By Terry Laughlin
This is the first in a series of blog posts we’ll be pulling from the archives. We miss Terry dearly, but do find comfort in re-reading pieces he’d written when he was in good health and spirits. Terry’s optimism and lust-for-life comes through loud and clear in his writing, and we hope you’ll find these posts both inspirational and informative.
This article was originally published in January, 2011. We thought it was appropriate because, even though it’s April 6th, we’re watching snow fall outside during our annual strategic planning session in New Paltz, NY.
Yesterday was my first day of cross-country skiing this winter. It was my best ‘first day’ ever, and in the Top Ten of all days in nearly 20 years of skiing. I do a form called Freestyle or Skating, which requires a stronger sense of balance than the more familiar Classic style.
Skating looks like it sounds. You glide and push in a V-pattern – a shallow V on a gentle downhill, slightly wider on flat terrain; spread your ski tips more on uphills. It’s like this: Lift one ski and step toward that side. Roll toward your instep — keeping the heel weighted — as you push outward, shifting your weight — and hips — the other way. Lift the other foot, drawing it toward the pushing ski, then step the other way and repeat.
I’m not remotely as skilled as this, but this short video will give you the idea.
If your timing and balance aren’t precise, it’s exhausting. When you get them right, it’s magic — fluid, rhythmic and easy — even on moderate uphills. I skied the Overcliff Trail at Mohonk Preserve yesterday. It’s dazzlingly scenic, but the first kilometer (KM) is gradually uphill. Usually I find myself sweaty and tired as I reach the highest point, but yesterday, while I still didn’t have the timing and balance, I wasn’t struggling and felt relatively fresh as I completed the uphill. Then it turns slightly downhill for the next KM and I just sailed. I sometimes test balance on gradual downhills by seeing how long I can glide on one ski with the other slightly raised. Yesterday I glided quite far with one ski raised.
I continued over rolling terrain for an hour, then turned back. When I reached the KM I’d glided over earlier – now an uphill – I changed strategies. I would only continue so long as I felt rhythmic ease. The moment I felt struggle I would pause for 5 slow nose-breaths, while visualizing rhythmic ease. I completed about five cycles like this. Each time I sustained rhythmic ease a bit longer after the pause. Finally, the sense of gliding uphill remained constant until I completed the rising KM. The final KM, now downhill, was simply the best I’ve ever skied.
I pondered why I felt so good, despite having skied only once in nearly two years (I spent most of last winter in San Diego training for swim marathons). Possibly because I’d roller-skied twice a week since mid-November. But perhaps also because I spent last week swimming in ‘rolling terrain’ at our Open Water Experience in Maho Bay in the US Virgin Islands, teaching balance, relaxation and rhythm to 28 open water enthusiasts. On our final day I accompanied a group for a 5k swim. Most had little or no prior open water experience and this would be their longest – and most open – swim ever.
I paddled for the first 2.5k, then traded places with Dave Barra for the return trip, and swam with them while he paddled. The observations I made while paddling gave me a clear sense of priorities for any swimmer who wishes to be balanced, relaxed and rhythmic in waves and chop. In other words to be able to swim farther than you ever have before, enjoy it more, and feel energized when you finish.
1) Keep your head low. This is critical to balance — i.e. keeping your hips and legs near the surface — at all times. And usually this is less of an issue in salt water. But in waves or chop, less experienced swimmers tend to lift the head while breathing. This would sink their legs, and increase drag. They would barely regain balance before breathing, and losing balance again. Keep your head low while breathing. Roll more if chop makes it harder to breathe.
2) Breathe bilaterally. When breathing to one side, every cycle, it’s hard to extend fully to a long, streamlined position. Breathing every 3 strokes allows 2 strokes of unimpeded extension. It also means you don’t have one side that’s permanently shorter because of single-side breathing (the right side for a left-breather.) Note: In the race excerpt shown at 1:26 below, you see me breathing only left. That’s because the shoreline was to my left and I navigated at that point by following it. Others kept looking forward, but it was much easier to keep my head low by navigating this way. This is more important than bilateral breathing. In the rest of the video [and other parts of that race] I breathe to both sides.
3) Enter through a Mail Slot. Hand should enter first, cleanly. Then slide forearm, cleanly, through the ‘slot’ cut by your fingertips. (A relaxed hand and forearm on recovery is necessary for this.) This puts your hand 12 to 18 inches below the surface as you complete extension. This (i) aids balance and relaxation and (ii) puts your hand in the best position to begin the next stroke.
In this video, note how I use pool and open water practice to wire my brain so strongly around these habits that – in contrast to everyone around me in the race section (2006 World Masters Championships) – they don’t break down in rough water or the pressure of a race.
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