Lane swimming: when time crawls by

Lane swimming is so mind-numbingly boring and repetitive, it pushes the oddest thoughts into the mind

With lane swimming, it’s just you and the water. And whatever happens to be going on in your head. Photograph: iStock

With lane swimming, it’s just you and the water. And whatever happens to be going on in your head. Photograph: iStock

 

I swim in my local pool a few times a week and have done so for years now. By all accounts, it’s a really good form of exercise.

It stretches out the spine and whips any number of muscles into action.

And, of course, a swim is a great way to start the day. It gets the endorphins flowing. It relaxes the body. And it leaves the swimmer bathed in a glow of self-righteousness that can last right up to lunchtime and beyond. Good things all.

What’s less well-known, however, is that it’s boring. Mind-numbingly boring.

The kind of boring that distorts time.

I’ve gone length after length for a good half an hour or so only to look up and find that five minutes have passed. That kind of boring.

Lane swimming, you see, is all about entering a sensory-free zone. There are no screens. There is no music. Brief and, for the most part, functional conversations may occur at either end but chats with fellow swimmers along the way aren’t really a runner.

Added to which, you’ve oddly and entirely voluntarily entered an alien environment – an environment that our species saw fit to exit at the first possible opportunity millennia ago now.

The thing is, if you’re jogging or hiking or just plain walking, the world is out there with you. There are people going about their business, leaves falling, dogs tugging at leads, deliveries being made, puddles to be avoided. But with lane swimming, it’s just you and the water. And whatever happens to be going on in your head.

Fionnuala Ward.
Fionnuala Ward.

Repetitive motion

The mind, of course, is a labyrinth of half-remembered facts, vague memories and scraps of information and all that repetitive motion with next to no distractions, can nudge the oddest fragment to the top of the queue.

For me, the water will prompt that email I’d forgotten to send yesterday or the day before to baldly assert its existence. For a friend, it was a gas bill that was due to be paid which lodged in his brain, registering again and again as he clocked up those lengths.

An Australian buddy once spoke about getting into the zone at a pool, a non-Australian pool, to the extent that she swam steadily and without a break for 5km. Up and down and up and down. When she finished, the lifeguards stood and clapped.

She claimed afterwards it was as good as a bout of meditation. Which made sense, as Australians are a different breed when it comes to water. Not for them thoughts of emails or gas bills. The truth is, had Kylie done that 5km in her home town, the lifeguards would barely have blinked – swimming for Aussies, being something that you do. That everyone does. Like breathing. Or watching Netflix.

But for the rest of us mere mortals, a lane swim is an immersion into the mental unknown. It’s a descent into a timeless void, that must simply be endured, length after length after length.

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