Swimming in Proverbial Soup

I COULDN’T FINISH THE SWIM CLASS. One hour into the 90-minute workout, I pulled myself out of the pool and told the instructors I could not continue. I was exhausted and my legs were cramping so badly I could no longer kick.

It was a Sunday morning in April, week one of a 10-week masters-coached swim class to help me train for my summer triathlons. I knew I was in trouble when I could not go more than 50 yards without stopping, and the other students were warming up with 100-yard intervals. I can run for hours, but swimming worked my body in an entirely different way. The half-mile (880 yards) swim needed by June was going to require a lot of work.

I pondered what to do for the next week. Should I stop going to the class and swim by myself? Should I hire a coach and get some private lessons? Or, since I’d paid a handsome price for the class, should I just “suck it up” and struggle through the remaining sessions?

Uh, Mr. Race Director? Are these things triathlon legal?

I wonder…Uh, Mr. Race Director? Are these things triathlon legal?

I thought of the classic English proverb:

If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

Was my “thing worth doing” the end goal of completing a triathlon? Or was it rather the training that made the goal possible? If the class would make me a better swimmer in the end, I should continue with it. But given where I was at the time, could I get the most out of the class? It didn’t seem likely.

And if “doing well” meant becoming a strong swimmer, I’d need a lot of coaching and time in the pool, taking time away from running and cycling. Perhaps if I “went at it” by myself, I could improve enough to get by. And that brought to mind this related saying from Tom West:

Not everything worth doing is worth doing well.

In the early 1980s, West was the project leader for Data General’s next-generation minicomputer. He believed if they waited for the perfect design and technology, they’d never finish it. So they went with the best they had, making compromises along the way, but ended with a product that outperformed their main competitor.

My former Aikido instructor had a related take: “If you never fail a test,” he said, “you probably aren’t testing enough.” If your training and conditioning was so good that passing would be easy, it wouldn’t be a real “test” of your limits and capabilities. That seemed to argue for “sucking it up,” going back to the class, and doing my best.

At Kent Lake, "not doing well" the best I can.

At Kent Lake, “not doing well” the best I can.

Or did it? If you test too quickly in Aikido, you won’t absorb the training well enough to understand what you’re doing. Without a solid foundation in the basics, you are ‘building upon sand,” as both Sensei and the Bible put it. That suggested I work on the fundamentals before jumping in with the more advanced swimmers.

Perhaps All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten has the answer:

If something’s not worth doing, it’s worth not doing well.

In running, the cardinal rule is “listen to your body” and adjust your training if you’re tired or injured. Do what you can and don’t make your situation worse. In Aikido, we are told that if you are hurt and can only watch, then watch with focus and energy. You may not be “doing” but you are still learning.

Watching a demonstration with focus and energy. Lest you think this is easy, I suggest you try sitting like this for a while.

Watching a demonstration with focus and energy. Lest you think this is easy, I suggest you try sitting like this for a while.

Could I just watch the swim class, pick up tips, and use them to help train on my own? That seemed awkward. And how could I tell what good form was and was not? I’ve practiced Aikido techniques enough to be able to learn something from just watching, but I couldn’t think of a way  to “not swim” and benefit from it.

And, finally, this from Ayn Rand:

“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”

I’d gone to the swim class the day after running an all-out half marathon. So my poor performance might not have reflected my actual capability. Nevertheless, it was obvious that swimming myself to exhaustion wasn’t going to get me there. Sorry, Ayn.

So which of these did I end up following the most closely? None entirely, but a little of each of the first three.

Pterodactyl Triathlon, July

Pterodactyl Triathlon, July

I chose to train on my own, at my own pace. I also watched some videos, and used a swimming coach a few times to observe my form and suggest improvements. By the end of May I was swimming 800 meters (slightly over a half mile) without stopping, and while I’m still a slow swimmer, I completed the June and July triathlons without trouble.

As for the class, I did not return. Catching up was unlikely, and my racing schedule meant there would be more “day after” sessions, too. So my single class turned out to be an expensive one. As I learned just how much work I had to do, however, it was worth it to me.

Much improvement remains, but I’m doing the best I can under the circumstances. And to me that’s “doing it” well enough.

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One response to “Swimming in Proverbial Soup

  1. Very well written post! Love the lessons and advice you wrote about.

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