10 mile swim

It isn't far to swim when you have friends waiting at the end.


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The Real Reason Michael Phelps Is Coming Back

Michael Phelps.

The big swimming news is Michael Phelps’s planned return to competition later this April. The news reports have been celebratory, but with more than a hint of puzzlement: Why is Phelps coming back? For example, Christopher Clarey, writes in The New York Times:

It should be and is totally up to Phelps whether he wants to risk further denting his aura of invincibility. He has tried golf and failed (so far) to make Tiger Woods or Bubba Watson nervous. He presumably has had downtime and free time aplenty.

In the pool, he has very little, if anything, left to prove, which might not be best in a sport where the training is arduous and repetitive enough to require extreme motivation.

Clarey is perplexed: Swimming is miserable miserable MISERABLE! Only the extremely motivated would train like Phelps. Why would he put himself through more hell, risking his reputation? Of course, it’s totally up to him, but why?

I find this perspective on Phelps’s return strange. First, Michael Phelps is not invincible, and no one who watched the last Olympics thinks he is (he took fourth in the 400 IM; he won silver in the 200 butterfly). More important, I’m 99% sure why Phelps is coming back, and it has nothing to do with proving anything: he likes to swim.

Seriously, the man likes to swim. He enjoys practice. Nobody swims eight miles a day, six days a week out of sheer stubbornness; he does it because he likes doing it.

How do I know? I swam seven miles last Friday, and I liked it. It didn’t require “extreme motivation” (unless you count promising myself a hamburger and fries afterward a form of “extreme motivation”). I am reminded again of a passage from Daniel Chambliss’s article “The Mundanity of Excellence,” describing Olympic-level swimmers: “What others see as boring–swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, say–they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic. . . . It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it.” You don’t have to be a top athlete to feel this way. Look, I’m a middle-aged woman with a full-time job and two children. Taking four hours on a Friday to swim seven miles is not a sacrifice; it is an indulgence.

It’s not enough to want to race. It’s not enough to want to win. To swim that much, you have to love the swimming. And what Clarey calls “arduous and repetitive,” others call fun. ABC News quotes coach Bill Bowman on Phelps’s return to the sport:

I think he’s just really enjoying it. He enjoys the training and being physically fit. He just kind of wants to see where he’s at. It’s more really for fun. It’s been nice for me to see him swim just for the joy of it really.

There’s only one good reason to swim: for the joy of it. I hope Michael Phelps has as much fun on his comeback, however long it lasts, as I’m having getting ready for the ten mile swim.


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More on the Mundanity of Excellence: Ankle Flexibility and Updates on Sleep

Last week was a weird week here in the southeastern US. We had a huge winter storm, followed by a small earthquake. My family is fine; we were warm and safe through it all. I did miss two days swimming, which is a big deal for me–I don’t just skip two days swimming–but what can you do? When the state highway patrol issues a civil emergency alert telling drivers to stay off the roads, you stay off the roads. I have some consolation knowing that I am well ahead of where I need to be to meet my 500 mile goal for the year:

My Go The Distance 2014 total through February 16th

My Go The Distance 2014 total through February 16th

In my days hanging around the house, I had time to think again about the mundanity of excellence. As Daniel Chambliss writes, “Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole.” There are many small skills swimmers can work on; one that can be worked on at home on a snow day is ankle flexibility.

Ankle flexibility is one of those small but vital components of swimming. Flexible ankles are key to a good kick, and while kicking is a minor source of propulsion compared to pulling, a good kick also keeps your feet up, creating a streamlined body position and reducing drag. I sometimes see people with kick boards kicking very hard and not going anywhere; their kick is producing more drag than propulsion.

Steven Munatones discusses ankle flexibility in his book, Open Water Swimming, which I reviewed in a previous post; he has a very impressive photo of a woman in what I have since learned is known in yoga as the Reclining Hero Pose (Supta Virasana).

I told my children I was working on this pose–we were all home together last week–and they both immediately flopped into it. It was alarming. They may be made of noodles. I can get down to my elbows on my own power, but I am better off with a firm cushion behind me to rest my head and upper back on.

But the Reclining Hero Pose is not your only option for flexible ankles; simply sitting on your heels is a good stretch. In addition, a routine of pointing, flexing, and rotating your feet will improve your ankle mobility; see this GoSwim! article for photos of various exercises. The USA Swimming–Ask the Dryland Coach series also suggests tracing the alphabet with your feet, one foot at a time. Doing ankle stretches is my new small activity, and I am working to make it a habit.

