"There is no tension in swimming," Coach Jason said last night. We were standing on the deck working with one of the team's intermediate swimmers - a guy who has such potential to be a great three-sport athlete if he would only relax a little.
After Jason reviewed more proper form, I looked down at my teammate and said, "Try this: With the rhythm of your strokes, say this to yourself, 'I am a worthwhile person." (My alma mater, a super-academic haven for masochistic students, has the tongue-in-cheek slogan, "No Matter What You Say Or Do To Me, I'm Still a Worthwhile Person.")
With this advice and Jason's instruction, he laughed and then swam.
For me, Jason's words illustrate such an important part of training - focus and relaxation. You can't fight tension with tension. You end up fighting only yourself. So what is one of the smallest and easiest changes you can make to your form to help you go faster? What relaxation technique can make the hard work easier? Smile.
On Sunday I ran with 11 other Ironteammers down at Venice Beach. I shuttled from group to group so that I could chat with everyone and make sure they felt comfortable. It was a 6-mile run, and at the turnaround point I found one our runners going at it alone. From what I've observed over the past 7 weeks, she's got a ton of promise as a triathlete. She's a competent swimmer, really stronger biker, and a solid runner. But as we ran, she talked about how she doesn't quite have the confidence with her run yet.
So for the last 2.5 miles, we did a little "pain cave" work. I pushed her through two one-mile repeats at a pace below her PR. As we ran, I threw out little pieces of advice - roll your shoulders, remember why you run, etc. I also told her, twice, to smile. Even though I was 1.5 steps in front of her, I immediately heard her breathing change. It was lighter. There was a laugh to it. And if she could lighten up and laugh, it meant she could keep on going at this speedy clip.
The most productive state you can be in while training is relaxed and alert. It's why coaches say that when you run, hold your hands like you are cradling eggs. Don't clench your fists. Same thing with your head - don't clench your jaw. Just smile.
You're not the only one who will benefit from the smiling. At IMCDA '10, there was an enormous amount of course support. While I was on the bike, I told myself, whatever happens out here, I'm going to grin through it. I committed myself to high-fiving every kid I could and waving at all the spectators that cheered me on. Because, maybe somewhere in that crowd, there's a kid who thinks he or she can one day be an Ironman. Or maybe next week sign up for swim lessons. Or ride a bike on the weekend. If they happen to catch my crooked grin and mischievous eyes - the look I have when I'm having a blast - maybe that's the small touch they needed to send them along their journey. Who knows? Not me, for sure. But why not think that?
Perhaps this is cheesy, novelty advice. It has nothing to do with body angle, heart rate or VO2 Max. It's just a smile. But smiles are windows to your head and your heart. And in the end, those are the two most important things that get us to the finish line.