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by Ali Hall

March 1, 2011

How to ratchet up your fitness

The other day I was talking with a swimmer who lamented that she’d moved down a lane and just couldn’t make a move back to where she had been—where she wanted to be—with her workouts. Something that’s happened to many of us. “At least I’m here,” she sighed.

And sometimes that’s the most we can do—just get there. I reflected on my own swimming progress, or lack of it. Routinely, frustratingly stalled. Resigned to a holding pattern. Or worse, I wondered if I’d turned fitness into a catch-and-release sport. Having progress in my hands and letting it slip away.

So, what can we do? Is being there in the water enough? How can we build fitness, make progress, see different and desirable results? Here are some ideas:

Get Tough … Mentally

Mental strength, it’s a muscle we can all build. And this will bring us good results, as people who believe they are well equipped to overcome challenges actually perform better in demanding situations than those with less mental toughness. Practice is essential.  “The brain is like a muscle—if you want it to respond at its best, you have to exercise it,” says Jason Selk, director of mental training for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team and author of 10-Minute Toughness: The Mental-Training Program for Winning Before the Game Begins. Selk recommends that we reframe our head game: first thing in the morning, set several short-term goals for the day; use every mental tool at our disposal to meet our goals; at the end of the day, reflect and begin to focus on the next day with concrete steps for what will bring us closer to our goals. 

Act As If

“Many people think we need to motivate ourselves before we take action, but the opposite is also true—by acting we can motivate ourselves,” says Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, author of The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life. “If you can force yourself to just get up and start moving, within minutes it’ll get easier and your attitude will change.” Better still, if your seemingly mundane workout is part of a bigger goal. Seeing the connection between the immediate steps and where we really want to be will help us see the value of every yard (or meter), every lap, every workout session.

“But I’m Getting Older…” 

True. Maybe that means swimming smarter, even if getting faster is not as real an option as it was when we were younger. Try a clinic, or perhaps your local USMS workout group has a “skills and drills” regular session. Many athletes skip these, preferring workouts with more total yardage, yet perhaps they’re sacrificing an opportunity to cultivate a more efficient stroke or reduce their risk of injury.

And then, there’s the book Younger Next Year, where authors Chris Crowley and Henry Lodge remind us of common sense principles (eat well, live well, exercise at least 6 days a week) to feel like we’re 50 even when we’re decades beyond. So, maybe getting older chronologically is not such bad news. At least there’s something we can do to maximize our fitness.

Quality, Not Quantity

There’s a fitness swimmer my age at a workout I often attend, she’s always been fast (really fast), and she keeps swimming faster. And stronger. She doesn’t put in more yards or time than I do. My fitness seems to come and go, hers doesn’t. She does a lot of things well, but one thing that really stands out is that she does some intense quality at every practice. No garbage, just good quality plus some intense quality. Every practice. Easy yards have their place, and I already know THAT result. Maybe, just maybe, I can do more than just show up … more intensity, consistently, perhaps that will help me build my fitness. Well, it’s a goal…


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  • Goal-setting
  • Motivation