Over-training! Physical or mental?

Over-training! Physical or mental?
Over-training! Physical or mental?

Over-training and the pitfalls of it with regards to Endurance events

Recently and in the distant past I have come across a fair few English, and other Channel aspirants who, coming up to their year of opportunity to gain the coveted title of being a Channel swimmer, are getting very despondent with their efforts to achieve the heady heights of the Channel swimming club.

Having been in this game for 9 years now and with quite a few 25km plus swims under my belt, cycles up Britain and kayaks across Scotland, I have tried many methods to achieve these goals, thankfully successfully but for each one the journey is very different and I try to adopt different training strategies to find out what works best for ME. This is very important as each of us are very different and of varying competency, there is no one size fits all approach.

What I have to say is not the sole preserve of open water swimming but endurance events in general. I find the biggest pitfall to taking part in these events seems to be social media. Whilst I think Social media can be hugely beneficial, it also has its pitfalls. I for one have been there and was also very depressed during my Attempt to “join the club” I devoured blogs and videos and general information about other aspirants that were training for the same goal and very quickly realised that I was doing FAR less than others who were chasing the same goal.  As the Words of the Baz Luhrmann song sunscreen “Do not ready beauty magazines, they will only make you feel ugly.” spring to mind. Watching others who are hammering out 25 – 30km per week and with the pressures of life upon us all, it was clear to me that I was drastically under performing in the pool when it came to distances that others were doing. It made me very despondent at first and this resulted in a spiral of negativity for a while. I had MY Physical goals and were sticking to them but it was WAY off the mark when reading other swimmers blogs. Some chasing the channel goal and others chasing other swimming orientated goals

The next pitfall that I commonly see is the assumption that I need to do the distance – at all costs. “The harder I train, the better prepared I will be for the event” This is an admirable trait to have but, there is a common saying that any endurance event is 70% mental, 20% physical and 10% luck. We have no control over the 10% that is just LUCK. However, we are in control of the Physical side of things and, more importantly, the mental side of things. So why is it that we spend nearly 100% of our time focusing on what is effectively 20% of the challenge and most spend near 0% of their time and effort focusing on what is the vast proportion of the event?

In My opinion, this comes down to  measurability of the training. It is far easier to gauge and measure your progress in the pool form a physical perspective. You can measure pace, endurance, speed, distance swum, heart rate, feeding. With modern technology all of the above can be logged and measured and charted and the progress can often be seen. Especially for those that are Spreadsheet orientated. All of this can be monitored very closely. The assumption being if I put the time in in the pool, rivers, lakes and oceans, I will be well prepared. But, at what cost? I will come to that later.

Now most people who have families and jobs and training and the like have very little time on their hands. Do this simple equation
Total week hours =                                                                                        168 hours
Work (based on 50 hours per week) =                                                       50 hours
Sleep (based on 7 Hours per night) =                                                         49 hours
Travel to and from work (based on an hour each way) =                       10 hours
House work (cooking, cleaning, admin, eating-2 hours per day) =     14 hours
Family time (2 hours per day – poor family) =                                        14 hours
25 km swimming a week (based on 3km per hour) =                              9 hours

Total                                                                                                                 146 hours

That only leaves 24 hours for EVERYTHING else in one’s life. The above list is by no means exhaustive and will vary wildly from person to person. So as you can see, our time is precious

For those in the Northern hemisphere, winters are often spent in indoor pools that are heated way above a comfortable training temperature. This can lead to boredom, overheating, loss of focus and more importantly loss of momentum. Granted, there are ways things to mix things up with cold water swimming but, unless you are a whale or seal, it is unlikely that you can put the distance in that you will read about on the interweb.

So if this distance stuff is so bad, what else can we do?

Simple, the mental side is 70% of this game so how do we focus on it?  There are many answers to this. I will mention some shortly but NONE of these is measurable and very hard to gauge and as humans we like to be in control of things, but we cannot control or quantify mental training. I do not think there is one person out there who employs techniques to develop their mental capabilities  that can categorically say that All their techniques worked and here is a spreadsheet to say how it did. But when asked if they could have achieved what they did without the mental training side, there is  a categorical and resounding NO. The sad thing is, whilst this is , what I believe, and EXTREMELY important part of any training, for any goal. In my honest opinion, it is more important than the physical side – but that is only my opinion.

 The following techniques are just a few of the ones I usually employ to mentally prepare myself.

1 – Do not Attempt anything. When talking about your goals, Always talk as if it is a forgone conclusion that you will succeed. What benefit does this have? Well, if your mind hears over and over again that you are going to SWIM to France instead of ATTEMPT to swim to France, it is being positively reinforced every time you mention it. Your mind, also starts to realise that there is no get out card so starts to prepare itself for the inevitable. One saying I live by is,

“what the mind conceives the body will achieve.”

