Friday, July 20, 2012

Swimmers' Bliss

Lowcountry Splash 2.4 mile open water swim, May 2011
(yes, I stop swimming to smile and pose for pics!)

"I always wanted to be Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up. I can't fly, but swimming is the next best thing. It's harmony and balance. The water is my sky." ~Clayton Jones

Most everyone has heard of runners' high: a euphoric state achieved after running some distance. The effects experienced and distance needed to achieve this state varies from person to person, but most distance runners will tell you they've experienced this state of heightened awareness when their entire run, their entire world comes into focus and is, for a moment, perfect. Other athletes will also tell you they've experienced the equivalent of a runners' high, when "they feel they are working to their maximum potential and feeling on top of the world." The intense emotions and ecstasy of the runners' high is most likely a result of endorphins, opiate pain-relievers found in the brain that are released at times of high physical stress, like during intense exercise.

I've experienced runners' high once or twice--back when I ran marathons and half marathons. But running was never my real passion the way swimming is. Swimmers get their own, special brand of euphoria that I think merits its own category: swimmers' bliss.

Unlike a runners' high that requires significant stress on the body, swimmers' bliss comes about when a person loses themselves entirely to the physical stimuli of the pool. It can occur with the slowest, easiest, and shortest of swims right up to those high-intensity workouts that leave you sweating in the pool, arms too tired to pull you up onto the deck (at which point one might experience a runners' high AND swimmers' bliss.)

The real beauty of swimmers' bliss is that it can be intentionally induced. For me, this is a form of meditation resulting in a unique state of complete sensory stimulation--all 5 senses are involved. At the same time, one experiences the kind of sensory depravation that pools provide: sound is muffled, vision is blurred, the water closes in around you, and there is nothing but you and the water.

There might be other paths to the enlightenment of swimmers' bliss, but my own is this:

1. Count strokes. Perhaps it takes a slight case of OCD, but I have a counting pattern based on alternate side breathing: every 3rd stroke. I count arm strokes for 1 and 2, and pool length for the 3rd stroke with a breath. One, two, one, one, two, two, two, one, two,, two three, one, two, three...for as many lengths as I'm swimming. Turns get their own special rhythm in the count: breathe, two, tuck, push, kick, kick, kick, kick, one, two, breathe...then back to the pattern above.

This counting focuses my brain on the rhythm, lets me push other thoughts from my head. After years of doing this--it's the same method I used as a distance swimmer in high school and college--I don't even think about the count any more. It just happens. When I want to know where I am, I tune in to the numbers that are always running in the back of my mind and there it is, with the length number popping up every third arm pull.

2. Listen. This is something I'd always tell swimmers when I was coaching--it's a great diagnostic tool to make quick fixes to your stroke. Each stroke has its own sounds and rhythms. I listen to my stroke, listen to the water and adjust until it sounds just right. If I hear slapping and splashing, I relax, reach out further, change my stroke. Calm it. The soundtrack to a good freestyle swim, for me, is a steady pulsing that matches my stroke count: shhhhhh, shhhhh, shhhhh, shhhhh as each arm slices in to the water. Behind that, there's a constant, muffled hum of water flowing past my ears, and the blurble of exhaling and haaaa of inhaling. I can hear it and feel it. The sounds become a hypnotic symphony, reinforcing the smooth, rhythm of the stroke. One two three, one two three...a waltz through the water.

3. Watch. This works both indoors and out, but is particularly captivating in outdoor pools, lakes, or the ocean on sunny days. I watch the play of light and dim shadows of my progress through the water on the bottom (or in the water column if I'm in murky or deep water). I see the sparkle of sunlight on the water around me with each breath. Everything beyond a foot or two away is a distant blur, my goggles a barrier, separating my water world from anything else. It's me enveloped in the water's embrace, with nothing outside of that visible to distract me. One of my favorite views while swimming is coming off the wall from a backstroke turn, stretching into a long streamline, and looking up to see my own reflection on the water surface...surrounded by a water-blurred sky beyond.

4. I also feel the water, not just with my fingers and hands, but with my whole body. The water embraces and caresses, running smooth fingers down the length of a swimmer's body. It's surprising how much information the brain receives when I pay attention to that feel: hips are moving out of alignment, legs are sagging or loose, I'm not rolling enough. When I tune into that feel, I can adjust my stroke until I know, in every cell in my body, what the word "sleek" means. (Of course, feeling it and looking it are two different beasts. I can at least feel long and lean in the water, a luxury I'm not afforded on dry land--and perhaps another reason I love the feel of swimming!) I can stretch out long to get every bit of surface area in on the feeling and luxuriate in it. I push my toes back, reach my fingertips forward, and revel in the buoyancy and balance of the water supporting me, and me slicing through the water. There's no better feeling.

5. Smell and taste the water. Maybe it's a swimmer thing, but when I step into a locker room or pool area and smell chlorine, I get a little tingle of excitement in anticipation of the blissful feeling that I know is on the way. Once in the pool, I no longer smell the chlorine, it has become part of my world. Similarly, open waters have their own smells: the earthy, heaviness of lakes and ponds, or the tang of saltwater. All evoke that same anticipation. Once in the water, every breath gives a taste of chlorine, fresh, or salt water on my lips, teasing my taste buds with cool drips and drops.

I'm pretty sure that if you relax and do steps #1 and 2, the rest will follow. Start counting, listen and bliss will come your way. For me, the absolute best part of swimmers' bliss is that, by not working at swimming, but instead immersing myself in the search for bliss, I swim farther and faster than when I approach my swims as a task on my to-do list for the day, or a workout to get through. As a quest for bliss, my swim becomes both a path to something like Buddhist enlightenment and to swimming success.

Like runners' high, I suspect swimmers' bliss is experienced in as many different ways as there are swimmers. However you get it, there's nothing like the complete serenity and self-awareness of swimmers' bliss.

Swimmers, tell us about your blissful swims in the comments section!

The water is your friend. You don't have to fight with water, just share the same spirit as the water, and it will help you move.
~Aleksandr Popov

No comments:

Post a Comment