The Power of Habit in Swimming – Part 1 of 3

by SwimSwam Partner Content 0

December 21st, 2016 Industry, Training

Swimming is all about habits. I’m talking all about habits. Every single thing you do in swimming is a habit.

  • When you take every single freestyle stroke in practice.
  • When you stretch after a workout.
  • When you think about your races before you fall asleep.
  • When you pack your bag for the big meet.
  • When you eat breakfast before prelims.
  • When you put goggles on before a race.
  • When you hear the buzzer go off and dive into the water.
  • When you make that move to get in and out of every wall as fast as possible.
  • When you put your head down into the finish.
  • When you hear the whistle signaling to step onto the blocks.
  • Everything in swimming is habit. Did I say that yet?


Habits are important because you can’t rely on motivation and willpower every second of every day. In a sport like swimming where training is monotonous, you don’t see the light of day in December or January, and you know every square inch of that black line on the bottom of the pool by the end of Saturday morning practice, it is impossible to be motivated every moment of the season.

Even the top athletes in the world can’t tap into that motivation at will. If you could, habits wouldn’t matter. But you can’t. So habits do matter. I would argue that your success in swimming is simply the sum of your habits. The result of every race you swim is the sum of your habits. It’s that simple.

The sheer amount of time you spend performing habits is reason enough to make sure you understand how to apply the power of habit to swimming. In fact, according to some studies habits account for about 40 percent of everything you do on any given day. So, let’s examine few things about habits over the next few weeks….

  1. Why trying to form a good habit often fails – Part 1
  2. How to form good habits – Part 2 (Stay tuned)
  3. How to maintain those good habits – Part 3 (Stay tuned)


Before we dive into what makes sticking to a good habit so difficult, let’s dissect the formation of a habit. Fortunately for you (and me), people have researched this stuff. In fact, there is a great book called The Power of Habit, in which Charles Duhigg breaks down the habit formation process. It’s a 3 step “Habit Loop”. Duhigg and many other behavioral psychologists argue that every habit you have follows this 3-step pattern:

  1. The Cue – a trigger that prompts your habit behavior
  2. The Routine – the habit behavior itself
  3. The “Reward” – the result of doing the habit behavior. In quotes because this could be a good or bad result.


Keep this habit cycle in mind as we talk about why trying to form a good habit often fails. I will reference this in parts 2 and 3 of this series, so it’s key to understand this 3 step process. The cue, the routine, and the reward.


It’s almost 2017. Soon, everyone and their mother will have a long list of New Year’s resolutions ready to go for January 1st. The sad truth is that close to 85% of these resolutions fail. This is a great statistic because we can extrapolate to say, more than 8 times out of 10, when you try to adopt a new “good” habit, you revert back to the “bad” habit. Why?

  1. Too much – You set yourself up for failure when you try to change too much at once. It’s hard enough to change 1 thing. Any more than that is biting off more than you can chew. Mentally, you can’t change your stroke, your pre-race routine, your eating habits, your work ethic in the weight room, your meditation routine, and your logging methods all at the same time. It’s just not possible.
  2. Too big – Frustration takes over when the habit you try to change first is too big. This is different than the ‘too much’ reason above. For example, If you’re trying to get into a good stretching routine for recovery every night before bed, a good place to start would be to hold a quad stretch for 20 seconds. That’s it.
  3. Not understanding additive changes – It’s hard to trust the process. It takes a tremendous amount of mental discipline to buy into the fact that small changes add up to make a big difference. You are naturally inclined to get greedy and chase a big achievement instead of relying on small methodical changes.
  4. Starting with the goal or result – When you start by defining the goal, you’re focusing on the reward, not the cue or the actual habit behavior. (hint: remember the 3 step habit forming cycle above?). Let’s dive into this one a bit more because I think it’s so important…

THE DOWNSIDE OF GOALS (What? Goals have a downside?!?!?!)

Picture this… You really want to swim faster. You make a list of all those times you want to hit by the end of the season. You have the best intentions and yet you see little progress. In swimming, we see this all the time. Every swimmer has goals and wants to be better. And, every coach wants to help his or her athletes achieve those goals.

Goals are a good thing, right? Even Michael Phelps himself is famous for being a religious goal setter. Goals are a sign that you know what you want to achieve, and having them keeps you motivated. Wait! Earlier, didn’t I say that it’s impossible to stay motivated all the time? Yes, I did. And, yes, it is impossible to stay motivated every minute of an entire swim season. This is the exact reason as to why goals aren’t good enough. Goals are just 1 step of the puzzle.

Which step of the puzzle are goals? Let’s circle back to the 3-step habit formation pattern above. Is a goal the ‘cue’? No. Is a goal the ‘routine’? No. A goal sounds more like the reward, right? Reward is step 3, not step 1. So, why are we starting with goals? We should be ending with goals!

Sometimes, goals cause more harm than good. When your goals represent your hopes and dreams, they often encourage you to think about swimming in a sub-optimal way. You try to get faster all at once and go no where. The alternative is a path where you steadily improve by changing one small thing at a time. Tiny routine changes in your swimming life that become habit 1 by 1 add up to huge time improvements at the end of the day. Then, and only then, will your goals become reality. Treating goals as the first step is the #1 killer to fast swimming.


Now you know that habits are all over our lives, habits are important, and habits are difficult to form. You got it. But, I’ve yet to tell you exactly how to form good habits. What if you want to get faster? How would you go about forming a new habit that will help you get faster?

To learn the answers to these questions, tune-in to part two of “The Power of Habit in Swimming” series. I will explore proven ways to form good habits and analyze how these methods can be applied to your success in the pool.

New Year. New Habits.

At Commit Swimming, we want logging your workouts with Commit to be the 1 simple habit you form in 2017.

Athletes – Learn why logging is so important and then go sign up for Commit.

Coaches – Write your workouts with Commit. Don’t keep doing the same old thing like this guy…


The beta version for athletes is free. For coaches, Commit gives you a FREE 14-DAY TRIAL with no credit card required. Afterwards, it costs $8/month or $90/year for 1 coach. No setup fees. No price increases after the first year. No tricks. If you only coach for part of the year, Commit lets you pause your account during the off-season.

Commit offers big discounts for team’s with 3 or more coaches, so contact them at [email protected] for more info.


Commit’s team consists of 2 slow swimmers (Dan Dingman and Nico Gimenez) and 1 very slow swimmer (Dan Crescimanno). The team is passionate about the sport and is building innovative applications for both coaches and swimmers.

Contact them anytime at [email protected] for questions, feedback, or just to say hi. You can also follow them on Facebook, Twitter, or subscribe to their newsletter.

Swim Training content provided by Commit Swimming, a SwimSwam partner. 

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