Overcoming an Afternoon Energy Slump

By Mike Gustafson//Contributor  | Wednesday, January 24, 2018

For years, as a competitive swimmer, my timing just seemed bad: Every day around the same time, I hit a wall.

Not literally. I wasn’t punching pool walls.

An emotional wall. A “physically-tired" wall. Every afternoon, I always hit this point of exhaustion where I had a bad mood and a bad attitude, and all I wanted to do was take a nap. Every afternoon, in fact, right before practice. It was like I could predict it. Around 2pm, I’d get so tired. Often, the last thing I wanted to do was hop into a pool and workout for a few hours in the most strenuous sport there is. But every afternoon, that was exactly what was required.

However, data shows that I’m not exactly alone in my everyday afternoon slump. Most people actually hit a real, measurable slump (in both attitude and energy levels) in the afternoon, around 2 or 3pm, according to author Daniel Pink in his new book, Well: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. Which is exactly around the time most swimmers venture off to swim practice.

Over the years as a competitive swimmer, I learned some tricks to help re-energize myself for afternoon practice. I learned ways to re-focus after a long day of tests, papers, and school. And while Pink suggests other ways to help combat this afternoon slump (breaks, for one), here are some ways swimmers can ready themselves for afternoon practice:

1. Take five minutes before practice, find somewhere to sit, and breathe.

The business of the school day was, for me, always stressful. Always anxiety-producing. Expectations and pressures (mostly self-inflicted) certainly didn’t help. Often, I’d sprint to swim practice, throw goggles on, leap in the pool — and felt so frazzled to the point I wasn’t really focusing on swimming at all. Then one day, I made a point to arrive to the pool a few minutes early. I found a quiet corner. I sat. And I just breathed.

It made a world of difference. Just for a moment, I could let go of school stress, and reset. I could let go of all my to-do lists in my head, and just sit.

From that day on, I made a point to arrive to practice just to sit and breathe. A lot of other teammates just thought I was taking a nap (I usually had my eyes closed) but for me, this was part of practice. I was preparing by stepping back.

2. Simplify practice goals.

“I’m going to have perfect turns, breakouts, and then I’m going to fix my breaststroke kick finish, and I’m going to only breathe every five strokes, while keeping my distance per stroke longer, and I’m not going to break out of streamline until after the flags, and…” How many of us, before swim practice, had internal monologues like this? Where we are flipping through three, four, five practice goals in our heads?

Instead, simplify. If you feel overwhelmed, pick one thing to improve. Focus on that one thing. Could be just nailing that back-to-breast IM turn. Could be working on your underwater dolphin kick. Doing one thing in practice really, really well, in the long run, is better than just going through the motions, trying to do everything just all right.

3. Mentally shrink practice into one-lap intervals. In other words: Don’t worry about the entire practice; focus your energy on the upcoming lap.

Sometimes, at the beginning of practice, I’d get exhausted just thinking about practice.
“Two hours? Seven thousand more yards? Seriously???” Thinking about all those upcoming yards just made me not want to swim those yards.

Instead, take things one lap at a time. Using the simplification strategy from #2, pick one thing to do really well each lap. Don’t worry about the hour ahead; worry about the swim lap at-hand.   

So, swimmers, if you’re feeling a little too-tired each afternoon, realize that perhaps you’re not the outlier, but very much like most people. And instead of worrying about it, make a plan, and try these three strategies out. Breathe. Simplify. And mentally shrink practice down.

After all, if life is all about timing, afternoon practice isn’t the time to want that nap.