Swimming in the zone


Or – how swimming can be a metaphor for life… and staying in your comfort zone

One of my favourite self-care activities is to go for my Sunday morning swim. I can put the rest of my life on hold, escape into my ‘zone’ and literally let the stress of the week wash away, as I focus on the rhythm of arms, legs, and breath moving in fluid synchronicity.

The trick is to get there early, as the aqua class starts at ten O’clock, and I am usually desperate to avoid the crowd of zealous ladies, in the changing room, pool or showers. Because Sunday mornings is for me. To be in my zone.

This morning it’s a real effort to get out of bed, the usual struggle of an extra 5 minutes versus getting to the pool in time to avoid the aqua ladies. (Why is it you never see any men in the aqua class?) I drag myself out of bed, knowing that if I don’t do it now, I will be bereft of my precious alone time.

I make it to the poolside by 9.20 – giving me just enough time for a decent swim. But am dismayed to see that the pool is quite busy. Cursing myself, I wade in, thankful that at least the water is a gorgeous temperature. My thoughts drift longingly to my last visit when I was the only person in the whole pool for a significant chunk of my swim – glorious!

I catch a gap in the slipstream of swimmers and glide in between them. By the time I get to the end of my lap and turn around, a few more people have come into that lane.

Years ago, I used to swim in the fast lane, hurtling along, doing the front crawl up and down at a frantic pace. It was exhilarating. The pressure is always on in the fast lane. Trying to get to the end of your lap without holding up the person behind you (who might be super-fit or ultra-zealous).  Because if you are the tiniest bit slow the person behind you will get fed up and cut in front of you. And if you’re in the fast lane, that’s soul-destroying; because you clearly are just not fast enough.

Over the years I’ve let go of all that. I skipped the ambivalence of the middle lane and enjoy being in the slowest lane. I enjoy doing the breaststroke and a few other strokes at my own leisure. There is less pressure in the slow lane. Nobody can possibly expect you to go any faster because you are in the slow lane! And by default, you can enjoy being as slow as you like. It’s not a problem if somebody is going extra slow. It’s not a problem if you simply turn around and go back the other way. That’s not cutting past them, because that is the nature of the slow lane. Live and let live. Being in the slow lane also means that I can rest whenever I look like, without feeling guilty.

However, this morning the slow lane is very full. I don’t think I can manage to swim up and down it with any sense of ease. I am forced to consider the other lanes. The fast lane has a single turbo charged swimmer zooming up and down it. I am no longer fast enough to even consider the fast lane. The middle lane however, only has two people in it; a female swimmer wearing a berry coloured swim cap, who is swimming backwards at quite a steady rate, and a bald-headed man doing the front crawl about ten yards behind her.

I figure the lane is quiet enough for me to be able to swim steadily, without feeling pressurised. I decide to switch.

I like to have some space between me and other swimmers, just so that I don’t feel pressurised into going faster or don’t feel that I am hindering them in anyway

I do a few laps, and find myself getting into the zone. It feels as if we have worked out a harmonious pattern that is going to work for all three of us in the middle lane.

I don’t know what being ‘in the zone’ feels like for you. For me it has a sense of things flowing. I am doing what I am doing and the am at ease. It’s almost as if I slip into a parallel reality, where time disappears. This happens a lot when I’m working. I look up from the key board and hours have passed. In the pool, I know I’m in the zone because I’m surprised to get to the end of a lap, full of breath, and ready to carry on.

Just as I think I’ve got into the zone, I’m irritated to see that the pool is getting even busier and several more people have come into it, including a woman with her hair tied into a large bun on top of her head, and a young, slender man, who is holding his arms out rigidly, at acute angles. He jumps int the middle lane and races up it, sending up a trail of mini-tsunamis.

I wait for him to move ahead and then start another lap, determined to stay in my zone, but am forced to stop midswim by what feels like a tidal wave hitting me on my right-hand side. I look up to see the swimmer in the fast lane hurtling past.

