Today one of my athletes sent me a link to an article about the use of breath control:
She’s an accomplished and strong swimmer and assured me she was not sending it to raise the white flag of surrender thee from anything hypoxic, coach. Instead, we had an interesting conversation about pain thresholds, boundaries and pushing ourselves.
Hypoxic sets are challenging. For those with a swimming background it seems they come much easier because naturally they have more practice at it but also I am guessing better lung capacity/physical design. Naturally our bodies fall into different sports. There’s a reason why I have always been a runner – I’m just built for it. Same as the reason why my husband is a great cyclist. Have you seen his legs. Swimmers have great lungs. Vocalists have great lungs. Our bodies, abilities, and preferences tend to gravitate towards our strengths based on what we are built to do.
For those that do not come from a swimming background, then, breath control sets are very challenging. I’m not saying it is easy for swimmers, I’m just saying you give a swimmer a set that involves holding their breath and they often look at it like….big deal. Non-swimmers, not the same.
I like using breath control sets for non-swimmers – sometimes. It helps them get over the mental road block of holding their breath and pushing when the burn sets in. It simulates race conditions where anxiety and hard effort meet to create a burn in the head and the legs. However, I see with some athletes that it gets them shaking for days to see it on their schedule. It literally puts them on edge and the thought of holding their breath gets them scared.
I understand this. I feel the same way. There is nothing natural to me about holding my breath. I’m a runner. We need air. Air is good. I would never run a 200 all out while holding my breath. Nor would I only let myself breathe every 5 – 9 steps.
So to be told to breathe every 9 strokes or hold my breath for 20 seconds that is not intuitive to me. It requires me to override a system that has been in place for years. 33 years to be exact. The system that says air is good, breathing is something we need.
Rightfully so, it’s hard for me to hold my breath. It’s part mental but sometimes I wonder if it’s also just flaw in design. And to know that possibly I cannot succeed at something is very unsettling to me. I try and try, I force it and push. And the longer you have been in athletics, the more comfortable you are with pushing yourself. Beyond your own physical limits, beyond their design, beyond – possibly – someplace safe. Look at Marit. The girl rode 20 minutes on a broken back. Talk about overriding the system of pain. As athletes we have taught ourselves to eat pain, to make peace with pain, to ignore it to almost very unsafe points.
But when we do breath control in the pool, are we ignoring to the point where we could die? Read the aritcle and then assess. Makes me wonder if maybe for my body it’s just not safe. I’m not sure. The athlete that brought this up with me also brought up the fact that when I do breath control it makes me want to poop. Sorry, that’s just me being honest. Pooping is also my body's way of being honest, saying hey, we need air, we are shutting a system down here that is less important and not giving it oxygen as a result it starts to go hypoxic, spasms, and gets ready to die. That’s my colon speaking, not me. So is it wise then for me to even try? And as an athlete do I just have to admit to myself that maybe my body just will never be good at it and maybe it’s not safe for me to try?
I think sometimes we get confused with excuses and reasons. And in situations like this we need to sort it out for ourselves. We are told so many times not to make excuses for ourselves. But when we can’t do something is there really a good reason for it. Is it more than just you’re not pushing hard enough, you’ve got to force it. Is there a limit that we need to listen to about ourselves? I’m not saying it’s ok to fail – but if you keep doing something over and over again, what is the benefit of continuing to try? Are we trying to the point of where we could hurt ourselves? Sport is risky enough – should we add risk on top of everything else? And is it better to just abandon something too risky and put your effort someplace else?
There is an attitude that anyone can do anything. It’s hard to avoid this when you get into sport. I also think it’s risky. I don’t think everyone should do Ironman just as I don’t think everyone should climb Mt. Everest. For some the risk is too high and their energy is better spent somewhere else. The beauty of the world is that everyone is good at something. And there is also is a complicated skill, effort and feel to most things that limit everyone’s ability to master everything. That’s what makes top level performance so amazing – that someone had the right combination of skill, work ethic, and genetics to master that one thing. To think that everyone can master it – well, in some regard that is disrespecting the finesse and complexity required to achieve peak performance and flow in a sport.
There are reasons why certain athletes cannot and should not do things. Sometimes those reasons are more complicated than he just won’t try. As a coach, it’s a trap I have to be vigilant about – to avoid becoming hard-headed about my athletes. There is a fine line between he won’t try and maybe he just can’t. I understand that sometimes failure at something is not a result of lack of effort or not forcing it hard enough. Sometimes it is a result of lack of conditioning, lack of ability, or mental roadblock. It’s my job to assess when that happens and how to successfully address each case. But it’s also my job to accept that it’s ok to have an athlete that just "can't". Maybe there is time better spent somewhere else or on a different skill. And I have to keep reminding myself that because someone cannot master holding their breath doesn’t mean they will fail in swimming or that they haven’t tried.
As I push myself harder this year I am acknowledging that there are certain things I am not meant to do. It is a hard pill to swallow because as I push – I want to achieve. I want to reach mastery. But sometimes it’s just not there. I will never push out 1000 watts. I will never run 400 meters in 70 seconds or less. Just like I will probably never be able to hold my breath underwater for 25 yards. That is not in the master plan for me. I’m faulty by design and admitting that – is ok. Because there are so many other things I am designed for success.
But I always try. And I keep within the logical limits of myself. Each day I learn better to assess when I have reached a mental roadblock or something more physical. I have learned to make these choices for myself. While I have a coach pushing me and challenging me, I also know that ultimately I am responsible for myself – to try what I think sounds logical – even slightly illogical – and to see if I can achieve. I also know that sport is risky – so I weigh my choices and efforts by what is the safest for myself. I know when it’s smart to push and when it’s smarter not to try. Again, that’s not by lack of effort or failure. That’s just part of the athlete’s process of becoming intuitively connected and wise to yourself.
As athletes we take on a lot of risk. Like anything there needs to be risk managment; whether it's holding our breath or going out for a ride - we need to make the best choices for ourselves, to communicate with our coach when something doesn't sit well with us. To always give our best and to get better will require delicately riding the fine line between safety and pushing ourselves. Know yourself and your limits - push up against them but accept that sometimes the point is not to force something to mastery rather to just give something a try. Arriving short of success is not failure as long as you've tried.