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by Cokie Lepinski

March 26, 2018

Put your brain to work when you’re in the pool

We’ve all been there—drifting away in la-la land while we churn through lap after lap at practice. Sometimes that’s good enough, coming out of the water with a sense of satisfaction knowing we’ve completed a certain amount of yardage or worked out some body kinks and life stress. If that’s enough for you, terrific.

However, if you’re coming away from swim practices dissatisfied, feeling in a bit of a rut, or perhaps not where you’d like to be with your technique, speed, or stamina, consider applying mindfulness to your swimming. You just might find that you can ignite a spark and re-energize your swimming.

There are many definitions and descriptions of mindfulness, but one that seems particularly suited for swimmers can be found on Mindful: “Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”

Applying mindfulness to your swimming is easy. The fact that we’re immersed in water gives us a strategic advantage as many of our senses are dialed down. Sounds are muted, vision is often restricted to what’s immediately around us, and taste and smell are subdued (well, unless the gas-powered leaf blower guy is on your pool deck). Hence the statement you hear so often in the swimming crowd, “When I dive in, the world goes away.”

There are many ways to apply mindfulness in your workouts, from a broad-brush approach to more narrow focus points or even a combination of both broad and narrow.

For a broad approach, try this. From the moment you come out to the water, set an intention for yourself. Today in workout, I want to… It might be centered on better control of your breathing, improving stroke technique for a particular stroke, holding consistency in your speed sets, accelerating through your turns, or even simply swimming in a straight line so you don’t smash into your lanemate. It doesn’t matter! You set the intention. Throughout your practice, continue to check in with yourself on that intention or goal. You can have different intentions each day and even vary those intentions within each workout.

Narrowing down to sets within your workout, you can apply more specific focus points. Doing mental “body check-ups” is one method. Let’s say your coach gives you 6 x 200s freestyle, breaking 10 seconds at the 100 and 20 seconds after each 200. For sprinters like myself (or those of us with short attention spans), this is the type of set that can do us in, mentally and physically.

To help with the boredom factor and to perhaps tire less easily, give yourself a task beyond the outline the coach provides. Transfer your thoughts away from, “Oh my gosh, will this set never end?” to your focus points. For example, focus on your horizontal line the first 100, the first half of your pull on the second 100, and the back half of your pull the third 100. Or apply different focus points to each lap of the 100s.

You also have the opportunity to focus on breathing rhythm, kick mechanics, the pitch of your hand on entry and exit, early vertical forearm, and well, you get it. The list goes on! You can even try an approach based on effort levels such as negative splitting (each 200 in the set example here), building within each 100, race finishing each 100, etc.

Looking back on the above definition of mindfulness, you can see that connecting to the immediate—the here and now—can help keep you from feeling overwhelmed by the length or intensity of the set. You have the chance to tune out the world during your workout. Even though you’re challenging your brain with these focus points, you come away refreshed and revitalized in the same way that you come away refreshed from meditation. The more you practice, the better you get at it and the better your results.

If you compete, apply mindfulness to your race along with visualization techniques for a powerful combination. Visualize your race in advance, always with a positive approach, thinking through each component of the race. For example, nailing the start, turbo-charging your turns, setting your breathing pattern, finishing hard, etc.

Now, when you get to the blocks, you are ready. Hit the water and go! Replace any thoughts of fear, pain, or anxiety with your focal points. Also, don’t overwhelm yourself with trying to think about everything during the race. Just choose one or two focus points and keep checking in with yourself on those points.

If you’ve got a coach on deck during your workouts, he or she is really your best resource for coming up with focus points specific to you. Chances are your coach has had his or her eye on your technique for a while and knows the flaws in your stroke or how you might improve your sets or race strategy.

If you don’t have a coach, never fear. This works just as well for you. There are lots of resources on the U.S. Masters Swimming website to help with stroke technique, workouts, and race strategy. Take some of these ideas with you to the pool to keep yourself connected to the here and now.

Good swimmers engage their brain, constantly tuning in to what they’re doing and what they are feeling in the water. Tune in to your brain and you will tune up your swimming.


  • Technique and Training


  • Goal Setting
  • Mental Training