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by Terry Heggy

March 14, 2016

The proven benefits of leaving your comfort zone

We each have our favorite workouts to do, and we each have sets we’d prefer to avoid. As a distance swimmer, I love to do timed 1650s all day long, but I dread the very idea of sprinting a single 100 off the blocks. And honestly, butterfly isn’t nearly as much fun as it was when I was a flexible and limber teenager. Even so, I’d like to share a few reasons we should each embrace and celebrate opportunities to swim sets that we might not enjoy.


You’ve probably heard Nietzsche’s maxim: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” There is definitely a physiological training effect from working hard, and a mental edge developed from learning how to push through barriers. If you approach unpleasant sets with the knowledge that you’re improving your ability to persevere, you’ll build a foundation you can depend on when other challenges arise.


As much fun as it is to brag about surviving tough sets, the technique benefits of doing things outside your comfort zone are every bit as important. Here are a few examples:

  • Different distances and different levels of effort are powered by different metabolic systems (anaerobic, aerobic, etc.) We need to train each of those systems, which means we need to do some sprinting, some distance, some sets with short rest, and others with more rest and higher intensity.
  • Different strokes and drills provide the opportunity to improve your feel for the water, which makes you a better swimmer overall.
  • Non-freestyle swimming provides specific muscular benefits, including the following:

»      Backstroke strengthens the support muscles that help prevent overuse injuries from too much freestyle and reinforces the importance of spinal alignment and core stability.

»      Butterfly builds awareness of the importance of exhaling, relaxing on the recovery, and maintaining body position and rhythm. It also enhances shoulder strength and core power.

»      Breaststroke also works the core and forces you to focus on leg propulsion, the catch, and head movement awareness.

  • Performing strokes, drills, kicking, and pulling also provides a beneficial mental and physical deviation from continuous freestyle. Your body and brain only make positive adaptations when challenged, so breaking away from a routine is an important part of training.

To get the maximum benefit from each set, make sure you understand what you’re trying to accomplish with it. Don’t waste any of your water time by doing junk yardage; always focus on doing the strokes and drills correctly. Ask your coach to explain the specific purpose and execution of each drill, and get feedback on whether you’re doing it correctly.


Regardless how you define yourself as a swimmer, you may find that stretching your comfort zone could lead you to try something new, whether it’s your first 100 IM in a swim meet, or a long-distance championship event. You might also have fun, meet new friends, and achieve results you hadn’t thought possible.

USMS Level 2 Certified Coach Cliff Crozier first joined Colorado Masters to work on his sprint butterfly, and had no particular desire to do open water swimming. But when he found himself working out with a group of distance enthusiasts, he decided to challenge himself to swim a 10K race. “After that, I was hooked!” he says. Since then, Crozier has formed strong friendships in the distance swimming community and has completed numerous open water swims (including multiple Catalina channel crossings). “I am really glad I was willing to try something new,” he says.

So, the next time you’re facing a set that isn’t your favorite, remind yourself of the benefits it provides and charge into it with enthusiasm. Not only will you enjoy the workout more, but you’ll become a better swimmer!


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