- Sports/Recreation -

Tri (Harder): Sink or Swim

The swim portion of the triathlon may be intimidating, but one woman learns to turn it into meditation as she trains for her first triathlon.

Kaelyn Riley Experience Life

“Tri (Harder)” is a series of posts by Kaelyn Riley, editorial coordinator and executive assistant to the founding editor for Experience Life. This series will document Kaelyn’s first-time experience training for the Life Time Triathlon.

Here’s a face-flushing little tale that I don’t tell very often: I once fainted in the middle of yoga class.

I’d fallen hard for yoga after my very first 60-minute Bikram session. I loved that mind-body synergy, caring for myself both physically and mentally; I loved finding new depth in a difficult pose, feeling strong and powerful and centered.

But the greatest gifts yoga gave me showed up away from my mat. In my daily life, I sat up straighter. I breathed more deeply. Best of all, I found myself feeling calm and receptive in moments when I once may have been frantic or reactive.

Some routines are easier to love than others. I’ve certainly had my share of ill-fated fitness attempts: A Pilates class I loathed in college, a weight-lifting group I dropped after two weeks because I thought my arms were too scrawny, a one-time Pure Barre workout that nearly had me in tears. Usually, when we find what works for us — somewhere around that elusive intersection of manageable yet challenging — our bodies know it.

Somehow, a morning yoga class just seemed to bring the rest of the day into focus for me. I felt I’d finally found a fitness routine that allowed me to work in service of my mind and my body, rather than fighting against them. Whatever else I had going on outside the studio, I made it to my mat every day (sometimes more than once) for almost three years.

Then one day, without warning, I blacked out during Tree Pose, and I didn’t know how to make myself go back. I was so thoroughly mortified by the spectacle I’d caused — my instructor carrying me to a nearby water fountain in the hallway, my fellow yogis back on their mats exchanging bewildered glances — that stepping back into a studio years later still makes me feel anxious, fretful, somehow unglued. In yoga terms: pretty much the opposite of Zen.

I still practice at home when I can, especially since I started training for the triathlon. Gentle stretching, deep breathing, patience, and peace of mind — these things make nice complements to the rest of my training program. Still, if I’m being honest, it’s really not the same.

Diving In

When I first started telling my friends and family that I was training for the Life Time Triathlon, many of them asked me the same particular question. Once I’d explained when and where and how far, they all wanted to know: “Which event is going to be the hardest?”

My answer was always unequivocally the same: “Definitely the swim.”

I’ve never really been a swimmer. Sure, I took lessons as a kid. I spent most of my adolescent summers lounging at the local pool with my friends, sharing bottles of baby oil and Sun-In. I’ve dived into a lake or two. But I’ve never done this kind of swimming, the kind where you’re angling for speed, the kind that requires accouterments like goggles and swim caps.

Even though I found it intimidating, it still seemed to me that the tenets of the swim were pretty straightforward. The rules of my first swimming session at Life Time Fitness were simple and steadfast: Get in the water, move fast, and don’t drown.

Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Moving Meditation

After I read a handful of books on the subject, it became clear to me that my rules needed some tweaking. Most rookies go into the swim thinking the goal is to move as fast as possible, and this makes great logical sense — after all, it’s a race, right? But from my first few sessions, I knew that trying to fight my way through the water wasn’t doing me any favors in the speed department. The water would fight right back, and I was toast after only a few hundred yards.

So I made some changes. I stopped looking at the clock. I turned my focus to efficiency rather than speed, keeping my body long and streamlined in an effort to reduce drag. And I started counting my strokes, working to gradually reduce the number I needed to swim the length of the pool.

It was easy, really, to turn my attention away from speed. In a triathlon, the swim is always the shortest event, and conventional wisdom tells us that shaving seconds from your swim won’t serve your overall race time as much as, say, becoming a faster runner.

Once I implemented these changes, it surprised me to discover that my time in the pool felt less like my cardio sessions on the treadmill or the stationary bike, and more like those early mornings I used to spend in the yoga studio. In some ways, my new rules have turned swimming into an exercise in mindfulness.

In some ways, my new rules have turned swimming into an exercise in mindfulness.

Before getting in the water, I set my intentions: I work to remain focused and present through my entire session. Once I begin, I check in with my form. I breathe every third stroke, like clockwork. I make an effort to avoid struggle, to work less, to generate power and rhythm from my core.

And, incredibly, I’m getting better. Will I be the first to complete the swim in my triathlon in July? No way. But I am reducing my stroke count, feeling more confident in the water, and gaining back a bit of that daily calm and receptivity that I lost when I quit going to yoga class.

I don’t know how things will go in July. In some ways, I’m just as uncertain about the outcome as I was when I first registered. But I feel that — even if I finish dead last, even if I don’t finish at all — it’s already been worth it.

Kaelyn Riley is the editorial coordinator and executive assistant to Experience Life's founding editor Pilar Gerasimo.

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