“It’s Always All in the Mind”

As I said in my previous post, if you’re going to swim, you have to be willing to spend a lot of time with yourself. Some people do not enjoy the experience. Consider this Deadspin post from July 2012 titled I’d Rather Go Through NFL Two-A-Days Or Make Myself Puke In the Pool Than Do What Michael Phelps Does. Nate Jackson, who swam summer-league and year-round as a child and then played tight end for the Denver Broncos (much later), compares the swimmer’s workout to the football player’s:

Football two-a-days are brutal, yes. But it’s a frantic brutality, a violent chaos that sweeps you up and allows no time to consider its merits. Swimming is the opposite. You’re all alone down there. No plays to remember. No snap-count. No variables. Just you, stroke after stroke, counting and singing and talking to yourself to the rhythm of your body. And it’s all in the mind. It’s always all in the mind.

“ONEtwothreefourONEtwothreefourONEtwothreefourFIIIIIIIVE . . . Whats with these HOmies dissing my GIRL? What’s with these HOmies dissing my GIRL? What’s with these HOmies dissing my GIRL? What’s with these . . . BAdadadaBAdadadaBAdadadaDAAA, BAdadadaBAdadadaBAdadadaDAAAAA!” That was my inner monologue, to infinity and beyond. Cue the psychosis.

I laughed out loud at Jackson’s account of his thoughts while swimming; that is as good a description of the singing swimmer as anything I’ve ever read. I don’t think I have ever sung “Buddy Holly” to myself while swimming, but I’ve sung a lot. Last fall I went miles and miles on “16 Days“; in times of desperation, swimming open water far from shore, I go for the longest song I know all the words to, “American Pie,” on repeat till I make it in.

The singing phenomenon is widespread: multiple news reports describe Diana Nyad singing Beatles songs, “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and Bob Dylan, and Neil Young, as well as counting. But does this lead to psychosis or sanity? Here I think we have to say, different strokes for different folks: many, myself included, find the repetitive motion of swimming (and the singing) meditative. Charles Sprawson, in his cult classic on swimming, Haunts of the Black Masseur, quotes Bill Bachrach, legendary coach, “The swimmer’s solitary training, the long hours spent semi-submerged, induce a lonely, meditative state of mind.” I’m not lonely, but I am alone, semi-submerged, and the meditative state of mind means I get out of the pool much saner than when I went in.

At the same time it’s not exactly true that when you swim there are no variables or things to remember. You can do a swim like that, long and unstructured. Most of the time, however, you don’t just get in a pool, swim 4000 yards, and get out. You swim sets on intervals. This is what I swam yesterday:

  • 400 free warm-up
  • 200 free, 200 kick, 200 pull, 200 free
  • 8 x 100 pull on 1:50
  • 400 kick (alternating flutter and dolphin by 100s)
  • 12 x 100 alternating IM and free (IM on 1:50, free on 1:40)
  • 250 kick
  • 150 free/back/free cool down

That first line reads “400 yards freestyle warm-up”; the third is “eight repetitions of 100 yards, pulling (i.e. arms-only) on a 1:50 interval.” You can tell I was playing number games with 400s and 800s; sometimes it’s 500s and 1000s. But in any case, I’m thinking about distances and times and where my right hand enters the water, and I’m switching up strokes and drills.

What I do in my head varies too. Some days I’m singing, but some days I’m working through whatever problem I’ve brought to the pool, whether from work or from home. One day last fall I went to the pool having spent a fruitless half hour tearing apart my office looking for my lost parking stickers; as I swam I remembered where I put them.  On still other days, when I am angry and fed up and absolutely do not want to think, I do sprints. My go-to sprint workout is 60 x 50 on :50. I can maintain that pace for the full set, but it doesn’t give me time to think about anything. And it has never failed me. 60 x 50 on :50 wipes my mind clean; it’s the hard reset, the return-to-factory-settings.

As Jackson says, swimming is “all in the mind. It’s always all in the mind.” The question is whether you like it there.

If you swim, what’s on your mental playlist? Or, tell me, what’s the workout (swimming or other exercise) that you do when you are fed up?

3 thoughts on ““It’s Always All in the Mind”

  1. People used to ask when I had time to think (back when my schedule was nuts). While swimming, of course! Weekly menus, grocery lists, points for a presentation…. my problem is keeping track of my distance.

    1. I can’t keep track of distance either. Maybe I should write a post about the various things I do to compensate. One of the nice things about something like 60 x 50 on :50, though, is that I note the time when I start and then I just follow the second hand around the pace clock backwards (leave on the top, then 50, then 40, then 30, etc.) until I have swum for 50 minutes. Then I’m done. I don’t have to count the 50s. I would never be able to count the 50s.

  2. I swim 45 minutes. Every now and then I will try really hard to count laps to see about how much that is. More or less….

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