FEATURES,  View from the Water

To swim faster, stop caring about it

Asking you to stop caring about how fast you swim in order to swim faster sounds totally counter-intuitive, but bear with me for a few moments. There is some logic behind it.

A few years ago I took part in a swimming competition based over several days. I had trained hard and prepared well so I expected some good performances. On the first day I swam a personal best for 1500m, which was the event I was most focused on. Although I had a number of other events over the next few days, this one (in my mind) was the most important and challenging. While my time wasn’t outstanding, it was good enough for me to feel as if I’d achieved what I’d set out to.
But it’s what happened next that was more interesting. Over the next two days, despite increasing fatigue, I set a personal record in every race I entered. In the 4x200m freestyle relay I swam two seconds faster than I’d ever done before and then, a couple of hours later, I swam another two seconds faster again in the individual 200m FC event.

Something similar happened last week. I raced at another pool competition and produced a good set of times including a personal record for 400m freestyle in a 50m pool.

A few days later I attended one of Fiona Ford’s training sessions. As well as writing regular training features for H2Open Fiona runs a swimming squad based on Swim Smooth’s teachings, which includes regular doses of critical swim speed training (CSS) and a time trial to measure CSS about every 10 to 12 weeks.

This week was test week.

The standard test is a timed 400m swim followed by a rest, some recovery swimming and then a 200m timed swim. I’ve been doing these for two years and consistently (and frustratingly) hit the same times every time. This week I was physically tired and mentally unprepared to push myself. More importantly, I didn’t really care about the outcome as I knew I had swum well only a few days previously. I therefore set out to have a relaxed swim, avoid the pain usually associated with a 400m time trial, and expected to finish about five to 10 seconds slower than usual.

But then I swam the fastest 400m and fastest 200m I’ve ever done in that pool and under those conditions. And by a good few seconds too.

So what’s going on?

To produce a good sporting performance, it’s pretty well established what you need to put in place:

1)      A solid, consistent and progressive period of training
2)      Plenty of rest and recovery and good nutrition
3)      Staying in good health and injury free.

However, this may not be enough to produce an outstanding performance (by which I mean a performance that exceeds your own expectations and usual race times). For that, you need to be in the right mental state.
When you’ve trained hard and prepared well it’s right to expect a good result but could it be that you put yourself under unnecessary pressure through your own expectations and thereby limit yourself to a good rather than outstanding swim? Is it possible, that if you stop caring about your performance, you could actually improve it further?
I think that’s what happened in my case. By proving (to myself) that my training had been worthwhile (you really wouldn’t want to think all your efforts were wasted) I relaxed, and this boosted the later performances.
The question is: could I achieve this relaxed, don’t-care state-of-mind for the first swim or produce it at will for every competition? I don’t know, but it certainly seems to be something worth thinking about.
Incidentally, I wonder if this is the reason why you sometimes see athletes who’ve already won their favourite event at a championship go on and win more surprising victories over less-favoured distances? 

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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.