2 – Visualisation. Nearly every professional and some non professional athletes adopt this. So how does it work? I can  only tell you how I do it. In my head I have a Giant cinema screen – 3D IMAX with Dolby surround sound 5.1.  What plays on that screen I am in total control of. I was lucky enough at the time of my Channel swim to spend 20 min on a train every day. I did not read but I shut my eyes and turned on my Cinema screen. For my Channel swim, That 20 min was crucial. Two things in my movie never changed. First the start, that was the same, second was me walking onto a beach in France after 12 hours. What did change was the body of the movie, I experienced  in my mind’s eye, every conceivable challenge that could be thrown at me from rough seas to being mauled by seals and everything in between so by the time I actually swam to France, I had already swum it a couple of hundred times. Was my movie in my head correct, NO. I had to clamber over rocks to get to the finish at the foot of a cliff but I got to France.

3 – My army of minions. A common question posed to me about a marathon swim or event is. “What do you think about for 12 hours plus?” Easy, firstly that every stroke I take is as good as it can get. Secondly, in my mind, I have my army of minions that can be deployed to any part of my body that is experiencing problems, fatigue, pain, muscle spasms, anything my body throws at me is dealt with by my army that floats around my body with every conceivable remedy to cure anything from muscle aches to lactic acid build up in my  muscles. In my head, and using my imagination, they can solve anything. I am constantly talking to myself, verbalising every function that these minions do. Effectively my body is constantly being fixed and massaged as I swim. To the extent that in my head, Individual muscle fibres can be replaced at will. Remember:-

“what the mind conceives the body will achieve.”

4 – Focus on the mundane. MANTRAS. In my case there are two I use. First one is “every day in every way I am more and more successful”. The second one is “Every day in every way I am happier, healthier and fitter”.  These are often used as I am drifting off to sleep at night and in the shower or bath or, oddly, on the loo. Basically at times when my Mind is slowing down its rhythms and I am entering what is known as REM or rapid Eye movement. This is now scientifically proven to be the best state to be able to subconsciously manipulate your mind.

So For all who know me, I may not be a big distance swimmer while in training but due to the time I spend mentally preparing myself, I have continued to stretch my mentally imposed boundaries all the time with success. I think you should be spending as much if not more time focusing on the mental side as you do for the physical side.

So what are the Pitfalls of over training?
Well the main one is:-
 I would rather undertrain and at least get to the start of an event in prime condition rather than carrying an injury due to physically overtraining. At least this way I have a fighting chance to get to the end and am not worried about any niggles or problems associated with heavy training. I see it so often nowadays.

Loss of focus.
Many people who over train lose the love of the challenge along the way. Their entire focus is on the end goal and NOT on the journey they are making. If you are of the persuasion of setting long term goals, then keep it fun, make the journey an enjoyment rather than a chore. Do this by mixing things up and just keep yourself ticking over during the winter. It is not the time to ramp up the distances.

Compromised immune system
If you are going to train so hard, all other aspects need to be adjusted accordingly; more training needs more rest time, more training needs more focus on nutrition and hydration. Often people just push up their training and fail to address all the other aspects and this results in reduced immunity. If this happens and you do not read the signs along the way, your body will rebel and impose a forced time out. If you are not going to protect yourself it will do it for you and you will end up with a lengthy time out due to sickness.

Comparing YOUR journey to that of others is by far the biggest culprit here. Trying to attain the goals of others is never going to work for you. STOP reading blogs, STOP trying to do what others do and DO what you need to.

In conclusion, this is a tough game. There is no book on how to achieve a marathon, only a plethora of information on how OTHERS achieved their goals within THEIR capabilities and time constraints. You are you and only you can prepare for YOUR GOAL. This needs to be more Holistic and adapted for your ability, time constraints and pressures. I leave you with a question I now know the answer to but you must find your answer

Does your body control your mind or your mind control your body? Think about it and be certain to place focus where you think it will be best used. I know my answer

If anyone would like to discuss my mental training techniques in more detail then please contact me using the contact forms or comment on this post

Now, on a slightly more fun note, As some of you know, the pod of hippos has recenty been gifted with another Hippo, all the way from Zimbabwe in Africa and after a social media poll to find a name for the hippo, Slimhippo has finally settled on the name of Mvuu. This is the Shona name for Hippopotamus and Shona is the local vernacular in the northern parts of Zimbabwe. So welcome to the clan, we love you and hope you will enjoy your travels with us to different parts of the world.

Mvuu the Hippo, I can see with that fashion sense she will fit in fine


Tom(the cat), Harry and Mvuu. Tom passes as the Furry  Hippo

About the author

Ameteur Endurance athlete and marathon swimmer Having taken up marathon swimmng in 2008 with the challenge of the English Channel, I then continued on to Cycle up Britain, Kayak across Scotland and run a few marathons. None of those held the draw that marathon swimming held so in 2014 I was back in the water to Swim the longest swim in Switzerland and then, in 2015 I opted to take on my biggest swim to date. SCAR challenge.- 4 lakes in 4 days with distances Ranging from 6 miles to 18 miles.

9 Comments on “Over-training! Physical or mental?

  1. Helen Brindle Reply

    Completely agree that reading too many blogs can be destructive, except for this one. I am very interested in more information on mental training.

    1. Graeme Schlachter Reply

      Hi thee Helen

      I think I have opened up a can of worms for myself. I think I need to do another blog elaborating on the mentioned techniques and also a lot that I have not mentioned.
      Mental training is not rocket science as we all experience the Brain levels that I mention every day of our lives but as we get older and more synical, it becomes harder to stay in a useful state of mind and also realise that we are there to start off with.

