Going Like Sixty: Lessons from the pool
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on September 25th, 2010

Six months from today I’ll turn 60 years old. I’m delighted to report that I view that approaching milestone with ever-growing anticipation, rather than the dread I might have imagined at 20, 30 or even 40. Many of my posts will be about how I hope to use my swimming practice to further my goal of being happier and healthier in my 60s than any prior decade, and to make more conscious choices for increasing both.

Yesterday I practiced in an indoor pool for the first time since May 9th (and perhaps the sixth time all year.) The fresh air, freedom and beauty of Lakes Minnewaska and Awosting bring me such joy that, the last three years, I’ve delayed resuming indoor pool practice until nearly November, swimming in water temps as low as 45 before I reluctantly give up the lake.

Because I’ll join the Master’s 60-64 age group in March, I’ve felt a little push to resume pool practice earlier and more frequently. Five years ago, turning 55, I set “big hairy audacious goals” and intensified my training with gratifying results — winning my first national titles, setting a couple of national records and earning a national #1 ranking. These all occurred in open water, but the speed and sharpness I needed to compete at the top level among my peers requires pool practice.

The clock said I was fairly slow in my first practice, but it still felt immensely valuable. Even better, I enjoyed it enough to look forward to my next practice. I swam for less than an hour, but that was long enough to remind me of three reasons I value pool practice. Two are about feedback; one about physiology:

1) The regular interval of turning gives me a series of finite “pieces” that focus and refocus my attention with a high-power lens. A “piece” is any stretch of continuous swimming. In open water, my shortest piece is 200 yards – or about 3 minutes — along a line at Lake Minnewaska. In the pool, each piece is 25 yards; each lasted from 20 to 25 seconds yesterday. Even when I flip and continue, I still find the interruption from stroking leads to renewed focus after I resume swimming.

2) Pool repeats offer much more regularity of feedback and precise metrics that tell me how well I’m swimming and allow me to compare one “piece” to another. That produces a higher degree of engagement. More engagement equals Flow. Flow equals Enjoyment. Plus, what gets measured gets improved.

3) I activate more muscle in pool practice. This is because (a) I use the body’s largest muscles on each pushoff; that’s missing in open water.

(b) I travel 40% faster on pushoff than while swimming and strive to maintain that momentum in my stroke.

(c) Swimming for even 40 seconds to less than 2 minutes, in a series of 20-second pieces, I travel faster than if I swam the same duration unbroken. More speed creates more drag, requiring me to generate more power to overcome it.

Because of an autoimmune condition I did no racing in May, June or July. I swam a few races in August and September, rather slowly compared to the standards I set a few years ago. Just one pool practice reminded me how easy it is to lose speed capacity if I only practice in open water for 3 or more months.

(Of course, more often than not, I embrace trading speed for sheer joy too.)

Here’s what I did in my first practice:

Tuneup Set: 5 x 100 EZ-Medley (25 FR-25BK-25BR-25FR) on 1:50. Hold constant SPL of (12-16-8-13).

I descended evenly from 1:43 to 1:39, though I didn’t swim harder — nor even try to swim faster. Instead I tried to slightly improve the efficiency of pushoff, breakout and each stroke. Small gains in efficiency will propel me a bit farther with each stroke –reducing the distance I must glide at the end of each length after completing my allotted number of strokes. Reaching each wall just .25 sec faster will improve my 100 time by 1 second. It’s nice to have a focus on efficiency bring a measurable improvement in speed. And even better to repeat that improvement on five consecutive 100s.

Set #2 10 x 50 FR on 50 seconds. Hold 12+13 SPL.

I started at 40 seconds, saw my time increase to 41 then 42 seconds by #5, then gradually brought it back down to 40 seconds by #10. The slower 50s came because I lost a tiny bit of efficiency, and therefore had to glide a bit farther into the turn and finish. With more concentration I regained the lost efficiency, and was traveling a bit faster as I reached the turn and finish.

Set #3 5 x 100 Medley (25FL-25BK-25BR-25FR) on 2:00. Hold constant SPL of (8-16-8-13). I descended from 1:46 to 1:43. My focus was identical to my first set. The difference was starting with 25 Fly rather than 25 Free.

Set #4 5 rounds of 4 x 25 on 30 seconds as follows 3FL/1FR – 3BK/1FR – 3BR/1FR & 2 x FL-BK-BR-FR

I swam FL @22-23 sec, BK and BR @24-25 sec. I held same SPL as on 100 Medley. I swam brisk on the FL-BK-BR 25s and easy/recovery on FR, except for the last 25.

Set #5 Repeat Set #2 but on 1:00 interval. On this set my 1st 50 was 42 sec as I was still slightly tired from the preceding set of 25s. But I descended steadily to 39 sec on #10

With an easy 50 between sets, my total was 2700 yds. I plan to stay with shorter repeats and controlled SPL for the first few weeks, to rebuild some of my lost speed and sharpness. As I feel able to maintain the same pace and SPL for longer repeats, I’ll add them incrementally.

Lesson for Today: My times were slow compared to earlier this year and past years. I pay no attention to that.   All that matters is to measure how I’m swimming today, and try to improve on that tomorrow.

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2 Responses to “Going Like Sixty: Lessons from the pool”

  1. Mat Hudson says:

    “Lesson for Today: My times were slow compared to earlier this year and past years. I pay no attention to that. All that matters is to measure how I’m swimming today, and try to improve on that tomorrow.”

    In my head I can hear voices of my culture (nation, sport, youth, etc) arguing immediately with thise statement- knowing how much our younger athletic years are dominated by climbing the ladder of competition and pushing our bodies to the limits. But there is a top rung to that ladder and then the only way left to go is down… if this is the only basis we have for finding satisfaction in our sport.

    My heart knows there is very important wisdom in your statement. We have to maintain a reference point for our sense of purpose and progress on something other than how we stack up against the best biological specimens around us, other than how well our aging bodies stack up against our past bodies.

    Whether injury, or crisis, a change in life circumstances (like having little children to raise!), or just simple reduction of power due to age, we have to have to tap into a motivation for improvement that references ‘today’- not too much in the past, and not too much in the future, although each of these has some value when viewed in the right way.

    I was only 21 when I got a debilitating knee injury and had to quit the land portions of triathlons. I had the next 80 years of my life flash before me and I realized I needed to re-adjust my goals for life and fitness if I wanted to have the best support of this body until then. I am watching and learning from you and others who are running the life race a few miles ahead of me on how to tap into the better more time/age enduring motivations and goals. I want to be be spiritually prepared to embrace the changes that come with age and gain greater satisfaction from them, to keep improving my life rather than viewing it as ‘all in decline’ after some arbitrary point. The body certainly, and even the mind may have experience some decline with age, but our spirit can expand indefinitely. A thriving spirit (possibly defined as positive attitude and perspective) can even reduce a great deal of the effects of aging upon the body and mind.

    Thank you for being transparent about your swim journey through each decade. On one hand we’re talking about swimming, but we know we are also talking about life. It gives us younger bucks a better chance to prepare ourselves to run as eagerly as you when we get there ourselves.

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  2. Matt
    Your comment is so eloquent, and of such universal value, that it deserves more attention than it will likely receive in the comments section here. I would like to quote you in a separate blog. It occurred to me that the main point of both posts I made yesterday was the importance of being fully present in what you’re doing right this moment. Not just in the temporal moment itself, but recognizing that what you’re doing is what you’re meant to be doing and are able to do in this moment. Accepting the truth of where you are, but also striving to improve or optimize it is a key to happiness and fulfillment.

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