Train Your Brain

This article originally appeared in the 2023 College Preview issue of SwimSwam Magazine. Subscribe here.

Courtesy: Sophie Bergstrom

The sport of swimming is the pursuit of perfection: the pursuit of the perfect race. Has any swimmer ever achieved this feat? Maybe Jason Lezak’s anchor leg in the 4x100m freestyle relay at the 2008 Beijing Olympics could make that claim, but that is just one out of the majority. I think most of us have never had a perfect race — even if I have a best time, there is always something I could have done better, whether that’s doing one more underwater kick off of each wall or not gliding into my finish. There are many factors that go into the execution of the perfect race — some we can control and some we can’t. For example: we can’t control how fast our heat is going to go, but we can control how we physically and mentally prepare ourselves for the race. All that preparation happens at practice.

In fact, there was a scientific study conducted recently that examined the physiological and psychological demands of aerobic and anaerobic swimming. Physiological factors include swim practices and lift sessions, whereas psychological factors include a swimmer’s emotional state and stress level. Both play a part in any length of race, but they hypothesized that the requirements would be different in an aerobic versus anaerobic setting.

Anaerobic respiration is a cellular process that doesn’t use oxygen. In the swimming sense, anaerobic races are sprinting events like the 50 and 100. This type of energy conversion occurs very quickly, but doesn’t last very long. Within forty-five seconds to two minutes, your body will start getting energy from aerobic respiration. This process uses oxygen, so your aerobic races are usually anything over a 200. Physiologically, it is clear that these two types of races would have different effects on the body; it is the psychological part that intrigues me the most.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I developed really bad pre-race anxiety. I would stand up behind the blocks and my mind would race as I constantly readjusted my goggles: What if all my hard work doesn’t pay off? What if it hurts? What if I can’t finish strong? By the time I finally stepped up onto the blocks, I had no desire to race anymore. I just wanted to put my warm jacket back on, go home, and fall asleep for a very long time. You could say that I was physiologically prepared for these races — I did exactly what I was supposed to do during practice, and more — but I was far from psychologically prepared. As a result, I was sliding backwards instead of improving; even though I was training harder than I had before. The perfect race seemed more and more out of reach, and I wasn’t sure what to do to get back on track.

Nine female and 11 male swimmers participated in this study. They all competed at the national level, had at least five years of training experience, and were not injured or taking any medication. To determine the physiological aspects of aerobic versus anaerobic races, the scientists took heart rate variability (HRV) tests to analyze the swimmers’ autonomic nervous system state. This system includes heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, which are all involved in anaerobic and aerobic processes.

The scientists used a RESTQ-76 sport questionnaire to figure out the psychological factors. The questions on this test are used to self-report subjective, behavioral, physical, and social aspects of recovery and stress. Some of the questions were sport-specific while some weren’t. This test was done before and after each aerobic and anaerobic swim session, allowing the scientists to get a full picture of the emotional well-being of their swimmers, inside and outside of the pool.

As for the aerobic and anaerobic tests themselves, they were done on consecutive days. The anaerobic test was completed first and consisted of a 50m freestyle sprint at maximum effort. The team recorded the time it took and the rate of perceived exertion (RPE). For the aerobic test, the swimmers did 5x200m swims of their primary stroke, with 30 seconds of rest in between each one. During this set, the scientists were measuring the swimmer’s velocity, their oxygen uptake, and their heart rate. From this data, they could calculate their maximal aerobic speed (MAS) along with their RPE at that speed.

What they found was really interesting to me: Aerobic performance is associated more with physiological features, whereas anaerobic performance is associated with psychological. The scientists emphasized the importance of having a nonstressful environment for an anaerobic race, which might be the reason I’ve been struggling with executing a perfect race. My primary event is the 100-yard backstroke, which is an anaerobic race. Since it was the event I cared about the most, I was always the most nervous before hopping in the water. If a low-stress environment is what makes a swimmer perform the best, then no wonder I wasn’t able to do that. I was creating a high-stress environment for myself, while also in a high-pressure environment. It was a recipe for disaster.

Something else I found intriguing in the study is that high fatigue perception is also tied to a faster time in an anaerobic race. As swimmers, we all know what it’s like to feel tired, and most of us are under the impression that if we are tired or sore, then we can’t swim fast. According to the science, it’s the opposite — we can still go fast if we feel fatigued and maybe even faster than if we are completely rested. This only applies for an anaerobic race, though. For an aerobic race, the scientists found that a higher aerobic performance was directly correlated to a higher autonomic nervous system activation. An athlete who had higher values in the HRV exams had a higher MAS. This makes sense since the aerobic races are distance races where stamina plays a much larger role than in anaerobic races.

I started seeing a sports psychologist during my junior year of high school. Not only did he give me the tools to anchor my thoughts in the moment, he helped me unlock a confidence within myself that I didn’t know I had. I thought that my brain would prevent me from ever getting close to achieving the perfect race; what I didn’t realize is that, if used correctly, it could become the greatest tool.

Throughout high school I wanted to break a minute in the 100-yard backstroke. It was a milestone that kept slipping through my fingers, and I was starting to think that I would never reach it. However, two years after I started paying attention to my thoughts, I did. That race was far from perfect, but it was the closest I had come in a long time. That’s the thing about pursuing a perfect race: each time you take a chip off the block, you can’t help but try to take another one.

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