Here is a challenging statement to ponder:
You cannot secure your comfort by avoiding discomfort.
You have to enter and work within a zone of discomfort in order to learn how to be comfortable in it.
Before we get into that, let’s point out that there is a difference between discomfort that comes from actions you should not be doing where your body sends strong warnings against the threat of injury, and the discomfort that comes from actions you could be doing and should be enjoying once your body has gone through a process of adaptation for those. The kind of discomfort we are talking about in this article is that kind which is telling you – “Hey, don’t run away from this! It is going to feel better, but after you’ve done the necessary adaptation work required to earn that comfort.” And, don’t worry, a good process will make it more pleasant to do that necessary work. As a matter of fact, the emotional mastery of the process will make ‘uncomfortable’ training not merely a habit, but something you look forward to in every practice.
So, setting aside the concern about the array of signals that indicate the threat of destruction or injury, we want to talk about those signals that indicate you are working in a good but uncomfortable zone, one you are not yet adapted to.
Discomfort is the array of sensations you feel when you get close to the boundaries of what activities your body has adapted to. You cannot spend your time working only within your comfort zone and then jump into some unusual conditions and expect it to be fun and comfortable. You can only learn to become comfortable at swimming longer by gradually swimming longer. You can only learn to become comfortable holding superior stroke quality under fatigue by gradually working that stroke within fatigue. You can only learn to become comfortable at swimming with more power by gradually adding more power. You can only learn to be comfortable in cold water, or open water, or wavy water, or lonely water by gradually exposing yourself to more challenging, uncomfortable conditions.
You Influence Your Health Trajectory
The body seeks ‘homeostasis’, which is a state of balance in which the body can support it’s daily activities. The body would prefer things to stay predictable so it can build up energy to do those things. Change – even if it is good change – is stressful for the body so the athlete encounters physical and mental resistance when trying to make changes to the system. But homeostasis is built around a fluctuating baseline – that baseline is changing in subtle ways from day to do day, mostly below one’s awareness. That baseline is greatly dependent upon the resources delivered and the conditions set up by the athlete for his own body. When the net delivery is positive the body experiences healing, strength and growth – the aging process is slowed down. When the net delivery is negative the body experiences inadequate recovery, diminishing strength and breakdown of function – the aging process is accelerated.
Here is very sober physiological truth to let sink into your mind: your brain and body are never in a fixed-state of health and performance – there is no coasting along on good health.
When zooming out to view your development over days, and zooming in to watch what happens on a cellular level over those days, what is seen is either a body that is being subjected to a process where growth prevails or being subject to a process of where decay prevails. It is the product of millions of small details of positive and negative activities going on in the body systems trying to cancel each other out. Most of these you actually have control over or have significant influence upon. The net result – your health trajectory – of this overwhelmingly complex equation is either toward growth or toward decay. You are either actively promoting or actively hindering your own well-being.
Tending The Fence
To state this another way, in our context of sport, if you are enjoying a level of performance – physically or mentally – the only way to keep that level of performance is to keep working at the boundaries of it, pushing them back because those boundaries will gradually shrink if you do not. And, it is the work at these boundaries that is, by its very nature, uncomfortable – it is physically uncomfortable for all, yet psychologically uncomfortable only for those who have not been trained to interact with that discomfort in a positive way.
As I ponder this topic I keep seeing the image of a fence in a field that is being overtaken by thorny bushes. This is a common sight in the countryside. In those lonely stretches where there is no human or animal activity, there may be a fence to define the piece of land that is owned, but the thorns and brush will gradually creep up and reclaim that land into the inaccessible wild.
The field is the realm of motor circuits that you have available to perform certain activities in certain ways, and the fence is the end of those. You may have a big field of circuits or a small one, but regardless, the boundary line is always being encroached upon when you neglect to face things you are uncomfortable with.
Endless Capacity For New Circuits
On the other hand, you have the potential to build a bigger field, a larger selection of motor circuits, one for every nuance of every movement. Even the most practiced performers on the planet are barely tapping their neural capacity. You and I have literally endless capacity to build new circuits and push the fence back and create more space to play and perform.
Just to give you a brief idea of how particular your brain is about assigning a specific neural pathway to a specific task, to create literally billions of extremely specialized connections, physicist Frank Wilczek in his book A Beautiful Question explains how the brain has one set of pathways to process a tone of sound on one octave, and another set of pathways to process the exact same tone, but one of a higher or lower octave. Each tone at each octave has its own set of pathways. Then when those pathways are set vibrating from a multi-octave blend of sound, the pathways start resonating with each other and create some of that pleasurable sensation we so crave in beautiful music. Now imagine the whole package of tones in the music and the distinctions of the instruments that made them – all those have specialized circuits too! Amazing how physics, physiology, and (might we say) spirituality all come together in the brain.
If you’ve done the work for it, you would have a circuit to cycle your smooth stroke through at tempo 0.98 for a duration of time under certain intensity, and then you have a circuit to cycle that stroke at 0.92. You would have a circuit to kick on 2-beat at moderate effort, and then have another to kick on 2-beat at sprint effort. You may have an old stroke pattern which got you some measure of success because that is the stroke style you spent your childhood burning into a dominant circuit, but you do not have a circuit for a superior stroke style because you have not done the work to build it – of course you can’t swim efficient another way yet. You cannot do what you have not built a circuit for. And, if you neglect to use circuits, they will be lost to the thorn bushes, so to speak.
