Swimming with Pain-Freedom

Feature by Tonya Nascimento, Swimming World intern

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, November 16. TO excel in swimming, you've got to be tough. You've got to learn to deal with the pain of workouts and long events – exertion pain. This does not come naturally.

After all, our perception of pain is designed as a way to notify ourselves that something is wrong, and we should stop doing it. When you touch a hot stove, the chemical pain message instantly travels to your spinal cord so that you instinctively draw your hand away before damage. The left-over painful sting encodes in your long-term memory as a reminder not to do that again.

Pain from injury lets us know just how much we can do without further injury. The pain stops us from exceeding a range of motion or level of exertion beyond what the injured area can take. We have a natural impulse to do whatever we can to avoid feeling pain.

So when it comes to exertion pain, we have to learn to endure it in spite of our understandable desire to slow down or quit.

Pain is complex. Merriam-Webster has definitions that range from trouble, care, and effort to discomfort to localized physical suffering. In swimming, pain ranges from the discomfort of holding a little faster pace to the all-over burn of sprinting, from the tightened chest associated with nerves to the severe knife jabbing pain of an injured shoulder.

Know whether it is injury pain or exertion pain.
An important point of discernment is that swimmers learn to differentiate between pain that will cause injury or worsen injury and pain that can help them get better. Unfortunately, some swimmers are tough enough not to learn the difference until they actually hurt themselves.

You have to be your best judge. If you have sustained an injury, follow the advice of your doctor and coach and rest when it is best for healing. When it comes to laying off or pushing through, you need to pay attention to if you are experiencing injury pain and making it worse or perhaps finding an excuse to get out of a set.

If the pain is not injurious, then it is good. To become successful, you need to learn to endure exertion pain. Pain can be a major obstacle in the way of reaching goals or a tool for getting there.

Change your mind to change your experience of pain.
Pain is a combination of physical, situational, emotional, and cognitive factors. When we are injured or working very hard, messages travel up to a gate in our spinal cord. The messages vary in intensity; the more intense, the more easily they open the gate and allow the message through to register as pain in our brains. Besides the physical injury message, there are two other messages that can either close or open the gate.

Humans automatically respond to physical pain by touching it. Rubbing, holding, or otherwise touching the site where we feel pain sends soothing messages up that partially or entirely close the gate and stop the pain messages so that we don't register the pain.

But because we can't tactilely smooth away our pain while swimming, it makes sense to use the other available pathway to reduce pain, that of emotions and cognitions. Emotions and cognitions can trigger signals from the brain downward that can also close the gate from the opposite side.

In short, our mood and our thoughts can actually increase or decrease the pain we feel. When you are feeling down in the dumps and not at all like practicing, the sets likely feel more painful than when you are excited and energized for a workout. The same goes for a race. Our thoughts can keep the gate closed and lessen or even stop the advent of pain. Therefore, learning how to think about our pain is a way to deal with it.

Learn skills to experience pain-freedom.
Swimming will never be pain-free. Exertion pain is inherent in the sport of swimming. But swimming can become less painful if you learn to approach pain as your training partner. The first step is to change your attitude toward pain, to learn to counter the natural impulse to avoid pain and teach yourself to welcome it instead.

The skills taught and used to reframe and deal with pain can lead to what I call "pain-freedom." Pain-freedom means using pain as encouragement, rather than discouragement. It is the result of a mental state where the mind is unafraid (free) to empower the body past its previous limits, past the pain barrier. If you use good coping skills, the painful sensations are still present, but not experienced as intensely. Wouldn't that be nice?

The swimmer will still feel pain, but by simply restructuring his or her mindset, the pain is considerably lessened, or more pain-free. Pain-freedom means 1. approaching practices and sets without worry about whether it will be painful or not; 2. looking forward to challenging, hard, painful practices; 3. using cognitive skills to cope with pain; 4. using pain as a signal to lower one's anxiety level and speed up; and 5. focusing on self-accomplishment of difficult sets as fun instead of on social activity in the pool as fun (the easier route that does not lead to reaching one's goals). The premise is that the mind can exaggerate or lesson pain.

Different methods work better for different people. Below are several more ideas, with some that overlap, listed below:

▪ Stop calling it pain. You can re-label it as sensations, tingling, or burning, for example. Learn to treat it as just another of our multitude of bodily responses.

