You get faster between your swim practices. Here’s why managing the stress in your life is just as important as that post-workout shake.
The rain was blowing sideways as I emerged from the aquatic center at just before 8 in the morning.
A blast of wet and cold air helped push me to my truck. I got in, wiped my face, slid deeply into the seat and let out a breath that instantly fogged up the windshield.
I sat there for another ten minutes, possibly fifteen, too tired to look at my phone, too exhausted to turn over the truck, too fatigued to do much of anything.
After slowly cruising home, limping into the house, I collected a couple snacks from the fridge and melted into the couch.
As some measure of energy slowly returned to my body there was one thought that I couldn’t escape—how in the world am I going to go back and do that again tonight?
Improvement Happens Between Your Practices
As a competitive swimmer you’ve experienced this kind of flat-out exhaustion after a swim practice before. I know that over the holiday training camp and during the hardest weeks of training this was a common experience with my teammates and I.
They leave you standing in the shower for twenty minutes afterwards. Or as in my case, seated in your car, needing to summon enough energy and focus to drive.
It’s obvious in those moments that your swim practices can do a truly thorough job of breaking you down. You do it all in the name of improvement—of becoming a bigger, badder, faster swimmer.
But in those moments immediately after a tough workout you certainly don’t always feel faster or stronger.
If anything, it’s the opposite.
And while the work that we do in practice lays the foundation for improvement, ultimately the act of getting stronger and faster comes between our workouts.
This is where you recover, toughen up, and ultimately become a better swimmer.
There are things you are already doing that can help boost your recovery between workouts:
Stretching and rolling.
The classic post-workout recovery that is designed to help keep you limber and injury free.
Whether it is rolling out the big knots in your shoulders with a lacrosse ball, keeping your thoracic spine limber with a foam roller (my go-to move for swimmer’s shoulder, by the way), or doing static stretching, you already know the drill with mobilization and it’s recovery benefits.
Eating like a chlorinated champ.
Although the swimmer’s appetite is legendary, swimmers don’t always eat as well as they could.
A properly balanced diet means you are getting the carbs for fuel, protein for recovery, and all the minerals and vitamins in-between to facilitate the recovery and regrowth process.
When you are eating well you are also going to experience higher levels of energy consistently over the course of the day, which is vital for swimmers who need to study, etc. after a punishing early morning swim practice.
Getting lots and lots of sleep.
Isn’t is funny how much better you feel after a full night of sleep?
With the demands of high performance training, especially when combined with a full work/school schedule, sleep is the most powerful “supplement” swimmers can wield.
Even just taking a nap between swim practices can help you boost recovery and subsequent performance.
And besides, when it comes to ways to recover and/or improve, sleeping is hands-down the most enjoyable.
As a competitive athlete these are all things that have probably been drilled into you since day one.
But there is one more component to your recovery and performance in the pool that you haven’t thought much about, and yet, can wreak havoc on your swimming in the form of injury, illness, and poor performances.
What is this sneaky little thing?
Stress & Swimmers: A Sneaky Performance Killer
Stress. noun. A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.
Stress is a sneaky little performance killer. We can’t always see it, have difficulty measuring it, but certainly know it when we are feeling it.
It shows up when we are having a big blog up with our girlfriend. It’s there when we have three projects overdue at work. It’s also certainly there when we are neck-deep in books, cramming for exams.
And so what do we do?
Try to solider through it. Push past. Ignore it, tell ourselves to toughen up and “deal with it”—whatever that means.
But when we don’t deal with the stress in our lives it only ends up hamstringing our efforts at getting faster in the water:
- Chronic stress doesn’t allow us to fully recover. When continually battling stress we are never giving ourselves the opportunity to recharge after those back-breaking workouts. When we are always stressed we are always feeling tired. As a result, we aren’t able to give as solid of an effort the next time we hit the pool.
- Stress burns up valuable energy. Being stressed out is a lot like red-lining a car engine over and over again—you are burning a butt-ton of gas and energy going nowhere. This is why you’ll notice that when particularly stressed you feel utterly drained and void of energy. Stress robs us of motivation and energy we could be using on better things, like ridiculously long test sets and recovering from them.
- We are more likely to get sick. Illness is an eerie predictor of stress levels—I had teammates who would get so anxious during taper that they’d get sick. Or friends that would always get sick around exam time.
- And we are more likely to get injured. A meta-study published recently in the journal Sports Medicine found a significant connection between how stressed an athlete is and how often they get injured and sick.
In other words, if you are serious about your performance in the pool (and your health and stuff), you need to find a way to manage your stress levels over the course of the season.
How to De-Stress and Recover Faster
There are a number of different ways that you can help hit the reset button when stress is rolling up on you.
Going for a long walk can help you unplug and gain perspective, and so can taking a break from whatever it is that is stressing you out.
It’s simply being aware of its effects and being willing to have something in place to deal with stress that is the key to faster swimming and a more healthy lifestyle.
1: Hit your gratitude list.
The thing that has worked best for me is a nightly gratitude list.
Writing three quick things I am grateful for seems simplistic, or too basic, but the benefits of gratitude have been proven over and over again by research.
Katie Ledecky, freestyle demi-god, used her training log as an ad-hoc gratitude journal that helped her keep grounded during the preparation for her first Olympic Games in 2012.
As far as direct benefits, it will help you to sleep better, give you perspective on the stressy McStressy things in your life, and even help you be more productive.
See Also: Swimmers: How to Have a Better Attitude and Sleep Better at Night
2: Clean up your environment.
There are people and situations in your life that cause you frustration and stress. You might downplay it, but the reality is that stress is contagious.
During times where you need your full reserves of energy and focus avoid high stress people and situations.
3: Plan ahead for high-stress times.
There are going to be times where stress bulldozes you out of nowhere—drama in the relationship, or the death of a family member.
But there other times you can see coming months away.
Exam period, for instance. Holiday training camp. Those handful of weeks each season that require your every ounce of energy.
Plan ahead for these stretches of time so that you aren’t cramming for 5 different exams while trying to do 10,000m each day in training.
Stress can be stinky, and it can seem like some swimmers thrive in the face of it while others get crushed by it.
We all react in different ways, but there is no doubt that the impact it can have on us and our swimming is profound.
The important thing isn’t getting rid of it completely—stress in some form will be a part of our daily lives, and moderate amounts of it propel us to change and to perform well in the pool.
It’s managing it and staying ahead of it so that it doesn’t overwhelm you when you need to be at your best.
The side effects—better sleep, being more pleasant to be around, feeling more in control—will go along nicely with your improved swim practices and better swimming.