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like to make a point of how much we suffer and grind in the pursuit
of faster times in the pool.
of this is warranted.
plenty of early morning practices, holiday training
camps, calf cramps and moments huffing and puffing into the
gutter to go around.
when it comes to the daily management of pain and suffering that
swimmers experience in the water, there are better ways that we can
respond to the challenges and distress.
having a clear perspective on pain means you are missing out on a
lot of cool stuff in the water.
who are unable to manage pain properly:
themselves out when they see a really hard set coming up in
their races out too slowly, leaving them in a position where they
play it safe with their effort.
- Create a
situation where the way they view and frame exertion pain actually
makes the pain they are feeling worse.
- Prefer to
play in their comfort zone, which means they stick to the same old
intervals and same old pace times.
themselves to be sensitive to adversity—if you can’t
handle pain in practice, what makes you think you’ll be able
to handle it under pressure in competition?
- Never give
themselves an honest chance at improving and hitting the
breakthroughs they so desperately want.
A fuzzy and misguided relationship
with pain makes it worse
enough (but not really), swimmers who don’t manage pain
properly, or who view it in an entirely negative context, are
likely to feel the effects of pain even more.
hurt, the grind—it is largely psychological and
swimmer knows this, even though they might not realize
they are feeling good in the water, and they are kicking the
chlorine out of the swimmer next to them, the pain and exhaustion
is manageable. It’s “good”
same effort and speed, however, feels harder when that swimmer is
losing or their stroke doesn’t feel as good as they hoped it
would. When we lose, or swim slower than we expect, the pain feels,
like, 30% more pain-ey.
The two flavors of
two types of pain swimmers experience in the
pain, which is the one we experience the most. Think
of exertion pain as discomfort. It comes from giving a
full-throated effort at practice. We swim, kick, pull with
everything we have, our shoulders, lungs and legs sore, lungs
heaving from purposeful and determined effort.
struggley as this pain is, it passes relatively quickly, usually
within seconds or minutes, and gives way to feelings of
self-confidence and satisfaction.
Injury pain is the
other, not-so-awesome kind of pain that is much more
know injury pain as the sharp blast of pain in your shoulder that
still hurts three days after practice. It’s the shrieking
pain in your knee that lingers for weeks.
pain does not pass. It does not collect $200. It does not leave us
feeling good after practice.
it is greatly to our body’s benefit that we have adapted in a
way that this kind of pain sends up all sorts of flares and
warnings. We learn from a young age to avoid things that cause us
pain. Check for the backstroke flags. Tuck your arm in when
swimming by the pool ladder.
exertion and injury pain produce the same threat warning when we
are experiencing it. Our brain doesn’t
differentiate between stabbing shoulder pain and burying ourselves
under a mountain of off-the-blocks 100s for
The brain perceives both as a threat, as a
source of serious ouchies, and does its best to warn you in the
only way it knows how, by getting you to slow your
You will crater mentally before you
supercomputer behind our swim goggles is pretty awesome at a lot of
stuff, but accurately guesstimating how much energy and effort we
can expend isn’t one of them.
has found that our brain operates with a reserve of effort,
continually trying to figure out how much more effort to release.
And whether or not this effort is released can be
study with cyclists had them do a series of time trials. After
performing a 30-minute TT to establish a baseline, the cyclists did
a second time trial under hot and humid conditions, and then a
third time trial in conditions they were told was much cooler and
more comfortable (even though it was the exact same conditions as
the hot and uncomfortable time trial).
cyclists produced more power in the third time trial by virtue
of believing that the conditions
warranted a better effort. Nothing else changed, just the
little mismatch between their subconscious expectations and
perception of the effort required.
other words, pain and
effort are mental, which sounds like an absurd thing
to hear when your lungs feel like they are on
brain plays it safe when it comes to telling us what we are capable
of. It releases effort according to your
you believe that it’s going to be a super hard set and that
you are going to “die”, your brain will be cheap with
handing out effort.
if you go into it knowing that it’s going to be challenging,
but that giving your best won’t destroy you, your brain will
be a little more willing to spring higher levels of
isn’t to say that you can outsmart muscle fatigue. That you
can just will yourself through the full and complete muscle
exhaustion. But you can push further and faster than you
your mind will always give up before your body
How to unlock more effort and speed
when it hurts bad, real bad
now that we’ve looked at some the reasons why we back off
when we do, and we’ve gotten a clearer idea of what kind of
pain is good and what kind is bad, let’s get into some ways
that you can negotiate with your brain to release more effort, more
often when things get tough at the pool.
