 miles) charity swim at Tioman Island, Singapore on Oct 3o.  (I’ll swim 10km in the same event.)

Tang’s practice method is one that few marathon swimmers consider, but can be critical in helping prepare for what four marathon swims–ranging from 10 to 28 miles–have taught me is the most demanding aspect of marathon swimming. Mental endurance is tested far more than physical endurance.

Coach Tang

One reason marathon swimming demands so much mental endurance is its solitude. In contrast to running marathons, during which you have the company of hundreds to tens of thousands of other runners, and the support of as many or more spectators,

Start of the 2009 NYC Marathon

it’s usually just you and your escort boat. I learned how powerful any human connection is during my English Channel relay last September. During my second leg, teammate Willie Miller came out of the cabin to sit on the foredeck. The mental and physical lift I gained from seeing him there was palpable — and I was only swimming for two hours at a time. Knowing how much I appreciated his presence, I sat there during Dave Barra and Willie’s final legs.

Fortunately open water marathoning strongly lends itself to meditativeness. Not only are you alone, but your field of vision is very limited. Between breaths, you see a field of murky green–or in tropic waters possibly blue. But during a swim of nearly 5 hours across Maui Channel last March, in relatively clear waters, I saw the bottom for only the first and last minute or so, and unvarying blue depths between.

Thus Tang’s strategy of swimming with eyes half closed is highly appropriate. I often find myself involuntarily closing my eyes at times when I focus more intently on a fine point of technique. In yoga, we often adopt a “blurred focus” to increase our inward gaze. Combining that with a focus on relaxation and coordination turns  endurance-building training into a ‘practice.’

The more of this training Tang does, the greater his chances of turning his 7+ hour charity swim into a meditation.


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7 Responses to “Marathon Swimming as Meditation”

  1. So cool.

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  2. fish tang says:

    that is exactly in my mind

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  3. […] recent post Marathoning as Meditation talked about how seeing less—intentionally or by happenstance– can contribute to the […]

  4. […] suggested I use that time as a meditation, and this approach greatly enriches the experience. Even Terry Laughlin, swim instructor extraordinaire, advocates meditation during training. Not so surprising, given his technique emphasizes relaxing and moving with the water, allowing it […]

  5. […] suggested I use that time as a meditation, and this approach greatly enriches the experience. Even Terry Laughlin, swim instructor extraordinaire, advocates meditation during training. Not so surprising, given his technique emphasizes relaxing and moving with the water, allowing it […]

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