Zen and the art of pool swimming

Coach Mike Porteous on the curious art and philosophy of overwintering indoors

Know you need to get in some consistent swim training over Winter, but struggle being in a pool? For most of us, if we want to build up our endurance or work on our speed through the Winter, there is no other option than to head to a heated pool. Here are some ideas and practices that I use myself and with other endurance swimmers I coach to get through those long months on chlorine confinement, so we’re ready for our outdoor swimming events the following Spring and Summer.  These may be unconventional – but they work.

What Are We Up Against?

A pool.  The sickly smell of chlorine lingering on your body for days, until your next swim.  The tedious monotony of counting endless lengths. Of coming to a wall after only 25ms and pushing off again, and again and again.  The noise, clammy air and garish lighting. And the people.

Yes, the people.  The bloke (it does seem to be mainly blokes) who just won’t let you through at the end of the lane even though it’s obvious you’re swimming faster than him.  The chatterers gathered at the shallow end, stopping you from turning at the wall. And the listless Lifeguards who watch breast strokers in your fast lane and never stir from their high chairs.

The Art

So let’s start with the art. Some people approach swimming as if it were some kind of science – speed, pace and heart rate zones measured; each element of the stroke separated, dissected and analysed; stroke rate counted. A clever device on their wrist judges them at the end, with the cold hard data automatically plotted onto sophisticated-looking graphs.

Of course there is a time and place for more rigorously timed and paced sessions. However, if you try to follow such sessions in a busy public pool, with everyone going at different speeds, you’ll just get wound up and frustrated.

Others approach a pool swim as more of a chore – something to get through as quickly as possible and with minimal thought. Head down and count through the tedium of a fixed number of lengths. Use any and every distraction to not think too much. Does this make for satisfying swimming?

How would it be if instead we thought of our swimming as an art form, an expression of ourselves rooted in movement and fluency?  The US Performance Psychologist Michael Gervais has a phrase I like a lot – of approaching each session and event as an opportunity to “create a living masterpiece.”

We might think of the pool as a clear canvas in which, for the next hour or so, we can work on our craft, like a painter each and every stroke mindful and purposeful.  Leave the fancy device at home – there’s a clock on the wall to tell you when you got in and got out. Forget about bringing a bleeper tempo trainer as it will only lead you to a fit of pool rage.  Instead allow yourself to focus on the feeling:

  • feel for the water: of holding and pressing the water back
  • feel in the water: alert to which muscles are working and the effort you’re making
  • feel at one in the water: the lovely sense of slicing through a narrow you shaped pocket of water ahead, everything in sync and coming together, in rhythm and tune.

Instead of bashing straight into what is supposed to be a warm up, you can start with so many lengths focused just on the feel for the water, then focus on which muscles are engaged and then being as streamlined, effortless and smooth as can be. (I did say this would be unconventional.)

Think too how a landscape artist might go out into the wild, with a relaxed openness to what they may find – and then they purposefully absorb themselves in the space, bringing their craft to life.  In a tenuously connected way, I find it helps to go to the pool with an open sense of how the conditions might lead to one or other sort of session.  I’ll have a range of general ideas for sessions that can be adapted to whatever I find – examples given below – but nothing rigidly fixed.

So if I arrive and find the pool is pretty busy, I might settle on a one-paced-wonder session – until it empties a little and then I can throw in a few pace changes or maybe some slower technical drills.  Or I might find there are swimmers all steadily ploughing up and down, so to slip into my own rhythm, whilst also bringing some variety, I’ll do one of my Lost and Found sets – explained below. If there are too many people to keep a good strong rhythm going I could do a more technique-focused session.  What is unlikely to work is showing up with a fixed, rigid plan of the session to be done regardless of those around.

Photo by Mario Gogh on Unsplash

We might think of the pool as a clear canvas in which, for the next hour or so, we can work on our craft, like a painter each and every stroke mindful and purposeful.  Leave the fancy device at home – there’s a clock on the wall to tell you when you got in and got out.

The Philosophy

There’s a super book by Professor Steve Peters called the Chimp Paradox, in which he uses a set of simple images to explain the complexities of the brain and how our minds work.  As he describes, when things happen to us the first part of the brain to react – the amygdala in the limbic system – is like an emotive chimp: defensive, territorial, angry. What he calls the more human, reasoning parts of the brain – in and around the frontal cortex – work more by logic, by weighing up facts and past experiences and by an effort to understand others.

Back in the pool, I can sense the chimp flaring up – dismissive of and angry with the person who’s slowing me down, territorial instincts kicking in and my swimming becoming more aggressive and my body more tense. One of Steve Peters’ ideas that I’ve found has a really powerful effect in those very moments of rising stress is what he calls the Life Stone – of being clear about our values and the person we truly want to be (as if inscribed on a tablet of stone).  Michael Gervais similarly emphasises the importance of being able to articulate your philosophy – your true way of being – in less than twenty words.

