Convincing Your Brain of What Your Body Already Knows

Swimming has taught me many lessons.  One of the most important lessons is that your own thoughts and doubts can be your biggest hurdles and, once the doubts are cleared, the confidence that you gain can be unbelievably liberating.

When I started swimming as a little guy, I couldn’t swim a length of the pool.  I desperately wanted to score points for my new team and I didn’t want to be embarrassed, so I forced myself to make it to the other end of the pool.  Once I made it the first time, I never grabbed the gutter again.  Ultimately, I learned that I could train and race for not one length, but two, then four, then eight, and ultimately for hundreds at a time.

The point is that, at each stage, I had a threshold of doubt.  I still have doubts, and have them all the time.  Where do they come from, especially since I know that, in 46 years of swimming, I have never once failed to make it to the finish?  The doubt comes from your brain, and sometimes the only way to dispel the doubt is to force your body to teach your brain what your body already knows.  I am now certain that this whole English Channel swimming thing is just that; forcing your body to teach your brain that this is something you can do.

Take getting acclimated to swimming in cold water, for instance, in preparation for the English Channel swim.  Even mildly cold water is unpleasant; very cold water can be dangerous.  Everyone has their threshold, but for me, it is below 55 degrees.  The first time I jumped in water that cold, it was a shock.  Your body responds to the cold in some surprising ways – first you panic because you can’t breathe, then you have this pins-and-needles feeling all over your body, particularly in your face.  It turns out that you can’t breathe because the cold causes a temporary paralysis in your diaphragm, like having the wind knocked out of you when you land hard on your back.  The pins-and-needles in the face are from the cold, and for some reason give way to an equally surprising hot sensation.

The first time this happens, it is terrifying.  But, you force yourself to swim through it.  I learned that things feel better if I can take 100 strokes, so I force my head down, and start swimming and counting.  I get to 100; I am breathing, I am warm, and my body has successfully taught my brain that I can cross that threshold.  The second time you force yourself into that cold water, you know what’s coming.  Just like before, you can’t breathe, you get the pins-and-needles, the whole bit.  That part doesn’t change.  But you’ve been here before, and now your brain knows.  There is no panic, because your brain knows that in 100 strokes and you’ll be warm.  Your body has taught your brain that it is something that will only hurt for a minute.  Just like when you were little, you have made it to the end of the pool without stopping and your brain knows that you will never hang on the gutter again.

This week, I had the opportunity to swim with some wonderful new friends at the La Jolla Cove Swim Club, near San Diego.  The days were cool, and the water was a couple degrees colder than my 55 degree threshold.  The seals and sea lions were barking and scolding the human interlopers on their rocks and beach, and the cormorants were diving.  It was spectacularly beautiful.

I had my doubts, but I got in, I got cold, I got warm and I got back to the beach.   And my brain got smarter because, once again, my body taught it a lesson.

So, a message to my arbitrary thresholds and silly doubts:  “Good riddance.  We are SO over.  We won’t be talking again before we meet on the beach in France.”

See you at the pool beach.  I will report back.