What I Learned on My Way to Swimming 35,000 Meters Last Week

by Olivier Poirier-Leroy. The following post originally appeared in his weekly motivational newsletter. Join 10,000 other swimmers and coaches who receive his weekly motivational newsletter (for free) by clicking here.

There was a period of time where I went 10 years without swimming a single lap.


Not one lap.

My break-up with swimming 10+ years ago hadn’t been under the best circumstances.

The way that I left the sport left a bad taste in my mouth, and there were a lot of times where I thought about the sport over the years and felt that familiar churn of regret in my belly.

(Especially when the Olympics swam around.)

It wasn’t until I came aboard with SwimSwam that I started doing some casual laps in the pool. Writing about the sport made me miss it even more, and I figured the only way I could get over it was to reacquaint myself with the pool.

(Sound logic, right?)

I waded back into the relationship carefully at first. I could only muster about 1500m per session on a good day, and that was going 2-3x per week.

It was very slow going for the first few months.

Painfully slow.

I had no endurance. Much less speed.

Even less flexibility. And it was like I was relearning my technique from square one.

But I kept plugging along, taking the little victories where I could.

It took about a year, but last fall I had several weeks in a row where I swam 35,000+ meters over the course of a week. It was a milestone that I had been looking forward to, a number that was consistent with the yardage I used to do back in the day.

Here are a few of the important things that I learned on my way to hitting that number of 35k…

1. Celebrate the little victories.

You don’t need to win a gold medal or break a world record to feel a sense of achievement. Or to feel like you deserve some recognition (if it is only from yourself).

Something I have talked about on many an occasion is the need to challenge yourself in small but consistent ways.

Big change doesn’t come overnight or in one fell swoop, just like going from being able to swim 2,000m per workout to swimming 7k per workout doesn’t happen overnight.

It’s a slow, steady process, and as such, it is key to celebrate those small moments of progression whenever they pop up.

You earned ’em, so recognize them.

2. Not every workout is going to be the best ever, no matter how well you prepare.

Sometimes having a great workout is a curse.


Because you expect that same level of killer progress to happen the next time you train.

Only it doesn’t.

Only you train slower.

Sinking expectations and any hope and confidence that you had accrued after that last great practice.

There will be days where you can’t get things going in the water. Looking back over the year that it took me to build up to 35k there are a handful of workouts where in my log book I was forced to write out, “Workout abandoned.”

They sucked– but understanding that there will be the occasional massive dud frees you up from getting overly harsh on yourself when they do happen.

3. Old habits die hard.

Like most swimmers, I had some not so great habits in the pool growing up.

Lane rope pulling? Check.

Breathing every stroke before walls when I was bushed? Oh yeah.

Faltering dolphin kicks off the walls with each lap? Uh huh.

Our habits rule us in the pool. The way we prepare is the way we race. (Focused practice = focused results.)

As for my habits these days, I throw myself in the gutter lane (no lane rope to pull on), hold myself to a no breathing policy in the flags to the wall, and have a 10m push off rule, no matter how tired or out of breath I am.

4. Sleeping was the best indicator of whether or not I would have a good session in the pool.

While I couldn’t always tell the difference in performance on days where my nutrition was 10/10, I could absolutely notice on days where I hadn’t slept well.

If I went above the typical 8 hours the night before I tended to have exceptional workouts and the extra sleep often left me feeling refreshed and recovered, no matter how exhausting the previous day’s workout had been at the time.

Like most people, I get irritable when I am under-slept.

A wee bit cranky, some might say.

Not outright angry or flustered, but it’s there, simmering under the surface.

In my log book comments like this were almost exclusively scribbled at the end of a mediocre workout:

“Not the greatest sleep last night” or “Sleep? Hahahahaha nope.”

It wasn’t an accident that every time I had a workout where things progressed, or I did a little more than the last time, or just a little faster, I had had a decent to great sleep the night before.

I’ve said it before, but getting a solid night of rest every night will do more for you than all of the supplements in the world. (And also, you won’t fail a pee test from sleeping too much.)

