Blogs tagged with "mental"

Swimming is the most "mental" sport I know. Distance swimming even more so. And I've been struggling to wrap my mind around the really long training sessions I've planned in the next few months (not to mention the swim events). After reading a little article on SwimSwam about the lessons we learn from our swim coaches, I began thinking about all the things I've learned, not only from my swim coach, but from swimming itself.

Swimming is the great teacher. In the pool. With teammates. And especially in open water - where we are always only one breath away from drowning.

I now believe most of my mental control in long distance events like marathons and Ironman races can be traced back to my swimming roots. And having been a competitive swimmer before anything else is likely what influenced me to (prefer to) do most of my long training sessions alone. For many, many years, people have asked me how and why I do it alone: "How do you handle 6-7 hours on the bike all by yourself every weekend?" I have no idea. I set my mind to it, and do it. After all, running alone had always been therapy. It cleared my mind. It made me less anxious. When I started doing longer triathlons, it never occurred to me to subject people I knew to MY long rides (even people who DO long rides). OK, so I'm an introvert. But don't get me wrong. I've truly enjoyed running and riding with others. It's just that I never actively seek out company. And it never bothered me to be alone hammering away for all that time.

How did I get this way? 

Swimming. Every day. Swimming twice a day three times a week. At times, swimming more than ten-thousand yards a day. Swimmers remain swimmers because they don't flinch when the coach says we're doing 10x1000s for a single workout. Surviving those workouts in college made me mentally tougher than that week I had four final exams in two days.

From the moment I walked onto the swim team at 14 years old in high school, never having been coached, never having experienced a single swim workout in my life, everything in the pool was a progressively harder thing to do. After every workout of my freshman year I vowed I would quit. But I didn't. And by sophomore year, I was swimming in Lane 1. With the fast kids. And I had great friends in my teammates. But, unless you're at a swim meet, swimming is not a social sport. You get a few moments to commune (or commiserate) with your lane-mates before the next interval. There's no time to talk, or laugh, or enjoy the scenery (what little of it there is on a pool deck).

It's all mental. Some people compare its boredom to treadmill running.

I remember my first 1650. In practice. I was terrified. I didn't think I could swim that long without stopping. One of the swimmers on the boys team told me something I would never forget. He told me to detach my brain from my body. To imagine I was a machine. And that's what I did. And, whoa! It worked. No pain. Three years later, I would be swimming the 1650 in competition. And loving it. It WAS all mental.

But swimming long distances is also a very, very lonely thing. It's quiet. Like I said earlier, you can't have conversations. You can't even smile if you're enjoying yourself. (To be fair, I HAVE smiled "inside.") Losing focus for a second means you'll suck down water, ram into the wall, or, if you're like me in open water, swim in circles. That's another reason swimming is a mental sport. It's not natural. We were born walkers. Runners. Bikers. Air-breathers. Surrounded by air, not needing to "think" when we breathe. When we're swimming, we're surrounded by water and have to consciously take a breath. We battle an element we're not built to thrive in. Yeah, our bodies may be 90% water, but we don't have fins and/or gills. There's a reason more people have climbed Mount Everest than swum the English Channel. Humans are not made to be swimmers.

But some of us are drawn to water. And that's where I find myself now. Trying to conquer the water again. Trying to rekindle the mind-control I once had. Once again, I'm learning to appreciate the quiet. To nurture the solitude of longer and longer sessions in the water. I'm learning to rein in my enthusiasm at the start and prepare myself mentally for spending more than three hours in the water. I KNOW I can do it. And most of the time I really enjoy it. But, like my younger days, my mind gets in the way when I think too much about it.

And the quiet in a pool is one thing. The quiet in open water... well, that's something entirely different. It can be deafening if the fear seeps in. Fear of currents. Fear of the cold. Fear of weather changes. When I go back to the lake in the next month or so, I'll face a whole new set of conditions under which to practice mind-control. And I will need to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable. It's all mental.

I find that the best way is the old way. Each time I conquer a goal, it's one more thing to convince my mind of the next time. Just don't give up, and eventually, all the mental obstacles will give way to knowledge - knowledge that anything is possible. You just have to train for it.

Swimming is the most "mental" sport I know. Distance swimming even more so. And I've been struggling to wrap my mind around the really long training sessions I've planned in the next few months (not to mention the swim events).

Remember this?

