Better Distance-Swim Performance Through Complementary Cognitive Strategy?


Changes in cognitive strategies can improve performance and lessen perceived fatigue during distance activities (Padget & Hill, 1989). However, such changes may be difficult and annoying for participants (Masters & Lambert, 1989). This study identified 22 subjects’ preferred cognitive strategies and examined the effects of a complementary cognitive strategy. The participants performed an 800-m freestyle swim while being timed and assessed for heart rate. A week later, subjects read a behavioral instruction sheet (BIS), appropriate to the style exhibited during the first swim; they were then asked to swim again, following the guidelines on the BIS. Results showed that associative thinking was used more frequently than dissociative thinking, by 73%, t (21) = 6.68, p < .05. No significant differences were found between performance times in the first swim and the second swim, nor for rate of perceived exertion or heart rate, with the exception that, during the second swim, the participants reported more muscular fatigue t (16) = -2.17, p < .05. This study suggests that cognitive strategy training cannot be completely associative or completely dissociative.

Better Distance-Swim Performance Through Complementary Cognitive Strategy?

Various cognitive strategies for self-control have long been used to optimize endurance performance. In some instances, individuals using distracting forms of thinking can sustain performance longer, perceive less fatigue, and perform faster than individuals using strategies to focus on the task (Gill & Strom, 1985; Padget & Hill, 1989). Controversy exists, however, about the relative merits of various cognitive strategies (Masters & Lambert, 1989; Schomer, 1987). World-class marathoners tend to apply focusing techniques almost invariably during marathon races to maintain an accurate awareness of their bodily function, tension, discomfort, and pain  (Morgan, 1978). When they are training, however, runners tend to prefer a dissociative strategy (Pennebaker & Lightner, 1980).

A developing body of research supports the notion that some distance runners can mentally separate themselves from the pain and fatigue of marathon running. Morgan and Pollock (1977) suggested that two cognitive strategies are frequently used by runners: association and dissociation. They theorized that dissociation is more pleasurable, as it enables individuals to reduce “anxiety, effort sense and general discomfort” (Morgan, 1978, p. 46). It is also thought that dissociation strategies allow marathon runners to persevere through temporary zones of boredom (Schomer, 1986). However, Morgan and Pollock (1977) found that world-class marathoners tend to apply association techniques almost invariably during marathon races to maintain an accurate awareness of their bodily function, tension, discomfort, and pain  (Morgan, 1978). According to Morgan and Pollock, runners’ associative strategies may include (a) scanning their bodies to identify painful or tense areas, which cues them to attempt to lessen muscle tension through conscious relaxation and (b) thinking about their pace and race strategy (Morgan, 1978).

Rushall and Shewchuk (1989) examined the effects of thought content instructions on swimming performance. Using 3 types of thought instructions for training performances, swimmers completed 2 swims of 400 m each as well as 1 set of 8 swims of 100 m each. During the 100-m set, practicing strategies like positive thinking and mood word resulted in each swimmer demonstrating improved workout performance under at least 2 of the 3 conditions. Such findings about thought manipulations may be encouraging, but Weinberg, Smith, Jackson, and Gould (1984) suggest that some athletes have difficulty changing from one cognitive strategy to another (i.e., from dissociative to associative thinking and vice versa). In fact, some subjects found it bothersome to try to change existing cognitive strategies (Masters & Lambert, 1989; Weinberg, Smith, Jackson, & Gould, 1984).

While some studies have examined effects of both associative and dissociative cognitive strategies, few if any have identified participants’ current preferred cognitive strategy in order to measure the effect of a complementary strategy. The purpose of this study was twofold: to identify subjects’ preferred cognitive strategy during distance swimming and to examine the effect of using, as well, a cognitive strategy that is complementary to the preferred strategy.


A total of 22 participants (11 males, 11 females) from a university-based master’s swim club volunteered to swim, twice, an 800-m freestyle swim; the swims were completed 1 week apart. Subjects ranged in age from 19 to 45 years old (M = 27) and normally swam 500-12,500 m per week (M = 4,490 m). The 22 completed a pre-swim questionnaire soliciting general and demographic information (e.g., reasons for swimming distances, preferred cognitive patterns while swimming).

