Getting Out of Your Head: The Mental Half of Everything

From the New Yorker
From the New Yorker

Happy 2015! Now, stop lying to yourself.

(Kidding. You can totally keep lying to yourself. I don’t care.)

I was at swim practice this morning and — as has happened many times before — I found myself wondering about the thought process going through other swimmers’ heads. I was at the back of the lane, largely because I have never done a warm-up fast in my entire life and I don’t (usually) cheat drills, so I always end up at the back before we start the main set and that’s fine. But, then, when we got to the main set, I was the only one who made all the intervals and followed all the instructions about negative splitting and descending, without “resting” any of the efforts or putting paddles on for the whole thing just so I could keep up. This is a little frustrating, but it’s mostly just mystifying.

Why would you consistently put yourself in a lane you can’t actually do the workout in? Does it make you feel better about yourself? If you have to cheat the workout, then aren’t you not really doing the workout? I totally understand pushing yourself sometimes and wanting to just see if you can hang. I’ve done it too. Sometimes it makes sense to do whatever you can to try to keep up with a lane that’s too fast for you. Sometimes that’s what you need. But, not every time.

There’s a weird mental thing that goes on in sports. I suppose it goes on in everything, in life. But, when there’s a time and a distance and a schedule, it’s impossible not to ignore what kinds of lies you tell yourself. Are they working?

As long as you can do the warm-up fast and make some of the intervals, even if you have to put on paddles and pull the whole thing, then you can still tell yourself you belong in that lane. You’re not slower than you’d like to admit; you’re just having an off day. Because I’m at the bottom end of fast when it comes to swimming, those lies are more prevalent around me. The people who aren’t close to the fast lane yet don’t care or maybe they just don’t know how far off they are. The people who are legitimately fast mostly can’t be bothered with the lies. But, those of us who are fast enough to know we’re not fast, we have the most emotional issues. We can see what we’re not.

I get in my own head a lot. It’s not my predilection for injury and accidents, or my inability to sustain large training volumes, that is my biggest problem. It’s my tendency to doubt myself, to question and worry, to see the lies for what they are.

Since I started training again for real in October and went on my racing binge, things have felt weirdly effortless. The races all hurt, but in a way that was possible to lean in to. I had my ‘this is the slowest I’ve ever gone’ and ‘I’m the worst ever’ moments, but I came back from them all. I was sure my mind had finally gotten on board. Then, the Christmas Relays were miserable and I wanted to do nothing so much as lie down on the side of the course. I started struggling in some workouts and cutting things short. Last weekend, I headed out for my hour run with four miles at goal marathon pace, following a bike ride, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do it. I felt terrible and I couldn’t stop thinking about the last time I failed at this workout. I almost stopped.

But, then, instead of doing 30 minutes easy into the goal pace, I just started going faster and faster. It was hard, but at least it was hard because it was supposed to be hard. I kept waiting for it to feel effortless, to settle, for my mind to be convinced I was unconquerable again. And, finally, it did. All of a sudden 6:50s felt like I was just ticking off the miles, like I could go forever.

If I’m being honest with myself I know that I cut two miles out of the warm-up. I know that if I’d done those two miles, I would have struggled to drop down to pace. I know that half of my four miles at pace was on false flats downhill. I know that as soon as I finished the four miles, I was jogging 9:00 pace home. And, I know it hurt more than I let myself think about. I know that there were lies I had to tell myself about how easy it felt and how I killed it, but they worked. Sometimes, you do need to pretend you belong in this lane. Sometimes. But, you only get so many times saying that before you stop it. Don’t use them every swim workout.

3 thoughts on “Getting Out of Your Head: The Mental Half of Everything

  1. I think part of this is the same mentality that people have when they’re proud of being able to do 50 push-ups (or whatever) with shitty form. Just being able to say “Look, I did it!” without any regard for quality or actual value.

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