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Long-distance open-water Swimming: Physical and mental toughness
Long-distance, open water swimming requires extraordinary physical and mental toughness. Greg Whyte who recently supported the British actor David Walliams in his first ever and successful cross-Channel attempt, explains the psychology and physiology of preparing for a long-distance open water swim…
At A Glance
Swimmers must develop strategies to cope with exposure to the cold and the open water leaning to manage their self-talk, goals and emotions. A systematic approach to training can develop mental and physical toughness.
Imagine the scene; it is 5 o’clock in the morning and you’re about to walk into the sea at Dover with the intention of swimming the English Channel. You will be swimming in a dark, cold and lonely environment. Not surprisingly, the prospect of performing in such conditions makes you ask yourself questions such as: Why am I doing this? Will I be able to keep going?
Establishing the goal and developing a plan
Distance swimming events are not something to be entered into casually, or at the last minute. They tend to be events that athletes need to commit to a long-time in advance. It is important not to enter such events without giving due consideration to the difficulties of the task.
Following David Walliams’ successful Channel swim, several celebrities have postulated about swimming the Channel themselves. Whilst such desires can be praiseworthy, in many instances they display a gross underestimation of the difficulty of the task. For example, a number of swimmers have died trying to swim the English Channel, and with a success rate below 40%, thousands of others have failed.
Walliams’ success seems to have engendered a message to such people that “If he can do it so can I.” Many people identify Walliams as a comedian on the show Little Britain rather than an elite endurance athlete, and have therefore concluded that swimming the channel must be achievable. However, distance swimming requires physical and mental toughness and this article focuses on how to prepare for such a challenge.
Having set a goal to swim the Channel, it’s worth reflecting on why you want to achieve this goal and how much it means. Get out a piece of paper and on one side of the paper write down the reasons why you want to achieve the goal. On the other side of the paper, list what the barriers to attaining this goal are likely to be.
Planning Goal Achievement
Goal – to swim the channel
Reason for involvement
Achievement an important personal goal
Be able to push myself harder than I thought
Barriers for goal achievement
Will find it difficult to find time to train; especially during busy periods at work
Times when I do not feel like training and when I want to do the ‘hard’ training on a different day
Days when I start training and feel extremely tired from the outset
Unless a swimmer has attempted to swim the Channel before, he or she will not know the magnitude of the challenge. Identifying barriers to goal completion is difficult, as the athlete can only guess how hard the challenge will be. They tend to have an idea on how hard they are prepared to push themselves, but do not know whether they will be able step up to the challenge. The training programme should therefore reflect the physiological and psychological demands that are needed.
Training for open water swimming performance should focus on two key areas: physiological performance and open water experience and habituation. Open water swimming is now part of the Olympic programme, and races over 10 km will be contested at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In the main, open-water swimming events are endurance and ultra-endurance in nature with durations ranging from 1 hour up to around 15 hours. Accordingly training is dependent upon the race distance, but the underlying determinants are primarily endurance based.
A significant factor in open water swimming is ‘experience and habituation’ (this term is preferred over ‘acclimatisation’ as very little acclimatisation takes place in response to cold-water exposure) to open water. Most open water swimming events are in cold (<18oC) water resulting in significant cold-induced stress.
The human body needs to control its core body temperature within narrow limits to maintain normal function and survival. Maintaining core temperature is achieved through a balance of heat production (a by-product of energy production) and heat loss. Water is 25-times more conductive than air leading to a 4-fold increase in heat loss for anybody immersed in it. In open cold water, heat production becomes essential in maintaining normal function.
At rest the energy expenditure (and therefore heat output) of the human body is around 100 Watts rising 15-fold to 1500 Watts during exercise. Thus, a high-energy turnover and power output (speed) must be maintained to sustain core temperature.
