Is there pain and suffering of some form in your training experience?
For many, this is not only a common experience, this is the expected experience. After all, they say you must be tough to be a real swimmer, right?
Perhaps. But what kind of toughness are we talking about?
Really, there may be pain from time to time, but there does not need to be suffering. To see why let’s break this down a bit.
Pain Is A Signal
Pain is just one category of physical sensation in an array of of bio-feedback signals. To simplify, let’s contract the signals of pain and pleasure. Here is a diagram to describe my interpretation of that spectrum:
Pain is a signal. It is an alarm that there is some negative strain, some damage or threat of damage to the system. Often (but certainly not always) the more direct or immediate or extreme the threat the more intense the pain signal will be. And, the more intense the pain signal the more energy it consumes in the body, as anyone with chronic pain or disease can testify to. Pain is exhausting. (I think it could be said to be the same on the opposite extreme of pleasure, but that is beyond the scope of our discussion today.)
Suffering Is An Interpretation
Suffering, however, is a result of a certain interpretation and reaction to pain. One can have pain without suffering, but it is hard to imagine suffering without some form of pain behind it. Suffering is a way of perceiving pain, an attitude or aversion toward it, and made much worse when that reduction of pain is, or seems to be outside one’s control.
There are many who embrace and even glorify suffering in sport. I am not one of them. My quest as a coach and as an athlete is to remove suffering from the athletic experience. The practice of reduction or removal of suffering from my athletic experience is also a way to practice reduction or removal of suffering from my life. Meanwhile, I work on building a better relationship to pain.
Of course, if one can remove the pain, this may remove the suffering at the same time. But those who work with trauma victims know this is actually a very difficult task, and the more intense, or the longer that trauma was experienced, the more patient and persistent the healing process needs to be.
Change The Interpretation
But stepping back into our athletic context, in simple terms, the removal of suffering first comes from a correction in how pain signals will be interpreted. It’s one thing to decide to interpret them differently, and then another to start practicing that re-interpretation in the midst of pain. It takes some time to make this a habit. It is not an inborn, natural skill.
To continue, let’s define peace as the absence of suffering, where pain, if present, has useful meaning for improving performance, for improving the experience.
This kind of peace is not consistently found in the avoidance of pain, because absolute avoidance is not consistenly possible. Nor is it the seeking of more intense pleasure. It is better to regard both pain and pleasure as simple signals that contain information about things happening in the body and mind. The signals are there to inform and to urge one to take action (if possible) to either move away from the threat or move toward something that is beneficial. Peace is in skillfully answering the need of the body and mind, not in the removal of pain or in the activation of more pleasure.
Athletic peace is an acceptance of both pain and pleasure signals as ‘just information’, and a realization that extremes at either end of the spectrum, though occasionally present, consume more energy and create a state that an athlete cannot sustain without breakdown. Even extreme pleasure might turn to a destructive state if those signals persist beyond what the body can process. Instead, they should come and go as feedback, helping the athlete navigate to a more optimal state of performance and experience.
Here is a testimony sent to me a couple weeks ago from one of my friends
About a week ago I slipped and fell while biking across an iced spot on the asphalt, which I overlooked. I hit the ground with my right shoulder. Since then I experience quite some pain in my shoulder. Amazingly it appears to be very variable in intensity. When I tried to swim – even though this pain is present – I discovered something very amazing: The intensity of the pain as well as the degree of restriction of my right shoulder’s mobility is somehow fully dependent of my actual state of AWARENESS / PEACE OF MIND / STILLNESS. This experience turned out to be a really great revelation. So my actual motivation is not about getting rid of the pain as soon as possible; but instead, to immerse deeper into this unknown space for further discovery. And the magic of it is, that the more I discover, the more remains to be discovered.
This is a perfect, everyday-example of how one can transform the experience of unavoidable pain.
Another little physiology insight – I am trying to remember now which book I read this in (I may need to insert the citation later) but the fact is that motor control signals and pain signals use the same wires to communicate between body part and brain. The channel will be (mostly) filled with whatever signals are dominant in the moment – either pain signals or movement signals, but not both on an equally intense degree. Sometimes we have a say in what signals will dominate.
So, that explains the advice I received, practiced and now pass on to my own children when they get a painful bump while playing or doing something rough. When I used to worked in heavy construction, every once in a while I would smash a thumb with my hammer. Ouch!!! I learned at an early age (from my father’s gruff response) to get back to swinging the hammer as quickly as possible, and the pain will go way down. Sure enough, it did. Even in team sports when I would get knocked down, if I could get back up quickly and get running again the pain seemed to go down and then go away much quicker (until after the game!). There is a variety of wisdom in that statement, “Get up and get back in the game!”
