This will be the first in a three-part series of articles covering the concept of what it means to be a Master athlete.
What is a Master athlete, and what differentiates them from a novice or even a more casual practitioner?
In this article and the two following, I will be discussing three key areas, the first of which should be quite obvious, and that is work ethic.
When one reads or hears the phrase work ethic (as it relates to athletics and, in our case, swimming), images that often come to mind are early mornings at the pool, endless hours spent training, strict diets, week in and week out.
Those are all certainly attributes of a good work ethic, but there’s more to it.
Working hard is essential if one is to have any measure of success in any athletic endeavor, but equally important is working smart. An experienced athlete understands the importance of getting the job done every time they jump into the pool, but also in a manner that is sustainable for an extended period of time.
The body can only handle so much punishment, and will ultimately break down if pushed too hard for too long.
In other words, if you don’t schedule breaks for your body, your body will schedule them for you, oftentimes in the form of illness or injury. Sometimes, you’ll simply hit a wall and stop improving, and if you insist on ignoring your body and continue to bang your head against that wall, there will be consequences.
Ultimately, it will mean lost training time, potential injury, and the resultant climb back up the hill that you’ve spent so much time and effort ascending.
Consistent work – i.e. not just once in a blue moon – is essential to any successful athlete, which ties right into the concept of training smart. If you’re treating your body right and training in an intelligent manner, you’ll be able to sustain it for longer periods of time.
To dive a little bit deeper into that notion, you must view your training not as workouts, but as practices.
What is practice?
According to the dictionary, practice is “to perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency.”
To expand on that definition, if you are going to do something repeatedly, you need to be able to repeat it, which means giving your body as much exposure to the desired stimulus as possible, and without going to failure (or beyond).
As we all know, fatigue is the mortal enemy of technique, pace, etc. You can fight through it for a while, and while it is true that you must learn to manage it and know what your body is capable of tolerating, there will come a point where something (breathing, technique, muscles, etc.) will give, and the dominoes will start falling from there. (the first thing that comes to my mind is some of my early and catastrophic attempts at the 200-fly!)
I often chuckle to myself when I hear someone use the famous quote, “Practice makes perfect!” I heard it ad nauseam growing up, from pretty much every authority figure I ever had. And then one day, I heard someone blow that quote to pieces: “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”
If you practice something badly, you are going to get good at doing it badly. It’s really that simple. Whether you practice right or practice poorly, you are setting habits. Your body, in times of crisis (or in the world of athletics, the stress of competition), either goes into fight or flight, or else reverts to whatever you’ve been doing in training and the habits – good or bad – that you have developed.
If you’ve been consistently practicing good habits, you’ll be rewarded with good performance.
Perhaps your goal(s) do not lie in competition? The same principles go for the casual athlete and/or those who train solely for fitness.
If your objective as a Masters swimmer is simply to cultivate and maintain good health, all of the above still applies. Whether you’re a seasoned meet swimmer, open water enthusiast, or are just in it for the health benefits, you must work hard, smart, and consistently, which are the key attributes necessary for a strong work ethic.
A Master athlete learns and experiences these over many years. While not everyone will be an Olympian, there isn’t a single person out there who, with proper time and practice, isn’t capable of reaching a high level of mastery.
Stay tuned for the next article, which will cover the second ingredient on the road to becoming a Master athlete: the Basics!