I’ve had some version of this conversation with a few different swimmers recently and the scenario is something like this: a swimmer is wondering how to work through the strong discomfort she encounters when swimming up to a certain distance in set – say about 100 meters into the repeat. Her discomfort appears mostly in the form of increased breathing, what many might describe as breathlessness, or a sense of desperation for more breath. On land, when a breath can be taken in whenever she likes, this discomfort means nothing. But in water, the land mammal brain is not feeling safe at all.

As she begins the swim the sensation is mild and tolerable. But somewhere along the way it starts increasing and the fear that emerges says that if she swims farther then discomfort will keep increasing and it will quickly become unbearable if something worse does not happen first. That is not necessarily what she thinks in her conscious mind, but that is essentially what her limbic system is concluding and it puts great pressure on her to stop at this distance every time.

But, is this fear true? If she crossed that line would it really get worse and worse until she passed out?

What if she calls the bluff? What if she does a little test to find out what will actually happen if she just went a little farther?

If the swimmer is out of control of his own body, as most under-developed swimmers are, then that discomfort may really keep increasing until he can’t go farther. For a struggling swimmer, much too quickly his breathing becomes desperate and lactic acid clogs the muscles, then the swimmer can’t make any forward progress or just chokes on water because he starts sinking. We would advise such untrained swimmers to be very cautious about going past their initial discomfort because it is truly dangerous in some situations.

But our swimmer has been training. She has strong attention and good body control. She has practiced and integrated good movement patterns and can hold those over an entire hour long practice. She is a runner and does other highly aerobic activities on land. Though swimming fitness is specific to swimming, the distance at which she is feeling the urge to stop – like 100 meters – is not even close to proportional to the fitness she has for swimming at this point. Her technique alone entitles her to 1000s of meters of continuous swimming, not mere hundreds.

So, what is happening?

I don’t know for sure because I can’t slip into her mind or body to sense it, but she can run some tests to find out for herself.

What I recommend to her – speaking figuratively – is to take little forays up to her ‘discomfort line’, stick a toe over that line, play a bit to assure herself that not much will happen past that line of perceived limitation, and then go back into the comfort zone to practice for a bit and calm down before trying again. Just keep playing near the line and occasionally wander over to the other side – back and forth. By playing around that perceived limit, her brain gradually calms down and eventually the boundary starts to move as her perception of reality changes. What was previously regarded as dangerous, is now quite benign. The aspects of fear that were purely imaginary will fade away. Any true physical limitations in terms of metabolic and muscle strength will become more clear, and then those can be trained for specifically. By running little tests like this she can separate fact from fiction in her emotional responses to discomfort.

Speaking to anyone out there who has felt this – when you prepare to play around your perceived limits remind yourself that you are in control and you are totally free to stop any time you want. With this understanding why not just wander into the uncomfortably territory a little ways and just explore? That’s the idea – no pressure to perform, just observe what happens to your body and mind as you go into that zone and take notes. You are calling the bluff of those fears to find out what’s really there. There is no consequence for running into real obstacles (physical or mental) on the other side. If you hit an obstacle that is higher than you are ready to work on, just back off for the moment or for the day. Come back to it later when rested, or bring in a coach to help you work through it. Those confrontations with your limits, when done in these small, controlled tests, expose information about your body and mind. Let it be just information, and do not allow it to be condemnation.

The key here is to just take little step over the line – don’t take massive leaps. Nothing says you have to try to swim 200 yards if 100 yards feels like your limit. If that perceived limit is at 100, swim 100 + 10 more strokes. If the limit is 400, then swim 400 and just one more length. If your feel like breathing is almost too desperate, swim until one more breath, see how you feel, and swim one more if all is still tolerably OK.

If you can swim one step further into the discomfort and still feel it is tolerable, why not just go one more and see what happens? And, after that, you might feel you can do one more and see what happens. When you remove all sense of obligation to perform, then your curiosity may be stronger than your stress. When the stress becomes greater than your curiosity, then back off and go play in the comfort zone for a while.

The point here is that you are in control. You can take no steps, one step, or ten steps over that line. You can stop any time you want to.

You approach that line with no expectation, only observation.

And, you’ll finally know what’s really there once you peek over the line to the other side.



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