      I wish you all the best for your challenges and if you ever want to pick my brain I will gladly share any advice that I can offer.

      Kind Regards

      The Zimhippo

  2. Steve Lodge Reply

    Hi Graeme, I’ve only just began my journey and I am one of those who read the social media and have often put myself down because I’m not swimming as far or as fast in my swims as others but have addressed this in several ways:

    I have a good coach in Mark Johansen. Not only does he coach but he inspires.
    I have a hypnotherapist who enforces my mantra, “every day I grow stronger, more positive, more confident”.
    I have a fellow swimmer who is one year ahead of me in terms of my journey and I try and emulate her swims.
    I want to achieve my journey so that my 7 year old grandson can go to school and say, ‘my Grandad swam the Channel’.

    I will still be 60 when I complete a Relay Crossing and I’ll be 62 when I achieve my Solo and I don’t intend my journey to stop there.

    Thank you for your blog. I am inspired by those that not only dream the dream but by those who achieve the dream.

    1. Graeme Schlachter Reply

      Hi there Steve

      Thank you for your response. It is Great to see people from all age groups have these dreams and It is great that you have so much great people assisting you in your endeavour. I was not so lucky so had to figure it out on my own with barely enough funds just to pay for the boat. I did however have one ace up my sleeve and that is a personal development course i went on and qualified as a lecturer years ago so I have a very good grasp of how our minds work – well better than most and I used the techniques mentioned very often plus many others.
      Also with regards to controlling our mind. We all enter various states of conciousness every day the hard part is realising what state you are in and also what you are able to do in those states and also control the shifting between the various states that our brain operates in

      Seeing the responses to this post have made it abundantly clear that many people place their focus on one area leaving gaping holes in other areas of preparation. I Now need to try to put my abilities into an understandable format so others are able to take advantage of what they already have.

      Your reason is also a great reason to take this on and I wish you all the best and if you ever want to chat or pick my brains I would happily share what I know. it will probably only take a few minutes!!

      I look forward to seeing you in the river again soon once my life calms down to a mild whirlwind rather than the tornado that it currently is

      Kind regards


  3. Dylan Reply

    Dear Graeme

    Thanks for your article, really helpful, a lot to reflect on. There is not a lot out there on over-training, mental preparation and finding a balance. People seem to fit the mind in quickly after discussing the physical side at length.

    The Sri Chinmoy Zurich swim people promote meditation for endurance sports? Your train journeys sound very meditative and a great preparation space?

    Your mantras and visualisations are really interesting, Gearing and forming supportive bonds between mind and body that then play out on the swim in a team effort.

    I sometimes remind myself that this is my leisure time and to enjoy.

    Thanks again, hope people chip in.


    1. Graeme Schlachter Reply

      Hi there Dylan

      Thank you. I am glad it was useful to you and yes there is not a lot out there but I have been lucky enough to go on personal development courses and also lectured them so I base a lot of my preparation on the mental side and I very strongly feel that this is so overlooked. I will try and put together another post soon with regards to the more indepth functions of the brain. It is not something we have to learn, we all alter our brainwaves many times a day without any regard for what they can do for us. I am very lucky in that I have the ability to realise and control what level of brain activity I am in and this is my key to success in my endurance Events.

      I was always very hesitant to post this as I believed that many would look upon me with disdain but I got the kick I needed when a Channel aspirant phoned me for advice. When i started talking to him he was very intrigued and it all made perfect sense to him and just talking to him hugely put his mind at ease with his despondency

      Thank you once again for taking the time to read my post and it seems to be very popular with over 300 reads in the last 7 hours. Seems that many are interested in this stuff after all.

      Kind regards


  4. Jody Jones Reply

    Hi Graeme,
    Thank you so much for posting this blog! Its come at just the right time for me – have been beating myself up so much about my training and have been trying to balance too many things within my training from endurance to cold water acclimatisation (more of a slightly sadistic pleasure lol) to improving my technique to trying to lose weight (much needed) to trying to increase my speed. Its all a bit much to squeeze into a busy life as a full time working mum of 2 young children who also runs a choir in any leftover ‘spare’ time. But I have a dream and a pilot booking to swim next year so I’m taking on this challenge head on – your blog has helped me to re-think my training and tweak it to make sure I’m actually enjoying my swimming as opposed to just beasting myself. The enjoyment is why I started ow swimming in the first place! I took up yoga a month ago and that has been a godsend to me – gives me a 90 block every week where I can just regain some focus and think about what it is that I want to achieve. You’re so right that it is all about the mental aspects – I wasn’t as mentally prepared for my 1WW last year as I was physically and so when the shoulder started to niggle about 3km from the end my mindset crumbled a bit. I won’t allow that to happen again if I can prepare mentally better for my big swim. As my lovely friend Steve Lodge said above I’m inspired. I’m also going to stop saying that I have a Channel attempt booked – I can and I will (fingers crossed – arghh did it again! Oh well I have to start somewhere lol).
    Best wishes,

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