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Don't Just Endure It — Learn to Love Swimming

By Will Murray | March 11, 2016, 12:52 p.m. (ET)

ocean swimMany triathletes have a love-hate relationship with swimming. They love finishing a swim and getting out of the water. They hate starting a swim and getting into the water.

What if you could just change your mind about hating swimming? And if you could do it easily, quickly and permanently? How would that change your approach to training and racing? How would that change your experience the evening before a big swim workout or race as you think about tomorrow’s swim?

Are you able to detect the difference between fun and chores? Of course, everyone can do that. Fun is, well, fun, and chores are, well, chores. A five-year-old knows the difference. Preparing your federal and state tax returns — that’s a chore (for most of us). Stretching — perhaps a chore. Cleaning your bike chain and the little crannies in your cassette — most likely a chore. What makes a chore a chore is that you had better do it because if you don’t, bad things happen. Skip your taxes and you go to jail. Fail to stretch and you risk injury. Ride on a dirty chain and you receive a giant repair bill at the bike shop. Somehow, your brain has a code that reads as chore.

Fun things are just inherently enjoyable, not so much for the result they produce but simply because they are fun all by themselves, for their own sake, and independent of the reward of doing them. You don’t have to muscle up, dig down deep, find your motivation and grit your teeth to launch into a fun experience. Somehow, your brain has a code that reads as fun.

In a previous article, I wrote about how to remove the physical discomforts of swimming, such as breathlessness, racing heart rate and panicky feelings (Murray, 2016a). And in another piece, I wrote about how to quell the psychological discomfort around open water swimming (Murray, 2016b). Those pieces might help you address those things within your control around swimming to help you relax and feel calm in the water.

Now we take it one step further, from putting up with swimming, from tolerating swimming, from not hating swimming, to actually loving swimming. If you are ready to embrace swimming as a fun thing to do and not a chore, follow the steps below. You will need to write down answers to some questions in this exercise, so trot off and get your paper and pen. Since these questions are likely ones you’ve never considered, you might want to get someone to ask them to you and record the answers.

Step One: Think of Something Really Fun

I don’t want to know what it is; keep it to yourself. Select something you really like to do for its own sake that you can launch into without hesitation and that you really enjoy while doing it.

Step Two: Discover Your Personal Code for Fun

Get a strong picture and feeling of launching into that fun activity. Place yourself in the activity as though you were doing it right now. Ask yourself the following questions and write down the answers: 

  • Do you experience the activity as a moving picture or a still picture?
  • Is it color or black and white?
  • How bright is the picture compared to normal?
  • Where is it located in your field of view (front, side, above or below horizon, far away, close)?
  • How large is it: 3x5 inches, 8x10 inches, computer-screen-sized, TV-screen-sized, movie-screen-sized or even larger?
  • Does it have a border around it? What color is the border? How wide is the border?
  • Is the picture grainy, fuzzy, sharp or focused?
  • Do you see yourself over there in the picture, or do you see the picture as through your own eyes?
  • What sounds are associated with the picture?
  • What bodily sensations to you feel when you see the picture? Where in or around your body are these feelings located precisely? What shapes are these feelings?

Step Three: Break From The Present State

Now, take a few breaths and picture something completely unrelated for a few moments.

Step Four: Identify The Activity You Want To Love To Do

Think of something you are having a hard time motivating yourself to do. As an example, here we will use swimming in open water. 

Step Five: Recode

Before you get into the water in this thought experiment, in your mind’s eye, format a video in exactly the same way you experienced the fun activity in steps one and two. Precisely recreate the image of you going for a swim in the open water with the same kind of picture, same brightness, same focus, same location, same size, same point of view, same sound qualities and same bodily feelings. Start this imaginary experience at whatever point you feel like you should start. Let it play out at its own speed, and end it wherever you feel you should end it. You’ll know what to do.

Step Six: Rehearse Your Future Experience

Now think of the next time you will swim. If you feel the way you want to, let yourself mentally rehearse the swim exactly as you wish it would go. If you hit any snags, just back up the movie, fix the issue and continue. You are the movie director, so you can have the movie go the way you want.

Step Seven: Test

Imaging another time when you will want to do this activity. If the desire to launch into this activity is not strong enough, repeat steps five and six. (Murray and Howie, 2012).

Once you recode the chore into the fun format, it will be permanently recategorized in your mind as fun. You will only have to do this exercise one time and you are all set. This pattern works for more than learning to love swimming. You can use it on anything that you wish you could like more, provided that the chore actually has a positive benefit.


Murray, W. (2015a). Increase your open water swim comfort. Retrieved from

Murray, W. (2016b). Quelling open water swim discomfort. Retrieved from 

Murray, W. and Howie, C. (2012).  The four pillars of triathlon: vital mental conditioning for endurance athletes.

Will Murray is a USA Triathlon Level I Coach, a USAT All-American and co-author with Craig Howie, of The Four Pillars of Triathlon: Vital Mental Conditioning for Endurance Athletes and has written mental training plans in Training Peaks. Murray, an NLP Practitioner, is the mental skills coach at D3 Multisport in Boulder, Colo.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.