Swim to the
that I preach often with athletes who overthink is to swim to the
wall. This wall. Not the next one. Not the wall in the next set. Or
tomorrow’s workout. This wall and this wall only.
present and engaged in the moment can be difficult when you
are swimming for two hours and banging out what feels an endless
number of max efforts.
the moment you start to think ahead of the next wall, your brain fast forwards to the pain
that is still to come, which causes your brain to pump the brakes
on your effort.
a lot, but enough to pull you back from giving your best effort.
This decision is barely conscious—it’s not as though
you are explicitly telling yourself to slow down—but it
to the wall.
you swim to the wall you benefit from not getting anxious and tense
from thinking about the pain to come. You spend more time
focusing on executing awesome technique. Which means you are more
likely to swim relaxed, efficiently, and fast.
to the wall means that you are taking on the pain in the moment,
and not burdening yourself with the pain of the next lap, or the
lap after that.
What have you used in the past to
successfully navigate the ouchies?
news, you’ve been here before. You’ve experienced the
pits of misery and ouchies that come with pushing yourself to the
were your tactics and tricks for doing so? Letting that song go
round and round in your head? Counting your strokes so
that you weren’t thinking about the aching? Thinking about
how hard your competition was probably working at that exact same
these bad boys down and use them again and
it worked for you in the past, it will work
often we try to reinvent things when we’ve already done it
before. Capitalize on those moments of successful pain-coping and
leverage them for more little wins in the
Rethink the language you are
we say that something hurts or that is painful, it’s an
automatic get-out-of-trying card.
- It hurts when we do lactate
- It pains me when teammates swim faster
- It hurts when coach doesn’t pay
attention to me.
acknowledging and telling yourself that it hurts you’ve
granted your permission to avoid whatever it is that is causing you
pain. On top of that, fixating on how much something hurts never
makes it hurt less, right?
level of suffering you experience in the water is largely
predicated on the language and self-talk you are using while
you are swimming. If you are repeatedly telling yourself,
“This hurts so much” you quickly become hostage to more
pain (remember that whole pain is subjective
“Bring the pain” on your water bottle. “Conquer
pain” on your kick-board. “I don’t give
up,” scrawled on the inside of your
language you want to use during moments of duress by putting it
right in front of you when things get
distract yourself from the agony by focusing on
your performance cues, swimming to the wall, or choosing a
mantra or piece of motivational self-talk to help you
Make pain your
you think of the kind of swimmer you are, what comes to mind? Are
you the kind of swimmer who doesn’t give up? Who cheers
for their teammates? Who shows up to practice on time and
can make your ability to cope with pain part of your identity,
swimmers will run from it. Now more than ever. The entitlement that
a lot of athletes have nowadays means they are the first to run
(swim) away from the mental and physical agony that comes with
taking things to the limit.
halfway through the 2012 movie The Dark Knight
Rises, Batman and the central villain of the flick, Bane,
brawl like a couple heavyweights in the sewer system. They batter
each other, delivering one crunching blow after
and forth they go, and as Batman struggles to keep up with the fury
and rage that is Bane, Batman uses one of his trusted tools for
getting the upper hand—an EMP device that cuts the
this would terrify his opponents.
not this time.
you think the darkness is your ally?” says Bane, unfazed.
“You merely adopted the dark. I was born in it, molded by
like the darkness, the pain is something we all fear in some
more than others.
means that there is a big tactical advantage to be found
The swimmer who is willing to embrace the
pain, to find enjoyment and satisfaction in meeting it, the swimmer
who is willing to reframe exertion pain not as an enemy but as an
ally, is the swimmer who will surge to the pinnacle of their
can be the thing that forges you into something
perseverance and being able to suffer through being uncomfortable
will give you something else that you can’t fake or
buy—bulletproof confidence on race day.
you step up on the block, you will be able to thousand-yard stare
down the length of the pool with a quiet sense of confidence,
knowing that no one else pushed the way you
one else had the courage and discipline to make pain their training
partner and ally.
tend to glorify pain and suffering as part of the process of
becoming a champion. And there is no doubt that it
in a broader context, it’s worth reconsidering how you view
it brings out a ton of great stuff. When you are working hard,
swimming fast, and doing things you’ve never done before,
it’s not pain. It’s an intense form of enjoyment and
hurts, but it feels good.
the swimmer who can find the satisfaction and enjoyment in pain,
the swimmer who can make the pain and agony an ally, will never
fear failure, adversity or the challenges that the sport
ya in the pool,
As you can imagine, being able to negotiate with yourself when
things hurt in practice is a critical skill to getting the most
from your talent and abilities.
my book Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a
High-Performance Mindset, I talk at length about
the fun of exertion pain and provide a bunch of tools to help you
push through those moments of doubt and uncertainty that are
covered in exertion pain.
If you are interested in learning more, click