Guard The Heart

I haven’t written about my practice times in the water for quite a while. I was focused on other things. But I felt it would be helpful to discuss my experience today because of how I had to give particular attention to my mind and my heart- to promote their well-being in harmony with my physical conditioning.

I lost a lot of momentum in the last 2 months. In early July I was feeling so strong and swimming up to 3 hours continuous and only wanting to swim farther and farther. I was tapping into new physical and mental territory and it was amazing. But then suddenly my energy just started dropping. For weeks I thought it was just the daily exhaustion of giving swim lessons- constantly switching between being baked under the intense Mediterranean sun on deck and while scooting in traffic between lesson venues, and getting chilled in the water while working carefully with each student, hour after hour. It was logical to think my body was having a hard time regulating core temperature working against both extremes each day, and then throw in the more intense mental focus on each student that my standard in TI coaching requires of me.

But then I clued in that it was likely an ameoba I got from drinking stale water from old water bottles- once I started taking some meds for that my strength started to return. However, as strange as it may sound to some, and yet very familiar to others, I found that I was mentally injured by the exhaustion. Instead of adapting to the hotter weather (40+ C) and warmer water (in terms of swimming it was nearly ‘hot’ water at 29 C) I came to associate it with fatigue. I just didn’t want to train any more despite how beautiful the sea looked. I lost my drive to swim distance- both because I had little energy and with the fatigue went my ambition.

In these last few years, and especially this last one I have made a significant shift in my values for training. To maintain a life-long passion for some activity, we must love the practice of it. The pursuit of some speed or some distance or some destination at the cost of our love for the practice, at the cost of our love for being present in the activity, is a serious injury to the soul, and can have a serious negative affect on our long-term commitment to the activity. Guard the heart, for it is the well-spring of the life (so says Proverbs in the Bible). I’ve finally learned to drive my body only at the pace of my heart- and in this way I’ve been more pleased with the results.

In those weeks of sun and parasite-induced exhaustion I did not get up for my early morning swims. But I would spend my free moments between lessons, when not overly chilled nor overly hot in the sun, to just lay in the water, or practice slow careful balanced movements- gliding, diving, twirling, dolphining, etc. Although I was not building power or speed, I was still able to work on my feel for the water- or as I like to put it, I was maintaining my positive relationship with the water. I still loved just being in it.

Finally, my strength has been returning these last two weeks. I’ve been coming to the sea again and entering it with a tentative goal in mind to swim some distance, but a totally open agenda as to what I will focus on during that time.

Today, when I entered I followed this plan (my normal plan): first I go as gentle as I can and scan my whole body seeing how it is moving and functioning, and where there are any points of stress that should not be there. I get some ideas from this at what I want to focus on during the rest of the swim. This may be the first 8 to 15 minutes of the swim. Then I wait for the moment when my body urges me to shift gears to a higher level. I’m not old by any means, but it takes some time for any body to adjust the blood flow and loosen up the joints and get all the systems into harmony to support best movement- the older I get the more sensitive I am to give my body this ‘warm-up’ time- both physically and mentally.

I noticed that my legs felt ‘heavy’, much heavier than usual. I’ve very recently started training for distance running again- a return after a few years without consistent conditioning. Why return? Because it is what my heart is asking for, and I have renewed hope that I can return to running with even better technique, enjoy it more than ever before, and run farther than ever before. I had glimpses of distance running euphoria in my earlier years and I want it back. My TI experience has set the stage for me to expect more from running and other pursuits in life as well.

Yesterday, I ran for 50 minutes and though I did not feel sore or acutely tired in my legs today as a consequence, I had that sensation I used to get in triathlons- but in reverse: when you fly out of the pool and get on the bike all the blood has been routed to the upper body and it takes some minutes of spinning down the road for it to get re-routed down to the legs. There is this top-heavy sensation that can actually make it hard to run to the first transition. I had the opposite feeling today- it was as if my body was complaining, “Hey, we thought you were aiming to run! We’ve been routing blood to the legs and now you want it back in the upper body! Make up your mind!” I was balanced, feeling my rotating hips break the surface on each stroke, but I never quite shook that slightly sluggish leg feeling today. Even now as I came home, walked up the stairs and sat down to write this essay my legs feel strangely tired, as if I kicked the whole swim instead.

While working through the warm-up my old training instinct was impatient and wanted to swim more intensely- but there was no normal energy boost coming as I expect after 25 minutes or so of swimming. Because of this mental injury from the fatigue this summer my mind was impatient to be done with the practice, and I had only just started! I saw how much mental conditioning I have lost as well.

Over the years I’ve developed some mental tools: I would normally swim in 250-stroke count cycles (roughly 300 meters, depending on tempo and SL) switching focus and/or intensity after each one. But I could feel myself counting the minutes until I could get out- my mind was concerned about getting fatigued and wanted to get the swim in and just get to the ‘after-glow’. To push this too hard would aggravate the injury I was already dealing with from those exhausted months. So I needed to decide, “As I am making my recovery and return to optimal performance, what is my priority? What should be my training focus today?”

I then realized this more clearly than ever- maintaining my love for being in the water is the paramount value for every swim. Love, above all other motives, will allow the lover to make the greatest sacrifices for the object of their love. Injure the love and you risk injury to the long-term commitment to it. My conditioning will follow in due time with far less effort if I maintain my love for just being in the water. If I had to force myself to get the time, distance, or intensity in, I might gain the conditioning at the cost of my relationship with the water and perhaps risk losing drive to swim train for any goal this fall.

So I took my focus tools and modified them to suit: I chose 120-stroke count cycles and allowed myself to focus on just ease of movement at first. I would stop inbetween cycles if my mind needed to look around and take in the view so I would remember to be present and enjoy where I was, rather than bear through a workout. Once I felt more ease, I decided to loosen up my arms for higher tempo- I was cruising along today at maybe 1.25 where 1.00 was my norm 3 months ago. Getting back to that tempo range simply takes patient conditioning- so I started with 120-stroke at a ‘higher’ tempo (not quite 1.00 but on the edge of comfortable) focusing on maintaining the sleek feeling I had during the first 20 strokes through all 120 of them, and in the next 120-stroke cycle I would just lower the tempo and recover with long, gliding strokes. Then I would stop for a few seconds and look around, curl up and stretch my lower back, float on my back and enjoy balance (and the amazing buoyancy in our extra-salty sea).

I never felt my energy boost during the swim like it normally does. I may still be recovering from the run yesterday, and I certainly still have some recovery from my sickness this summer. So I made a challenge for myself, to get my intensity up, but do it in smaller pieces and within the boundaries of my focus and enjoyment. I guarded my heart today and I set the stage to more eagerly anticipate my next swim, which if followed again and again will give me a better chance for returning to peak condition for some personal swimming challenges this fall.

Guard the heart, for it is the well-spring of life.

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