Found on Feelforthewater.com
Working Hard: More Mental Skill Than Mental Toughness
“My problem is I’m not like those other guys, I’m not really tough enough.”
Have you ever thought this, or said it out loud?
If you are relatively new to swimming it’s very common to feel this way, especially if you don’t have a background in another endurance sport. It can be very disheartening to see other swimmers working through training sets without any undue stress while you feel you are in a world of pain.
Swimming at race pace is hard work as the feedback from your muscles and lungs is urging you to stop. Without knowing how to cope with this situation, the experience can be very overpowering and stressful.
The good news is that sustaining a strong effort isn’t so much about pain tolerance or developing some sort of iron-will, it’s actually a mental skill that you can learn.
Learning To Turn The Brain Off And Just Swim
The trick is to shift your focus away from the feedback your body is giving you and keep it on the movements of swimming itself. Notice we used the word ‘feedback’ not ‘pain’ because when you get this right the stress levels you experience drop and you ‘suffer’ far less.
Can you turn yours off when you swim?
Many swimmers (for instance our head Coach Paul Newsome) like to think of this as ‘turning the brain off’ and this can be a great way of looking at it. Dwelling on how far you’ve got to swim or discomfort messages from your body does no good at all, you need to ‘turn the brain off’ from that and simply focus on the movements of swimming instead. If you can do this everything will become much much easier.
Keep The Self Talk Positive
Saying all that, unless you are completely “in the zone” (see below) there will be occasions during any race or hard training set when your mind returns to the discomfort you are experiencing. At these moments the self-talk you use is very important to steer you back into that non-thinking state as quickly as possible.
If you think “god this hurts” then you have associated the pain with the movement in your mind. But if you change that thought to “OK, I’m getting some feedback now” then you are recognising it as only part of the situation, not the whole situation. This separation of the movements of swimming from the messages your body is sending you is critical to help you cope.
Avoid thinking words like: hard, struggle, tough, pain, hurt, suffer
Instead, think words like: can, enjoy, do, smooth, stroke, rhythm, challenge, fruity
When the effort hits you, try thinking “I can do this”, “stroke it out” or “smooth and strong” and immediately switch your focus back to the movements of your stroke. This may sound airy-fairy but it really does work.
Words are important: At Swim Smooth
we call our hard training sessions
‘Fresh n Fruity’ to keep things vibrant
Focusing On Your Stroke
The right place for your mental focus is on the movements of your stroke itself. This could be your exhalation into the water, tapping your big toes together as they pass or pressing the water backwards during the catch. Or, as many experienced swimmers do, you can simply focus on the rhythm of your stroke.
Another powerful way to do this is to visualise a great swimmer in action as you swim. Think about how their whole stroke looks smooth and rhythmical. Watch Jono Van Hazel on your phone before you swim, or if you favour a faster stroke rhythm try this clip of Alistair Brownlee leading at the Blenheim Triathlon at 4:20.
Pick just one thing and make sure it’s nice and simple, you won’t have the mental capacity to think about two things when you’re working hard.
Having A Plan B
You’re not superman and we’re not asking you to do the impossible, so if you set off too fast in your race or training session then you will not be able to sustain the pace, no matter how good your mental skills are. It’s important to have a plan for this situation.
Up until now you may have caved in and stopped for a rest or resorted to some breast stroke. A much better strategy is to slow down just enough to get things back in control again. It might only be 2-3 seconds per 100m but that can make all the difference and let you re-assert yourself without stopping. Having this as your fall-back plan will still let you do yourself justice in a race or training set and is far better psychologically than having to stop and feeling like you’ve failed.
Swim Specific Fitness
If you’ve been following Swim Smooth for a while you’ll know we’re big fans of CSS type training which involves sustaining a good speed with short recovery times between swims. Sustaining your speed during CSS sessions challenges you in all the ways we are talking about here but if you can learn the skill to cope and perform them well, you stand to make some big strides forwards in your swim fitness.
You will also discover that at CSS pace your technique and form doesn’t break down like you might have found it did (or been told it would) during hard interval work. We hear swimmers recounting that they “should never practice struggle” but CSS is a pace at which you can safely sustain your stroke technique while making big gains in your fitness. This is especially true if you use a Tempo Trainer Pro to accurately control the speed which you are swimming so you don’t start too fast and then blow up.
Be very wary of entering a belief cycle that you should never try to swim quickly for fear of your stroke breaking down and then never gaining any swim fitness. You might hope that one day you will wake up a fast swimmer from all the technique work but it’s not going to happen without combining it with the right fitness training too. Being afraid to train is a dangerous viscous circle which you can be trapped in for years and years.
Belief And Confidence
Great swimmers don’t talk about
it too much, they just get on with it.
After a successful first hard training set, the conversation often goes like this:
Swimmer: “I didn’t realise I could work that hard!”
Coach: “What did you think would happen if you tried?”
Swimmer: “I guess I thought I would die or something!”
Coach: “Well you’re still with us! How do you feel now?”
Swimmer: “Great! Really great!”
We can write a hundred blog posts to encourage you but the only way you are going to believe you can do this is to try it. If you’ve never done a ‘proper’ training set before and are not sure you can, just turn your brain off and go for it, that really is all there is to it.
Once you have a successful experience you will believe you can do it again: your confidence will blossom, your fitness will improve and a whole new world of swimming will open up before you!
Three things need to be in place for you to enter what psychologists call “The Zone” or “Flow”:
1) You need to be in peak fitness from the right sort of training for your event
2) You need to be mentally fresh and focused
3) You need a strong belief you can do what you are about to do
The zone is an amazing experience when it happens, it’s as if you are nearly on autopilot and despite working hard, you almost don’t feel the effort mentally or physically. This is what elite swimmers are really talking about when they recall “effortless swimming” and it all starts with developing the right mental skills to work hard.