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Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Apr 24, 2009


Yesterday I woke up having no idea where I was at 4:15 AM. Upon squinting around in the darkness for a few minutes I got my bearings and remembered that I had checked in to a hotel near JFK Airport the night before. I had 15 minutes to catch the next shuttle to the airport so I slapped my contact lenses into my head and scrambled out of my room as fast as I could.



Ten hours later I arrived back in San Diego, travel weary. But instead of driving straight home to take a nap or veg out in front of the television I drove straight to the LA fitness facility located halfway between my office and my apartment and signed up for a membership. Like all LA Fitness facilities, this one has a 25-yard lap pool, and I need easy pool access now because, as of yesterday, I am a triathlete once again.



I went for my first swim as soon as I had completed the membership paperwork. It had been about two years since my last swim, and five years since I was in any kind of swim shape. Naturally, I was curious to see what those first rust-busting strokes would feel like.



Muscle memory is real. Some people say they don't like the term because muscle cells themselves do not store memories of any kind. Well, duh. Of course the muscles don't story information about how to perform motor skills such as swimming. But there is a complete map of all of the muscles in the brain, and movement patterns are stored there. Like other forms of memory they decay with time, but they are seldom annihilated.



And so when I pushed off the wall yesterday and began cycling my arms and rotating my hips and flicking my feet as I remembered having done long ago I found that it felt familiar, but very approximate. Bits of the experience felt right, strong, fluid, efficient. These moments made me think, "Yeah, I can do this again. No problem." But at the same time chunks of the experience felt wrong, weak, clumsy, wasteful. These moments made me think, "****, I have a long way to go."



When I start swimming again after a long layoff (something I've done several times before) I ease into it. There is little to be gained from trying to get a true "workout" out of the first session, or even the second or third. Neglected muscles are being stressed in forgotten ways. Thus a mere 400 yards of thrashing is plenty to lead result in a sore wake-up the next morning. It's all about dusting off muscle memory in those early sessions, and that's best done with frequent, short sessions. You want a lot of repetition, but you don't want to swim tired.



I like starting over. While it does suck to know you suck, starting over is a time of such low expectation that I just don't worry about sucking. There's time to improve and I know that improvement never comes as rapidly as it does when you're beginning anew.



Here's my stake in the ground: 400 yards swum in 50-yard segments at an average pace of 0:53 per lap. My goal is to swim 60 minutes flat at Ironman Arizona in November. That's 4,224 yards swum uninterrupted in open water at an average pace of 42.6 seconds per 50. I'm at the base of a tall mountain whose peak is hidden in a mist, and I must say, that's a good feeling.



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