(re) learning to swim – another work in progress

Today is day two of writing every day for 30 days, and I’m sitting here at my computer screen at 5:00am with my bathing suit on under my sweatpants, my cozy boots on my feet and my pink knit hat snuggled and warm on my head … hot cup of coffee beside me.  Everyone in my house is silently sleeping upstairs except for the pup, she is looking around for me up there and I think will be curled up at my feet in a few minutes.  It was a huge accomplishment for me to crawl out of bed this morning.

Let’s just say the last thing I feel like doing is driving to the gym and jumping into the cold swimming pool for one hour of drills and laps.

By now though, I know better.  I have been swimming once a week since November, missing only one week when my son had a stomach virus.  There hasn’t been one morning yet that I have actually FELT like doing it.  Once I’m in the water (which, by the way, takes me a while … because I am a total wimp and take my time gingerly dipping my toes in before eventually just sucking it up and jumping in), I relinquish my resistant attitude and embrace the work.  Lap after lap I find myself relaxing into the water, letting go, and enjoying the swim.  Observing how I am moving my body and paying attention to the rotation of my hips, the reach of my arms, the strength of my legs, the stability of my core, the rhythm of my breathing.  It becomes therapeutic at a certain point.  I’m not moving quickly, but I’m moving with ease.  I’m not fighting myself or the water anymore.

When I was a kid I swam on my local swim team.  I remember loving it and swimming HARD in that water.  My big sister is 7 years older than I am and she was a very strong and competitive swimmer.  I wanted to be just like her, so I poured my heart into it.  Eventually though I found my love for soccer and stopped swimming.  It had been decades since I got in the pool to really swim laps.  Then one day this summer my mom was at the pool with me and my kids and offered to watch them so I could swim.  I put on my 8 year old daughter’s goggles and swam laps – butter, back, breast and free – in my J.Crew bikini.  And I loved it.  It was exhausting and exhilarating.  I told myself that after Richmond Marathon I would get a proper swimsuit and my OWN goggles and dedicate myself to a weekly swim.

When I first started swimming weekly (a few days after Richmond), I had the fitness to last a pretty long while in the pool.  But I had no idea what I was doing – retreating to habits learned when I was a kid, relying on muscle memory but having no clue (or really, care) whether or not it was the “right” way to do it.  I realized quickly though that there was something really WRONG with my swim.  Every time I needed to breathe, I would breathe from my right side.  This was a red flag to me – a sign of an imbalance or a bad habit.  So one day I decided to try to breathe from my left side, just to see what that was all about.

I thought I was going to die.

It astounded me how scary it felt to breathe on my left side.  I felt like I was in someone else’s body – someone who was severely physically impaired.  I swallowed water, my neck felt like it was being crunched and I thought I would sink to the bottom.  My initial reaction to this realization was to just stick with what was working and breathe on the right side.  Don’t go back to that horrifying place of left-side breathing!  Yikes!  It was awful!  In my heart though I knew that wouldn’t be okay with me.  I didn’t want to feed an imbalance or ignore it, so I would need to figure this out.

A few weeks later I joined the Masters swim class at my gym.  I spoke with the coach about my challenges and concerns and explained my goals.  She watched me swim and said there was a lot that was GOOD about what I was doing, but that we needed to bring me back to the basics.  I was fighting the water and completely out of control in my form – pushing hard and making it hard on myself.  She told me to break it all down just like I would my running form and take it piece by piece.   To not worry about the big picture just yet.  She had me doing drills every week.  Usually the workout has a mix of drills and intervals and it’s supposed to take us 1 hour to complete.  I would take my time with just the drills and that alone would take me basically a full hour at first.  It was humbling and HARD as all-get-out, but it is working.  I am breathing now on my left side just as easily as I am on my right side!!  I am finding balance and I can hardly believe it every week I get in the pool – the progress is so rewarding.  I’m slower now in the water, but a ton more efficient.  My hope and belief is that if I keep working on this, eventually the speed will come to me.

I remember with running I had to retrain myself with my form a few years ago.  Pilates helped me a lot with this – bringing awareness to how I was holding my pelvis and engaging my core, where I was planting my feet, how I was holding my arms and even my hands.  I took a course in Chi Running, read books on form and worked with the coaches at =PR= to better understand how to make myself more efficient – how to work less hard to move faster and more fluidly.  The same goes for swimming, and Pilates and really how we move in our every day lives.  This fact completely excites me in this totally geeky way but I can’t help it.  Proper movement, proper use of our bodies, is so healing and liberating.  I believe we are all works in progress in every aspect of our lives, including in the athletic passions that we pursue, and that it is ever changing and evolving as life unfolds.  We have the choice to ignore our imbalances and let them fester, or to step up to them and bring our awareness to them and work WITH not against ourselves and our bodies.  I truly believe the possibilities are endless if we approach our challenges this way.  Hooray for learning to swim again!