In addition to core temperature, peripheral and skin temperatures play an important role in open water performance. When cooled, peripheral nerve conduction velocity falls by 15ms-1 for every 10oC and muscle power output falls 3% for every 1oC fall in muscle temperature, thus reinforcing the need for maintenance of power output to reduce the deleterious impact of cold on performance. A cold shock response can occur immediately on submersion in cold water leading to hyperventilation and a dramatic fall in breath hold time (the leading cause of drowning).
Although there are limited adaptations to cold water, acclimatisation (habituation) can reduce the cold shock response. Other factors associated with open water swimming include the hypertonic environment of seawater with a 3.5% sodium solution compared with 1% in cells. This hyper-saline environment leads to significant problems with feeding and abrasions that can have a profound effect on performance.
Habituation (experience) is fundamental for the successful open water swimmer. In addition to coping with the physiological impact of the cold and sometimes saline environment, the ability to navigate, control and maintain pace whilst coping with the prolonged isolation of often opaque, deep water with the fear of wildlife below makes open water swimming a significant physiological and psychological challenge.
Short and long-term goals
Once the programme has been developed it is important to see how the short-term goals link to achieving long-term goals. Swimming the Channel involves completing around 40,000 strokes. It is important to develop a mindset in which goal attainment is seen as the product of achieving minor goals.
A key question the swimmer should pose themselves during moments of difficulty is: Can I swim one more stroke? The answer will almost always be a definite ‘Yes’. It is worth exploring why the swimmer believes this is achievable. At the point when a person decides to stop such a challenge, a key question to ask is: what thoughts and feelings were experienced at the time?
Unpacking these decisions can provide insight into how to develop a greater sense of reliance in being able to cope with extreme fatigue in extreme conditions. Underpinning achieving the goal of swimming a long-distance is the attitude that it is achieved by swimming one stroke at a time. Once the swimmer has accepted that goal attainment is achieved by swimming 1 stroke at a time, extending swims from 1 hour to 2 hours is not so difficult.
Managing the experience
Long-distance swimmers need to be confident that they can manage swimming in cold open water. Research shows that athletes experience considerable mood fluctuations during long duration-intense exercise. A long-distance swimmer can expect to experience waves of fatigue. Fatigue can be accompanied by other emotional states such as anger and anxiety, or fatigue can be accompanied by feelings of satisfaction.
In cases where athletes experience a range of debilitating emotional states such as fatigue, anger and sadness, this tends to be accompanied by both negative self-talk and negative images. It is important to recognise that these emotional states are transient, and if the athlete can use strategies to change these emotions from negative to positive or to neutral, the accompanying self-talk and images tend to become positive.
However, it is how the athletes learn to cope with these feelings that is important. Developing data on emotional and cognitive changes experienced during hard exercise is the starting point for intervention work. This can be done retrospectively by asking athletes how they felt during certain parts of an event and what type of things were they saying to themselves when experiencing these emotions.
Distance swimmers should be encouraged to challenge the link between emotions and self-talk and question whether it is possible to interpret their fatigue without the accompanying unpleasant emotions. Evidence shows that when an athlete feels fatigued, this could be interpreted as indicative of goal achievement drawing closer. In such a scenario fatigue is likely to be accompanied by excitement and joy. In addition, athletes can experience fatigue and happiness simultaneously when achieving a challenging goal such as completing a marathon. Strategies designed to improve self-talk have been found to effectively cope with performance-related stress.
Recent research suggests that using ‘if-then’ rules can be an effective strategy for emotion management 6. If-then rules work by reinforcing the link between the undesired thoughts and emotions and the desired behavioural response . An effective strategy in swimming is to develop the mindset that goal completion is achieved one stroke at a time. Focusing on technique can be an effective strategy to disassociate with fatigue. A second strategy is listening to music. Swimmers will need to hum songs and engaging with this song can be helpful. Music can be helpful through synchronising with the rhythm of being motivated by the lyrics.
