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
and positive!

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!

The Zone

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.

Swim Smooth!


Anonymous said...

As one who competes in the 200m fly, 800m & 1500m free - I completely agree with this article. Not only does it work, it's an important part of the race strategy to be able to do this at the appropriate (required?) point in the race.

Anonymous said...

Great post, I just realised a lot of this this month with my running, its taken me a year to get my 10K down from non runner to 55 minutes, this month I've done a lot of the things you talk about in this blog and am nipping at the heels of a 45 minute 10K before the end of the month.

My way of describing the difference is that for 18 months I trained at 80% of max most sessions and plateaued quickly, now I work at 80-100% depending on the interval and I get faster every session.

I'm going to apply this to my swimming sets next month when I have a pool to swim in. I think I can take my 1,500 from 30 minutes to 25 in a month with the same appraoch.

Margie R said...

Perfect timing Paul - I race tomorrow! I have a question about the start. Due to illness I haven't been able to train properly for the event, especially CSS pace and above. Sprinting off at the start may leave me "in the hole"...would it be a better idea to hold back a bit at the start and just gradually increase the pace throughout the race??

Rosemary M said...

Great topic. I find it easy to 'get in the zone" when cycling, sometimes in swimming and rarely in running but your tips have inspired me.

Philip Hamilton said...

Hey Paul,
Really awesome blog, thanks for this. I had the zone experience in a triathlon last month without really knowing how, and I beat my previous PR by 4 mins. With the International Geneva Triathlon coming up this weekend, I know how to duplicate that success. All the best, Philip

Matthew @ The Lasik Method said...

How should I turn my brain off?

Pawl said...

Another great post!

Those who are nervous about losing form while building speed might try "variable sprints". Since you don't do a lot of sprinting at once in them you can keep your focus on a good stroke. They're also good for practicing pace adjustment.

They're not a substitute for CSS sets (they don't focus on endurance), but on the other hand they let you practice with greater speed than you can with CSS sets.

Typical variable sprint set: one 25, split into halves (easy/fast); a second 25, split (fast/easy), third 25 (all fast), fourth 25 (all easy). Ten-fifteen second intervals. Repeat entire set a few times.

Paul said...

Margie - hope you get this before the race, but yes, trust your instinct, don't go off too quick at the start if you've been sick - just try and find some good feet to sit on and work your way through the field.

Matthew - I did this very simply at the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim last month by saying "stroke-stroke-breathe" about 12,000 times in a row! It's obviously still thinking but a very good distraction technique.



Thibault said...

Great post, thanks!

When you say 1) You need to be in peak fitness from the right sort of training for your event, I have the feeling, that being in peak form on race day also requires an adaptation of training in the final phase of preparation. I'm not sure if I'm correctly handling this final phase and would enjoy having your views on that specific point.

Assuming proper training has been acheived in the previous months, how hard should I train during the last 2 or 3 weeks ahead of the big race? How much and how hard should I train during the taper phase? Should I focus on specific points (technique and OW skills) during this time from fera endurance and CCS work might lead me to be tired on race day? Or should I continue working on all 4 aspects? How much should I reduce gear during the taper (I normaly swim 3 to 4 km, 5 to 7 days a week). Should I completely stop swiming for some days ahead?


Paul said...

Hi Thibault

The topic of tapering is very interesting and certainly a good one for a future Blog. My initial advice to you is that this is a very tricky science and certainly what works for one won't necessarily work for another. I used to personally taper off a lot (2-3 weeks) but have recently reduced this significantly and am performing much better (for me).

We will look into this in future Blogs - stay tuned!


Anonymous said...

YES! I've been in the zone and it felt like I was a swimming machine. I use the phrase "strong, smooth, sleek" to keep relaxed, too. I also focus on how beautiful the environment is instead of "hurt, sore, etc". Then I feel light and relaxed and powerful. Great post, Paul!

Anonymous said...

This is a little bit off topic because I'm not disagreeing with pushing yourself but I'm intrigued by the emphasis on training hard and CSS specifically. There seems to be a lot of evidence from the world of various competitive endurance sports that elite athletes adopt a polarised approach to training ie they do most say 80% of their training at a surprisingly easy pace, roughly 10% very very hard ie fast interval sessions faster than race pace and only 10% in the tempo zone which I would equate to your CSS swimming. I've also read some articles recently by the likes of Andrew Hamilton that too much tempo pace activity can harm your performance. Is swimming different? I would love to see a blog on this subject.
Chris Inflexible Ankles Dunham

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul, and many congrats on the round Manhatten Swim. Re tapering and injury. I had a small operation that I thought would ruin my summer swimming schedule as I could not swim or train for 3 weeks. I had entered a 3.8km open sea race before I knew I would need an op. scheduled 1 month after leaving hospital. Being a two lap race I thought I would just go round once slowly and get out - but I was amazed at how good I felt after one lap at slow pace! So much so that I went round again and compleded the whole race in 1hr 17mins.
I felt this added several things to my stock of knowledge:
1. I must have more residual strength than I thought.
2. I should relax more in these races and not set off too fast.
3. Having then trained for a week and completed a 3km sea race the next weekend I found I felt far worse afterwards than after the 3.8km race with no preliminary training. Therefore I concluded that for me personally a longer taper period might benefit me in all my future long distance races.
Keep up the good work,

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