I wrote this in 2011, but I was thinking about how my swimming has changed in just a few years:
Wearing shorts and t-shirt over my jammers, and carrying my swim bag, I walk by the creek under the Jones Falls Expressway, past Whole Foods and Starbucks. (So far I’ve managed to avoid entering a Starbucks.) I continue past the stone veneer UM church and the brick post office. At about 5:25 AM, I arrive at Meadowbrook Aquatic & Fitness Center. Half a dozen cars are in the lot. A thin guy with a bike helmet is waiting by the door so I queue up behind him. People begin to line up behind me. My coworker Mark drives up. He’s the one that assured me that Meadowbrook was the best club for swimming in Baltimore. He was right and I ended up moving closer so I could swim here.
At 5:30, they pull back a curtain and unlock the doors. I key in my pass number and walk past the indoor pool to the outdoor pool. I dither between a 50 meter lane and a 25 meter lane. It is so easy to keep count in the 50 meter lanes because each lap is 100 meters, but the masters team practices at 6 AM and other swimmers are more likely to want to share a 100m lane. After years of swimming four to a lane, I relish any chance to have a lane to myself. I choose a 25m lane away from where the masters team usually sets up.
0 The water is colder this week. It shocks a bit when I drop in, but feels good after I push off. The first 50m always feel easy. I’m only breathing every fourth stroke, and remind myself to breathe more. Last week, when my Timex Ironman OVA still worked, the first lap took 56.65 seconds. OVA means optimum viewing angle – the watch sits on the edge of my wrist and the lap counter button is easy to reach while I’m turning. My wife gave it to me last year. I put in a new battery a few weeks ago, but when I got in the pool Tuesday morning the display was frozen. I was eventually able to reset the time, but the hours and minutes were stuck. Then the memory was full. Then the time displayed EE:EE with numeric seconds. So I’m just swimming.
50 Somewhere in the second lap is when the out-of-shape swimmer’s arms will start to feel heavy. My muscles are trained enough to run on oxygen, but the second lap still feels less euphoric. I run through a checklist: 1 – Rotate enough so that shoulders rise and recovering arms clear the water – check. In high school, I always breathed to the right, and sometimes my left arm would skim water as I recovered forward. That can only slow you down. 2 – Head down, legs high – check. Deep legs will only slow you down. 3 – Light kick timed at the end of each arm pull – check. A strong, propulsive kick is great if you own one. I don’t. 4 – Breathing out soon after taking a breath in – hmmm.
100 I focus on breathing out. I have to fight my natural instinct to hold the air inside my lungs until my face is back out of the water. I held air in my lungs all through high school, through masters, through triathlons and up until about 1999. I signed up for a local YMCA class on competitive swimming tips. The class was for kids, but they let me in by mistake. The first thing they taught was to put your head under the water and blow bubbles. Holding air has been my most difficult bad swimming habit to break.
150 Your lungs absorb the oxygen quickly, so there’s no reason to hold dead air in your lungs. Holding that air needlessly stresses the muscles surrounding your lungs, and tires them. When I used to swim longer than 250 yards, a voice inside me used to start inventing reasons to stop at the next wall. There were plausible reasons, “Your goggles are fogging/leaking,” and very persistent ones, “You really need to stop, Now!” I’d argue back, “Look, I did 1000 two days ago – there’s no reason I can’t do it again.” Sometimes I won – I built up to 3000 yards while training for a triathlon – and sometimes my lungs won – I would suddenly decide there was no room for a flip turn and stop. A few years ago the voice stopped, but I have to be vigilant about exhaling.
300 I’m slowing down a bit, but everything seems to be working well. I breathe to the right for one length, then to the left for the next. I do that to train both sides equally, and to avoid rolling more to one side, like I did in high school. I timed myself once and found that I was about 5% faster breathing to the right. I occasionally do 50s and 100s with alternate breathing – every third stroke instead of every second – and I swim even faster than when I breathe to the right. But I find that in longer swims, I want more air than I get from alternate breathing.
400 When it worked, the watch told me that this is where I usually settle into a pace that I hold for the rest of the swim. I’ve read all sorts of stories about distance swimmers doing negative splits – going faster in the second part of the swim. I should try that some day. In the early 1990s, I swam 3000 to 4000 yard workouts, at least twice a week, starting with 1000 yard warmup, then 5×200 Crawl, then 5 x 100 Crawl, 5 x 100 Breast, etc. all the way down to 25s. Those workouts were based on what I remembered from high school and college.
500 In the late 1990s, we had a baby at home, so I’d swim one 500 yard or one 1000 yard as fast as I could over lunch hour, every day, then short repeats, like 5×50 Breast or 10 x 25 Crawl, to sharpen my speed. That worked OK, too.
600 yards or meters is a common distance for warmups. In triathlon training, I always felt like getting to 600 definitely meant I was going to finish the whole 1000, or mile, or 3000. Even now, after 600 I feel like I’m ready for the long haul.
700 My mind wanders and I catch myself holding air. But not a lot. In high school I’d hum songs in time with my strokes, like Je-sus-Christ, breathe, Su-per-star, breathe. At some point I started reading The Science of Swimming by Doc Counsilman to try to improve my strokes, and I’d think more about what I was doing, but I still mostly daydreamed while swimming. In 1998 I learned aboutTotal Immersion, whose founder, Terry Laughlin, advocates mindful swimming. He gets very Zen about it. My version is: The Unexamined Stroke Is Not Worth Swimming. So I try to pay attention to each stroke, not fall into lazy habits. That’s not really my nature, but I try. From the next lane, Yoda reminds, “There is no try, only do.” Yoda looks a lot like Terry.
800 While my left arm used to skim the water low and wide, my right arm slapped the water like a tree branch. Recovering wide can make your legs start to fishtail, and slapping the water just wastes energy. Now I make sure that I am placing each hand and arm carefully through a small hole in the water ahead of me. Terry Laughlin calls that, “patient hands.”
900 Mark Spitz once kicked 100 yards in less than a minute, but it takes me over two minutes – if my leg muscles don’t cramp. For a long time my legs mostly dangled behind me. In races I’d try to kick hard and they’d get crossed up. I realized later that I was trying to do the two-beat crossover kick, but instead of crossing over, my foot would catch on my other ankle. Now I use a light two-beat kick in long swims, and a moderate six-beat kick in sprints. My kick is not very propulsive, but it prevents the last sweep of my armstroke from sinking my hips and legs, and helps initiate body rotation. I often do various kick drills but I save them for the end of a workout in case I cramp.
1000 Getting to round numbers feels good. I had to stay out of the pool for the last three weeks with an earache. In the past I would have had a hard time “getting back into shape.” But I’ve found that since I’ve stopped fighting the water, my stroke is always there for me.
1300 I feel cross waves, so the masters team must be using the next lane. Only 200 to go, so I speed up a bit.
1500 I finish and several masters in the next lane look hungrily to see if I’m getting out yet. I used to be gasping for air after swimming a mile, but I feel relaxed. I swim an easy lap of breaststroke, then head to the ladder.
I see Mark is sharing a 50m lane with another guy. He’s been doing 1900m lately. The 102 degree water in the hot tub feels scalding compared to the 70ish pool water, but the jets are good for my lower back.