How to get back into setting swimming goals

Many of us get caught between ambitious swimming plans and the reality of our lives. Mike Porteous lends a hand

Competitors at the Dart 10k in 2017. Photo: Graham Wynne.

Did you start this year telling yourself “ this – finally – is my swimming year”? A fresh start to move from cold water dipping to what you think of as “proper” swimming?  Or reaching for new heights by setting yourself a long swim challenge, like the Swoosh or Dart 10k? 

How brilliant if that’s you! But how easy it is for our resolve to fade, then to we find ourselves still in the same place as before.  Or maybe the day-to-day effort of keeping to our plans begins to tell. Hard, isn’t it? This article aims to help us in that uncomfortable space between our great swim desires and the elusive, sometimes difficult steps of making it happen.

The Shape of Swimming Beyond a Liminal Space

A liminal space is an in-between, on-the-threshold place.  Not much seems to be happening between the old and what is to come, it’s a kind of uneasy waiting room.  What lies ahead is unclear and we’re unsure of what will be possible.

Yet a liminal space can also be where we allow ourselves the time to gather our energy and to consider the shape of our new endeavour.  For example, one of the swimmers I’m coaching is very new to open water.  Rather than make completing a certain distance or event the single focus, we’re also thinking about the qualities of her swimming that she wants to feel, enjoy and nurture.

Another swimmer has a more sharply defined challenge as part of a relay Channel team.  As well as setting our sights on the all-important details for the actual event – such as the prolonged hours in and out, the cold and dark, feeding – we’re also thinking about what will make for a creative, full of adventures experience over the next seven months’ preparation.

One way to make use of an in-between, uncertain liminal space is to imagine yourself in one year’s time – how would you want to describe your swimming then? Are there three words that capture the magic of what you will feel and experience?

“A liminal space can be where we allow ourselves the time to gather our energy and to consider the shape of our new endeavour. Imagine yourself in one year – how would you want to describe your swimming then?”

Paul Smith storming the Dart 10k

Three Myths

Let’s get some common misperceptions out of the way.

The Myth of the “Proper Swimmer”

Why do we put ourselves down in the very things that we want to enjoy the most?  Often people who come to me at the start of their swim journeys insist that they’re not and never will be a “real” or “proper” swimmer.

And yet the “proper” swimmer doesn’t really exist – they are figments of a self-limiting mindset that tells us we shouldn’t be in the same pool or stretch of water.  But no one has a special right to swimming (unless it’s in their private pool!).  And we are – no less, no more – the swimmer that we choose to be.

The Myth of the “Effortless Swimmer”

Another myth I often hear is when someone has seen another swimmer gliding up and down a pool, length after length or maybe forging through the waves in a strong, unbroken rhythm: “don’t they look effortless!” followed by “I could never do that.”

I think there are two mistaken assumptions here. One is that not all graceful gliding is actually that efficient. The other is really key: that swimming at our best does involve an effort. It’s one that is in tune with a steady, in control breathing; with a feel for slicing through the water as streamlined as can be; and with an alertness to which muscles are working for us as we lose ourselves in our own rhythm. This is what we want to aspire to. And yes you can.

The Myth of the “Right Way”

And here’s the thing. Both these myths come from a place of believing that there is a single, right way to swim and that a coach or swim guru owns it. Yet swimming at it’s best comes from within each of us. The quest is to find the strong, fluent, confident, joyful swimmer in us – the shape of our swimmer-selves. How that might look to even the most expert coach looking on is of secondary importance.

A competitor in the Swoosh, 2017. Photo: Graham Wynne

Sensational Swimming

So next time you swim, leave the fancy watch or lap counting behind and see if you can focus, one by one, on the following feelings:

  • a sense of holding the water
  • a relaxed body position in the water and alertness to which muscles are working
  • and a fluency, rhythm and balance of everything being in sync. 

I think of this as feel for the water, feel in the water and feel at one in the water.  And I’ve found extraordinary times and distances have a way of taking care of themselves.


What Gets in the Way

So what gets in the way of us “finding the feel” that will define our swimming and unlock the great swimmer in us waiting to come out?  At the risk of generalising something that is so individually rooted, I often see the following:

Instinct versus feel: this is the first and perhaps the hardest step for someone starting out on their swim journey – getting comfortable with a continuous bubbling out as soon as our heads are in the water.  That way we stay streamlined and begin to find our own smooth, unbroken steady rhythm.  Yet all our instincts are to hang on to our breath.  In A Swim Guide for the Petrified there are some ideas and how to get there.

Force versus feel:  some swimmers approach the water as if it were something to power their way through by sheer force of effort.  It’s as if all their energy is engaged in a fight with the water.  Yet swimming is not a power sport.  Emphasising the relaxed, in-control feel can be hard for someone with this mindset so I tend to encourage a focus on which muscles are doing the work, then to slow everything down and visualise slipping through a narrow tunnel of water just ahead as stealthily as possible.  Takes quite a shift but wow – how brilliant when it happens!

Over-thinking versus feel: and in others, particularly if fairly new to swimming, I sometimes see something of the opposite – a careful, deliberate placing the hands, as if not wanting to disturb the water, along with a big pause for breath.  Every stroke seems to be thought-filled.  More often than not, below the surface there’s some frantic kicking going on to make up for the lack of action at the front.  Lifting our head slightly to see each hand just after it’s entered helps (far more interesting than examining the pool floor).  Then making sure there’s always a hand in view, to get into a no-pause rhythm.  It feels weird at first.  I like to imagine my hands are powering a radio playing my favourite music – keep that steady, unbroken rhythm going Mike!

So, as you move from your liminal space to find the swimmer in you, try lots of imagery, nurture those things you most enjoy and anchor everything in feel.  And allow yourself a healthy dose of kindness as you seek to discover just how wonderful your swimming can be.

Mike Porteous