As an endurance coach, a majority of the athletes I coach who swim are doing so because they are going to be swimming in a triathlon. More specifically than that, they are swimming in training because the race they’re training for is going to be an open water race in a triathlon. Every year a few athletes who I coach do participate in triathlons that have pool swims, but by and large, most triathlons that they select to do are outside in the open water.
As you know by now, I am a strong advocate of experiencing adversity in training, as this helps better prepare athletes for the adversity that will inevitably be in play on race day. What kind of adversity? Well, since it is, in fact, adversity, we may not know what it is until we face it. Some adversity we can predict (and then train to) such as weather conditions, but other times, we are imposing adversity mentally to just “flex the adversity muscle”. This is a fancy way of saying that we’re deliberately introducing adversity just for the sake of having adversity so we can train our minds to handle it well. In this way, no matter what adversity we face, we know we have the tools to process it, manage it, and handle it.
In another lifetime (before I was an endurance coach), I spent more than a decade working in the security/law enforcement field in a variety of roles. One of these was as a security officer at a nuclear power plant. My main job as a nuclear security officer was to protect against radiological sabotage (i.e. defend against terrorists trying to attack the plant). Thankfully, I never actually had put my training to the test in a real-world situation, but I did have to be trained to do it.
One of the requirements of that job was to go through a substantial amount of training each year in which we simulated what we would do if terrorists attacked the nuclear power plant I worked at. Since we couldn’t actually terrorize the power plant (hello), we had to induce the stress of the situation - read: the adversity - in a different way in training to see if I (and my fellow security officers) could function under pressure and do our jobs well if the time ever came.
While this might seem lightyears away from competing in an endurance event such as a running race or a triathlon, the truth is that there are a lot of parallels. Until we get to race day and experience that exact situation, we don’t actually know how we’re going to feel or react. But we can set ourselves up for success by deliberately and intentionally imposing stress in training so we can practice handling adverse scenarios. Sometimes, the stress we impose might look similar to the stress we may encounter on race day. Other times, it may look entirely different, but the foundational principle is the same and “flexes the adversity muscle” enough to prompt an adaptation.
How does this all specifically pertain to pool swimming?
I’ve been surprised over the years to learn just how many athletes do not (and I mean DO NOT) like it when I assign a swim workout that ultimately has them completing a swim set on the opposite side of the pool from where they started or that has them changing which side of the pool they’re starting on throughout the workout. Many times, they will swim the extra to get back to their original starting point, rather than continuing through the workout as planned from the “wrong” side of the pool.
When this happens - when the athletes change the workout so that they can have it be the way they want it to be - they are effectively squandering an opportunity to “flex the adversity muscle.” To them, it doesn’t seem like a big thing to switch back to the other side of the pool. And in truth, it’s not. It’s a little thing. However, The Little Things snowball to become The Big Things over time. Do enough Little Things, and all of a sudden you have a plethora of tools in your Athlete's Toolbelt to draw on come race day when you experience adversity.
Making a simple change - such as which side of the pool you begin a swimming set from - is one of THE easiest ways to introduce adversity into a workout. It challenges what an athlete wants to do, what they’re used to doing. It feels unbalanced. It keeps them away from their things (such as their flip flops, water bottle, etc.). If the pool has a deep end, it forces them to tread water or to rest in between sets without being able to stand. It has them starting from a different side than everyone else is probably starting from in the same lap pool. It feels uncomfortable.
Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is EXACTLY what we are after when we talk about learning to manage and handle adversity. So, introducing discomfort - even if it’s not an exact replica of the discomfort that may be in play on race day - is wise. Any experience managing discomfort in training - and overcoming it - is valuable.
On race day, an athlete may very well end up somewhere they don’t intend to on a swim course. They may have to tread water to course correct. They may experience some other level of adversity during the swim. Even in a triathlon that does have a pool swim, the race may have athletes starting on a different side of the pool than “normal.”
It is precisely for all these reasons that incorporating sets that end in “25” or “75” in a 25-length pool are great. For a 50-length pool, the sets that end in “50” would do the same thing.
This week, I challenge all of you swimmers out there to embrace swimming from the “wrong” side of the pool. If you can suppress the urge to always start in the same, curated conditions in your pool swim sessions, you are actually doing your mind a big solid by having it get used to something that feels odd and that you don’t like. In other words, you’re helping your mind get used to experiencing adversity and overcoming it.
So. Which side of the pool are you on?
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.