I took a few days off after my cold-water revelation last weekend to decompress and to abuse myself by doing a 180 - running in a Midwest heatwave marked by several "heat advisory" days this week. (Note, running is my other zen sport, it's my self-medication.)

When I DID get back in the water, I was reminded of two things: (1) the task at hand, oh so long ago, before the Glastonbury festival, before whipping myself into endurance-racing mode - i.e., re-learning proper technique - and (2) teaching my body how to survive, or thrive, in cold water. Now that I think about it, one of these things may benefit the other.
Here's my thought: if I learn how to swim better, I should be faster, right? And if I'm faster, I will be out of the cold water quicker - right? Yeah yeah, I know I still need to learn how to SWIM in cold water because I certainly haven't forgotten how quickly hypothermia sets in... I'm sure there's an equation for conduction or convection I probably (should have) learned in heat transfer class when I got my engineering degree.
I survived for more than 5 minutes.

I was reminded of my crazy English swimming compadres in London in December (remember that?). They were able to swim in sub-50 degree F water for long periods of time because their bodies had been slowly acclimated to it as the temperatures dropped. If you remember my blog posts about that experience, I noticed a difference in my own ability to withstand cold water even after the second time. And in my previous post, I told you about the advice from Ocean Games race director and open-water swimmer Corey Davis - his recommendations were to take cold showers and extend my open-water swim season into the colder months.


So, that's the plan. But in the meantime, while the water is still warm, I need to determine how to perfect my swim stroke so that I spend less time in that cold water. 

The last thing I did with respect to THIS goal was to get video of my swim stroke underwater. Here it is:


And, whoa, talk about revelations! There's a LOT to improve on. I may have the high-elbow thing going for me, but my underwater pull is ridiculously wide. There's not nearly enough water being grabbed and pulled back. Ineed to get my forearm under my body so I'm moving through a smaller area. I have also recently realized that I swim faster when using a pull-buoy, which I think might have something to do with my right arm not going as wide and breathing on the left.
But I needed more than hunch. I needed data. I'm a scientist after all.
So... here's my (pseudo-)scientific analysis...
I first noted that if I don't think about it, I breathe naturally on my right without a pull-buoy but naturally on my left WITH one. I've been baffled by this for years (since I started swimming again after more than 15 years away from the sport). When I was a competitive pool-swimmer, I could bilateral breathe with no change in my stroke. But now, it's a struggle to breathe on my left. WITHOUT a pull-buoy. I am convinced this means something - like one whole side of my body is weak. 

I started experimenting in the pool in the past several weeks. At the end of my workouts, I swim 50s with and without a pull-buoy and concentrate on what my arms and legs are doing. Here's what I've found (and it's extremely annoying): without a pull-buoy breathing naturally on my right working very hard to keep my body and kick streamlined, my 50-yard time is within one second of my time with a pull-buoy breathing naturally on my left. The difference (i.e., the annoying thing) is the very little amount of effort I have to put in while swimming with a pull-buoy. 

What could possibly be going on here? Are my legs or my kick causing massive drag? It's hard to believe that I'm not getting at least a tiny bit of propulsion from my kick. Is my pull different when breathing on different sides? Am I in a different position in the water?

After studying it the best I can (it's not easy to study with detachment from an internal state), it does, indeed, feel like I'm getting more from my pull when I breathe on my left. I come up with two pieces of evidence: being right-handed/right-dominant, my right arm is stronger, and when breathing on my left, I rotate in a way that keeps my right arm under my body instead of way-wide like in the video. Further study Also revealed to me that I turn my head to breathe at a different point in the stroke cycle on each side. Breathing right, although it "feels" natural, it's more awkward to the stroke and there's an obvious momentary lapse in my kick.

And therefore, this week, while I recover mentally from the failed race finish, I've begun doing drills to fix my bilateral breathing and sync my kick. It's not natural just yet, and it probably won't be for a while, but hopefully I'll have something to show in a month or two.
My Kona finish the first time.

I've been trying to put my thoughts together for a blog post about my upcoming race, Ironman Hawaii. The biggest influence on my writer's block is that I just don't know what to say about it. And to make things more complicated, today I found myself replaying all my past "big" race experiences in my mind.

As always, I try to view every race (good or bad) as a learning opportunity. As soon as I stop learning things - about myself or racing - I suspect I will stop doing it. That's what happened in my marathoning career... I went as far as I felt my body was capable, and I had several very well-executed races. Once I mastered HOW to race marathons, the allure was gone. I often considered making another attempt at Olympic Trials qualifier, but my heart was already given over to figuring out triathlon.

