But what do I mean by meditation? From a swimmer’s perspective, I don’t mean sitting cross-legged in the lotus position with your mind switched off (you can try that but you won’t move through the water very well). You may have heard of what are reasonably new concepts of ‘brain training’ or perhaps ‘mindfulness’. Or perhaps your coach constantly shouts at you from the pool deck urging you to focus or concentrate. Swimmers in my squad or LTS sessions are probably sick of me telling them to relax and to use their breath, especially their exhalation, to achieve a relaxed state of mind while exerting themselves physically. All these concepts are related. By meditation or mindfulness, I mean achieving a relaxed mental state by concentrating or focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
For the boffins or perhaps the Doubting Thomases among you, I will start this discussion with some basic neuroscience. Then we will move onto other stuff in future editions:
- Combining sub-maximal rhythmic physical movement with focussed thinking puts your brain into the Alpha state, which cognitive researchers call the Super Learning Zone. In this zone, we are best able to learn new skills. Maybe this is what Murray Rose meant by the ‘Zen of Swimming’ when he termed the phrase sixty years ago?
- When you finish a swimming session in this Zen/mindful/focussed state, you feel good, don’t you? And it’s not just the relief at stopping doing something that is hard. You feel the same feeling of relaxed well-being after a yoga session. Swimming in this state stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which regulates blood pressure, lowers the heart rate and calms the mind. It also releases the feel-good chemicals serotonin and dopamine. And this is why we come back for more – we know that swimming is addictive, even more so than running or cycling (more about the physical effects on water on the body later).
- Rhythmic, moderate aerobic physical movement in a mindful/focussed state sharpens the mind. Aerobic movement enriches the brain’s supply of oxygen, glycogen and neuron growth factor. And firing movement and brain neurons together gives our brain the best workout it can receive. Put down the crossword puzzles, to keep a sharp mind well into old age, you need to swim.