I Don’t Want to Become a Stiff, Sore, Old Person

I don’t want to become an old person with sore joints.

Is this inevitable?

Maybe. Frankly, I’m already a middle-aged person with sore joints.Mariah in the pool, post-swim

But I have a hypothesis: Stiff, sore people get that way by “baking” muscular tension into their (our!) bodies.

Whatever we practice, we reinforce. By “practicing” chronic tension, perhaps we create necks, backs, and shoulders that become permanently tight and tired.

Josh Hanagarne, who has Tourette’s, explains in The World’s Strongest Librarian that it’s “exhausting” to experience a continual onslaught of muscular contractions. Maysoon Zayid, a comedian, uses the same word – exhausting – to describe what it’s like to “shake all the time” due to cerebral palsy.

Might all of us be exhausting ourselves by inadvertently contracting, clenching, and clamping our shoulders, backs, and necks – not just at work and home but in the water, too?

As a Total Immersion student, I’m learning to swim and relax at the same time. (This one-lap video  illustrates that attempt.) During the recovery phase, for instance, Terry Laughlin teaches that the leading hand should dangle as it skims above the water.

Now I find myself wondering what might constitute a “recovery phase” on land. Can I achieve what Terry calls “effortless endurance” here, too? When walking, for instance, do I need to marionette my shoulders up toward my ears? When working, must I vice-clamp my jaw?

Not surprisingly, Terry’s way ahead of me.

“Since I started focusing on pinpoint relaxation (relaxing neck muscles to hang head, hand muscles at all times, the ulnar muscle for a ‘suspended’ forearm,) I find I’m much better at being conscious of unintended, unproductive muscular tension at all times, often related to ordinary living stress,” he explains.

I studied Tai Chi in college, and one day my teacher invited an 80-year-old Japanese master to demonstrate. Before he began moving, she said proudly, “Look at his flaccid muscles!”

Flaccidity had never been my goal. But she made a good point: Muscles are for motion. To tense them unnecessarily is to fatigue and even injure them.

This is not an argument against strength training. It’s an argument for conscious, efficient movement, in the water and on land. I don’t know if we can become flexible, pain-free, energetic old people, but I suspect that the actions we take – and don’t take – right now might make all the difference.

***

This is a guest post for Terry Laughlin’s “Swimming That Changes Your Life” blog

A former Stanford and professional basketball player, Mariah Burton Nelson is the author of six books about female athletes, including We Are All Athletes and The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football. She’s in charge of innovation for ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership.

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A Splash-Free Life?

What would it mean to lead a splash-free life?

To splash is “to cause water or other liquid to move in a noisy or messy way.”

In swimming, leading a splash-free life means gliding smoothly forward, without wastefully dissipating one’s own energy in messy, noisy, random directions. This is what first attracted me to Total Immersion: The stunningly beautiful, preternaturally graceful, splash-free stroke demonstrated by Shinji Takeuchi in his popular “Most graceful freestyle” video.

Then I heard Terry Laughlin explain why splashing is inefficient. It takes energy to send water up into the air, and this represents energy diverted from moving you forward. And—since Terry notes that human swimmers, by nature, are energy-wasting machines—a focus on minimizing even the smallest form of waste is the simplest way to acquire what he calls ‘Effortless Endurance.’  

This makes so much sense! As a lifelong swimmer, I’m shocked that I have logged 50 years’ worth of miles, including many competitions at many ages, without ever wondering how I might “shape my vessel” to slice cleanly through the water without creating a noisy mess. Dolphins don’t splash! Why should we?

I’ve been an enthusiastic Total Immersion student for about six months now, practicing mindfully and relishing my new grace and power. I’ve become a TI evangelist too. I can’t help it. Every time I meet a swimmer or potential swimmer, I feel compelled to tell them about streamlining, slipperiness, reducing drag, and the amazing power of the hip-drive.

My most recent convert is 89-year-old Mom, featured in the clip above talking passionately about Total Immersion, while demonstrating the method — and demonstrating how much energy is required for her, at this age, simply to get dressed and get into the pool. Why waste that precious energy splashing?

Now I’m wondering if it might also behoove me (us?) to splash a bit less on land, too. After practicing Total Immersion in the morning, I stride onto the surprisingly firm land like a sea creature that has recently become amphibious. Still high on the satisfying sense of grace I just experienced in the water, I wonder if I (we?) might practice the same grace with colleagues, family, and the above-sea-level world as a whole.

For example: Must I interrupt others when I’m really, really eager to share my views? Isn’t that simply splashing?

Must that colleague across the hall sing out loud all day? Splashing!

What about Metro riders who elbow aside elderly passengers on their way to the seats? Looks pretty splashy to me.

