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by Jennifer Parks

May 1, 2003

Tips for managing stress and improving your swimming

Understanding Stress

When I was swimming competitively as a young girl, my ability to handle stress was not good, particularly at times of high stress like big swim meets. I went out much too fast in the 1960 Olympic Trials in my event, held in my hometown of Detroit. I believe it was because I didn’t understand how to manage the stress.

When I became a teacher and coach it seemed that I could handle short periods of high stress better, while the ongoing, chronic stress of everyday life began to take its toll. During this time, I had an interesting observation. We began to add "progressive relaxation" techniques and visualization to our training regimen, and I noticed that several of the athletes began to handle the stress of competition better. Some even improved with the stresses of everyday college life, such as mid-term exams.

Almost 30 years ago, I returned to swimming competitively as a Masters swimmer. At that time, I was determined to manage my stress better, particularly around competition, but also in daily life. Eventually, I took a sabbatical and studied the interrelationship of the mind, body and even the "spirit," and applied that information to daily life, in the form of stress management strategies. Now, I share many of these techniques with students, faculty, staff, friends, family, fellow professionals, anybody who can use information about how to manage stress – which these days appears to be almost everybody – by teaching classes, giving seminars, and writing about stress, as I am doing here.

Stress and Fitness

Of course, because this article is part of the "Fitness" section of the USMS web site, you might wonder why and how stress and fitness are related. Most of you have heard that aerobic and cardiovascular physical activity over the period of a workout triggers endorphins, among other substances, which may modify the impact of stress. This phenomenon is often described as the runners'/swimmers' "high." Bruce McEwen, in his new book, THE END OF STRESS AS WE KNOW IT, suggests that those endorphins may be one of the last signs that we are getting near the end of our ability to handle stress, or as McEwen calls it, allostatic load. Perhaps the lesson in that is, enjoy that great feeling after swimming, but don't overdo it unless you’re willing to risk creating more stress.

Managing Stress

There are other aspects of fitness that may help you handle different types of stress, including chronic and/or high stress. When an individual is stressed, muscles tighten to prepare for the instinctual "fight or flight," as humans have done for millions of years. Of course, in modern times we don't often have the options of hitting or running. Nevertheless, being fit can help you offset the fatigue of the automatic muscle tension response that is triggered by your perception of a stressor. Stronger muscles can recover more easily, not only from physical exertion but also the mental/emotional impact of stress.

Take a Deep Breath

Deep breathing is a simple but significant technique that can help individuals offset the effects of stress. Swimmers usually breathe more deeply in order to inhale and exhale at appropriate times. Therefore, rhythmic breathing in swimming may help us modify our psychological and physiological response to stress.

Be Mindful

Another great idea for stress management is "mindfulness," being in the moment, rather than paying attention to the past or future. Swimming is an activity that requires you to have some focus on the present; doing turns, rolling your hips, and watching the clock. At the same time, swimming takes our minds off other things, such as problems with finances, work, and relationships. Swimming may also relieve us of some of the more debilitating effects of stress, such as production of the hormone cortisol, which may encourage our bodies to accumulate abdominal fat, thereby making us likely candidates for cardiovascular disease.

Get Organized

Organizing your life and managing your time efficiently can be a great way to reduce stress. Build your day or week to include all aspects of your life, including physical exercise like swimming. This process can give you an increased sense of security and make you less susceptible to illness and injury. Dr. Andrew Weil, of the University of Arizona School of Integrative Medicine and author of many books and articles on health/wellness, has suggested that possibly 90% of modern maladies have some element of stress as a precursor. It appears that more and more, we must begin to confront and manage our stress in order to become truly healthy, fit and well.

Competitive Stress

Some swimmers do not want to compete because they do not wish to experience stress from competition. Individuals vary greatly in their perceptions of what causes stress. Stress can develop from a wide variety of factors, ranging from anxiety of how you look in a swimsuit, to fear of not being as fast as you used to be. Fortunately, you can begin to change your thinking about what you perceive as stressful. Sometimes, you can conquer the stress by simply doing a little bit of what causes stress (e.g.: swimming the “30 Minute Fitness Challenge” before you try the One Hour Swim).

Responding to Stress

You can change your response to stressors, too. It may help to remember that you cannot control other people, but you can control yourself, including your responses to situations and people. Swimming in a group environment can cause stress, but not if you take a positive approach to the situation. If you don't like being run over by faster swimmers, just remember that they share your intent of getting a good workout. If you are bothered by children playing in your lane, try to remember that you were once a child playing in the water. You may even enjoy playing along with them.

Make your fitness swimming a time of pleasure. Although it is sometimes a challenge, it should usually be a great joy. Stress-hardy people perceive problems as challenges rather than stressors. And as you swim each day, imagine the flow of the water along your body washing away the remnants of stress from your life. Fitness is not just a physical concept but includes the whole body, mind and spirit. When I meditate, I use the word "wave" to help visualize the ebb and flow of life and stress. Try it! Go with the flow. See you in the pool, or the lake, or the ocean!

This month's article about stress management is by Jennifer Parks, member of the USMS Fitness Committee. Parks teaches health, wellness, fitness, aquatics, and stress management courses at Ferris State University in Michigan. She was the swim coach at Michigan State in the 70s and 80s, and has been swimming Masters for almost 30 years.


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