The 11 Mental Stages Swimmers Go Through During a Tough Workout

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer based out of Victoria, BC. In feeding his passion for swimming, he has developed YourSwimBook, a powerful log book and goal setting guide made specifically for swimmers. Sign up for the YourSwimBook newsletter (free) and get weekly motivational tips by clicking here.

With holiday training camps rolling, so are those hilariously long and challenging sets and workouts that coach has had bottled up over the fall, just itching and waiting to unleash on you. You know, those sets that take 2 and a half hours? Sweet!

Here is the mental breakdown that takes place prior, during and immediately afterwards these hilariously designed sets and workouts:

1. “The main set? Ha ha ha! I have got this.”

Pfft, main set, schmain set. I got this. I’m gonna show that clock what time it is. You’ve had a good night’s sleep, you ate like a boss at lunch, and you’ve dutifully been sipping from your water bottle all day. You feel like you are ready to take on the world, prepped to handle whatever ludicrousness your coach has been concocting. You aren’t walking around on cloud nine, you are swimming in it.

2. “What is coach doing over there…”

The confidence gives away to trepidation when you notice that your coach has been writing on the whiteboard for the better part of ten minutes. While you perform your pre-swim warm-up, mindlessly swinging your arms about, your coach is scribbling furiously, filling the board with black ink. Writing so much, in fact, that his writing is getting progressively smaller and falling off into corners of the whiteboard. Gulp.

3. “Nope, nope, nope.”

Stepping forward and reading the Fourier equation that coach has put up shakes your conviction and confidence to the core. Once the set has sunk in, and you have internalized what you have to do, you mentally cross your arms. No way I can do that. There is no way I will do that. Looks more like a whole bunch of nope. In the event of a prolonged warm-up and pre-set you have lots of time to wallow in this phase, which will also occasionally include summarizing the top 3 excuses you are willing to use to get out of doing the set.

4. “I immediately regret this decision.”

The words of partially fictionalized anchor phenom Ron Burgundy apply with ease at this point. You are wondering why on Earth you decided you liked swimming when you were younger, wished that your parents had put you in table tennis, piano lessons, or the lesser known hybrid, piano tennis. You think about your school friends all tucked away warmly in their nice beds, cheerfully eating fruit cake and staring at the burning log on television. Luckkyyyy.

See Also: Swimming Goggles: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know

5. “Fine, I guess I’ll start it. But no promises.”

Despite your reluctance, and the failed attempts at trying to join the sprinters for their “main set” things get underway. As you push off on the first repeat you spectacularly lower your expectations of the performance you are going to lay down. It’s not that you are giving up, it’s that you are taking a more realistic and cautious approach. Yeah, that’s it! At this point, it’s not about doing well, it’s about survival.

6. “Okay, this isn’t so bad…”

Usually by the time you get to the second or third rep some of that confidence has begun to creep back in. So far your worst fears, including (1) your arms falling off, (2) a complete collapse of energy and technique, and (3) dying have not come to fruition. So that’s basically a win. You might actually just survive this thing in one piece!

7. “Uh oh…”

Remember that hope and confidence? Just kidding! Doubt and despair begins to wash over you when your muscles and lungs begin to fail you. Which wouldn’t be such a problem if it weren’t for the fact that you are only halfway through the set. At this stage your mind begins hedging how much effort is required to complete the set, and given that the forecast calls for more set than energy, you can’t help but feel a little disheartened.

8. “Those are my arms, right?”

It’s been said that your mind will give up a thousand times before your body will. Nobody told our shoulders this. With our lungs burning and muscles aching our shoulders have seen it fit to take the wheel themselves, engaging into auto-pilot mode. With swim paddles on our hands, arms going somewhat numb, your shoulders doing their own thing, you have more time to spend thinking about how hurting you are feeling. Perfect!

9. “Just one more…”

Even though there are actually still 7 to go, you play this little mental trick on yourself to not be overwhelmed by the work still to be done. Each time you hit the wall, and race to catch your breath in the few seconds of rest, you commit yourself to doing just one more rep, and to reassess if it is time to pull the shoulder injury card out after that.

10. “Just one more…(not playing this time!)”

The hardest repeats in a tough set are always the third and second to last ones. And the first one. And the few after that. What I am saying is that every repeat in a hard set are the hardest ones. But especially the second to last one. Pushing off for that final repeat you commit yourself fully—after all, you’re in a world of hurt already, what’s a little more? Tapping the emergency reserves you put your head down and blast into the finish…

11. “Nobody touch me. I’m not moving from this corner for the next ten minutes.”

Thankfully you are still in the water at this point because if you were on land the chances of you being able to remain upright would be poor. Instead you hang your arms and face in the gutter, or muster the energy to heave yourself up and all over the pool deck, and have some quality alone time catching your breath. “Good set,” mutters one of your lane mates. No doubt.

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Louise Boyle

Hmmmm. When you are 59, and getting back into training after about 30 years off, I can promise you that – this is just about every day’s training mental ladder for me. And I’m the one who writes up my training sets. ?????
Great post – now I look at the kids churning out all those laps and I’m thinking ?????- you kids probably battle the same mind demons as me. ??

Cam Ann

My couch thinks we are Olympic athlets who can swim anything with no trouble! SHE IS SO WRONG!!

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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