Willpower - Finite Or Infinite Among Marathon Swimmers?

Willpower – Finite Or Infinite Among Marathon Swimmers?

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Kilometer after kilometer, open water swimmers continue to forge through the world’s oceans, lakes and bays.  Seemingly impervious to pain, discomfort and cold (or hot) temperatures, these aquatic adventures take endurance to the ultimate extremes. 

They inspire each other as the global open water swimming community continues to get larger, younger, older and faster.  They continue to attempt more extreme, more difficult, longer and colder swims.

Apparently without limits, cold water used to be defined as anything under 15°C.  Then it became anything under 10°C.  Now the lower cold threshold for thousands of swimmers around the world seems to be anything under 5°C – with many searching for water as close to 0°C as possible.

The community believes and knows first-hand that the sport is highly mental.  Many state that the sport is 80% mental.

The community also knows that swimmers ebb and flow like the oceans.  They get their second wind and have a remarkable ability to bounce back from dark places and the nadir of feelings that comes about due to distance, temperature or conditions.  The willpower that enables swimmers to come back from the depths of despair is an incredible form of mental energy.  But because willpower is a form of mental energy, it is apparently not infinite.  There is a measurable and finite amount of willpower that each individual can tap into.

Some researchers suggest that willpower is fueled by glucose.  Others suggest that willpower should be allocated intelligently.  That is, a constant push will deplete your natural allotment and there is only so much a swimmer can give – or take.  Self-control in the water can help stretch out your finite amount of willpower.  John Tierney, co-author with Roy Baumeister, of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, explains, “People with the best self-control aren’t the ones who use it all day long.  They’re people who structure their lives so they conserve it.”

From what we have seen of swimmers who are members of the 24-hour club, these swimmers (Yuko Matsuzaki in a lake in Orlando, Penny Palfrey between the islands of Hawaii, Diana Nyad in the Florida Strait, Skip Storch around Manhattan Island, and the Night Train Swimmers on their relay adventures) have a unique ability for self-control and an abundance of willpower that they stockpile in their powerful minds and strong-willed hearts.

Photo above shows Australian Trent Grimsey swimming to an English Channel world record.

Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association