On motivation

A friend asks:

How to stay motivated for races/events in the distant future. I’m going through a low motivation point now. Don’t really want to swim on my own, don’t want to watch what I eat, looking for excuses to pull out of [upcoming race].

The answer to this question could fill a dissertation… but here are some thoughts:

I’ll start with something obvious: If your goals or target races are too distant, set intermediate goals. If you don’t have time and/or money to travel to races, attend all the races in your area. If there are no races in your area, sign up for one or two “destination” races and supplement with local pool meets. Set a goal time for your 500 Free. If pool meets aren’t an option, do a 500 Free time trial in practice once a month. The important thing is to have something – anything – you’re aiming to achieve in the near-term.

An aside on goals: Goals can be both positive (“I want to do X”) and negative (“I want to avoid failure”). For ultra-endurance athletes, failure-avoidance can be a potent motivator. While “failure” in a pool race might mean going a slower time than you desired, the “failure” that marathon swimmers want to avoid is a DNF – literally, failing to finish. DNF’ing haunts my dreams in a way that pool swimming never did.

But goals are sort of obvious. If I could add something non-obvious, it’s this: The key to consistent training is “tricking yourself” into it. In other words, distracting yourself from the drudgery. Especially in endurance sports – because much of it is, in fact, drudgery.

When I was growing up, swimming was my social life. My teammates were my closest friends, and I loved being around them. That was what got me into the pool at 5:30 each morning (and then again after school). I had goals, of course. Some of them were even important to me. But on a day-to-day basis, I tricked myself into swimming 20 hours/week because that was where my friends were.

Masters swim teams tend to not be as close socially as age-group teams. People have their own lives and families. Still, I find swimming in a group much easier than swimming solo. About half of my workouts are solo, but less if I’m going through a low-motivation phase. Sometimes the team is the only way to “trick myself” into getting in a full workout.

Alternative to a team: Find a training partner. My best workouts this year have been with my training partner, Jared. Mainly because we can do faster intervals than even the fast lane at our Masters practice. And because he’s a great guy. Thanks, Jared.

Other ways to trick oneself? Get a mesh bag and fill it with swim toys. Paddles, buoy, fins, snorkel, kickboard, tempo trainer, lap-counting watch, waterproof music player. I even have two different kinds of paddles (red Strokemakers & FINIS Freestylers) depending on my mood. Why does this help? 5×100 swim, 5×100 pull, 5×100 kick, 5×100 w/ fins is much easier (psychologically) than 20×100 straight free. Using toys makes the time go by. It just works.

Cross-train. It won’t help your swimming much if you do it instead of swimming, but it certainly helps as a supplement, and it’s better than sitting on your ass.

Another strategy I use: Aim to swim for time rather than distance. I’m not sure why this works, but for me it does. If I aim to swim 5,000 yards, I often find a way to convince myself that I’ve done enough after 4,000. But if I say, “I am going to swim for 90 minutes,” I almost always stick to it. And the distance takes care of itself.

I have an old friend whom I’ve mentioned here a couple times before. He’s training for the 2012 Olympic open-water event, and he trains enormous, unfathomable distances. And he uses almost all the tricks I’ve mentioned. Starting at 5:30am, he swims for two hours by himself. At this hour the lanelines haven’t been set up, so he swims long-course. That’s the incentive – the rest of the day the lanes are short course. Then, at 7:30am he “rewards” himself by joining the college team for their 2-hour practice. During the day he works, but fits in a run and a dryland session. In the evening, he coaches an age group team, but swims along with with them, thus fitting in another 90-minute practice. He loves pulling gear – paddles and buoy – and uses them liberally. He owns several pairs of paddles, one of which is made of fiberglass and feels like having bricks attached to your hands as you swim.

Moral of the story: Whatever it takes!

Post-race blues and Where do we go from here?

Racing is fun, but it can exact a toll – physically but also psychologically.

The combination of long distance and high intensity in open water races can deplete one’s glycogen stores dramatically, and the result can be temporary lethargy in the water. In my experience this summer, while I wasn’t noticeably affected by races up to 5K, the four 10K’s I did (not including the current-assisted Little Red Lighthouse “10K”) all messed me up for a while. It was typically about a week before I felt back at full strength in practice.

While the body needs time to recover from a long, intense race, I also found that the mind may need time, too. It’s not often discussed, but for me the “post-race blues” are very real. The longer the race, the longer it takes. The more important the race, the longer it takes. The symptoms: Basically, a lack of desire to swim. And if I do drag myself to the pool – a lack of joy in swimming, and a lack of motivation to work hard.

In any case, it’s not surprising that in the aftermath of last weekend’s event, I discovered new depths of exhaustion, both physically and psychologically. 9 days later, I’m still not there.

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It’s OK, though – it was the last race of the year. Fall is traditionally a time of resetting and renewal in the swimming world. The summer championships are over, and most teams have taken at least 2 weeks off. Lots of drilling, lots of long, slow stuff.

And the same will be true for me – though the “new year” is beginning in late October rather than the typical mid-September. I’m looking forward to dusting off my strokes, and perhaps making another run at 4:30 in my 400 IM. I’m looking forward to focusing on speed again, and finding my way back to a sub-5:00 500 Free. (When you start doing 10K’s with any frequency, you come to see the 500 as a sprint.)

My most important focus for the next couple of months, though? Technique. It’s been 16 months since I began training consistently again, and as I ramped up my racing distance the top priority was fitness. At this point, I’m comfortable with my fitness. And though there will be some further fitness ramping a few months down the line, the highest-leverage area for improvement for me right now is technique.

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But then what? I can’t say I haven’t given some thought to Open Water Tour 2011. In fact I’ve given it quite a lot of thought. The only solid conclusion from these thoughts? That there won’t be one – at least not anything like the 2010 version.

I will probably swim the 2.4-mile race in Madison in August, because it’s an easy drive. That will likely be the only USMS national championship race I’ll attend. And I’ll be at Big Shoulders in September, of course.

The only 2011 race I’m currently registered & paid for is the 10-mile Kingdom Swim in northern Vermont on July 9. There will be some other ultra-distance type stuff that I’ll eventually add to the calendar. I’ll announce it when I do.

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Programming note: I’m discontinuing my regular “Week in Review” feature. I may occasionally post sets, but I’ll no longer report my weekly yardage. There’s less accountability this way, but hey, if I can’t hold myself accountable internally, I probably shouldn’t be a marathon swimmer.