I swim laps daily. It is repetitive exercise: I swim to the opposite wall of the pool, turn and swim back, turn again and swim back, and so on.
The repetition lends itself to a sort of meditation. I get into what athletes call the “zone,” during which I am simply swimming, plunging my hands in front and pulling myself past my hands over and over and over, not thinking of anything in particular but not not-thinking either.
At these times swimming feels like dancing. Or yoga.
But the aspects of swimming that lend themselves to meditation – repetition, simplicity, immersion in water – also make it easy to lose track of where I am in the workout. It’s a curious irony of swimming: I am constantly moving through the water, wall to wall, but I’m always in the same place, the pool. One lap is the same as another. I lose count.
There are many ways to make a counting error. If I set out to swim 120 laps, for instance, I can easily double count without realizing it. I notice that when I’m doing a long set, say 1,000 yards, without stopping, if I’m the least bit unfocused I start to anticipate the lap to come: thus, while I am swimming along with the number 15 in my head, because that's my lap, I think the next lap will be 16, and then the number 16 is in my head and I get confused: am I on 15 or 16? Or 17? I don’t remember. And each lap is so like the others that there's no easy mnemonic to remember a particular lap.
As a result I try to break my workouts into smaller sets. I do this for the cardio-vascular benefits as well. But there is clearly a benefit in keeping track of how far I’ve swum. It gives my workout a landscape, a context through which I swim that varies enough that at any point I have an idea just “where” I am. This morning’s program:
400 yards swim
200 yards kick
400 yards pull
100 IM (butterfly, back, breast, free)
100 drill (25 no breath, 50 drill, 25 swim)
16x25 sprint on :30
That’s a little over 3,000 yards. But because it’s broken into segments and the segments vary, I know how far I’ve gone, what lap I’m on, what I’m doing next, how far I’ve come, and how far is left. It’s like walking a familiar trail in the forest.
What intrigues me about this in the context of thinking about places, is that the “place” of the pool is expanded into a broader temporal context. The swim involves me traveling through various locations within the space of the pool over the various sections of the workout.
It is a kind of place-making, the sort of thing we do with any geography: a house – endowing it with memories; a city – creating routes and routines; a workshop – making a work day with beginning, middle, and end. The workout gives me a sense of flowing from one point to another, and a sense of familiarity, of knowing where I am.
In my virtual landscape, long sets feel like swimming uphill. Short sets feel like downhill. Broken sets with multiple components flow through a space with varying features: a hilly environment. Long repetitive sets are monotonous, like an empty plain. (Photo above from Loughborough Pool, GB)