Fighting the Water

Why is it difficult to relax?

  1. Relax? Sorry, I’m too busy trying to (dance, box, code, paint, sing…). I’m concentrating on that thing right now, no time to relax thank you very much.
  2. You can’t fix what you don’t notice, and it can be difficult to notice that you are physically tense or overthinking a movement. For example, I’m always surprised how different I feel after a massage. Maybe I did need that massage after all.
  3. If relaxing is the goal, trying to relax won’t get you there. Trying by definition is something forced and thought, rather than simply done. To illustrate this difference, consider how it feels to catch something reflexively compared to planning to catch something.

Let’s look at how relaxing might help you swim more easily.

Not pretty

I finally relaxed…I actually started to listen to my hands, to what’s going on in the water around me… I began to develop a relationship with the water, as opposed to just fight(ing) the water.

Lionel Sanders (maybe the most powerful yet least graceful triathlete)

I know how to swim, but my stroke has many strange and curious habits (see above). I’m comfortable in the water, but I don’t have a great picture of what I’m actually doing in it. For example, when I kick, I don’t know what my feet are doing. I often forget that my hands cross over my body.

Also, rather than swimming smoothly, I rely on muscles to power through the water. My most dreaded swimming drill is kick board. I feel like I’m sinking, so I thrash my legs, which makes me feel like I’m sinking. Then, I get anxious that I’m holding up traffic, and I thrash even harder.

Do not frown when you read. Frowning is a symptom of the nervous muscular tension produced in and around the eyes by misdirected attention and the effort to see.

Aldous Huxley

On Australia Day, I swam 5km in open water. It was a big distance and the water was rough, so I knew I had to conserve my energy and swim calmly. On the swim, I planned to focus on holding my head lower in the water, hopefully making me more streamlined.

After a few kilometers, it dawned on me that I was tensing my neck and back. I thought that’s what I needed to do to swim! So rather than trying to hold my head down, I stopped forcing it up, releasing these tense muscles and letting my head hang gently in the water.

I’d been so busy swimming, I’d forgotten that my body was effortlessly floating on the surface, without any added effort from me. Instead of groaning and pulling through the water, I imagined I was gently snorkeling over a beautiful coral reef. Although I didn’t suddenly start smashing PB’s and win the race, I finished feeling calm and refreshed, an achievement in itself.

I thought I was relaxed, but I was swimming like an angry man stuck in traffic. I’ve been drilling for years, yet coaching cues designed to help me relax floated over my head. So, bearing in mind the futility of words, I’ll leave you with this image to play with.

Imagine you’re lying face down in a cotton rope hammock that’s strung over a 100ft ravine. Every muscle in your body will want to tense and grab the hammock for support. Feel that tension. Now, imagine fully relaxing into the hammock. Completely release the weight of your head. Now swim.

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