Thursday, July 22, 2010

The mental vs physical game

When it comes to fitness, it's largely physical. However, you can't underestimate the role that your mind plays in achieving new goals and reaching new heights. The moment you tell yourself that you can't do something, it becomes probable that you'll be right. On the other hand, if you decide that you can, it's amazing how many physical barriers you can break down.

I find swimming hard. Truly. I think it's really tough. I can power through a bike, run or hike, but swimming wipes me out. Particularly the front crawl, which is what I am really trying to master. You can't just stop swimming midway either. That would be called drowning, and last I heard, it isn't the best exercise.

The mental game in swimming is huge for me. I'm over my panic about the deep end of the pool, so that's good. Having said that, I still find breathing a challenge. I'm probably still one of the world's most inefficient swimmers, so I work very hard to go at what seems like a slow pace.

Then there's breathing, and this is where the mental game kicks in. When my heart rate gets up, I start feeling like I need to breath more, so when my face is in the water, I start feeling panic. For the last few swims, I've been struggling to do a full lap of the pool while doing front crawl. On my Sunday swim, I would get to one end of the pool then about halfway back. I'd feel like I needed more air, so brought my head up too soon, then I'd struggle with my stroke, and I just felt like I couldn't finish. I'd do backstroke for the rest of the way.

The thing is, I am working hard while doing front crawl, but not that hard. The initial feeling of exhaustion is not much different then the inclination I sometimes get after about a minute of running. That feeling of wanting to stop. I can push through that feeling and run for a full 5 minutes now. The problem is, I was letting this feeling take over and convincing myself that I needed to stop. After all, I'm in the water. It's not like being on land where the worst case scenario is that I have to sit down. Sit down in the pool and it isn't so good...

In reality, I was doing fine breathing every third stroke. Working hard, but not truly suffering. I could push through it. I just needed to believe that I could.

Last night I had another swim. The pool was wonderfully non-busy, so I had a lane to myself. So, I swam. I alternated between laps of backstroke and laps of front crawl. Every time, I started getting close to a full lap, I had to stop. Usually right under the basket ball net, which was about 3/4 of the way back. I started just stopping and standing up for a few seconds (an advantage of having the lap to myself) and then continuing on. But, I wasn't really out of breath when I took those tiny breaks.

Finally, as my pool time was coming to an end, I decided to do one more lap of front crawl. I concentrated on not going too fast. I have a tendency to speed my strokes up so I can breath more. I concentrated on the rhythm of my strokes. 1, 2, breath on 3... I touched the wall and pushed off in the other direction. I kept swimming. I started to feel like I needed to stop. I felt like I needed to come up for air. I looked up on one of my breaths and, sure enough, saw the basketball net there. I put my face back in the water. I kept swimming.

I won't say that the rest felt effortless. It was a struggle all the way to the wall. But the struggle wasn't with my arms or my legs. Not even with my lungs or my heart. The struggle was with my mind. I didn't have to convince my arms to keep going. I had to convince my mind to let me.

When I reached the wall, I had a moment of pure euphoria. Another barrier down. Another goal achieved.

The mind is a powerful tool. It can make or break you. What will you let your mind do?


  1. " can't stop swimming midway, either. That would be called drowning." and "...sit down in the pool and it isn't so good."


    I loved this post. NOt just for the wit, but the message is sound, too. You've given us instruction that is worth remembering with an analogy that will stick with us. Thanks.


  2. You're so right about the brain and the tricks it plays on us.
    I used to call it vision... sometimes you just can't see yourself doing something and it limits your vision.
    I also like the time you spend swimming... you have to think about things like no other sport, as you can't use the iPod!!!

  3. Great post, Deb. Wish I'd used my mind in a better way earlier today when I didn't deal with a temptation in a very good way.