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Have you swam past your exhaustion point?

Why, or why not?


There is a difference between a difficult swimming situation that produces struggle and a difficult situation that presents challenge.

Swimming as Struggle = swimming in a situation where I have lost control over my energy expense and experience of the swim.

This is where the complexity* of the situation, the demands placed on the swimmer’s body and mind is overwhelming and leads to premature exhaustion, frustration, or even panic.

Swimming as Challenge = swimming where there is just enough difficulty in physical and mental features of the situation to provoke the swimmer to recognize weaknesses and waste, then apply skills to solve those and rise to a new level of ability and confidence.

The path to improvement requires that a swimmer be challenged just the right amount, for optimal learning and growth-promotion. If too little then stagnation and boredom appear. If too much then struggle and frustration emerge.

So, the Kaizen swimmer needs to work on his skill for setting up and staying within this optimal ‘continual improvement’ zone of swimming challenge.

* Here are some ways to increase the challenge of your swim practice:

  • Blend Focal Points (e.g.  A+B,  A+B+C) and hold focus steadily
  • Increase distance of your repeat
  • Increase the number of your repeats
  • Increase (toward optimal, not maximum) Stroke Length
  • Increase Tempo (just beyond your comfort zone)
  • Increase intensity of stroke (adding a bit more pressure).

Increase any one of them too much, or add up too many of them together and you will create struggle for yourself. The trick is to add not too little, and not too much in your practice. The optimal amount of challenge is completely relative to your current level of skill and body/mind conditions today.


Last summer a student at one of our open-water camps made this comment after our final challenge swim:

My first idea about TI had a very technical or engineering sense to it. But during the camp I realized that 80-90% of the swim/stroke/technique happens in the mind. This was especially true in the longer swims after a certain exhaustion point.

He had learned a new set of stroke control skills and had grown in confidence during the course of our training. The optional challenge swim on the last day was attractive in that wonderful Mediterranean Sea, though he was not fully aware of what it would demand of him. It was a longer distance than he had every previously swam and the head wind was picking up to produce large 1 meter waves that would make our experience even more interesting. I swam close by to monitor his control over stroke quality and emotional response to the challenge.

Even as he reached a point where he was obviously feeling tired, with still several hundred meters to go, I watched him renew his focus and maintain an enjoyment of the swim. By observing (and asking periodically) I could speculate what was happening inside his body and mind, but afterward his comments revealed the success I was hoping for. He was surprised and proud of his accomplishment, and had gained many valuable insights along the way.


2014 Cirali OW Camp Video

View our 2014 Cirali OW Camp video.


For fear of getting too tired, or for fear of struggle, it may be that many self-coaching swimmers stay away from their perceived limits in distance (or in intensity) and so miss out on discovering things they would otherwise not notice and learn from.

Once a swimmer goes far enough to deplete his excess energy – usually well past what distances he normally swims – he has the opportunity to become more aware of how much he has been wasteful in his movements. Then he (in the safety of his pool) is in a condition which provokes the search for a way to make it easier to reach the end. In these challenge swims where he has set up what we might call a ‘safe desperation’ experience, a swimmer can discovers the power of the stroke control (and correction) skills he has learned in TI.

When there is an abundance of energy (why that first lap of a swim feels so easy!) we don’t notice how wasteful of that abundance we are. It is only after the abundance is gone that we start to realize that we can’t keep spending energy at this rate and reach the finish line feeling the way we hoped we would.

My friend at camp made the profound realization that finishing this swim (finishing well) was not primarily a fitness challenge, but a technique challenge, and that was far more of a mental puzzle than physical. He was able to reach that conclusion because we had shown him many new options for how he can remain in control of his stroke even as energy gets scarce. But without those ‘tools’, without those new skills for controlling his stroke, he would have assumed he was not fit enough for that distance or for those conditions when, in fact, he was!

He did not need more power. He needed an opportunity which forced him to apply new skills in order to use his limited power better, and discover how much more capable as a swimmer he really is.

Have you been holding back out of fear of getting tired? You might be missing out on a real growth opportunity.


My suggestion to you is to plan a challenging swim into your monthly practice cycle.

Choose a distance that would be a bit beyond what you think you can handle at your level of fitness. Begin the swim going as gently as you possibly can, keeping your heart rate moderate, with your intention of making your energy last as long as possible. It may be likely that, after about 10 minutes, once you’ve gotten into a rhythm, your body will feel eager to increase the intensity a little. That’s OK. Go with it. When you start to feel a bit ‘tired’ that is when the real practice begins. Now that your abundance of energy is gone, notice the emotional response you have to it, but don’t go into negative-thinking mode. Go into problem-solving mode. You are now in a position that requires you to search for the path of less resistance through the water. Increasing power is no longer an attractive option. This is the puzzle this challenge swim is suppose to set up for you.

As you swim a length in this tired zone review your balance and make corrections. Review your streamline shape and make corrections. Take note of what part of your body position and movement patterns start to fall apart when you feel tired. This shows you what you must keep your attention on and maintain control over. Look for unnecessary muscle firing and turn off all the muscle cells you can turn off so you can produce a smooth stroke at minimum energy cost.


Swimming into this tired zone has been a regular habit of mine for as long as I have been training for endurance sports (27 years now). Exhaustion is not always something that tells me I am finished – it can often be something that reminds me to renew my focus and look for ways to reduce energy-waste further.

When there is no more physical strength to solve the problem with, you have only the mind left to do it. If you focus on training the mind (understanding how swimming works, strength of focus, package of skills, etc) from the beginning, you will find you have an even greater abundance of both physical and mental strength to carry you through even greater challenges.

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