5. You are the only one that can be proactive in terms of keeping you healthy and ready to train.

The mass of information on sports physiology online is a double-edged sword—you will find some absolute gems of information on things that will shed a whole new light on the way your body works, while also finding contradicting opinions on the exact same topic.

It’s kinda sorta mega frustrating.

During my late teenage years I—like almost every other swimmer with even mild aspirations of doing something sweet with their swimming—was wracked with shoulder injuries.

Nothing major, nothing quite requiring surgery (even though a couple doctors I saw over the years planted that terrifying thought), just chronic, annoying, please-please-please-just-go-away pain that interrupted training cycles and left me perpetually feeling like I was under-performing and underachieving at swim meets.

When I got back in the pool last year, even though I didn’t really have any specific goals (other than don’t drown), there was one thing I was absolutely sure of: there was absolutely no way that my shoulders would cause me issues this time around.

I didn’t care what it took, but anything short of surgery or spending nine hours a day face down on a bench being worked over like Play-Do by an athletic therapist was on the table.

I had seen numerous therapists over the years for my shoulder (always the right one), and it took about 5 months of playing around with various pre-hab routines to find something that worked for me, but most importantly, I found something that worked.

No longer would I leave myself beholden to therapists, or swim coaches, or the bro-science advice that pervades my gym.

At the end of the day, it is my shoulder, and I had no problem taking complete responsibility for its well-being this time around.

In Closing

It took me a while, but I don’t regret the way things left off back in the day anymore.

Reconnecting with the pool was possibly the best thing to happen to me, at a time where I ended up needing it (more than I even knew at the time).

The connection I have with the water now is stronger than ever. It’s something I can’t believe I went so long without, and can’t imagine going without again.

The biggest lesson I have picked up over the past year and a bit is that progression is messy.

Sometimes downright ugly.

But if you stick through the hard stuff, there is some pretty cool stuff waiting on the other side.

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6 years ago

“While I couldn’t always tell the difference in performance on days where my nutrition was 10/10, I could absolutely notice on days where I hadn’t slept well.”

Well said! I would argue that sleep is like air for the athlete – you notice it missing immediately. A poor diet is no less ruinous to your health, but it takes years for the full effects of it to be felt

6 years ago

A great friend once described swimming as an ex-boyfriend. We date, hang out, establish a relationship, break up, date again, wash, repeat. There is still something special about getting in the pool, even if it’s just to play around for a few hundred yards. With fins. There’s a solace and presence that one cannot get with any other sport.

6 years ago

Didn’t read the whole article but one thing a person would learn by swimming 35k is that they like longer swims more than sprinting. If your goal is sprinting and you have limited time then 35k makes you worse.

Coach John
Reply to  anonymous
6 years ago

you’re second statement definitely relates to your first statement there “coach”

Reply to  anonymous
6 years ago

Depends on the swimmer. I never even get my feel for the water back unless I’m spending a lot of time in the water. If I just try sprinting with no base I just splash my arms and don’t go anywhere.

6 years ago

Exactly what I needed to read this week! I got back into the water as a 30-something part-time masters swimmer last month after a good 4 years of break up. Still only getting 1500-2000m a session but I got 3-6 sessions a week! I’ll keep you in mind next time I break the 3km mark

6 years ago

Yes, but a lot of middle age and seniors in masters can also get injuries. Its easier to get a leg injury passed age 40. I spring my leg from swimming and part time work at age 60.

8 years ago

Was a boarder for 13 years.My parents were farmers.I did every sport under the sun to get out of hostel life.Water-swimming,waterpolo and underwater hockey.Then once escaped and free never swam for over 32 years.Now you cannot keep me out.Admittedly, am with a club but don’t train with them(school thing,being told what to do)But thoroughly enjoy comps and training on my own.Masters swimming does you body a service,mentally the people you meet are refreshing.GET OUT THERE,GIVE IT A GO.YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE A STAR.JUST HAVE FUN.

8 years ago

This was a good read, Olivier. Thanks.

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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