I know can be sensitive to the energy of other swimmers. It takes a concerted effort for me to re-focus. Do you find that at all? I have wondered if it’s just me, or if others find that as well. It’s one of the main reasons I prefer to go swimming early in the morning, when I hope the pool will be at its quietest.

As I head off again, a phrase pops into my head. It’s from a team away day that I went too many years ago in a previous job. I can’t remember where the quote came from now but it went something like this, ‘When you’re lying on the beach, with the sun beating down on you and not a care in the world, and all your family is around you, looking happy and content, being in the zone is not even on the agenda. Because you are in the zone. The real challenge is to stay in the zone when you’re having a tough day, you’re stressed and feeling pressurised and you have the world’s worries on your shoulders. That’s when it’s really important for you to be in the zone.’

It occurs to me that swimming is a great metaphor for life, and being in the zone. Of course, it’s easy to enjoy a swim when you’re the only person in the pool. The challenge is to enjoy it equally when it’s full of other people doing their own thing.

I find this thought rather reassuring. If I can navigate my way through these busy three lanes, perhaps the process of doing this is an experience that I can then take with me to my busy life.

I realise that the challenge of staying in the zone is about being able to protect myself from other people’s energies, whether they are good bad or indifferent. And so, I bring the focus back to myself, back to my breathing and back to my strokes.

And after a few strokes I find that I am back in the zone. When I’m in the zone, I can be very powerful. And I can be so absorbed in being in the zone that I am unaware of anybody else around me. The hours can slip away because I am absorbed in doing something that I love doing.

And this is what happens now. I get to the end of a lap and find the young man is there, with his intensely blue shiny eyes. He has both of his arms raised up to his shoulders, with his fingers bent at a right angle. I ask him if he is going to go and he shakes his head inviting me to continue. The lady with the bun on her head has stopped mid-lane, to say hello to someone swimming in the adjacent lane. They hug each other and start chatting.

I swim past them. At the other end, the bald-headed man is there and he leans over and asks me if I know what strokes the young man likes to do. I reply that I don’t know. He looks at me, and apologizes, ‘Sorry! I thought you were my wife!’  We chuckle about this and I move on again.

I hadn’t realised that the bald-headed man, the bun-headed lady and the young man  were related, that they were a family. Whilst I have been trying to be in my zone, I have been oblivious of what else is happening around me. It’s a reminder that if I am too much in the zone, I can be oblivious of everything else. I stop and look at the three lanes, to see things with fresh eyes. I have missed the wider microcosm of the pool.

My time is nearly up. The aqua ladies have infiltrated the pool. Their instructor is getting her paraphernalia ready. Time for me to do my final lap.

As I reach the changing room, I hear the Pointer Sisters’ ‘We are family’ blaring through the noise of the showers, as the aqua instructor shouts out a tirade of instructions.

It has not been a bad swim after all. I spent much of it in the zone. As I begin to wash my hair I reflect on this. I do love being in the zone. But I realise that if I’m too much in the zone I can miss out on other things. Also, it’s lovely and very comfortable in the zone and having experienced it’s comfort I think I am now ready to step outside of my comfort zone and maybe consider doing something that might make me a little bit uncomfortable. I consider the people in the pool and like the idea of being connected with them via the act of swimming. I’ve never considered my visits to the leisure centre as being part of a different kind of family. I wonder would it would be like to dip my toe in and join the aqua class one morning just to see what that is like.

On my way out I ask the receptionist how I can sign up for the aqua class. She checks the register and tells me that next Sunday’s class is already full. I thank here, and smile, counting my blessings as I leave, ready to embrace the rest on my Sunday.

Invitation for feedback

Let me know:

  • What is it like for you to be in the zone?
  • What kinds of activities do you enjoy, that keep you in the zone?

Interested in exploring more…?

Interesting in learning more about the concept of ‘flow’ and how it could contribute to you staying ‘in the zone’? You might find this video about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work interesting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXD8QjpQrFc

If you’re interested in exploring the boundaries of your comfort zone, the following website has some interesting tools… https://blog.iqmatrix.com/comfort-zone

Are some hobbies more likely to improve well-being?

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