This is continued from Part 1

Improve Your Understanding Of Exertion

Likely, some of you have been working earnestly on your stroke and your breathing, but it is still not coming as easy as you think it should be. You are getting to air, but it still doesn’t feel like enough. 

It is possible that your foundation, your stroke fundamentals, are good enough to support easy breathing, and your technique for breathing is adequate, but you are just not in as good of shape as you thought you were to generate more power in swimming or sustain power longer. Or it is possible that you are in good enough shape, but you don’t like the uncomfortable sensations that necessarily arise when you are working at a higher level of exertion.

There is pain that is a messenger from the body that something is wrong and urges you to find the cause and make a correction. And then there is discomfort in the body that indicates healthy changes are taking place in response to higher or prolonged effort. This discomfort is not something to remove but something to change your emotional response to. Recognizing the difference is a critical part of your athletic training.


Avoid These Extremes

The two extremes that we must avoid are:

  1. ignoring the pain messenger from incorrect movement patterns
  2. avoiding the discomfort of higher, healthy exertion

It is easily understood that you must fix painful problems in your stroke that indicate you are on the path to an injury. But you also have to learn to recognize the healthy sensations of higher exertion – burning muscles, higher heart rate, and heavier respiration. Breathing is bringing oxygen and carrying away waste products from the blood. Blood chemistry is changing as it delivers that oxygen and tries to extract waste products from the muscles, and therefore the muscles burn a bit more.


Breathing In Water Is Not Normal

On land, you can breath as you please. In the act of swimming (with head submerged) you have to breathe rhythmically with the opportunities presented by the stroke cycle. You might breath on every second or third or fourth strokes. Even at slowest functional stroke tempos, you have maybe 1.5 seconds between strokes, and using this tempo as an example, you then must refrain from inhaling for 3.0 or 4.5 or 6.0 seconds intervals. Hopefully, you are exhaling steadily during the wait. Then, as your torso turns to the side this opens up the opportunity, just a fraction of that time, to turn the face to air for inhalation. You have maybe half a second ( unless you pause your stroke), time for just a quick sip of air.

The rhythmic stroke requires you to breathe in an asymmetric pattern – there is a long period where you can only exhale while the face in underwater, and then a very brief moment where you can inhale. You’ve got to get used to this asymmetric pattern that is unique to swimming in freestyle. This pattern is not ‘normal’ out of the water but it must become so in the water.

When you combine the uncomfortable sensations of exertion with an asymmetric breathing pattern, it is no wonder the land-mammal brain feels stressed and anxiously consumes energy at a higher-than-necessary rate. A swimmer who is maintaining a fairly good technical stroke could still feel a bit out of breath because this asymmetry does not feel normal yet, and the brain and body cannot fully relax.


Increase In Intensity = Increase In Discomfort

And, even if you perfect your technique and make it as efficient as possible at the most gentle effort level, the fact is, to get better in terms of swimming faster or farther, you must eventually increase training intensity – some combination of…

  1. practice more frequently (more days per week)
  2. more volume per practice (more meters or yards)
  3. more percent of time spent in high intensity work (work at higher muscular effort)

Any of these three are going to increase the discomfort you feel. You’ll experience more fatigue, and be required to work within that fatigue zone more often. Your breathing reveals these changes of effort in your body, and reveals the (beneficial) training stress at the most basic, biological level. And this is all healthy, positive discomfort.


Removing Suffering

But this word ‘discomfort’ has a negative association already embedded in it. Either we redefine the word, or we alter our relationship to it.

There are two approaches to this negative word among performance athletes:

  1. Those who leave the negative association as it is and take pride in enduring the suffering. This display is a sign of how serious they are about their sport and how tough they are mentally.
  2. Those who redefine the association, who remodel their relationship to the discomfort so that it is no longer experienced as suffering. The sensations are just sensations; they just are what they are in a neutral way. The reduction of perceived suffering is the sign of how effective their mental training has been.

In the first part of my athletic life I was in camp #1… until my body broke down because I failed to listen to the messengers. Now I am squarely in camp #2. This is how I train myself and my swimmers. There is effort in effortless swimming. There is discomfort in comfortable swimming. There is mindfulness in every stroke, and in every step which reduces the sense of effort, which reduces the sense of discomfort.

Would you like to remove the plateau in your abilities and also reduce the suffering?

In order to rise beyond your current abilities while not suffer so much you cannot just ignore the pain. Nor can you avoid the discomfort. You must listen to the pain and deal with the root causes. And you must redefine your relationship to the discomfort so that it is no longer regarded as something unpleasant.

You may have good-enough technique. You may have good enough fitness to increase your training load. But you’ve got to become comfortable with being uncomfortable to a reasonable degree. You’ve done it already in just learning to be submerged in the water and swim – this is not natural for land-mammals. Biologically, it is amazing that you can swim as comfortably as you do. You just carry this same process of mental adaptation further with your response to the sensations of healthy fitness stress.  

Carl is taking a breath in the midst of breath-taking scenery in Kaş, Turkey.


What About Cardiovascular Injury?

I must add a comment about this, since I am thinking of a few loved ones who have had cardiac injury, and these folks would have serious concern about pushing too hard. For them, there is a much finer line between pain as a messenger and healthy discomfort. And, for some, breathing hard is often associated with the prelude to a cardiac crisis. They have some reason to fear certain kinds of discomfort which might mean they are close to danger.

Obviously, these people, whether already a swimmer or considering some form of exercise, should follow the instructions of their doctor. And yet, doctors often send people to cardiac rehabilitation where one of the features of such rehab is to restore healthy exercise and activity back into this person’s life. The therapists must coach the patient in how to recognize the pain that should be heeded and the discomfort that should be pushed through. On one hand the brain is doing a good job of sending a fear signal to keep the person away from potentially harmful action, but this is short-sighted self-preservation. On the other hand, the long-term well-being of this organism requires exercise stress. So, those fear signals need to be sorted through, and some of them reprogrammed. The patient needs to be guided back into healthy exercise and to accept the discomfort that is a safe and normal part of it.

After my own knee surgery many years ago I recall how the doctor insisted I get into therapy within a couple days, and how the therapist was immediately pushing me to move my joint through a quite unpleasant range of motion (no, it was painful) that I would never have had the courage to do to myself. I eventually understood how this was urgent and necessary to prevent scar tissue build up and restriction in the joint. Yet, I am still surprised at the compassionate brutality that therapists must sometimes apply to get patients to do the work required to break back into a healthy level of mobility and strength.


Facing Perceived Limits

Personally, I have two specific examples of people in mind:

One person had a heart attack and bypass surgery a few years ago. But she refused to go to the recommended cardiac therapy and I had to listen to her excuses why she could not exercise though she agreed with the benefits. The other person had a congenital heart defect that was not discovered until her youth which then shut down her competitive swimming. But for decades and to this day she practices her technique and trains as far as she perceives it is safe for her heart to do, occasionally brushing up against what seems to be her limit with some minor consequences. The first person has gradually lost her strength even more, while the latter has climbed back up to reclaim some level of health and fitness.

If you do not have a medical reason to avoid higher exertion, then what are your excuses for avoiding it, when there is so much benefit to your immediate performance and to your longevity? 

We can help you work around many of those excuses.


Read the whole series:


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