Swim Bits – Practicing Boredom and Discomfort


Endure, by Alex Hutchinson, is a book about how the mind can affect athletic performance.  He focuses mainly on runners, a much larger group than swimmers, but much of what he says relates to what we do in the water.

Hutchinson’s basic premise is that discomfort and pain in workouts is merely information we should use to become better.  Don’t over-react.  “Just do it,” as the ads say.

However, he goes one step further than just saying we should grit our teeth and get on with the workout.  Hutchinson wants us to practice stress, subduing the natural reaction (or over-reaction) to discomfort when we back off, ease up, or don’t do stressful workouts at all.

Hutchinson says that athletes must “learn to monitor how your body actually feels, while suspending judgement about it.”  So when you are cranky, tired, whatever, in a workout, he’d say, “So what.”  Finish the set.

The point is that we must get used to discomfort so when similar feelngs come up in a race, you know how to handle it, because you did so in practice.

So how do you do this in a swimming practice?  Hutchinson uses an example of one workout that Kenyan runners do once a week in a town called Iten.  Two hundred or more runners gather together and run 20 intervals, two minutes running fast with one minute jogging in between.

They don’t stop for an hour and do basically 20 x 800 meters with a minute rest while still moving down the road.

What makes the workout hard is that there will always be upstarts who want to run with the elite in the group, the sub-2:10 marathoners or sub 1:46 800 meter runners, and the upstarts will push the pace to see how long they can last

This means that each two minute running segment is pretty much 800 meters and is run under 2:00 minutes.  About a third of the 200 and more runners drop out by the halfway mark, but for awhile they run with the “big boys.”  They pushed themselves beyond what they thought they could do.

A swimming equivalent to this running workout might be 20 x 200, say, with 30” rest, but you have to swim within ten or twenty seconds of your best 200 time for all of the swims.  Or do the 20 x 200 on 15 seconds rest and see how long you can hold a certain quick time.

Or, do 40 x 100 on 1:30, as a friend of mine does once a week now.  He swims the 100s on 1:30 and holds 1:04s, about 10 seconds slower than his best 100 time.  I’ve done 20 x 100 yards on 1:50 occasionally.  I need to work on doing 40 of these.

If you don’t want to swim free all the time, go 40-60 x 50 with ten seconds rest, swimming the 50s in 200 IM order, or one stroke other than free.  If you go on auto-pilot to finish the set, good.  That is exactly what you should do.

Another thing you could do is locate a partner of similar speed and do any of the workouts above with him or her.  You will push each other.  What is important here, though, is to mentally force yourself past the comfort point.

Of course, starting a new season, you might not be able to do 20 x 200 or 40 x 100 right now.  Start with 5 x 200, or 10 x 100 and add one or two each week.  Adjust the time interval so you can do all of the set.  Whatever you swim, don’t be comfortable doing it.

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