The perception and reality of success in sports has been one of my favorite topics. The stoic faces of cyclists and runners in pain has always intrigued me. As a swimmer, some of the best athletes look like they are working less than the others. From the outside looking in, some could be convinced that athletes really are effortless at the top of their game but I assure you that this is not entirely true. I'll attempt in this post (divided into 2 parts after I realized how long it was getting) to delve into the crazy mind of an endurance athlete and peel back the fragile mask of control.
Greg Lemond summed it up eloquently when he said "cycling never gets any easier, you just go faster". I would even take this statement one step further and say that every increase in speed is exponentially harder than the one before. I'm not talking wind resistance or the limits of the human body. I'm referring to lunacy of the focus, work, and pain that go into that absurd .05% increase that we athletes are constantly chasing. The mental grit and toughness that it takes to push through a race is developed from countless small decisions over the course of years or even decades in training. All of the improvement is driven by the simple fact that we do not feel we are good enough, strong enough, fast enough, etc. We set goals that mark our achievement and when we reach them we set new ones. We put aside other facets of life in order to excel in endeavors that are small in the grand scheme of things. It is a slightly insane drive and fixation that has defined my life along with countless other athletes.
One of the hardest questions to ask is: "What if I really am not good enough? What if I don't accomplish my goals? Athletes tend to wrap up their self-worth in their performances. I know I do despite fighting the urge. We hate losing because it is visceral proof that we were not good enough to win. Even after winning, the glow wears off and we look toward the next competition where our weakness may again be on display for all to see. The higher the level of performance the more that has been invested in the outcome. When money enters into the picture, the results become even more defining to our self-worth (quite literally).
I do not hope that my goals are accomplished easily. That is a sure recipe for a hollow, nagging feeling that all of my work was not worth the reward. I hope that my goals are reached only by the slimmest of margins and against tough odds. Only then am I proud of what I am able to accomplish. If I am able to succeed, I know that I was truly good enough to accomplish something great. That is the gamble you take as you reach for that next .05% of athletic performance. The odds are increasingly against your success as the goals get bigger and bigger. Only one person wins Kona every year or holds a world record. At some point the odds are seemingly insurmountable, and that tipping point is what we athletes are always chasing. That is the battle that you don't see in the effortless swimmer or the stoic cyclist.
In part 2, I'll give a few specific examples of the mental wars we fight as athletes and ways to find a bit of balance and perspective.
Swimming really fast is really simple. Start at the age of 6 and stick with it for anywhere from 10 to 30 years and you're set. Learn from your coaches and peers, largely ignore your parents (despite their best intentions), and accept the fact that 5am is a normal time to start a workout. I'm not saying everyone is destined to be an Olympian, but with a good amount of dedication you can be pretty damn successful. There is no real substitute for years of staring at the black line, but that does not mean that learning to swim well is impossible without it. For those of you who haven't reeked of chlorine for the past few decades, here are my top 3 tips to getting the most out of your swim:
1. Get Comfortable in the Water
This is the biggest problem I see with swimmers who start later in life or triathletes who come from a bike/run background. They look (and probably feel) like they will drown at any minute as they thrash around and chase the almighty yardage target. While we start young kids with simple balance drills and games to create comfort in the water, for some reason adults are unwilling to take the time. Ego and modesty usually get in the way as new swimmers forgo tight suits and games for baggy suits and 'real' training. My suggestion: float, scull, dive for pennies, practice front and back flips, blow bubbles, and have fun in the water. If you can't do this, then you'll never be able to swim at your potential. Learn to move water and move in the water before even thinking about the finer aspects of perfect freestyle.
2. Be Consistent
Swimming almost every day is another sure-fire way to improve. Not everyone has that luxury, but frequency does matter. Join a Masters team (Peluso Open Water in RVA) and be held accountable for your attendance. Make a point to touch and feel the water as much as possible. You don't even have to do a structured workout, but developing and maintaining 'feel' for the water is something you will hear top swimmers talk a lot about. Thirty minutes are better than nothing. Use a quick drill session as a warm up/cool down from a bike/run/strength workout to increase your frequency. Keep your BlueSeventy wetsuit in your car and stop by the river/lake on your way home from work. There are plenty of excuses to keep you out of the water, but find a way to make it happen. Even using stretch cords as dryland alternatives works if you really are in a time crunch.
3. Get T.U.F.
Technique and efficiency are huge in swimming. You can find hundreds of articles on the web about which drill is best and how to improve. If you're reading this, you may be looking for a few 'secret' drills that will make you swim like a fish... The reality is, most of the time athletes who focus on technique exclusively or yardage exclusively tend to be stagnant in their development. The reason is in both cases they are not able to carry over proper technique into swimming when fatigue sets in. What separates great swimmers from the rest is their ability to maintain their Technique Under Fatigue. Swimmers who forgo technique in favor of yardage tend to develop overuse injuries and poor stroke mechanics. Swimmers who only do drills look pretty for roughly 100m (or less!) before they fall apart. Finding the balance between the two takes a bit of experimentation as every swimmer is different. Developing the strength, endurance, and knowledge to get TUF takes time and plenty of points #1 and #2. Once you are able to put it all together, you'll be swimming fast in no time.