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The Tao of swimming

I'm both a science geek and a religion geek. And both help me in the world of endurance sports. I appreciate both the "nuts and bolts," nutrition and muscle fatigue component of it. But I also appreciate the more esoteric, mental game where you're battling something more than physics and biology.

So some of my recent gains in the pool have been the kind that make me turn my head and give the "confused dog" look while I stare at the pace clock. Unexpected gains are pleasant...but they can also be confusing. There are several levels going on...and I could write this post about stroke and technique and finding the most energy-efficient way to get across the pool as it relates to the way muscles burn fuel, hydrodynamics, perceived effort, lactate threshold, heart rate levels, blah blah.

In the end, the reason I'm in the sport is--unlike others, but if it's your thing that's cool--the more mystical side. The nuts and bolts of science tell me how...but science will never answer the question "why?"

So don't get me wrong...I know why I got faster. I found a way to conserve energy and glide through the water with less resistance. That's boring. (It's also why our STEM education is failing to get students interested--but we'll save that schooling chat for later.) What has been keeping me interested is the why I came to that discovery.

Working my hardest to get across the pool as fast as I can only got me out of breath, tired, and feeling like I'd just tried to move a ton of water out of the way. Actually, I probably had. The great irony, for me, was that my time across the pool stays the same if I relax, try to use smooth motions, try not to fight the water but work with it. The more effortless I try to make my movements, the more I cut through the water and the quicker I go. It's counter-intuitive, but the clock doesn't lie.

For those of you who'd rather think of this principle in terms of cycling, it works the same way with the pedals and "spinning." If you are a "masher" and use great force to slowly stomp on the pedals to turn the wheels you're using more energy than you will if you use an easier gear. Spinning the pedals faster, with less resistance, produces even momentum forward. It's basic physics. Which is the reason I've fallen in love with bicycles. They're super simple machines. But they do amazing things if you use them correctly.

Triathlon is such a complicated-yet-stupidly-simple sport. You swim, you bike, you run. How hard is that, right? Turns out "very."