During both swims, the swimmers’ performances were timed using stopwatches accurate to 1/100th of a second. Timers were briefed on the proper procedures and were familiarized with the stopwatches prior to the study. Subjects were told that the swim was not a race and that they should swim their normal speed. Before each swim, the participants were fitted with a Vantage XL Sport Tester transmitter and receiver, which recorded time and heart rate every 15 s from start to finish of the swim. This modality has been used extensively to train and measure athletes (Daniels & Landers, 1981). The data from the transmitter and receiver were downloaded to a computer  via an interface unit, for processing.


To determine each swimmer’s preferred cognitive strategy, the Subjective Appraisal of Cognitive Thoughts, or SACT, was administered (Schomer, 1986). The SACT features 10 categories, each presenting descriptors related to either an associative or a dissociative cognitive attentional style. The 22 swimmers were asked to circle all descriptors that fit their usual experience while swimming. Based on the number of associative descriptors and dissociative descriptors circled, the participant was said to prefer one type of cognitive thinking or the other. Schomer established the reliability and validity of statements within the SACT by examining 109 recordings taken from marathoners 4 times per month. After transcribing runners’ personal conversations, Schomer inspected the scripts for “recurrent thoughts on task-related and task-unrelated material”; categories were proposed and rationalized based on a “pronounced attentional focus.” The reliability and validity of 10 subclassifications emerged.

(A pilot study of 20 swimmers had been conducted by the present investigators to examine the construct validity of the categories outlined by Schomer. The pilot study had suggested that swimmers had difficulty comprehending the subclassification titles, so the titles were rephrased while retaining Schomer’s descriptive content and examples within each subcategory, 1986.)

The 22 swimmers were also administered Pennebaker and Lightner’s Perceived Fatigue Questionnaire, or PFQ (1980). The PFQ measures change in the degree of fatigue perceived. It covers 10 physiological symptoms of fatigue (including dizziness, sore eyes, and headache) a participant may be experiencing; each symptom is rated with a slash marked by the participant on a number ranging from, for instance, 0 (not at all dizzy) to 100  (the worst feeling of dizziness ever). All scores are summed to provide a total-symptom index of fatigue. The scalar properties of the symptoms are found in Pennebaker and Skelton’s study (1978).

To quantify the 22 swimmers’ rate of perceived exertion (RPE), they were presented the instrument developed by Borg (1982), printed on a large cardboard shown to the swimmers following each swim. Borg’s RPE scale is a 15-point instrument ranging from 6 to 20, with several identifiers appearing at each odd-numbered response option, for example, 7 (very very light) and 19 (very very heavy). The RPE scale has been found to correlate linearly with heart rate, a positive relationship that suggests the scale’s appropriateness as a measure in this study.

Finally, following the second swim, swimmers identified as preferring associative cognitive strategies and those identified as preferring dissociative cognitive strategies alike were asked to evaluate the effectiveness of their strategies using a post-swim questionnaire. This questionnaire identified the extent to which the preferred strategy had been used during the swim.


After signing a consent form and being informed that confidentiality of the data would be maintained, the participants prepared for the first swim. Prior to entering the pool, they answered the short pre-swim questionnaire asking general and demographic questions. They were also cautioned that the swim was not a race. All swimmers wore a waterproof, wrist-mounted receiver and a transmitter around the chest, to measure heart rate.

A total of 8 swimmers (1 per lane) swam at any given time. Staggered starts (1 min apart) were used to lessen the effect of the motivating variable of competition against peers. Swimmers were thus able to use dissociative strategies during the first swim, if that was their desire. All swimmers stopped after swimming 800 m, signaled by a red flutterboard waved underwater as they approached the end of the pool. This signal was chosen to minimize potential distraction of swimmers not yet finished with the 800-m swim. Swimmers’ times were taken by individuals who had been trained by and were under the supervision of the researchers.

Upon finishing his or her first swim, a participant was asked to complete the RPE, PFQ, and SACT instruments. Responses on the SACT following the first swim were used to identify each swimmer as having either an associative or dissociative cognitive tendency. That identification was used to determine which behavior instruction sheet (BIS) should be provided to the swimmer one week later. Following the second timed swim, during which heart rate was again recorded, the participants were again measured with the SACT, PFQ, and RPE.