• Detach yourself from the pain. Remove your mind from your body and watch yourself in your mind moving through the water. Or just remove your mind from the pain. Analyze the pain. Hmmm…that's interesting how I feel a tingle here, a burning here…
• Distract yourself from the pain. Think about how awesome it is that you are pushing yourself so hard while horizontal in water, looking at a black line, with the sky above you. Pay attention to technique and how your arms are moving so fast. Race your teammates; the emphasis on keeping up with or beating them can take your mind off the pain. Visualize you are in a distance race in pursuit of the gold. Visualize you are in the ocean swimming for your life. Put your mind somewhere other than on your pain.

Imagery tricks
• Visualize the pain away. "Pain is weakness leaving the body." Feel the pain slide off your body in waves. Imagine yourself getting stronger with every pull through and past the pain. Or you might visualize the pain as bright light.
• Come up with a concrete image of the pain. Maybe it's a knife, a spinning room, an expanding balloon in the lungs, tightening rope, or prickling needles. Then come up with ways to lessen the pain of these images. Turn the knife to a carrot, bring the room spin to a stop, pop the balloon, untie or unravel the knot, or turn the needles to noodles.

Cognitive tricks
• Rationalize the pain. No pain, no gain. Pain is temporary, pride is forever. Pain means you are getting better. You've felt as much pain as swimming can possibly bring, so you can handle it now. You can handle anything for 2 hours, 10 minutes, 50 seconds. Then it will be over.
• Focus on one thing at a time. Break down what you have to do to its smallest parts so that the potential pain from the whole set does overwhelm you. Just one swim at a time. Just one length at a time. Then just one more.
• Use pain as encouragement. Pain means you are getting stronger and faster. It means you are one step closer to your goals.
• Change your concept of pain. It hurts so good.
• Interpret the pain as trivial or unreal. Announce that it's "another easy day in paradise!" right in the middle of a particularly challenging set.

Attitude adjustment
• Adjust your attitude. Just do it. When you hear a daunting set, instead of imagining how painful it is going to be or wondering if you are going to make it, stop your thoughts and just go for it. My coach instructed us to say, "Yes, sir!" and do it. You can say that (or "yes, ma'am" for a female coach) in your mind or aloud and then take off without another thought.
• Voice aloud enthusiasm. Alternatively to "Yes, sir!", you could announce, "I'll lead!", "Thanks, Coach!", "Alright!", "This is my favorite!" or remind yourself, "I love swimming" (but make sure you make yourself believe it and stop those anxieties).
• Challenge the pain. Anticipation of pain increases the intensity of pain. Stop worrying about it coming. Bring it on! Ask yourself, "How bad can I make it hurt?" Tell yourself the pain can't take you. You are better than that.

Just part of the routine
• Break through the pain barrier. The awesome thing is that pain releases endorphins so that you will eventually break through to the so called "runner's high" and sincerely not feel any more pain. This invincible feeling cannot be described. Go for it.
• Make pushing yourself a habit. If you always work yourself to the max and don't pick and choose what to work and what not to work, then you stop making judgments based on how hard (read, painful) the set is going to be. You also raise your body's threshold of pain as it gets used to certain levels. Consequently, the set isn't as painful. Drop the evaluation based on pain and instead decide to simply attack every set, every race, as a matter of course.

Remember your competition. They are going through painful sets too. How are you going to beat them if they handle the pain better than you?

Keep a training log.
• You can keep daily training logs and record how you did in you workouts. Note positive aspects and highlight hard (painful) sets you succeeded in.
• Mentally replaying your pain breakthroughs can help solidify your ability and increase your confidence that you are prepared when the championship meets arrive. This can be especially helpful for those of you who gain your confidence from hard work. During taper, some swimmers lose confidence due to the decreased yardage and decreased number of hard sets. If that's you, these journals can remind you that you have put in the work.

Pain is part of a swimmer's world. The methods suggested are a few ways to break through the prison of pain and experience a more pain-free practice; they are ways to achieve pain-freedom.

Tonya Nascimento is a doctorate student in the sport psychology program at Florida State University. She was a competitive swimmer for 20 years, during which she swam for FSU. She also coached Maverick Aquatics for eight years and the Niceville High School swim team for four years.

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