We can only control our own “splashiness,” of course – and, being fallible humans, we can’t entirely control that either. But I find that my own attempts to “splash less” make me more, rather than less, compassionate for others who are noisily and messily moving through the world. After all, isn’t that what I’ve been doing, lap after lap, for most of my life?

***

This is a guest post for Terry Laughlin’s “Swimming That Changes Your Life” blog

 A former Stanford and professional basketball player, Mariah Burton Nelson is the author of six books about female athletes, including We Are All Athletes and The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football. She’s currently in charge of innovation for ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership.

Fit Tip #30

I like 2 work out in the morning.
Swimming or cycling each day.
When U work out in the morning
“My health comes first,” U say.

Fit Tip #21

I know: U don’t have time. To get to pool or gym. But U don’t need time. Just do this: “Squeeze It In” http://www.squeezeitin.com/

Fit Tip #15

At 85, my mother still enjoys a daily swim. Her secret? Ever since her 70th, she’s been going 2 the gym.

Fit Tip #4

Today I dove into the ocean. Dove out refreshed, anew. Like a dolphin, I’m swimming, diving thru life. And asking: U too?

Back in the Swim

Here’s a love story:

I don’t know when I learned to swim but I must have been three or younger because the year I was four, I broke my arm and spent the whole summer standing awkwardly in the shallow end of our neighbor’s pool, holding my plastic-wrapped heavy white cast above the splashing water and watching forlornly as my siblings and neighbors frolicked.

I swam in my first meet at age five. Mom reports that my first question, upon arriving at the end of the pool, was, “Did I win?” (No.)

I swam on competitive teams every summer until I was sixteen, when I had to choose between swimming and basketball and chose basketball – not because I loved it more, but because, relative to other kids, I was better at it (i.e. more likely to win.)

At 24, I retired from a basketball career that had included Stanford University and professional teams, and immediately returned to the pool. I discovered that “masters swimming” includes people as young as 19, and that I still loved swimming, with or without the added bonus of trophies. Diving into the pool again, soaring out over the water in a racing dive, felt like coming home.

I swam on masters teams for another 26 years, until I turned 50 and accepted a job with a thirty-minute commute. Though my masters team practiced from 6:30-7:30 at a pool en route to my new workplace, the schlep didn’t work for me. I tried it: Get up at 5:45, pack the car with swimming bag, the day’s work clothes, and drive to the pool. Swim, shower, dress, eat breakfast in the car, and arrive at work by 8:45. After work, unpack the wet bathing suit and towel, which had been moulding or freezing in the car all day, and re-pack everything for the next day. After a while, my life seemed to revolve around packing and unpacking clothes, swimming gear, and food.

Though I never forgot to pack my underwear or other key articles of my professional attire, I worried about it constantly, left some duplicates in my office locker, and more than once selected and packed a professional outfit I no longer wanted to wear when — too late — I tried it on in the swimming locker room, miles from home.

After a year of this, I stopped swimming, and remained out of the pool for a year. I felt less exhausted and stressed out but missed my swim team: Coach John Flanagan and teammates Sue, Cindy, Mei Mei, Karen, Beth. Even more, I missed those racing dives and my long strong strokes through the water. My heart actually ached for that freestyle motion. When swimming freestyle, the water hugs your chest, somehow, and the balanced, rhythmic motion is satisfying on a deeply primal level. 

I stayed in shape through yoga, weight-lifting, cycling, walking. But I never stopped craving swimming. Switching from showers to baths in a vain attempt to satisfy my need for total immersion did not help. Nor did “imaginary swimming,” an exercise I found myself doing on my way to sleep. Nor did occasional ecstatic swims in the ocean, three hours from home. 

Finally, it occurred to me that I could swim at the local high school, one mile from my house, shower there, drive back home, dress and eat breakfast at home, and still get to work on time without having to pack my work clothes or eat breakfast in the car. 

For about six months now, I’ve been back in the swim. It’s a very different experience than my swim team training, which had been intense, competitive and highly structured. Now I do my own thing, talking to no one and coordinating my laps with no one.

Since I work with people all day, this non-competitive, almost anti-social swimming provides just what I need these days: an hour just for me. Though surrounded by other swimmers, I feel alone in the pool in the best sense of the word alone: solitary, self-contained, quiet. I focus on my breathing, my stroke, my strength. It’s swimming as meditation: deeply satisfying in a way I almost didn’t know swimming could be. 

And throughout the day I feel immensely better: more physically balanced, spiritually centered, at peace. No matter what happens in my sometimes hectic and demanding job, I always have that morning meditation to refer back to. Swimming doesn’t “ground” me but rather buoys me, supports me as I swim through the rest of my life. 

I’m euphorically happy to be back in the swim.

May everyone find a form of exercise they love this much.