Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Fat Old Sailor Considers Winter Workout

Even for those of us not going south for sailing opportunities, there is stuff to consider related to our sport right now, in the midst of winter. Part of that consideration, I've realized involves my physical conditioning.

Sure, we need to consider what work needs to be done to improve the boat for the upcoming season. I have some projects to be done. I need to order some new hardware. Another is repairs to damage on my rudder. I have the handrails in the basement for refinishing. I need to prepare a big list of boat work to be done when the weather warms. One can endlessly change priority lists, and add detail.

If that isn't enough fun for you, think about this; exercise to get in shape for the upcoming season. Now. In January. In the middle of the cold, icy, snow-laden, Montreal winter. C'mon, don't get thinking that if you have a cushy ride, with a comfy cockpit, in a gentle keelboat that to compete you don't need to have at least some kind of exercise regimen. Okay, to be honest, I don't have one yet either! I do know I need to work out though. First of all, I'd like to do some dinghy sailing. Even if that isn't on the horizon, and one isn't going to do an Olympic campaign, I think some endurance training of a very, very simple type is worthwhile. Why?

It isn't just for physical endurance. I'm thinking about mental focus. I found a number of times last season, I tired. I'm just another of those old, fat men that we know make up the huge majority of sailors. I think even some modest training of an aerobic nature, that eventually moves to longer duration, will improve my ability to tire less, and consequently keep my mental focus longer. During the distance races last season, I realize tiring meant my focus wasn't always as sharp. My mind could wander. Helming a race boat is more challenging then some crew may think. It involves a heightened sensitivity that needs to be really dialed in and sustained for a lengthy period. I would start considering things which were more properly the issues of other crew. My eyes and thoughts would wander excessively about the course. Maybe my helming would sometime slip out of that precise area where you are fully powered up, but still pointing well, where you are reacting deftly, nimbly, to stay right on the edge. Maybe there were times when I didn't report loss of feel to the rudder, or too much weather helm, and the crew therefore didn't adjust sail trim. During the Shark World Championships last season, the race days could get pretty long. Being sharp could mean the difference in how well we did race, after race, after race, day, after day, after day.

I remember when racing the Tanzer 22 in a serious storm, some crew were sick, and some were exhausted. The T22 is a very physically demanding boat in big wind. I needed to get off the helm and sort through trouble at the mast position. The ability to resolve the problem required sharp thinking and not being worn out. Both crew and skip need to have physical endurance and stay mentally sharp.

Mental focus. when one is tired, it's easier to lose. Mental focus can be the difference between doing well and poorly. It can also be the difference between having fun and doing well, or just sailing to get to the end.

So, I have decided that even without a looming Olympics, or even a Masters Laser Championship on the horizon, I will increase my endurance and ability to focus for longer. How? Aerobic exercise. In my case, I went out for a run yesterday. Arrgh, a cold wind bit into my skin, and I'm in poor shape, but it did feel good to get it done. Today, I'll walk to get the stiffness out a bit. Tomorrow, I'll run again. While working out, I will play a meditative game with myself. The idea will be to relax, stay focused on my work out. If my mind wanders, that's okay. At least I am out there. I figure, each week, my physical endurance, and my ability to focus should have incrementally improved.

My preferred exercise is running, but any aerobic activity will help. Running somehow seems very simple and pure. No equipment or competitors to be a distraction. I have a very specific style. I like company, but I know I achieve my best focus when alone. I'm not working with the team here. I'm developing my self. I have been through this before. I know, that once my conditioning improves enough, and it doesn't take much, I will develop a rhythm of movement and breathing, keeping it slow and easy, while maintaining a comfortable but higher than normal state. My reach with legs and arms will be a little more than normal, but only slightly. I know from experience that this level of exercise will get the endorphins up, the work out will feel good, and that I can then continue this for a longer period of time. The "LSD" or Long Slow Distance work out. Initially the LSD will actually be very short. Initially, the excursions will not feel good. Before long though, the rhythm and focus will come. Hopefully, by spring, my workouts will have increased in time and distance, and so will my ability to stay focused longer. Work out, but easy. Focus, but relax. Exercise, and meditate. They are not oxymorons. One doesn't need to become an "Athlete". The idea is to use physical movement to train the mind too. Yep, it's a Zen thing.

Here is another tip on how to accomplish this state of being in your work out. Focus on the exercise and your body's movement through it. Especially your breathing. Be keenly aware of your inhaling, exhaling. Get into a space where your running establishes a pace that is maintainable over a longer period. Deepen your awareness and even the enjoyment of it till all other thoughts slip away. I become aware of the synchronicity of all my limbs. Not because it is any great physical technique. I'm just trying to get away from all other thoughts. I even feel my hands extending low and further ahead of me as I run, and moving in the same way as a minimal impact of my leg's stride. That is the state I'm hoping to regain in my upcoming workouts. I know it will not be this easy at first. Then, I will feel it in fits and starts. Eventually, as I improve my physical condition it will allow me to go longer, and my focus will become more relaxed and keen.The greatest thing is achieving the runner's high, that state when you feel warm, loosened up, and real good. When I get it right, my focus is total but effortless. My head tilts back a bit, a smile subtly traces my face, and I am the master of my world in which all is right. Yeah, that is a good feeling!

I think I can transfer the increased endurance, the physical ability, that heightened sense of awareness, and that ultimately, better mental focus to my helming. If it sounds like a stretch, think of those long tacks where everything is set just right, you are helming right in a perfect groove, and the boat's movement feels fast but effortless. The boat is quiet and quick. You're hand on the tiller feels perfect control. Everything is right in the world right? When you experience those times sailing, do you feel healthy and free? See the similarity, the connection?

Of course, there is more to physical fitness, the right state of mind, and sailboat racing. There is also short, intense training, and quick tactical action. There are other correlations to physical and mental training. Right now though, for me, it is time to build a base of physical and mental conditioning. The rest must follow. For me, I need to begin at the beginning. Long, slow distance. More capacity or endurance, focus and being content. Then, I will get faster, and faster. It is winter now, the right time. Spring is coming.