Generally, the participants in this study commented that they swam for fitness (65.6%) and relaxation (19.4%). The pre-swim questionnaire revealed each swimmer’s preference for a certain type of strategy, either associative (78.1%), dissociative (9.6%) or a mixture of both (12.3%). Following the first swim, results showed that swimmers preferred associative thinking by 73%, a significant difference from dissociative thinking, t (21) = 6.68, p < .05. Associative thinking was higher in the middle of a swim than near its end. This difference was found to be statistically significant, F (2, 24) = 3.87, p < .05. Several descriptors were offered in the Perceived Fatigue Questionnaire, but the participants in general commented about muscular fatigue more in the second swim, t (16) =  -2.17, p < .05. No significant statistical changes were found in subjects’ swimming time, RPE, or heart rate from the first to the second swim. Subjects rated the BIS to be easy to use (M = 71, on a 100-point scale), helpful (M = 69, 100-point scale), and effective (M = 63, 100-point scale). Use of the BIS also reduced boredom (M = 60) and pain (M = 51).

Table 1

Descriptors for Perceived Advantages of Behavioral Instruction Sheet, by Segment of Swim

Segment of swim Easy to use Helpful Effective Less boredom Less pain
First part of swim 80 60 60 40 0
Middle part of swim 60 80 80 40 80
Latter part of swim 40 80 80 60 80

Note. Scores are based on a 100-point scale.

The second swim, for which the participants used the BIS, was found easier than the first swim by 57% of the swimmers overall; 86% of the swimmers identified as associative found the second swim to be easier, while 14% of the dissociative group did so. The associative group generally commented that the second swim was faster; one swimmer said, for example, “There must be a mistake in timing. I found it much easier this time even though I took longer.” Second swims also felt more comfortable to the associative group, reflected for instance in the following comment: “Generally I felt better all around.”

Comments from the dissociative group similarly suggested that the second swim was more enjoyable. The BIS, one swimmer reported, “gave me other things to think about. I was not as mentally drained prior to the swim as I was in the first swim.” Every participant who reported more favorably on the first swim than the second was from the associative group. However, preference for the first swim was attributed by these swimmers to physical and mental factors, including a headache suffered by one swimmer during the second swim and exhaustion experienced by another in light of a workout completed before the second swim. One swimmer did note “feeling more relaxed” and less stressed during the first swim.

Discussion and Recommendations

The results of this study suggest that distance swimmers prefer associative thinking when swimming. Similar results have been obtained with marathon runners in studies of their performance while racing (Masters & Lambert, 1989; Morgan & Pollock, 1977). Elite distance runners were found to be mostly associative thinkers throughout important races. Their results encouraged researchers to consider the notion of “the better the associative thinking, the better the performance” (Schomer, 1987).

Yet in the present study, swimmers did not significantly improve their swimming times even after having read the BIS for an associative strategy. Swimmers’ strong preference for associative thinking was reflected mostly during the middle portion of the swim, not across the entire swim. In contrast to distance runners during important contests, these swimmers did not perceive their swim to be a race. Interestingly, a difference was found in muscular fatigue after the second swim, despite the fairly constant results obtained for performance time, RPE, and heart rate from first to second swim.

Three recommendations arise from this study, whose results differ from those of Rushall and Shewchuk’s research  (1989) finding that thought content instructions improved swimming workout performance under at least 2 of the 3 thought conditions. In future studies, the extent to which participants conform to the BIS should be examined. Furthermore, an 800-m swim may not have provided a great enough distance to induce dissociative cognitive strategy, especially in light of the participants’ accustomed weekly swim totals (M = 4,490 m). Finally, the 800-m swims may have been too familiar to the participants, who, then, would well know their pace and the approximate time required. In further research, perhaps time would constitute a better independent variable than distance.


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Author Note

R. T. Couture, J. Tihanyi, & M. St-Aubin

This study was supported by a grant from the Laurentian University Research Fund of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Roger T. Couture, School of Human Kinetics, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada P3E 2C6; telephone (705) 675- 1151, ext. 1023;
e-mail: Rcouture@NICKEL.LAURENTIAN.CA .


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