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by Terry Heggy

October 2, 2018

Use your brain to help you through a tough swim set or workout

Fitness improvements occur when recovery follows effort. In other words, you grow stronger by stressing your body with hard effort and then resting.

But fitness is only part of the swimming speed equation; you can’t go fast without good technique. Unfortunately, it’s easy to lose form when you’re putting maximum effort into a hard set.

Here are some suggestions for using your mind to regain good technique when your muscles are screaming in agony.

Acknowledge the Hierarchy

You’ve probably heard the quote “the brain is the largest muscle in the body.” That’s ridiculous of course; the brain is just a lump of immobile tissue and a rather small, icky, and unattractive one, at that.

But as a metaphor, the concept absolutely works. The thoughts that originate in your cranium have immense influence on the ultimate capabilities of your moving parts.

Therefore, step one is to remember that your mind is in charge, not your extremities. When your muscles are fatigued and begging for inactivity, you are under no obligation to listen to their whining. Rather than giving in to exhaustion, make a conscious choice to continue your training with unremitting excellence.

The Totally Bearable Lightness of Being

When your arms and legs feel like lead weights at the end of a grinding set, a mental image of inflating yourself with helium can help you hold form despite weariness. Repeat the phrase, “I feel light and streamlined, and my technique is efficient and easy.” Focus on deep breathing, with a relaxed recovery and clean entry. As you feel yourself getting lighter as the imaginary helium lifts you, pick up your turnover rate and focus on how good it feels to move easily through the water.

The Flow of the Tow

Fatigue often causes alignment problems, whether it’s inefficient breathing, crossover arm strokes, or wobbly spines. Fix these issues by visualizing yourself wearing a torpedo-shaped helmet attached to the tow rope of a speedboat. As the boat accelerates to pull you along, your body remains rigidly straight so it can go with the tow. You’re still swimming, of course, but the mental image of being pulled can help you focus on proper arm entry, smooth breathing, and a powerful kick. Relish the feeling of speed you get from the visualization, and you’ll find yourself picking up the pace.

Easy Being Green

What happens to Bruce Banner when he’s hurting? That’s right; he Hulks out! Put yourself in the good doctor’s mental state and feel the transformation triggered by the pain when the workout gets tough. Imagine yourself changing into a monster. Your muscles engorge with power, and your emotions are channeled into brute strength. At the same time, the part of your brain that belongs to the scientist still exerts enough influence to hold form as your body springs forward with new energy as your inner Ferrigno is released.

Virtual Drafting

Look around the pool and select someone who still seems fresh, preferably someone swimming just slightly faster than you are. Visualize yourself following right behind him or her, taking advantage of the draft. Think about the things you do when drafting: keep your stroke long, breathe regularly, conserve energy to pass when the opportunity arises, etc. It doesn’t matter whether your drag-breaking benefactor is in the same lane with you (or even in the pool at all) as long as you can imagine him or her pulling you along. Instead of focusing on your own exhaustion, tell yourself, “He’s/She’s doing all the work, all I’m doing is hitching a ride.”


OK, I know that some of these ideas sound silly and what works for me may not be the solution for you. That’s OK; the exact mental image you use isn’t critical. What’s important is to recognize that your thoughts influence the way you feel and that you are totally in charge of those thoughts. Be creative. Make a list of images you think might work for you and visualize them the next time you start hurting in practice. You’ll be able to finish your workout with speed, good technique, and a gigantic smile.


  • Technique and Training


  • Mental Training