Pádraig Mallon, one of the few people in the world who is an ice swimmer, channel swimmer and an Ironman triathlete, has gotten through some tough physical challenges.
He freely admits that he plays mind games to help him overcome the obstacles he encounters.
“This winter I have been training a group of swimmers to swim in cold water. They will take part in a North Channel relay swim,” explains the 2013 World Open Water Swimming Man of the Year. “Before one of their training swims in -4ºC (-24ºF) air temperature and 3ºC (37ºF) water temperature, I gave them tips for swimming in these extreme conditions. Most importantly, free your mind and the rest will follow.”
Mallon says that he is far from being an expert, but that humility belies the fact that he has self-developed many approaches that have helped him succeed in all kinds of conditions. “I have watched many videos, read reports on extreme swimmers completing channels and on ice swims. What I have read and experienced during swimming in water as cold as 0ºC with -33ºC air temperature and during my channel swims show a common theme of mind over matter. Your mind is your biggest strength. It is a powerful tool, but it is also your largest weakness.”
Mallon is living proof that the mind can either fuel failure or fuel success. “One thing you must not do is to give the mind fuel to fight against you.”
How does Mallon believe athletes can give the mind fuel? “If you start thinking thoughts like ‘I’m sore’, ‘It’s cold’, ‘I feel sick’ or ‘I can’t do this’, you are creating fuel to help you fail. A concerned someone may ask, ‘Are you OK?’. In answering them, you may look within yourself and find something negative to say that will fuel your failure. In contrast, it is best to think positive and give a positive answer.”
What are the right tools for the job? “There are many tools or tips that can be used in the achievement of swimming extreme. What you need will depend on how much you are panicking, in pain, or under stress. We start off with the most basic one. Entering the water is usually the hardest part and when you panic the most. It is a natural reaction that the body will over-react and your breathing will be short and sharp. You can’t or don’t want to put your head under the water. You need to get a grip of this as fast as possible or the planned achievements will be over before they have begun.”
Mallon explains the ABC and 123 approach; the most basic way to control panicking, pain or stress. “Firstly, use counting. This is the most basic way to control the panicking, pain or stress. Start to count from 1 to 10. If you lose count, just start at 1 again and continue this until you get control of yourself and your breathing. You can count to yourself or count out aloud, but the faster you count, the higher the stress. Slow down as you bring your breathing under control. If you are swimming, could count your swim strokes.
Once you have control of the panic, pain or stress, you need to get into a comfortable rhythm of swim strokes. This is used to try to quiet the mind before step 3 or 4. As you swim you may have thoughts on why you should not be in the water and you mind will think up ways to talk you into getting out of there. Understand that this is the weak part of your mind. If it’s weak, it can be overpowered with these tools.”
He advises, “Start by counting your breaths as you swim. One breath is both inhale and exhale. Focus on your breathing; focus on how you are breathing. Do not underestimate the power of this technique. It is a good exercise to try on dry land or before an event. Breath control is a technique to develop that can, in fact, be used anywhere. If you lose your count, just start again. All this can be done when swimming.”
Mallon knows this is difficult, but he remains focused and adamant on his task at hand. “If you find your mind drifting, don’t get annoyed. Just gently return your focus back to your breathing. Keep this up until your feel like your mind is relaxed or calm.”
Mallon equates learning a new program is just like tying your shoe laces. “Now you’re ready, put a new program into the PC. Once programmed, the sequence will become natural. You never forgot how to ride that bicycle, open that packet of crisps, or tie your shoe laces. You had to be programmed to do these things.”
He also advises on the use of mantras. “Ask the question: What do I want from my body? I have used these mantras before: ‘Let my arms be strong’, ‘Let my mind be strong’, ‘Let my mind be calm,’ ‘Let the heat come from within’. You can make your own up as and when you need to, but just use one at a time and repeat it 108 times. Keep repeating it until your mind is at rest. Then, begin on the next one 108 times. You will find this gives you the motivation to continue.
Next step is that you’re ready to put a new DVD in and press play. To help to support your mantras, you can use visualisation to create your own movie.” He explains what he used with himself when swimming across the North Channel. “‘Let the heat come from within’ was repeated 108 times as I visualized a pot belly stove burning in my tummy. ‘Let the heat flow through my body’ was repeated 108 times as I visualized the fire burning and the heat travelling through my body. This was the strongest mind over matter I have ever had. The cold was not getting in on me.”
But not everything in Mallon’s tool chest is internally focused on himself. “These steps are the first and best lessons in swimming extreme, but the swimmer is only part of the story. You need to fully trust the team of people around you to look after you and know how to act and behave when you’re in the water. Nutrition and safety are paramount.
By pushing the limits you find them. When you’re at your limit, you need to take it all in. This is very, very important. This is your meter stick of how far you can go and as important is how you got there. After you have been there and back, make a mental note of the stages you went through to get to the limit. This will help you to keep yourself safe. As you pass each stage, you can tick it off until you get to the limit where you must stop – the edge.
Next time you to take it to the limit, you will be fully prepared with planning to a tee and as safely with the right team around you.”
Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association