Swimmers racing in a pool, side view
FEATURES,  Opinion,  View from the Water

Why swimming faster might not make you happier

But luckily there’s much more to swimming than speed! Focusing purely on speed can sap the joy from your swimming. To ensure swimming continues to make you happy, embrace it in its entirety.

Who wouldn’t want to swim faster? The purpose of training is to get faster, right? In training, the metrics we track more than any are distance and time – and distance divided by time equals speed. Most sport watches will track your pace, often described as time taken per 100m. Races are won by the fastest swimmers, and winners are celebrated and admired. Luckily there is much more to training than swimming faster.

The problem with speed and the inevitable slowdown

Regardless of whether you’re an Olympian or a beginner, setting a new personal best time gives you a buzz. On the other hand, swimming slower than you expected or hoped for can leave you feeling flat. And herein lies the problem.

If you’re in swimming for the long-haul, and I hope you are, it gets ever harder to swim faster. The margins of improvement shrink, disappear and then reverse. At some point, we all get slower. You will have many more instances of swimming slower than your best than setting new personal records. For elite athletes, this might start happening in their 20s. Recreational swimmers may be able to push this into their 40s or 50s. Latecomers to swimming my see improvements into their 60s or 70s. But nobody gets faster forever.

If you tie your happiness in swimming to your speed, you will eventually be disappointed.

Will you ever be fast enough to satisfy you?

Besides, even if you’re on an upward path with your swimming speed, it’s hard to stay satisfied for long. After the short-term dopamine hit of your new personal best, you start to wonder if that’s the limit. What if you trained harder? What if you invested in additional coaching? What if you bought some new kit and went on an intensive training camp?

When you pursue speed, there’s a danger that every training session becomes a contest with the clock. A good session is when you hit your target times. A good race is when you set a new record. Anything else is bad. This isn’t a good place to be.

I don’t want to suggest there’s anything wrong with wanting to swim fast. What I’m warning against is pursing it as your only or main goal in swimming. Move away from the idea that only a fast swim is a worthwhile one. A relentless focus on speed will steal the joy from swimming.

Fortunately, swimming can make you happy in other ways but sometimes you need a prompt to remember that.

It feels amazing

I sometimes swim five or six times a week. Every time I hit the water, it feels special. I love the sudden transformation to weightlessness and the soft compression of water. I like how it feels cool and cleansing on my skin. And I love the sensation of moving through the water and using my body in a way you simply can’t do on land. However, you need to pay attention to notice this. Focus on what the water is doing for you, not on how quickly you can get through it.

A moving meditation

Allow the repetitive motion and the controlled breathing of swimming to help you relax. Seek out that comfortable speed and stroke that makes you feel like you could swim for hours. This may mean swimming slower than you usually do. Straining to swim too fast too soon will be counterproductive.

Patient practice

The purpose of swimming drills and exercises is to improve your technique so that you swim faster for less effort. However, many swimmers rush through them, either because they find them boring or because they don’t feel they contribute to their fitness. Try doing them patiently, mindfully and precisely. Slow down and think about what you are doing. Let go of the idea that you always need to try hard or swim a long way to get faster. When you stop measuring distance and time, swimming drills becomes much more enjoyable. If drills help you get faster, that’s a bonus. If not, you still get to enjoy the training. Also, good technique will reduce your risk of injury and help you swim further.

Execute the perfect race

Watch a swimming race. You’ll see the first thing everyone does at the end is look at the scoreboard. They want to know how fast they swam, and there’s a good chance they’ll be disappointed if the numbers don’t say what they hoped. What if, instead, you ask yourself a series of questions before checking your time: how was my dive, did I pace the swim correctly, what about my turns? And, what could I do better next time? You can be pleased with how well you executed your race, even if your time wasn’t what you wanted. Conversely, you may identify something you could work on, even if you’ve set a personal record. Get your satisfaction from racing well, not your speed.

Swim more in open water

Measurements of speed in open water are unreliable. You’re never sure of the exact distance. You may not swim straight. Your speed is affected by currents and conditions. GPS watches are notoriously inaccurate while swimming. Once you don’t know exactly how fast you’re going, it’s hard to obsess about as a metric. You can focus instead on the joy of swimming in nature.

Absorb more of what swimming can offer

Instead of focusing on speed, try swimming different distances, or swimming in cold water. Look at the consistency of your pace rather than absolute speed. Try doing events like swimrun where you don’t measure your swim speed and you can’t swim fast anyway. Practice swimming different strokes to the one(s) you usually do. Think about what you can give back to swimming: can you inspire a friend or start a local swimming group? Learning new skills and helping other people are both proven ways to increase happiness.

Swimming fast, racing and winning are fun things to do. Trying to get faster is a good thing to do. It gives your training focus and encourages you to think about your swimming in a constructive way. But if you make speed the sole purpose of your training, you may fail to appreciate the things in swimming that can make it a joy throughout your life. Exercise is probably the best preventative medicine available. Swimming keeps you active, mobile and flexible. It supports your mental health as well as your physical fitness. And it will continue to give you these benefits even if you slow down. Don’t let your speed dictate the happiness you find in swimming.

Read more ‘View from the water’ opinion pieces from Simon Griffiths.

I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.