So here I am, honoring my long-ago promise to return to Kona. It's nine years later and I am nine years more experienced (in life and in athletics). Oh, there are similar trends. I'm still plagued with self-doubt. I still have anxiety issues. The bike is still my worst leg. But I've come a long way, even just this year alone. I have learned to relax enough to sleep the night before a race. I've learned how to train to get faster on the bike. I've learned a hell of a lot about nutrition and hydration. And I've learned how to enjoy racing. I've even learned, somewhat, to have faith in my running when I get behind on the bike.

But I still make mistakes.

My thoughts on the last nine years have led me to a review past race experiences:

The Chicago Marathon in 1998: going for a sub-2:50, I didn't sleep for two days leading up to race morning. At mile 11, GI issues resulted in about five bathroom breaks from there to the finish line. It was a disaster.

Olympic Trials Marathon in 2000: I over-trained myself into a fifth tibial stress fracture. Race day was a disaster and my embarrassment was a 3:08 almost-last-place finish. Even the finish line was being deconstructed when I finally made it there.

Ironman Hawaii 2002: the enormity of a first trip to Kona got the best of me and my sleep issues and anxiety and stupid nutrition decisions almost cost me a finish. The only thing I pulled from this disaster was how strong of a will I had despite enduring my own personal concept of hell during the almost 5-hour marathon.

Ironman Florida 2003: in an attempt to get back to Kona after being hit by a truck on my bike six months earlier, I got way ahead of myself and ended up bailing at mile 13 of the run due to dehydration and faulty nutrition. This disaster started a downward spiral that led to taking the next four years off from competition.

Ironman Coeur d'Alene 2009: ran myself up several places only to be struck with hypothermia because of stupid mid-race clothing decisions. I was lucky to finish but with this disaster came a 2.5 hour stay in medical after having my core body temperature drop to 90.3 deg F.

Ironman Lake Placid 2010: was on track to chase down the age group leader but made seriously bad nutrition choices and ended up collapsing from dehydration. Huge disaster - I did get to the finish line, but it was in an ambulance.

But I've had success in some big races too. In reviewing those, I've found one common thread. Every successful race (defined as a race in which I met or exceeded my goals) was accompanied by a certain damn-the-critics I'm-just-going-to-have-fun-and-be-smart attitude. My 2:48 in Grandma's Marathon 1999, my overall women's win at the Quad Cities Marathon in 2000, my first Kona qualifier at Ironman Utah 2002, my 10:32 in Ironman Lake Placid 2011, and my age-group win last month in Ironman 70.3 Vegas. All of those races were executed with a level of relaxation and some degree of self confidence that I didn't possess in the failures.

The two biggest influences on my Ironman racing have been silencing the self-critic and having faith that I CAN pull myself out of those dark places that all endurance athletes experience. In Ironman, especially Kona, I expect to be challenged. And I already had my trial by fire there. To conquer Kona is to conquer your demons. I know what mine are and I know what I have to do. And I ask one thing from myself on October 8: to know I did the best I could with the information I have.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the importance of my race support. I couldn't toe the line (or finger it as the case may be) in Kona next week without the J-Team. My husband Jim and friend Julie have, year-in and year-out, gotten me through these race experiences with the expertise of champions. They know the drill better than I do. They always remind me of who I am and what I'm capable of before and during my races. I couldn't ask more of them than they already give. I also want to add my friend Ron (of Punk Rock Racing) as an honorary member of the J-Team (even though his name doesn't start with J) - his support over the last two years has meant more to me than he may realize. And the support of friends on the Bike Authority Fleet Feet Multisport Team have also been invaluable this year in keeping me motivated during a very long season.

And so, to Julie and Jim, I restate the promise I made back in 2002: This time WILL be different.

Yesterday, I started thinking about my swim workout well before I got in the pool. This is never a good sign. Especially because I was thinking about it in the car. When I allow my mind to do specific thinking in the car (as opposed to just driving), I do stupid things - things like panicking because I can't write down what I'm thinking. Thankfully, I my iPhone has an app for taking notes. And, NO, I didn't use the notepad.. I used the voice memos. I'm not an idiot.

But, incidentally, the swim workout I was thinking about was called the "Idiot Set" by my college swim coach. I never knew why he called it the Idiot Set. Was it formulated in the minds of idiots? Would only an idiot do it? I never asked - I usually just groaned. It was not something we did often, and we usually forgot what it was and made him explain it every time. But on days like yesterday, when I'm tired of doing the same old sets of 100s and 200s, I unlock dark things from memory - like the Idiot Set.

