We swim the race, hit the wall, and look for the time. Those numbers are powerful. They determine the order of finishing. Who walks away with medals. What records are established both internal (personal best) or external (e.g. pool, region, state, national record etc). They determine the label we attach to the performance; usually in a black and white way, it was good or bad. They also determine our evaluation of the training leading in; too much or not enough. Most importantly, they determine how we feel about ourself.
You cannot discount these numbers, they are part of the sport, and an essential part at that. But, using them in isolation for anything other than placings and a quick snapshot of what you were able to record at that particular moment in time, is not beneficial to anyone. Of course, I’m not referring to high performance athletes here, but to the young developing athlete.
There are so many elements that come together in the process of the race itself. The time is the quickest and easiest way to judge ourselves, but is it really reasonable to expect it to be faster every single time? And, if it’s not faster, to then assume there have been no improvements gained? And, worse yet, that you need to change coaches/clubs or quit?
A common theme raised in working with young athletes and parents is frustration when going through periods of not doing a PB. It could be a longer period, say a year or few months, but I hear concerns as little as a couple of weeks! Think about that concept for a moment. A personal best. This is you, asking your body to perform a race in a time faster than you ever have before. It’s essentially a personal ‘world record’. Something that has never been done before by you. Is there anything in life that you improve each and every time you attempt it? Regardless of the environment, how you feel, maturation, training phases, illness or injury, head space, life factors etc? It’s bizarre that this even a talking point!
The 26th September 2004 was the last day that I did a personal best in the 50m breaststroke (short course). I continued to swim at the highest level, until retiring in April 2009 and not once was I able to go faster in that race. Nearly 5 years of zero improvement if time was all I looked at. How did I keep swimming for so long without a PB? Time was only one aspect of the race I would look at. Stroke rates, stroke counts, race skills, swim speed, strength and overall training indications are just part of the bigger picture. I was showing improvements in other elements and events. I knew I was a better athlete, I was achieving other (non-time related) goals and this allowed the time to take a back seat.
Did it frustrate me? You bet. Did I go into races wanting to do a PB? Absolutely! But every time I stood behind the blocks, it was about the process. About nailing the race plan in the best way I could at that moment. I have no doubts that I retired in April 2009 as a far superior athlete to the one who posted the fastest recorded time five years prior. It was only a matter of time before everything lined up in the one moment to do that elusive PB. I retired before it happened but that doesn’t matter, deep down I knew it was possible, and that is what kept me going.
I hate the word normal, but I will use it here. It is ‘normal’ to go through periods of no PBs. It might even feel sometimes that you aren’t just at a standstill, but rather, you are traveling backwards! It’s also ‘normal’ to be frustrated and feel down in these phases. This is not actually a bad thing because it serves as a reminder that your goals mean something to you and these are good reasons to keep going! When the time isn’t getting faster, shift the focus. Look at the bigger picture of the race - stroke rates and stroke counts are a good one. Time spent on skills and free swim is another. Talk to your coach about the focus of the season and what the training program is targeting. It’s nice to swim fast all the time, but the training program is likely planned to have sections of heavier workload and intensity. Progressive overload. We work hard, then we rest and recover. Then repeat this process building from a stronger base. Two steps forward, one step back. This is the only way to grow with that long term goal in mind.
So take each day as it comes. Don’t expect to swim a PB every single time you stand behind the blocks. Improvements aren’t always manifested in a faster time. See it for what it is and keep your focus on what really matters!