When I first started trail running I considered wearing gloves to protect my hands because of the amount of time I was spending on the ground. After years of road running I was expecting each foot strike to be as stable and secure as the asphalt I had left behind. Eventually the scratches and bruises taught me that there was a subtle rhythm to this natural terrain. To succeed on the trail I needed to let the natural rhythm of the uphills, downhills, stream crossings, rocks, roots or leaves dictate the dance that my running would become.
Years of navigating virtually every ocean condition imaginable have taught me that whether swimming or paddling a surf craft I have to listen for the rhythm of the water and let that natural pattern adjust the tempo and form of each stroke. There may be a perfect stroke for those that are seeking best times and flawless swims in the pool, but that first set of waves is going to quickly make that well honed early vertical forearm catch virtually irrelevant.
Building solid stroke fundamentals in the pool is critical when it comes time to move quickly and efficiently over long distances in the open water, but more important than steadfastly holding to that form is learning what to hold and what to leave behind when your aquatic “Trail” becomes an uphill battle. Take swimming head on into chop as one example. No one runs up a steep trail stretching out their stride like a 400 meter track athlete. We shorten our stride and focus on maintaining a turnover that can drive us up the hill. With each stroke into a choppy sea you may need to recover higher to clear the waves and push your hand deeper on entry to quickly “Catch” the water and drive through the power part of your stroke when your hand is underneath your body. The best ocean swimmers may pause mid-stroke to body surf a subtle swell or let a wave peak underneath them before coasting down the back. Moments later that same swimmer may double their stroke rate and kick to catch a wave back to the beach. What might be over-rotating to breath in the pool may be necessary to clear white capping chop in the middle of a lake.
I recently told a room of triathletes that they could swim significantly faster in their next triathlon without any more physical conditioning time in the pool. What so many athletes have in ability they just lack in awareness. Rather than letting the water do the work they needlessly fight to conquer a medium that actually rewards balance and peace as much as it does power. Sometimes we need to discover how to get out of our own way, and in the ocean or on the trail that means letting the environment teach us how to listen.