Today I swam 25 laps (50 lengths) of the 25 year pool at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center. Two weeks ago I was happy just to have swum eight. This represents a 300% improvement in just 2 weeks. If I could continue at this rate of improvements every 2 weeks, I’d be swimming from Portland to Tokyo a few months from now. Obviously that will not be what happens. But the question of why I can swim 3 times as many laps today as I did 2 weeks ago is an interesting one and within it lies a lesson that I’d like to share.
As a high school weightlifter and a long time amateur student of human performance and conditioning, I know that there are some well-known reasons for very rapid performance in the early phases of a resistance training program. The most obvious of these is the acquisition of muscle memory. Most of the rapid performance improvements that happen when you start lifting are not the result of becoming stronger. They are the result of learning, and physically internalizing, proper form. If you look at Olympic Weightlifting you will see that everyone basically has the same body movements for each lift. This is because there is ONE right way to do a clean and jerk and ONE right way to do a snatch. Everyone must adapt a bit but, essentially, there is ONE correct form for each way of lifting. This is true when you go to the gym to do a plain old bench press, or lat pull, or dumbbell flye, or concentration curl, or whatever. You lift more weight when you do the exercise properly. So, you may improve 30%, or even 50% in your first few weeks of working out. But that doesn’t continue forever because your performance increase comes mostly from your brain’s ability to properly execute a sequence of muscle recruitment, not from increased muscle strength.
So maybe this also explains my swimming improvements. But, NO, that is NOT it. My form is no better than it was 2 weeks ago. Maybe I do breathe more correctly, but I certainly have not drastically improved in form. So, what else could it be?
To let you understand my opinion, I need to share the personal experience of a couple recent swims. I’ll try to be brief. Let’s consider my thought process when I swam on Wednesday night and when I swam today.
Wednesday’s Swim (objective 20 laps; result 14 laps)
- Lap 5: Hey, this isn’t bad. I’m glad I came out when I didn’t want to. I’m proud of myself.
- Lap 8: This sucks. I should have just blown it off. I’m not into this.
- Lap 10: Shit! The café closes at 8:00 and I want a veggie Panini!
- Lap 12: This sucks. I should have just blown it off. I’m not into this.
- Lap 14: You know, I had a good swim, almost double the laps of a week ago. I’m done.
So, what happened? First, I made a commitment to myself and I broke it. Second, I didn’t THINK I could make 2o laps. Did I have a good swim? Damn right! Did I meet my goal? No. Why? Because I let other thoughts distract me.
Today’s Swim (objective 20 laps: result 25 laps)
- Lap 5: Today is a good day to swim. This is gonna be easy
- Lap 8: Cool. Just 2 more laps and I’m already 1/2 way done!
- Lap 10: It’s all down hill from here
- Lap 12: The last 8 won’t be too bad
- Lap 16: I’ve swam double the number of laps as 2 weeks ago, I could be done. But why would I want to skip 4 laps and go home without doing what I said I’d do? Knock it off wimp-brain! Just friggin’ finish!
- Lap 19: Maybe I’ll do 21 laps
- Lap 20: Is there any reason I couldn’t do 25?
- Lap 23: I’m over my goal by 15% already! Yay me. Just finish that last 2 laps, for God’s sake.
- Lap 25: That wasn’t so hard. My new goal is to be able to do 40 laps by the end of 2012. Why not!?!?
This time I exceeded my goal because, every time I had a thought of stopping I asked myself for a good reason. When I saw that all of my “reasons” were just bogus excuses, I shoved them aside and I continued on.
So, here are the lessons that I think I have learned from this experience. I hope you can, at least, consider the possibility that I’m on to something:
- Integrity is important even when keeping a commitment you only made to yourself. If you don’t set completely unattainable goals then you can just forget about excuses and do what you say you’ll do.
- Barriers are often artificial. When I “didn’t think” I could make 20 laps, or I “wasn’t into” making 20 laps, I didn’t make 20 laps. When I kept asking if there was REALLY a valid reason not to do what I said I’d do, I just did it. Having done so, I showed my brain that the 20 lap limit was artificial. I swam 25 and I’m sure I could have kept going just by continuing to ask myself “why not one more”.
- You can improve a skill, or your ability to achieve a goal, at a rapid initial rate if you respect yourself enough to value keeping the commitments you make to yourself and if you avoid erecting artificial barriers.
Now, with those things in mind, I can move on to that part of my swimming regimen where proper form, muscle memory, optimizing muscle recruitment patterns, learning to breathe more effectively, etc. will make a difference. Combined with a little self acceptance, personal integrity, and barrier avoidance that might make me into a decent swimmer someday!
I hope this gives you a little something to ponder next time you want to blow off a commitment you make to yourself, or you think you can’t do something and you don’t understand why.
Back to the gym now!