“I Can’t” vs. “I Don’t Want To”


As a coach, I often hear my athletes say to me, “I can’t do this!” or “I can’t keep going!” or some other version of “I can’t!” in the middle of a tough practice.

A couple of years ago, I was knee-deep in a particularly intense training session, and at one point, I caught myself saying, “I can’t do this!”

Taken aback, several things went through my head in the span of a moment: I analyzed several things – namely, my breathing, technique and power output – and although difficult, nothing was going awry; while tired, I was more than capable of pressing on, and realized that when I told myself “I can’t do this,” what I was really saying was “I don’t want to do this.”

So, I sucked it up, carried on, and finished the workout.

We’ve all been there before: lungs burning, muscles aching, a voice in our minds screaming at us to quit, etc.  Where do you draw the line?  At what point do you really need to back off or take a break?

Consider for a moment the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale.  It’s a 1-10 scale, 1 being a level of activity that you feel like you can continue on indefinitely, where you’re barely breaking a sweat or even breathing remotely hard, and 10 being you feel like you’re about to die.  It’s a great starting point, and is often used in group exercise classes…perhaps you’ve seen it on a poster in a gym or pool.

The problem is that it’s totally subjective.  For an untrained individual unaccustomed to physical activity, or even a relatively seasoned athlete, it’s quite possible that anything even remotely uncomfortable might be considered in the 8-10 range.  For a veteran athlete accustomed to the rigors of training, what they are experiencing might be rated in the 4-6 zone.

So, how do you know if you really “Can’t” or are simply out of your comfort zone and “Don’t Want To” keep going?

Here are a few indicators, specific to our sport:

Injury/Illness:  If you’ve truly hurt yourself or are experiencing a medical emergency, STOP!!!

Stroke Count:  The best habit that I ever got into as a swimmer, and a concept that I am constantly driving home with my athletes, is the importance of counting your strokes.  You should know how many strokes it takes you per length of the pool, for each stroke, and for any given sprint or distance.  As you become more fatigued, your stroke count will naturally increase as your power output per stroke diminishes.  If your stroke count begins to skyrocket, that’s an indicator that you are approaching that dreaded “failure” barrier – if you recall from one of my earlier articles, “Training to failure is training to fail.”

Technique:  This should go without saying.  We’ve all seen that poor swimmer at the end of the 200-fly whose technique has completely failed.  They’re dragging the proverbial piano, everyone in the stands is hoping they’ll be able to gut it out, the swimmer is hoping to be put out of their misery.  It’s painful to watch, and even more painful to experience.  They’ve pushed themselves so hard that they are physically incapable of executing proper form.  I liken it to pushing down on the gas pedal when your car has an empty tank: no matter how hard you slam on it or pound on the steering wheel or scream at it to move, it’s not going anywhere.  Worse still, exerting oneself in such a manner comes with a high cost, especially as one gets older: it requires tons of recovery time, and that could mean diminished performances in any upcoming races or the next few days at practice.  If you feel your technique begin to deteriorate or your coach notices it, you either need more rest, or the set is over.  Technique-wise, the last stroke should be as good as the first.  CrossFit has a famous acronym, AMRAP – As Many Reps As Possible; rather, it should be As Many Reps As PRETTY.

Pace: This is one of the simplest and easiest to keep track of.  If your goal for the training session is to practice your race pace for any given event, and you reach a point where that is no longer possible with good technique and a reasonable stroke count, then it’s time to back off.

Breathing: If your breathing gets out of control – i.e. you are barely able to speak more than a couple words at a time and/or you are gasping and heaving, you’re entering that danger zone.  Also, any strenuous physical activity has what is known as a biomechanical breathing match.  That is to say, your breathing should happen at a specific point in the exercise.  For swimmers, it’s a simple enough concept.  In our sport, if you’re having to prolong (or in the case of butterfly, try to prolong) your stroke in order to take more breaths, you’re in trouble.  One of the most glaring examples is a freestyler who gapes up at the ceiling, gasping, for several seconds between strokes.  This is a form of technical failure, and should be avoided at all costs.

At the Hillsboro HEAT, one of our many mottos is “Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable.”  The Navy SEALS have a similar, albeit more blunt, version: “Embrace the Suck.”  Effective training is difficult, but not impossible.  Some days and some sessions will be tougher than others, and there are times to really put the pedal to the metal and see what you’re made of and test your spirit.  The next time you find yourself in the middle of a tough one, ask yourself (and be VERY honest) if all of the above indicators are still in good working order.  If so, then you have the green light to keep going, and are giving yourself valuable practice and should expect to see great results, both in sport and in everyday life!

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