Chlorine’s atomic number is 17. John Donne’s Meditation 17 contains his famous phrase “No man is an island.” In fuller context, he says “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.” So clearly, all us clods better to learn to swim, because Europe doesn’t need the hassle.
I never swam on purpose until I started doing triathlon in 2009. I knew how to swim, of course, and spent time on the lake every summer, swimming out to a raft so I could loll on top of the waves. I’d swim with my daughter, too. When she was a baby, I’d put her in her tiny suit and enormous sun bonnet and pull her around the pool, or we’d splash up to our knees in the lake as she got older. But none of this lap swimming business; it sounded tedious.
Then triathlon happened and I had to start doing those tedious, chlorinated laps. But someone suggested I use that time as a meditation, and this approach greatly enriches the experience. Even Terry Laughlin, swim instructor extraordinaire, advocates meditation during training. Not so surprising, given his technique emphasizes relaxing and moving with the water, allowing it to carry you. He notes:
[The] strategy of swimming with eyes half closed is highly appropriate. I often find myself involuntarily closing my eyes at times when I focus more intently on a fine point of technique. In yoga, we often adopt a “blurred focus” to increase our inward gaze. Combining that with a focus on relaxation and coordination turns endurance-building training into a ‘practice.’
The U.S. Masters Swimming organization’s magazine published a handy article on folding meditation into swim training, particularly by practicing yoga when on dry land to develop mental fortitude. Both this guide and Laughlin emphasize the role of mental strength in endurance sports. The recovery phase is just as essential in developing mental toughness as it is in building physical prowess. The guide recommends practicing some sort of deep mental relaxation for 20 minutes twice daily to re-energize the mind. You don’t necessarily have to completely empty your mind to achieve this mental relaxation; you can use practices such as Reiki or Tai Chi that promote mindfulness but essentially clear the mind as a side effect.
We can attain Zen—the art of doing and not doing—when we concentrate on the feeling of water gushing past us, caressing our limbs and muscles. We can attain that Zen if we allow the water to cradle us, warm us; when the roll of our body and rhythmic breathing leaves us relishing the moment rather than wondering when the set will end.
I’ve done 7 sprint triathlons. Looking at the results spreadsheet, I can see my times really start to dip after that one event at Lake Pflugerville where I decided to just relax and have a good time, and not worry about the numbers. (Of course, part of the reason I got faster was experience and training, but attitude plays a significant role as well—any triathlete can tell you that.) I decided I was simply going to be grateful that I was there at all, rather than trying to achieve predetermined times (and then be grumpy for days afterward when I failed to achieve them). That day stands out in my mind as one of my top life experiences, not just because I did indeed get faster times but because my appreciation for the feel of the wind on my skin and tires on the pavement, and the sight of the sun on the waves and fields rolling by, was undimmed by performance anxiety. And I’ve courted that same joy of Just Being There in events since and drastically increased my enjoyment of each day’s self-imposed trials. Granted, as a back-of-the-packer, I have the luxury of not worrying about times, as the podium will likely elude me unless my age group is narrowed to, say, just the week of my birth for Athena women in my zip code whose names start with M. That’s all right; I’m having a mindfully good time.