Last week, I had my masters group do a timed 1000. If you want to learn a lot about the psychology of an athlete, hit them with a “surprise” 1000 time trial!
Understanding that some swim for fitness, others for triathlon preparation and still others just for social reasons, a test set at masters can be a very tricky thing. Many fear the test. Others opt out. Some ask questions: Do I go all out for a 1000? What if I need to pass someone? How many laps is it? Then there’s a quiet few who plot their pacing and strategy through the warm up, eagerly awaiting the chance to push themselves. Which category would you fall into? Changing how you think about the test and how you approach the test can definitely change the result.
No matter how fast, experienced or unfit an athlete is, they will benefit from a test. Especially prior to race season. You see, testing is very much like a race. For many athletes, testing brings out the nervous, tentative, doubtful side of themselves. The very sight of the word “test” on a schedule can bring butterflies to the stomach. How that athlete prepares for the test, executes it and performs is very useful information for the athlete and the coach. It gives us a sneak peak of the obstacles we’ll have to manage on race day – whether it’s nerves, overconfidence, pacing or doubts.
Over the years, I’ve seen athletes react a lot of different ways to tests; fear, avoidance, excuses, tears. Simply put, a lot of athletes unnecessarily psyche themselves out and worry about tests. They fear the pain of the test or what it will reveal about them. But if you’re going to reach your best, you have to get past this. You have to change how you view tests.
A test is a checkpoint. It reveals where you’re at and what we need to work on. It points out the holes in your fitness, cadence, turnover and pacing. A test is also great opportunity to surprise yourself. To see what you’re made of. To put yourself into a race-like setting to learn to manage, guide and push yourself so that it becomes second nature on race day. A test, like a race, teaches you to face yourself and get over yourself; your fears, your doubts. And, no, you can’t expect to do this on race day if you haven’t done it in training!
Not surprisingly, the athletes who test best exhibit certain qualities. These are not necessarily my fastest athletes or only the podium finishers. These are the athletes with an unrelenting work ethic, exceptional emotional control and killer self-confidence. If a test scares them, they don’t let you in on it. They face the test with the same fearlessness they do any other challenge. I’m not afraid. I can’t wait to see what I’m made of. I can’t wait to see the result.
They embrace the test as a checkpoint of where they are at, not a judgment of who they are. They don’t see tests as pass/fail, instead it’s a measure of their fitness that provides us with useful information on strengths and weaknesses. They don’t avoid tests – they know that to train sensibly and set goals they need honest, accurate and frequent assessments of where they're at. Anything else is a pipe dream or bullshit. They accept that time, life, age, injury, off season can and will influence tests results. Sometimes they can do something about this – commit more, work harder, follow the plan. Other times you just have to accept that you need to be your best right here, right now – not 10 years ago, not 20 pounds ago.
These athletes are unafraid of tests. Which really means they are unafraid of themselves. They seem to thrive on that me versus me moment that you reach about 10 minutes into a test when your body and mind are screaming two different things – STOP! Press on! THIS HURTS! You can do this! At that moment, they realize that this is the good stuff – what they’ve been waiting for – and then they do what it takes to ignore the negative voice. They realize that negative voice will never go away. It will always try to get to you. The more pain you are in, the more tired you get, the harder that negative voice will try. So they ignore it, work with it or throw reason at it. It’s only 20 minutes. No one has ever been stuck in a test forever. They’ve become experts at this conversation, a useful skill in racing when the fatigue or pain or pressure to quit can feel overwhelming.
When the result comes back different than they hoped for (or worked for), they see it as a challenge not a discouragement. They use it as fuel to work harder. Or, they ask their coach what do I need to do to get there? They focus on action. Above all, they never settle. They are always hungry. They want one more watt and one more second. Notice I said hungry, not greedy. They realize there is a typical rate of progress which you cannot accelerate. They accept one thing for sure: they will never progress as fast as they want to. So in the mean time, they are patient. They plot their course. They look for ways to recover harder, train smarter and use as much “free speed” as possible to outsmart the test: pacing, hydrating, fueling, attitude, etc.
They approach tests with the same attention to detail, enthusiasm and confidence that they do a race. They realize that every test prepares them to be a better racer. They think through their fueling and often the night before – they will eat their pre-race dinner or the morning of will prepare their pre-race breakfast. They set aside uninterrupted time. They think through their pacing. They have mantras. They set goals for the test – some are process goals, some are outcome-based. They caffeinate, they crank up the music, they give it 100 percent of their focus and energy. They motivate themselves with a post-test reward. They get competitive – with themselves. They keep themselves honest; can you give it a little more, what if I went one minute sooner, what if I took a risk?
And if it’s not going their way? They press forward. They never give up. They don’t judge the outcome before the end of the test. They process it later. They realize this chatter during the test is a drain of energy that could be put into cranking the pedals or turning their arms over. No matter what, they accept the results and move forward. They don’t dwell. It’s just one checkpoint along the way.
Back to the timed 1000 test. When it was all said and done, you wouldn’t believe who had the fastest time in the pool. Not the former collegiate swimmer, not the athlete who qualified for 70.3 worlds, not the Ironman, not the youngest swimmer. It was a woman in her 50s. Not the fastest swimmer in the pool. But in that test, not only did she swim fastest time but she was minutes ahead of everyone else. Minutes. When she was done, I went up to her and said, you knocked it out of the park today.
Turns out she had just done the same test a few days earlier with the other group in town that she swims with. She knew how it would feel and knew how to pace it. She told me that she wasn’t scared of the test. Before she started, she told herself that if she’s going to swim the 1000 at the state meet, she better get used to swimming it. She was pleased with her effort- she swam it faster than she thought she would and had a new benchmark.
After the test, I saw that something switched in her. She’s typically a swimmer who doesn’t give herself enough credit. She went through a series of health problems and surgeries a few years ago and you can see that it took away a bit of her self-confidence. Standing at the wall after the 1000, I could see that the switch flipped. At some point, maybe when she signed up for state, she realized the switch had to flip. You don’t get the results you want by playing scared or giving it anything but your best. You need to believe you can do it but then you actually have to try. Trying is scary. It’s painful. But that feeling afterwards when you nail the test, when you finish knowing you couldn’t give it anything more – that feeling of no regrets – well, that’s the feeling that I think most of us athletes want from racing. You actually have to put yourself on the line to get it – take risks, face yourself and be unafraid. You’ve got to not just embrace but look forward to the test.
After practice, I got asked a question: are you going to make us do this again? Another timed 1000? No, don't be silly. I've got something better planned.
A timed mile*
*and if I hear any sass, I'm pretty sure I can find a way for 200 fly to follow that. I'm looking at you, Lane 2!