Can you relate to this?  Have you had to re-learn a way to move – whether with swimming or running or otherwise?

Chi Running Workshop

In early December I attended my first Chi Running workshop taught by the wonderfully refreshing and very knowledgeable Myriam Kane.  I’ve been wanting to write a post about this experience for a while now, but every time I sit down to do it I feel like I can’t possibly do it justice.  I learned so much and enjoyed it immensely.

I first heard about Chi Running a couple of years ago, when I saw it mentioned in Runner’s World.  I’ll be honest and tell you that I thought it sounded kind of “gimmicky” at the time.  I kept hearing about it though – I read articles and blog posts about it and I listened to people share about it in my RRCA certification course – so finally I decided to buy the book (written by Danny Dreyer) and check it out for myself.  Right from the first page I read, it made sense to me.

The principles of Chi Running go hand in hand with those of Pilates (and you all know how I feel about Pilates!) – postural alignment and a strong core combine together to promote efficient, relaxed and pain-free movement.  I loved reading the book, but I always learn better when I can see it in action and having a teacher to answer my questions and address my personal concerns makes it sink in ten million times more.  For me, where the book was good – the workshop was excellent.

In addition to being a Chi Running coach, Myriam has a great background as a Pilates instructor, a runner and a nature lover.  I seriously cannot say enough good things about this woman.  Her professionalism, her enthusiasm, her depth of knowledge, her compassion and her positive attitude all add up to making me think she is perhaps one of the coolest ladies I have ever had the privilege to meet.  I cannot think of a better person to teach this workshop.

Myriam packed an incredible amount of information into the four hour session.  We covered a tremendous array of topics all related to running efficiently, relaxed, pain-free and strong.  There was so much information that resonated with me or made me think – light bulbs were going off in my head with nearly everything Myriam said!  I was in my element and just wanted to be a sponge, soaking up every word, every insight and tip.  I couldn’t possibly apply every single lesson I learned after just one workshop, but I did come away from it with a few key takeaways and things that I am focusing on for myself.  I think even making just a few small changes and increasing my awareness is helping me to improve my running already.

Here are some of the things I learned that I am applying to my running now.  I think everyone who attended this workshop is probably focusing on different things at the moment, depending on their specific areas of weakness at the present time.  There were some things we talked about that I am already doing a lot of (myofascial release techniques and exercises to strengthen the core and increase flexibility, for example).  The below areas are what I am really focusing on, for now:

* Steps Per Minute: Research has shown that the most efficient runners take 180 steps per minute, no matter how fast they are moving.  I have tried counting my steps before and always come in closer to 165-170.  Myriam brought a metronome to our workshop and I was able to practice running at closer to 180 steps.  I enjoy listening to the beat in my head – for some reason it is relaxing for me.  It frees me to turn my brain off and I get into a nice rhythm. 

* Forward Lean: Leaning ever so slightly forward, with a strong and engaged core, proud and  relaxed shoulders, allows gravity to work for me.  If I keep my feet behind me at all times (shortening my stride out front, but lengthening it behind me like a wheel) and lean forward I will move much more efficiently.  My core and gravity will do the work for me – my legs will be along for the ride!

* Scanning My Body: Self awareness is extremely important while running (and always!).  During my run I make an effort to check in with myself periodically and notice if I am holding tension anywhere and see if I can release it.  I have a tendency to hold this in my shoulders when I run.  The simple act of bringing awareness to how I am carrying myself opens me up to letting go of it.  Then I am able to move so much more freely.

* Using My Arms:  Where my arms go, my legs will follow.  I want to focus on moving my arms forward (not pulling them back – always moving forward) from my shoulder to elbow as I move.  I relax my hands and my shoulders and keep my arms aligned properly (not crossing them over my body!) and I will be setting myself up for a much more efficient and free movement.

* Gradual Progression:  Changes are not going to happen overnight!  Becoming more self aware and strengthening your body is a gradual process.  It takes time and effort.  I love how Myriam talks about intentional movement – we have to be aware and accountable to how we carry our bodies, whether we are standing in line at the grocery store or running our fastest race.  Part of caring for our bodies is being aware of how we use them.  It takes conscious practice – daily – for all of us.

I really loved the Chi Running workshop and am so happy and grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in it.  I truly think anyone can benefit from a session like this – whether you are new to running or are a seasoned racer.  There seems to always be room for improvement and increased awareness.  I think Chi Running offers workshops throughout the country, so if you are interested I encourage you to check out their web site and see if you can find one near you!

Have you ever read the Chi Running book or attended a workshop?  Did you find it helpful?  Have any questions for me about my experience?  I will do my best to answer!