Part of my own personal philosophy is “to seek out and nurture calmness”. I want to feel at ease and peace with myself: I’ll look for and cherish the company of others who help me in this quest and who share a similar outlook, and I’ll want others to feel the same benefits.  In that chimp-like moment of reacting to others who dare intrude on my jungle path I can remind myself that the rush of aggression and tension isn’t me – it’s not the person I want to be nor the feeling I want to pass on to others.  I’m still focused on creating my masterpiece of movement and fluency through the water, but without tensing up or getting angry.

Of course each person will have their own philosophy.  Calmness might not be yours. I simply share a part of mine to illustrate how knowing what you truly value and the person you want to be can change your whole mindset in the testing environment of a busy public pool.  And – truth be told – it reminds me that actually the problem of swimming in a pool isn’t so much the people as my reaction to them.


The Practical Bit

Okay – maybe all a bit too philosophical?  Here are some of the loosely-formed flexible sessions that I’ll have in mind as I head to the pool, ready to see what’s possible. In any week I’ll aim to get in three sessions – one pure steady going for distance, another with more of a focus on technique and the third more like a take it as it comes celebration that I’ve squeezed in a third.

Warm Ups

Before jumping in I’ll take a few seconds to compose myself, take in what’s happening in the lane, breathe deeply and do a few shoulder rolls and other mobility exercises.  Maybe only at that point will I settle on which type of session to go for. Once in the water, I’ll cup the water in my hands and move it in and out to awaken the sense of feeling the water being held – and then set off in a composed, high on feel warm up.

My standard warm up is:

  • 10 lengths easy swim
  • 10 lengths with the pull buoy
  • 10 lengths swim
  • 10 lengths pulling

= 1km already in the bag without much thinking or monotonous counting.

Lost and Found:

I do a lot of these to build up strength and ingrain great technique.   Essentially it’s a pattern of finding then losing the toys. This can be quite demanding so early on in the endurance phase I’ll keep the distances low, maybe starting modestly just with blocks of 200m and then gradually increase them up to 400-500m.  Let’s say we’ve recently started to build up, so working on 300ms as the mini-blocks:

  • 300m swim
  • 300m with pull buoy
  • 300m pull buoy and agility paddles
  • 300ms pull buoy, paddles and a band round my ankles
  • 300ms pull buoy and paddles
  • 300ms pull buoy
  • 300ms swim

= 2.1kms all done as a continuous swim, grabbing or losing the toys as quickly as you can.  I use the Finis Agility paddles – great for technique – and an old bike inner tube cut to size and knotted for the band.


Within a session I might want to insert one of two different kinds of technique focus.  One I call Pass Go and the other Pure Perfection.

Pass Go is essentially about working through a sequence that brings different elements of the stroke together, adding on one element at a time.  The idea is you don’t pass on to the next in the sequence until you feel you have really got a feel for that particular step. There’s no harm in spending an entire session just focusing on the first.

An effective sequence I prescribe for clients is:

  • x lengths focusing on the continuous bubbling out as soon as your head is in the water
  • x lengths focused on your head being in a position where you can see your hands after entry (far more interesting than the dirty pool floor) and then looking to the side as you breathe in (aiming for split vision)
  • x lengths imagining you are breathing from your hips so you get a whole body roll
  • x lengths feeling a big stretch through your rib cage as you roll and reach/reach and roll
  • and x lengths telling yourself to tip your hands back so you press the water back not down.

There are other elements of the stroke you could incorporate or, alternatively, you could select just three in a sequence.  The rule is only Pass Go and move onto the next once you really feel the difference.

A Pure Perfection technique session works by singling out the one change you know you need to work on.  Let’s say that, like me, you have a hand entry that needs a bit of realigning to enter at shoulder width.  So all as a continuous swim I’ll do something like the following:

  • 600ms with every 6th length slowing myself down and focusing just on the hand position
  • 500ms with every 5th length focusing on the hand position
  • 400ms with every 4th length focused on the hand position
  • 300ms … you guessed it, every 3rd
  • 200ms with every 2nd length focused on hand position
  • and finally 100ms of Pure Perfection hand entry all the way

= another 2.1kms in the bag.

Final Indulgence

Two final suggestions to get through a Winter of enduring pool swimming for endurance. First, why not splash out and buy a neat pair of goggles or cool looking swim suit as an incentive?  Second, if its possible for you, keep up some cold water, outdoor dips all the way through the Winter and Spring.  You may find that the cold water acclimatisation leaves you able to restart your longer outdoor swimming earlier in the year, saying if not a fond “farewell” at least a calm “see ya” to the pool until next Winter.

  • Mike Porteous is a triathlon and swimming coach at Zig Zag Alive


Mike Porteous