There are many factors that make you a faster swimmer (or athlete for that matter). The largest is obviously training, but there is also a psychological factor that is often neglected.
When I first got into running, I was able to go long distances at a moderate pace without stopping. When it came to tempo and long runs, I was the fastest on the team. However, when we did short track workouts with high intensities, I was at the back of the pack. I simply could not keep up with the faster runners. I blamed it on physiology and told myself that “I was just not built to be a sprinter” and that “I was all slow twitch muscles.” To some extent this is true. We all have different builds that suit different types of exercise. However, it was also my own fault that I was not taking the lead.
I was afraid of going fast. I did not trust myself to push my limits to the extent that I should. I felt uncomfortable at those faster intensities and therefore took “refuge” in slower paces. It was not until I broke through this mental barrier that I was able to crack into those higher gears and get faster.
The first step in this process was that I had to recognize that I was going to suffer. Sprinting is hard work and will hurt, but at the same time I had to trust that my body would be fine. I would be able to finish the set or race at that high end and not die.
Once I accepted the pain, I had to evaluate my pain level and tolerance with honesty. During workouts I asked myself constantly: “Can I go faster?” Over time this question became rhetorical because the answer almost always was a resounding “Yes.”
The final step was to break the proverbial glass ceiling and be open to how fast I could go. Many athletes set their own limits whether consciously or subconsciously. We tell ourselves that we can only go so fast, but in actuality we can go much faster. I did not set an end goal time but threw out all expectations. I told myself that if I could get to a 5 minute mile then I could definitely do 4:59, and if I can do that I could definitely do 4:58 and so on.
As I try to improve my speed in the pool, I revisit my experience with getting faster on the track. I first have to accept the pain, then trust that my body will be able to take it, and then I have to break down my limits. Once these mental barriers come down, the physical barriers will fall shortly after.