Examples of the application of if-then rules in open-water distance swimming
I feel cold
After 5 hours i feel like this I will never make it
I start to feel sick and start to vomit
I start to get stiff
I start to think about how long I have been going
I start to think that I will not be able to get into shore, having been able to see the coast for hours
I start to concern myself with water lies beneath me in the opaque depths
I start to doubt my ability to cope with the cold, or the distance or the environment
I must concentrate on my technique and use self-talk to change thinking towards warmth until these feelings pass
I will dissociate with swimming for a while by humming the tine of selected songs
I will inform my support crew and allow them to make the appropriate choice of intervention ie mouthwash, for the next feeding stop
I will run through my stretching routine at the next feeding top and alter my stroke to offset the stiffness
I will shift my thoughts to pre-planned approaches to move my thoughts from time ie running through favourite films
I will focus on swimming, reinforcing the message to continue putting one arm in front of the other
I will reassure myself that there is nothing to fear and reinforce the positive elements of prior experience
I will use positive self-talk drawing on my training and experience to reinforce my proven ability to cope with the challenge
Some athletes prefer to focus on external factors – for example what they will be doing in a week’s time. However, strategies that try to disassociate completely with the task at hand can be de-motivating and lead to further increases in unpleasant emotions. When an athlete starts thinking about doing more desirable things, this can lead to questioning why he/she is engaging in such a difficult challenge.
Preparation for the event
It is easy to be daunted by the prospect of having to spend over ten hours swimming in cold, dirty and choppy water. The event needs to be broken down into small manageable chunks. Whilst this approach to goal setting has been well voiced, relatively less attention has focused on managing the expected thoughts and emotions that will be experienced at key points during the performance.
Preparing to manage these experiences should be considered carefully. In addition to using “ if-then rules”, imagery scripts should be developed in which the swimmer re-enacts coping successfully with difficult phases of the event. Imagery needs to be based in the experiences of the swimmer. This is why it is crucially important to have experiences that are similar to those that will be experienced in the event.
The most challenging experience to replicate is coping with excessive fatigue. It is possible to construct a practice to replicate coping with excessive fatigue, but this needs careful management of psychological and physiological responses. However, it’s very important to get the swimmer to buy in to the value of this approach and swimmers need to see this type of training session as an opportunity for psychological and physical preparation.
Repeated bouts of hard training can deplete physiological resources, leading to a persistent state of fatigue (5). We argue that an athlete’s beliefs on the influence of fatigue on performance and well-being are highly important in the development of adaptive responses to repeated bouts of hard training. Athletes need to accept that they will experience intense feelings of tiredness following hard exercise. However, difficulties start arising when an athlete feels that they underperformed during training. Feeling downhearted because you believe that you’ve underperformed during training can exacerbate feelings of fatigue. This will lead to a downward spiral of negative mood and poor performance.
Replicating the most difficult part of the event will require the individual to be in a highly fatigue state and asked to produce high-quality performance. There are several different ways to induce a highly fatigued state; back-to-back hard training sessions, inadequate nutrition, and poor sleep strategies have all been used. Once in this fatigue state, the athlete should spend more time mentally preparing before the session starts. Although mental preparation should be a part of every session, this is an opportunity to further enhance beliefs that he/she has the ability to cope with extreme fatigue in environmentally challenging conditions.
Adopting training approaches that use multiple episodes of training leading to high levels of fatigue are valuable in replicating both the physiological and psychological stresses associated with open water swimming. Using multiple sessions in a single day and prolonged sessions on consecutive days are common practices in open water swimming.
Classical preparatory sessions for English Channel swimmers include 6-7 hour swims on consecutive days. By adopting this type of approach, the swimmers can develop proactive strategies for dealing with the challenges detailed above, in both a non-fatigued and a fatigued state. Furthermore, replicating start times that are often in the dark and preparing to finish in the dark assist in preparing the swimmer for worst case scenarios, as are developing coping strategies for those eventualities. Effective preparation involves maximising the use of the full range of likely experiences.