Article image

by Terry Heggy

March 8, 2019

Is self-torment really the path to performance?

No pain, no gain is a catchy slogan. It’s compact and symmetrical, it rhymes, and it uses words that athletes know well. But does it contain wisdom to live by or is it a recipe for disaster?

A bit of both, I’m afraid. Let’s explore how to intelligently embrace suffering in pursuit of excellence.


There are three stages of physical improvement:

  • Youth—When you’re a kid, your heart, lungs, and muscles become stronger as a natural part of the growth process.
  • Adulthood—Once you’re fully grown, you must work to achieve continued gains in strength and endurance.
  • Seasoned Maturity—After you’ve accumulated a few decades, your physical capabilities inevitably reach their upper limit and the challenge becomes one of slowing physical degradation.

In all three stages, your body’s systems reach their optimum performance levels by adapting to increased stress. Think of it as a continual conversation between your brain and your body.

Brain: “Dude, you need to get stronger and go faster.”

Body: “But the effort it requires causes me discomfort.”

Brain: “I don’t care. Shut up and go faster.”

Body: (Sigh.) “OK.” Then later: “Hey, look! I’m stronger now! How cool is that?”

Brain: “Nice work. Now push even harder!”

Body: “Golly!”

Open the door to improvement by augmenting your vocabulary with terms such as “effort,” “discomfort,” and “suffering.” Pushing your body beyond its current capability does provide the stimulus for physical adaptation. But pay careful attention to ensure that you understand the threshold between pushing and breaking.

I prefer to reserve the word “pain” for those acute sensations that indicate actual injury. And that’s where the no pain, no gain adage fails us. If you continue working hard after truly damaging yourself, all you’re doing is adding to the time you’ll have to spend in rehab.


The physical adaptation in the pain/gain equation only includes the strength and endurance portions of our training. Don’t forget to work on technique with equal focus, as reducing drag and increasing efficiency far outweigh improvements that rely on power alone. Some sets that focus on form (drills, distance per stroke, etc.) may be less effective if performed with “discomfort zone” levels of effort. Ask your coach if you’re unsure about the level of effort expected.


Safety is paramount. Consult a physician before beginning any new exercise routine. Get feedback from your coach to ensure you’re performing the motions correctly, as many injuries occur from improper technique. Let your coach know about any other limitations, restrictions, or physical concerns that might impact your workouts. These include the following:

  • Current fitness level
  • History of injuries and range of motion limitations
  • Chronic conditions (epilepsy, narcolepsy, diabetes, heart anomalies, allergies, asthma, hearing/visual impairment, etc.)
  • Lack of experience with circle swimming, lane etiquette, etc.

During the set

When you’re swimming a set designed to cause physical adaptation, simply “feeling tired” isn’t adequate. Pay attention to empirical indicators, which might include the following:

  • Breathing—Are you panting hard when your reach the wall? If you finish a repeat and can immediately converse with your lanemates, you’re probably not working hard enough.
  • Heart Rate—Take a six-second pulse reading at the end of your set, then multiply by 10 to get beats per minute. Higher heart rate verifies a higher effort.
  • The Clock—Are you hitting your target times? No, I don’t mean the ones you did yesterday. You need to be getting faster! Depending on the set, it might be OK to fail (achieve complete exhaustion). Ask your coach what level of exhaustion is expected, and don’t be afraid to go there.
  • The Burn—Do your muscles ache? Do you feel you’ve accelerated to your maximum effort? How long does it take you to recover?
  • The Eye of the Tiger—Are you matching or exceeding the efforts of your teammates? Are your goals challenging enough? Are you thinking about what motivates you to be your best?

Stay focused on technique as you push yourself. Swim hard but hold your form. Relax during the recovery, and don’t waste any motion, especially during breathing. It’s hard not to thrash a bit when you’re at maximum RPM, but try to stay smooth as you crank it up.

After practice

Positive post-workout feedback might include the following:

  • High Fives—Did your coach or teammates admiringly refer to you as an animal, a brute, or a maniac?
  • Shower Struggles—Was it difficult to lift your poor aching arms up high enough to shampoo your hair?
  • Water Woes—Was your water bottle empty because of the massive thirst you worked up?
  • Sleep Signals—Did you have an urge to take a nap during the day? Were you sound asleep as soon as your head hit the pillow at night?

Fatigue can feel fantastic, as it indicates we accomplished our workout goals. But remember that adaptation only occurs after high effort and adequate recovery. When you break yourself down, you must rest to allow your muscles to heal and grow to their new thresholds. If your fatigue lingers or morphs into acute or chronic pain, then your work was not productive for your long-term success.


  • Technique and Training


  • Training