Smooth The Jerk

I want to share a few observations from my cool water swimming experiment this winter. You might appreciate some of this for your own swim training journey…

If you’ve been following me this winter you know I have set out to swim in the Mediterranean Sea on the Antalya coast all winter. Well, I did keep swimming into and past what became the coldest the weather and sea got this year in late January – 5 C air temp (with near freezing windchill) and 16 C sea temp (certainly not suffering by  northern European standards). But the frequent thunderstorms have kept the swells pounding the pebble shore, and the sea churned up into a murky milky cocktail of muddy river run-off and who knows what underwater garbage and debris. I found I could take the cold but this murky mess pushed my boundaries on safety too much. This has kept me out the last two weeks. Then, three times I went to survey the beach first then went for the pool only to find it closed for repairs! Aghhh! And I can’t run because of an alleged torn meniscus! Oh, my cardio-vascular system has been screaming in protest to the deprivation from exertion these two weeks!

I finally made it to the pool yesterday. I was like a nearly dried and suffocated fish picked up in the nick of time and dropped back into the aquarium seconds before death. Oh, it felt so good.

However, it took only a lap to start to notice the little but numerous idiosyncracies that have crept back into my stroke and the tension in my upper back (induced by swimming between walls). I was soon overwhelmed with so many out-of-tune spots my head was spinning. I immediately identified with the comments made by a few swim students recently about their frustrations in practice from all the problems they notice they need to fix.

I was thinking I would just go to the pool a couple times until I caught a break in the sea conditions and could return. But after yesterday’s swim I realize I need a good few weeks to pull things back together. And start with the basics: Relaxation and Balance (for me I found rotational balance felt a bit out of tune).

What happened to my stoke?

Well, two weeks out of practice did not help at all.

If I miss one day of practice, I notice it. If I miss two days, the critics notice it. If I miss three days, the audience notices it.
– Ignacy Paderewski, Polish pianist and politician.

I theorize that in these months of cool water swimming, I was predominantly focused on generating enough heat (by staying at 1.00 second and faster tempos) and had limited bandwidth to focus on finer stroke details, though I indeed tried to keep my attention there. It was compounded by the fact that the nerves in my extremities were kept nearly numb too. I could make it an hour on most days but by that time I was often losing noticeable quality control.

For the last 3 months I swam 2 or 3 times a week in the cooling sea and I have taken cold showers 9 out of 10 times (and even prefer them now!). But I simply have not fired up my metabolism – no inner polar bear has emerged in me. My wife has noted that I go around the house in my down jacket and wool cap most days. I can go freeze my buns off in the sea but I can’t stand a chill in the house!

I will not attempt to explain it here, but I am in the middle of a deeper realization prompted by my recent observation of the struggle in a particular number of swimmers, my own experience in the pool yesterday and what I happen to have read recently in TI Coach Shane Eversfield’s Zendurance ebook – relaxation is the key to executing the most powerful transfer of energy through the body.

For example yesterday, when I got it right I could slip to the other wall on 16 strokes at 1.15 tempo and it felt ‘easy’. But most of the time I kept driving force through my body with what I would actually describe as jarring mechanical transfers from one section to the next, like train cars jerking each other around with slack couplings. In this condition 17 or 18 strokes felt like a strain. By this I knew I was really out of tune. Energy needs to flow, not collide.

I am struggling with how to describe it in words because I haven’t found the right analogy yet to create a bridge of meaning for myself or for you. This is what I will be searching for as I head back to my aqua-laboratory and run my experiments the next few weeks.

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