In addition to a new focus on ankle flexibility, I am continuing the mundane practice of getting enough sleep. I think I’ve doing a good job going to bed at a reasonable hour, but during this time off I began to wonder if I really was: I haven’t been measuring. So I recently downloaded SleepBot for my smart phone. It will do all kinds of creepy things, like record you while you are sleeping, but it also serves as a simple sleep log. I am aiming for no less than eight hours of sleep a night.

More mundanity is sure to come.


Chambliss, Daniel F. (1989). The mundanity of excellence: an ethnographic report on stratification and Olympic swimmers. Sociological Theory, 7, 70-86.


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Swimming, Sleeping, and the Mundanity of Excellence

If you look around the internet, you will find article after article about the benefits of swimming. Swimming will make you stronger and healthier. You will sleep better at night, you will live years longer, and you will develop an incredible six-pack. You will become irresistible to men or women or both (you don’t necessarily get to choose). But none of this is why I swim.

I swim because I like to swim. I am not swimming to do or get or become anything. The incredible six-pack (which I do not have, in case you thought I might) is not the goal; the swimming is the goal. I am not training so that I can swim 10 miles in July; I am swimming 10 miles in July so that I get to do the training.

I bring this up because I have been rereading Daniel Chambliss‘s article, “The Mundanity of Excellence.” Chambliss is the Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College and has won a number of academic awards, including the ASA’s Theory Prize for work on organizational excellence. “The Mundanity of Excellence” is about excellence in swimming; Chambliss spent six years studying swimmers at all levels, from the Olympics to club teams, in order to form his conclusions. It’s well-written and thought-provoking; you should read it (broken link has been fixed) even if you never swim and never intend to.

Two particular points in the article grabbed me this time. The first point is about the attitude of top-level swimmers:

What others see as boring–swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, say–they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic. . . . Coming into the 5:30 AM practices at Mission Viejo, many of the swimmers were lively, laughing, talking, enjoying themselves, perhaps appreciating the fact that most people would positively hate doing it. It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it. (74)

This is The Good News, as far as I’m concerned. I am not a top athlete, but I do share this attitude: I do not see practice as sacrifice. I am not suffering when I swim. I like my pool, and I like my people, and I like swimming.

The second point is The Bad News–or, more optimistically, The News that Suggests Areas of Improvement. Chambliss demonstrates that a good attitude is not sufficient: in order to improve, you have to make qualitative changes in what you are doing and be consistent at maintaining those small improvements. Chambliss writes:

Excellence is mundane. Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of those actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence. (81)

Chambliss brings in evidence from his longitudinal study of swimmers for this argument. For example, he talks about the experience of Mary T. Meagher, Olympic champion and world record-holder in butterfly. In the year before she took the world record, she focused on making small consistent changes: she came to practice on time every day; she made every turn in every practice perfect. Chambliss reports, “This, [Meagher] says, accustomed her to doing things one step better than those around her–always” (82). Mary T. ended up swimming like this:

Excellence requires that we develop small skills, practice them, make them into habit. And this is the part of the pursuit of excellence that I find difficult: there are lots of mundane changes that I don’t want to make. I don’t want to work on my stroke technique. I don’t want to change what I’m eating. I just want to swim.

But there is a qualitative change that I have been thinking about making, and Chambliss’s article encourages me to do it: get more sleep. Research suggests that getting more sleep can improve athletic performance. A study of Stanford University swimmers found that more sleep resulted in faster sprints, quicker starts and turns, and improved kicks. The lead author of the study, Cheri Mah, makes these suggestions:

Make sleep a part of your regular training regimen.

Extend nightly sleep for several weeks to reduce your sleep debt before competition.

Maintain a low sleep debt by obtaining a sufficient amount of nightly sleep (seven to eight hours for adults, nine or more hours for teens and young adults).

Keep a regular sleep-wake schedule, going to bed and waking up at the same times every day.

Take brief naps to obtain additional sleep during the day, especially if drowsy.

I am in the middle of reading Steve Munatones’s 2011 book, Open Water Swimming; he also emphasizes the importance of sleep. In addition, he notes that swimmers often find it difficult to sleep the night before a race and suggests getting extra sleep in the weeks leading up to the race to compensate.

I am hoping to develop the same attitude toward going to bed that I have toward going to the pool: at a certain time of day, I stop what I’m doing and I go. Eight hours of sleep a day: a small qualitative improvement, consistently implemented. It’s a start.

Meanwhile, I am also getting stronger and healthier, and I have become irresistible to men and women who are attracted by the smell of chlorine.

It's like this all the time now.

It’s like this all the time now.

I’m doing a lot of swimming.


Chambliss, Daniel F. (1989). The mundanity of excellence: an ethnographic report on stratification and Olympic swimmers. Sociological Theory, 7, 70-86.

There is more on sleep and swimming here: Sleeping for Swimmers at Swimming Science.