There is exercising and then there is training. There are workouts that help you make progress towards your fitness goals, and then there are practices that are artfully designed take you to the mental and physical limits of what you believe you are capable of and beyond. These practices, that few are willing to do, through the process of destroying you, create champions.
For most young people Saturday morning is an opportunity to sleep off a hangover from the night before but in the sport of swimming Saturday mornings have a special connotation. They are the “coup de grace” so to speak, intended to finish you off after you are already exhausted from putting in at least nine two hour swimming sessions, plus three weight room sessions that week. There is never any doubt about it, Saturday morning practices will make you earn your weekends!
After a meditative early morning drive on the quiet roads of Ann Arbor I arrive at the University of Michigan Swimming Pool where I am practising with the Club Wolverine Elite Swim Team, coached by my longtime US coach Mike Bottom and Mark Hill.
After entering the facility, I proceed down a long corridor lined with the swim caps of all the team’s past Olympians on the wall of heroes, towards a sign that reads “It’s not every 4 years it’s every day”.
I duck into the locker room and change into my cold damp swimsuit that has not yet dried properly from the night before, I grab my goggles and cap, fill my water bottle and walk out, ready for whatever awaits me.
We are starting to gather at the far end of the swimming pool, nervously speculating about what awaits us as we limber up, foam roll and progressing through some active stretching on our own. I am surrounded by Olympians, NCAA Champions and inspired, talented pro and college swimmers coming up through the ranks.
Our world-renowned coaches, Mike Bottom, Mark Hill and Dr. Josh White come out from their offices onto the deck and hand out colorful sheets of paper with the workouts printed on them. We huddle for a minute, almost in disbelief as we synthesise the cryptic looking sheet of distances and times in front of us.
“The Pain Train is coming!”, we joke as we reconcile ourselves to our fate. With our coaches we discuss what we are doing, the few personal twists on things, what the focal points are and how they will make us better. Then without hesitation we dive in. Bring it on!
In swimming we dedicate a few practices every week to forcing our bodies to adapt so that they may better tolerate lactic acid, allowing us to finish our races without fading, and to keep our technique when our nervous system is fried. I am from a school of swimming in which we colour code levels of intensity based on heart range and the energy system used which designates the colour purple to this type of training.
I imagine it as a deep purple. To be honest we are afraid of purple, because this type of training requires the highest level of intensity, repeating swims at or close to race pace, racing each other, with limited rest and breathing, which painfully forces your muscles to seize up, setting your lungs on fire, physically prohibiting you from moving properly, giving you a headache, fading vision, nausea and vomiting. It literally begins to kill you.
These physical aspects are only part of the challenge. Firstly this set cultivates a certain type of courage that enables a person to push themselves to their limit, knowing full well, the physical hell that awaits them there as their body begins to fail.
Secondly this type of training requires a great degree of mental fortitude in order to keep one’s composure, and execute race strategy, maintaining proper technique, thus defying the body’s basic instinctual life preserving urges to breath and stop.
After an initially slow warm up of technique work, kicking, repeats of 50m underwater, we progress to some speed work. Being Saturday morning with a week of good hard work behind me it takes me a bit longer to get going, eventually just at the end of the warm up I am through the soreness and feel capable of what lies ahead. I slide and glide down the pool with a perfectly balanced rhythm, visualising in my mind the few technical errors that I intend to correct.
Without hesitation we divide up into heats and match up for races. With coaches eyes and video cameras on us we aggressively dive into it; 65m at 100m race pace (100m in swimming is comparable to 400m in track), feeling big, light loose, connected and fast I accelerate into the tun and blast out of it, pulling up at at 65m. 23.9 for that 50 I am told, solid but I can be faster.
I cruise down the rest of the lap gasping for air and listening to my heart pound like a bass drum in my ears. I reach the wall just in time to make the interval before blasting off again for a 50m at the my pace for the 2nd 50 of the 100m. After the initial few adrenalin fuelled strokes I settle into a rhythm, one that if I can keep, will keep me.
Half way down the lap, at 25m my lungs are now burning, my legs are becoming exponentially heavy, my mind screams “air” and I yell back “faster” pushing that urge down and pulling to the surface of my mind the technical aspects that I must juggle; my rotation, my left arms tendency to enter slightly inwards, I lift my kick, and correct my head position.
At 35m, with 15m to go I consciously make an effort to keep my eyes open and stay in the moment, one stroke at a time in this desperate rush. Glancing over I can see that I am ahead, “a little further, all the way”. At this point my arms are becoming weak and a wobble presents itself, old desperate tendencies begin to show.
It is only my awareness of them now that allows me to consciously seek to counteract them and hold my form. Head down into the finish. 25.4 I am told, unable to speak I just nod, and push off in a rush to get to the 25m mark for one final 25m into the wall.
Fighting to take control of my breath I force a deep inhale, and a hold, resisting the urge to breathe out immediately, thus allowing the oxygen time to diffuse into my blood. In doing so I take control of my frantic heart and steel myself for one more surge. I arrive at the 25m mark on the 56 seconds to a cacophony of cheering coaches and teammates and blast out of there like a bat out of hell as the clock strikes 60 seconds. From the get go my mind is overwhelmed by desperation.
This is the where the familiar physiological battle to retain composure truly takes place. Ignoring the rival in the lane next to me, my failing muscles, fatigue, burning lungs and stomach I go through a mental technique checklist as my subconscious begins to take over. Faster and faster I somehow manage to literally will myself into the wall and almost have no recollection of the last 10m except for short term fleeting memories of terrible pain.
Its over, I gasp and choke in relief on the wall as I struggle to keep my head above water. Its a few more seconds before I recognise where I am again and the terrible urge to vomit welling up from inside of me. Three more rounds, “#gobigorstayhome” I tell myself as I begin to warm down in preparation.