Friday, February 27, 2009


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 kick
100 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)

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