That was a technique in mere distraction from pain so the signals would quiet down for a while – I just got busy doing something else. Whereas my friend went into the pain with a different interpretation and a different practice. He both reinterpreted the pain and he took a pro-active approach – he didn’t let it keep him away from the pool, instead he used the pool time to deal with it. The combination of both creating positive competing signals and to reinterpret what pain signals remained transformed his experience into something constructive, where to another that shoulder pain would have been restrictive and kept them away.
A Better Response
Pain is a signal that something is wrong, or that something is going to be wrong very soon if you do not do something about it quickly. Sometimes we can move away from the injurious action, or move away from the threat. Sometimes we can fill the channel with other signals. Sometimes we cannot avoid the pain, so we have to find a better way of interacting with it.
Some of the pain signals are alerting us to actual threats and real damage being done. Learning to heed those signals is essential education for every athlete, the younger they learn this the better. If only some coach had taught me that responsibility when I was a teenage athlete. I am passionate now, as a coach, to fill in this gap for athletes to avoid the damage I did to my own body when I was young and ignorant, injuries that I still feel the scars from.
Some of the pain signals are alerting us that we are crossing over what feels like our limits – and these may be kinds of pains that we should confront, and call the bluff on. Think of some of the common things that cause swimmers ‘discomfort’ (a polite way of describing physical and mental stress, which is a form of pain) when going past a perceived limit:
- Higher heart rate from higher intensity swimming
- Stress from immersion in colder water
- Fatigue from swimming longer distance
- Fatigue or disorientation from swimming in rougher water
- Fear from swimming over deeper, darker, more exposed water
- Stress of swimming through a massive crowded start
For physically healthy people, a moderate step into more challenging conditions is not going to come even close to causing death or injury (up to a realistic physical limit). By trying to scare us away a survival mechanism in the brain is doing it’s job of trying to keep us alive, but that falsely-perceived limit is often also keeping us from expanding capabilities and confidence. In these cases, pain needs to be reinterpreted and (reasonably) safe methods employed for exploring these uncomfortable zones, and then pushing back those limits. The real limits are often much, much farther than we perceive (as I discuss briefly in Perceived Danger Zone).
I have several friends (thinking particularly a bunch of gals in UK) who are doing an amazing effort of training for winter, or cold-water swimming (without wetsuits). Not only do I like to read their comments to learn about the training process for my own encouragement, I also watch carefully for how they describe their experience with cold water – like really cold water, below 10 C (50 F). I watch for how they describe their emotional experiences, whether in terms of toughness and suffering or in terms of meaningful experience and intrinsic reward – i.e. joy and pleasure. I am pleased to see how much fun they seem to be having with their training and their friends they practice with. That is evidence that they are developing a good relationship with these intense signals, working their way carefully past perceived limitations.
Practice In Water To Use It Beyond
The fact is, it is far easier to deal with pain inside some voluntary activity, while it is far more difficult to deal with pain when it has been imposed upon us. There is pain that may come from swim training we have chosen to undertake. And there is pain that comes from injury and disease and loss that we would not have chosen if only we could go back and change the way things happened. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for unwelcome, imposed hardships to befall us in order to practice the mindset that reinterprets pain and turns the experience into something meaningful and creative. We can practice these skills in our voluntary activities which will then be on hand for our benefit when difficulties of other kinds are imposed upon us, which we cannot avoid. It’s at those times that the practice of the reduction and removal of suffering will really pay off. I’ve been around the life-block enough to know when unforeseen hardships come again in my life (and they will) I don’t want to be merely tough to survive the storm like a bobber, I want to be skilled to sail through it.
This topic can obviously be expanded into so much more and I must restrain myself at this moment… but I think you see the implications for your own life well beyond the water.
There will always be people out there who are experiencing far more challenging situations. We all share the experience of hardship, of pain in its various forms and intensities. We have all experienced loss, injury, restriction, and disappointment. But we don’t all have to share the same experience of suffering. Recognizing that there is a difference between the signals of pain and interpretations of those which lead to more suffering makes it possible to reduce and sometimes remove suffering from our hard experiences. When we practice taking the control we always have over the interpretation, even when the pain itself cannot be removed, we are accessing one of our most powerful advantages as a conscious, self-aware beings.
Peace Comes From Wisdom
The interpretation and focus skills that serve us in the toughest training and racing challenges can also serve us in the toughest life-death, survival situations, in water and in daily life too. The wisdom we are developing from mindful training improves our relationship with our own bodies and minds, and with the environment we move in. These signals provide the most basic form of communication. Pain is just one, critical category of communication. It must not be ignored.
Athletic peace and higher performance comes from this wisdom. Wisdom is not in ignoring the signals and pushing through with toughness, it is rather in the recognition and acceptance of the full array of signals. It is in the increased awareness of subtle differences which translate into a great amount of valuable information which should influence how one pilots his vessel. This wisdom is in the continually improving interpretation and response to those signals to keep the swimmer-vessel moving forward peacefully, healthfully under a wide range of challenging conditions.
This is way, way more important than swimming, obviously. But it is one more way that your practice in swimming can enhance your way of living.