Our daughter’s favorite swimming event is the mile. For 33 laps, she maintains nearly the same pace for every 50 yards she swims: 34.54 sec, 34.86 sec, 35.12 sec, 34. 52 sec. It amazes me how she can hold almost the exact same pacing, each within tenths of a second of the lap before, for almost 20 minutes.
If I could pace my life and my career the way she paces her mile swim — steady, with enough wisdom and strength to be competitive and not fizzle out before reaching the end of the race — I would be golden.
This thought got me to wondering, how does she do it? And how I can I copy her so I am productive at work and in life without burning myself out?
From talking to her in our millions of car rides after practices and before and after races, this is what I’ve gathered. These strategies help her not only survive the mile swim, but improve at it, and love it.
- Practice. A lot.
- Have a breathing plan.
- Know what different paces feel like, and which one can be sustained.
- Mind all the pieces to not just maintain, but improve.
Practice seems obvious, right? Through repetition and doing, she trains her body so that it knows what every length, every stroke, every breath of the mile swim feels like. In practice she does strength training and skills training: catch, pull, exit, and recovery, kick, breathing, starts, finishes, flip turns. But it’s not just the pieces that matter, it’s knowing what you’re aiming for, and practicing in the way you want to ultimately perform. The coaches don’t allow sloppiness or shortcuts. As I’ve heard the coaches say:
If you can’t do it in a race, don’t do it in practice.
What this means for life and work is that we should practice the thing we say we want to do. For example, if my goal is to be productive and fulfilled at work and also have a fulfilling life outside of work, I should practice exactly those things. I should practice being productive while at work, actively getting involved in projects that align with where I want to go, and imposing boundaries to protect time for my personal life. In other words, I should not scroll Twitter for hours at work, say I want to do more writing but instead work on spreadsheets, or say yes to projects that require I give up my personal life to complete them well.
Have a breathing plan
I asked our daughter once what her breathing pattern is. Does she breathe always on the same side, or does she alternate like I do, breathing every third stroke? She said she goes into a race with a breathing plan, not a pattern. She didn’t explain why, but I’ve thought a lot about it, and my suspicion is that having a plan helps the swimmer control the breathing rather than the need for breath controlling them. A breathing plan is proactive instead of reactive.
I love the thought of having a breathing plan for work and life. We have to breathe — we can’t just put our heads down and plow through days and weeks and months without coming up for air. We’ll drown. Likewise, if we don’t plan our breath, we’ll end up taking sick days because we’ve worn ourselves out rather than taking vacation days to enjoy our health. For me, my breathing plan means breaks from work or chores or any other obligations. I plan my writing practice and coffee in the morning, my lunch break food and entertainment (books, podcasts), relaxation time either before or after dinner depending on whether I’m cooking, and reading time at night. Longer term, I make sure I go on my annual Girls Weekend, I take a gardening vacation in spring, and I go on a family vacation every year. These breaths sustain me. If I didn’t plan for them, I’d surely burn out.
Know what pace is sustainable and sustain it
This is the thing I marvel at most about our daughter’s ability to swim the mile: she knows exactly what pace she can sustain for a nearly-20 minute swim. She knows what pace to swim a 200, a 500, and a 1000 — and all the paces are different. She couldn’t swim a mile at her 200 pace. She’d tank. And she can feel it. She knows exactly what the mile pace feels like. She and her body know this, from the 6-days-a-week of practicing. She dives off the block, and she swims fast enough to try to beat her previous time, but also steady and controlled enough to not deplete her energy before the race is over.
I think this might be the hardest component of endurance pacing for life. Do we get enough practice to know how much of a workload is sustainable, how much of a social life is sustainable, and how to sustain them? We likely could all do a better job of paying attention to our paces. Laying on the couch all day clearly isn’t going to get us anywhere. But taking on so much that we feel like we can’t breathe or eat or sleep is too much. As far as knowing my limits, or not pushing myself too hard, I’ve got to put boundaries on what I say yes to.
We have a finite number of hours in the day, and we must measure what can fit into them. Saying yes to one thing may mean saying no to another. We can’t just keep adding stuff, just like a swimmer can’t just keep accelerating with each lap. There are limits to how much can be done, how fast we can go, and if we push those limits beyond our capacity, we’ll fizzle. We’ll lose ground instead of gaining it. The indicator for pacing may be stress and irritibility, and possibly resentment. When those start creeping in, it might be time to ease the pace a bit.
Mind the pieces
The final compenent that allows for not only pacing and maintaining, but also for improving — for being able to do more or go faster without burning out too early — is to be attentive to all the pieces, all the time. When swimming, our daughter told me she is hyperfocused on everything that goes into getting a little bit more out of the effort she’s putting in. She’s paying attention to her catch, pull, exit, and recovery, kick, breathing, flip turns, and acceleration in that final lap to the finish. She practices them, and then she puts them all together in the race. If she ignores any component, she won’t be able improve.
I’ve been trying to figure out how this relates to work and life. I think what it comes down to is making sure we are attentive to all the things we do, both when we are doing them, and as a whole. It kind of goes back to the practice component — don’t be sloppy or take shortcuts, because that will likely add work later rather than reducing it. We should do each thing well, while we are doing it, and this will help us get better at each component so that what was once hard becomes easier, creating a little more space for us to improve.