The Idiot Set was a set of 13 75-yard repeats (three laps in a 25-yard pool). The 75s were done individual-medly order in the following progression: (1) three laps butterfly, (2) two laps butterfly, one lap backstroke, (3) one lap butterfly, two laps backstroke, (4) three laps backstroke, (5) two laps backstroke, one lap breaststroke... on through freestyle and ending with the final three laps butterfly. It was not a lot of yardage for a single set, and for butterfly specialists, it was probably cake. But for me, every lap was torture. By the time I got to the final 75, I assumed WE were the idiots. The joke's on us. I can't remember ever making it through that last 75 without resorting to the one-arm butterfly stroke.

So why would I EVER do this workout by choice? I'm still asking myself that question. I could say it offered a nice change-up to my usual boring pool workouts. I could say that it would be a challenge to see if I could actually finish it. But I think the main reason I would choose to do this workout is to prove I can mentally handle it.

Memories of the Idiot Set then conjured up all the "idiotic" things done through the years in the name of endurance. Like the time I ran a 30+ miler in my marathon training. Like the time my swim team did a 24-hour relay for fun. Like the time my high school swim coach made us swim in sweatshirts, jeans, and sneakers. Or like my friend Bob who once did, as a single workout, FOUR repeats of 25 miles on the bike followed by 5 miles running. Looking back, many of these workouts are borderline idiot sets -- did they really do anything but potentially injure us?

Yes, they gave us mental fortitude. I was reminded of a guy I met during the bike leg of Ironman Lake Placid last year - he said "I hate to tell you, but we STILL have a MARATHON to do after this." I felt like screaming "YOU IDIOT!" (the key to the Ironman is NEVER going to that mental place.) The most important thing these "idiot workouts" do for us is idiot-proof us - by building mental strength. If you can make it through them, then half way through the Ironman, you won't have one of those "oh-my-God-what-am-I-doing?" moments. When you have to reach deep down inside and pull out that mental strength, you KNOW you CAN. Because you've already done it. And I think that's what the Idiot Set is all about.

(Would love to hear others' idiot sets in the comments)

Yesterday, I started thinking about my swim workout well before I got in the pool. This is never a good sign.

I learned a new term on Friday: "Mental Callous." I don't know if it was coined by my friend Julie or if she had heard it before. Either way, she used it on me when I suggested bagging my long ride because of the wind. She said: "What if it's windy in Idaho? ... You need to be ready for anything."

Julie always gives the best advice. (And, besides my husband Jim, she's the best person I could ever ask to have at my side the morning of an Ironman.) So I took the advice. I dismissed my wind concerns, prepped my bike and headed out the door for a 5-hour ride, deciding to do loops, just in case my mental state failed me and I needed to throw in the towel.

I wanted to throw in the towel. Twice. My ride out was south into a 20 mph south wind. This was my first ride outside this year, having conquered three rides over 4 hours on the trainer (if that doesn't build up mental callouses...). But my trainer doesn't give speed/distance readings, and my slowness on Friday was disheartening to say the least. Although I tried to convince myself I was riding against the wind, I was miserable. Thus, with misery, what does a masochist do? (1) never look at the spedometer or odometer, and (2) make the ride infinitely more difficult by throwing in the worst hills you can find. Why is it that riding slow on hills is easier to shrug off than riding slow against the wind? (Does anyone else have this problem?)

Long story short: 80 miles in under 5 hours. First loop, out south and back north, including the nastiest hill I know of and a quick glimpse at the intersection of my 2003 bike vs. truck accident (for exorcising demons). Second loop, big hills at the start and finish. When I turned onto the second loop, I wanted to give up and ride the 15 minutes home. But I reminded myself of what Julie said and forged west into a southwest wind. After 3 hours, over halfway to my goal, something unexpected happened. I started to enjoy it. Partly because of the accomplishment, partly because I got in a rhythm, and partly because I am, still, a masochist.

One of these days, I want to be able to say "I love biking" the way I love running and swimming, but I think I'll have to wait a little longer for that. Until then, I'll accept the newest mental callous.

I learned a new term on Friday: "Mental Callous." I don't know if it was coined by my friend Julie or if she had heard it before. Either way, she used it on me when I suggested bagging my long ride because of the wind. She said: "What if it's windy in Idaho? ...

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