Sunday, July 4, 2010

Swimming for Fitness and a Sense of Well-Being

Sixty-years old now, I've been swimming for a long time.  My usual routine is to swim a mile of crawl.  A younger friend, age 46, a tennis player, and all-around athlete, asked me how I could stand it--didn't I find it very boring?.  We didn't even discuss the fatigue element--I don't believe it is that much of a problem for him.  As I understand it, his major difficulty is that it is boring, and that you're not visibly accomplishing anything.  The major reason he is swimming is that after years of playing tennis, his knees can't take the stress of activities that have put major stress on them, especially running and jumping.  So, here are my tips about swimming.  I'm assuming here that you can swim well enough to swim the length of a 60 foot pool and that you are able to breathe at least minimally while you're swimming. Here goes:
1. Gear - Swimsuits- I prefer to swim bare-assed.  However, as this is hardly ever possible, I suggest wearing Speedos.  If this is not possible, I suggest that you wear any bathing suit that won't slip off while you're swimming.  Currently, I usually wear "board shorts" bought in Target for about $20.  I initially swim the length of the pool and back and then retie my bathing suit which usually then stays put for the rest of my mile swim routine.  Goggles- Goggles are an essential item.  Speedo makes various models.  I usually spend around $20 for goggles as well.  It's really not necessary for most people to spend much more.  Make sure they're comfortable, that adjusting them is easy, and that they have a good "suction fit".  I find that tinted goggles are really nice if you are swimming in most locations, and especially nice if you're swimming in a sunny location.
2. Attitude - You need to focus on the fact that you are doing this for you.  You are competing with nobody.  You do not have to swim perfectly.
3. Breathing - I've assumed that you know how to breathe in the water at least minimally.  If you're having difficulty breathing in the water I suggest that you try and remember that the primary thing you need to concentrate on is blowing the carbon dioxide out.  You can tilt your head just enough, and for a short enough period to get more than enough air for one stroke.  If you've blown out the carbon dioxide, this will be an easy and natural process.  I absolutely never concern myself with getting enough air while swimming.  You only need to relax and tilt your head and suck in air very gently--if you have blown out the carbon dioxide, this will occur with very little effort.
4. Counting - I count every length that I swim and I say the number of that length to myself every time I breathe out.  With the breathing and the counting your swimming approaches meditation.  Counting every length keeps you focused.  If you lose focus, and this happens, you can usually catch yourself because you are saying and even or odd number to yourself when you're swimming what should be an odd or even length.  This too is okay.  Just make the adjustment.  In a 60 foot pool I usually count till I finish 22 lengths, which is about a quarter of a mile.  I've found that counting above 25 gets more difficult.  So, for a mile swim, I count to 22 four times.  In different length pools I count to different numbers.  I attempt to have only four "segments", but in a smaller pool, after 100 lengths I count out another segment for the appropriate number of lengths.
5.Swimming - As my Zen teacher said "When you swim, swim".  You need to do nothing but swim.  This in itself can feel liberating.  As you're swimming and counting, thoughts will inevitably enter your mind.  Let the thoughts come.  You will probably not realize that you are "thinking" instead of "swimming" right away.  However, the counting will eventually help you realize that this is happening.  When this happens, just say to yourself "thinking about ....." and then go back to your counting.  If your arm begins to ache or you are feeling something else, just say to yourself "feeling my arm" and then go back to the counting.  The counting, the rhythmic breathing, and the physical activity are all working to help you feel "in the moment".  When you are done swimming, you might, if you remember them, review some of the thoughts that came to you when you were swimming.  For instance, today when I was swimming I thought about writing this article, I also thought about my late friend and Zen teacher Madeline Ko-i Bastis.
5. Speed - Swim at a speed that is comfortable for you.  While you are swimming, you may "trance out" and slow down.  Again, the counting will help you maintain focus and you will probably get a message- "slowed down" as you are swimming.  You can then accelerate back to your comfortable speed.  When I was younger, I used to swim the mile in about 29 or 30 minutes.  Now it's about 38 to 40.  Try to keep a pace that is under an hour for a mile.
6. Distance - When I first began swimming as an adult at age 32, I really had no idea what a work out should consist of, and I was just going to use the swimming as an aerobic.  I believe that at first I swam 16 lengths, which was the distance required when I went to camp that allowed you to take out a canoe by yourself.  I had the good fortune, however, to have a lifeguard, Susan, at the Y who encouraged me to go for a mile, and by the second week of swimming I was there.  If you are relaxed and breathing properly a mile is not a long distance to swim.  Most people get tired from swimming because they are struggling to breathe.  When you breathe properly it's only the actual physical activity that will tire you out.

7. Playing - As I approach my last two lengths, I get into "playing".  Sometimes I swim as fast as I can for those lengths.  Sometimes I see how far I can still swim on one breath.  The "play" begins to bring me out of the state I've been in during the swimming.  After I'm all done, I usually just swim underwater a bit, do a bit of fantasizing, do some bobbing, and tell myself how terrific I am and how wonderful life is.  And it is!

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