No Excuse For Not Seeking Superior Change
So, with understanding of how the brain works, it is no excuse to say you cannot do this or that kind of thing recommended in swimming. You may prefer to swim a certain way only because you have no other options available in your motor circuits and you never will until you train to have them. I smile when ever someone implies they maybe should not try to breath on their weak side, or suggests that they are not made for a 2-beat kick, or tries to explain that they must swing their recovery arm in a certain way because it fits their personality type better. No, this is silly. There is a scientific context in which the suitability of these ideas should be evaluated (if you care about the health of your shoulder and wonder at the various opinions on how to shape the stroke, please read Judging Stroke Advice ). If we are talking about people who have a standard-equipped human body then there is usually just one superior way that all human bodies should perform a movement under loading while there are many inferior ways. Those excuses are better regarded as mental obstacles, because there is no physical limitation actually holding their bodies back from being programmed to move in a superior way. They just need to spend the time in a process for programming those new patterns and they will have them. It is more of a matter of motivation, than a matter of physical capability.
Hacking back the thorn-bushes and tending the neurologic fence is a necessary chore in health and performance. (Unfortunately, we can’t hire a goat to eat the thorns around these kind of fences!) It involves deliberate effort and physical discomfort. But, this effort can be framed into a narrative that brings a positive emotional experience while working in that process. Working in this discomfort zone can actually be pleasurable, and that is exactly what we specialize in training swimmers to do in Total Immersion. You can reprogram your relationship to the physical sensations so that it is an experience you generally look forward to and find satisfaction in, rather than let it be something of a chore you must endure or tune-out of.
You’ve got the point. Now, let’s consider some places you can start to work on clearing, then extending your boundaries. Make the uncomfortable, comfortable.
Practical Challenges For You
When I say ‘you’ below, I mean any of you – regardless of age, male/female, or your years of swimming experience or level of competitive success. EVERYONE has a comfortable range and an uncomfortable boundary line they can work at. Give me any of the Olympians we just witnessed this summer and we can design self-limiting practice sets that expand their technical and physiological comfort zone further. Everyone has room for improvement and everyone is at risk of performance decay as entropy tries to take its toll.
Stroke Length Boundaries
You currently have a comfortable range of stroke length (measured in stroke count per length or SPL). If you try to swim with a bit longer stroke it is difficult for you. If you try to swim with a bit shorter stroke it is difficult. Spend some time working on both those ends (separately), figuring out how to make your best stroke work at in those different stroke lengths.
You currently have a comfortable range of stroke tempo (most easily measured with a Tempo Trainer). If you try to swim for some duration with a tempo on the far fast end of that range or on the far slow end of that range it is difficult for you. Work on both ends of that range, giving your brain time to adapt your stroke movements to the abnormally fast or abnormally slow segments of time.
At each intensity level (think of intensities equivalent to ‘walk/jog/run/dash/sprint’) you have a duration of time, or distance that you can do it comfortably. Design some sets that require you to work a bit longer or farther in that intensity level. For example, let’s say you’ve only been doing 12x 25 lengths at most, with X amount of rest between each one. Now do a set of 4x (25 + 50) with the same amount of rest. It has the same total distance, but you are now required to swim for longer duration on some of those repeats. In the next week, you could keep the same set 4x (25 + 50), then reduce the amount of rest you take between each repeat.
You currently have a point in time or distance (total time or total distance swam) that you begin to feel fatigued in practice. It is uncomfortable to work past that point. Regularly schedule a practice where you will be required to work with high quality attention past that point of initial fatigue, in what I call the [Scarce Energy Zone], rather than quit practice before you enter it. For example, let’s say you’ve been doing about 2000 total (meters or yards) in your practice time, with about 1000 of that in the middle where you do your main hard work, where you risk feeling tired at all. Extend the total distance of your main work to 1200 this week.
You have strong breathing side and a weak breathing side (as everyone does). In every practice require yourself to use your weak side for breathing for some period of time. This will force you to find out what you are doing better on your strong side so you can apply that on your weak side to make it easier.
You have some heard recommendation from a trusted coach to change a feature of your stroke to a superior pattern, but you have resisted because you prefer your old way very much. Surrender your excuse for the next 21 practices and work on incorporating that change into your stroke. See what happens when you actually have the circuit in place where it can function efficiently and be tested honestly. Then decide with more objectivity whether it ‘works for you’ or not.
Record Your Results
To develop a strong appreciation for this kind of practice and make it a regular, eagerly anticipated part of your swimming lifestyle, keep a detailed journal of your BEFORE and AFTER results. You certainly want to keep track of external data like distance, time, rest duration, stroke count and tempo. But, in the context of this topic, also keep a record of how it felt in your body and your emotional state to do this kind of work.
Note how much you felt…
- distracted, the attention wanting to drift away
- ease of control and correction
- fear or anxiety (and what triggered it)
- eagerness to start the work
- eagerness to stay in the work
- the urge to do a bit more
- relaxation in the tissues
- curiosity at what your body was doing, and how
- smooth, synchronized rhythm in movements of body parts
Set Aside The Excuses
If you insist on making excuses to not tend your fence, don’t be surprised that over the months and years you see your capabilities stagnating then diminishing. You may try to call it ‘normal’ aging or whatever, but there are far too many aging people performing far better, showing that you do not need to let that boundary creep in so fast. That fact that aging and decline in function happens is not debated, but it is clear that very, very few people are tapping out their potential to live longer with higher quality physical and mental function at each stage – we could to if only we would tend our neurologic fence.
So, I encourage you to notice and challenge those excuses you might be tempted to give. Pick one section of your boundary fence to get to work on. Find an area of capability you’d really like to have because you’ve seen someone in your shoes who can do it. Pick something that you already believe you could do if only you’d work to build the circuit for it. Perhaps you need to access a coach or a program which will teach you the process and the mindset. Then get to work making the uncomfortable thing comfortable on that section of your fence.
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