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Race day preparation

This is an excerpt from Science of Swimming Faster by Scott Riewald & Scott Rodeo.

The number one rule for swimmers and coaches on race day is "Don't do anything new at a competition." They should stick with the strategies that they know work and lead to the best performances. The state championship is not the time to try massage if the swimmer has not had massage as part of his regular training and recovery protocol throughout the year. Nor is the big meet the time to try that new energy drink that all the other swimmers seem to be using. Without having tried it in practice or knowing how the body will react, doing anything different nutritionally at a meet is like playing with fire.

Ultimately, race-day preparation boils down to developing a series of checklists that, if followed, will set up a swimmer to achieve a peak performance. Let's go through the elements of a race day and discuss how to approach each one to enhance performance, starting with the warm-up and cool-down.

In-Water Warm-Up

Although there is no specific recipe for what makes an effective warm-up, most warm-ups incorporate some level of moderate swimming (maybe 400 to 800 meters) that can include stroke drills and kicking as well as swimming, several higher-intensity intervals (100 or 50 seconds) in which the swimmer integrates stroke work and prepares to race, and some all-out sprints or race-specific pace work. These higher-intensity efforts are followed by several hundred meters of a lower-intensity cool-down.

Competitions present additional challenges to swimmers and coaches because athletes often have to warm up multiple times during a day, once at the start of the session and again before each swim. When facing this scenario, swimmers should do their main warm-up before the first swim and then use shorter warm-ups before subsequent swims. The duration of these secondary warm-ups can be shorter but should still follow the same general principles: start with easy swimming and then use higher-intensity swims to elevate the heart rate and warm the body.

Swimmer should follow some general preevent warm-up guidelines:

  • Finish the main warm-up at least 30 minutes before the race.
  • If possible, get back in the water 10 to 15 minutes before the race.
  • Use mostly moderate-intensity swimming at 50 to 65 percent effort.
  • Gauge the intensity of effort while warming up before an event. Swim hard enough to warm the body but not so hard that fatigue sets in before stepping on the blocks.
  • Finish the preevent warm-up as close to the start of the event as possible, ideally within 5 minutes of when the race is set to begin.

Dryland Warm-Up

Everything discussed so far has centered on performing an in-water warm-up. But when pool space at a competition is limited or no warm-up pool is available, coaches and swimmers may opt for a dryland warm-up. Although a dryland warm-up is not ideal, it can help swimmers prepare physically for a race. Like the in-water warm-up, the dryland warm-up should have two main components: a general warm-up and a dynamic warm-up (Jeffreys 2008; Salo and Riewald 2008).

The general warm-up should be a moderate-intensity activity that uses many of the large-muscle groups in the body to elevate body temperature. Examples include light jogging, riding a stationary bicycle, and jumping rope. The general warm-up should last 5 to 10 minutes or until the athlete breaks into a light sweat.

Dynamic warm-up exercises involve movement and are designed to improve dynamic flexibility while keeping body temperature elevated. Exercises should target the specific muscle groups used in swimming. Each exercise should be performed for 15 to 30 seconds. The total dynamic warm-up should take 5 to 10 minutes to complete. Elastic tubing can be used to help with dynamic exercises, which can be tweaked into swimming-specific drills that enhance the entire dryland warm-up process. These drills should be planned and practiced.

This approach will help accomplish all warm-up goals and prepare the body for swimming fast. The only difference between this and a traditional swimming warm-up is that it is not done in the pool.

Mental Preparation and the Prerace Routine

Competition provides athletes the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities and to challenge themselves as to how fast and how well they can swim. The opportunity to compete is one of the reasons that swimmers train hard every day. When standing on the blocks waiting for the gun to go off, it all boils down to what the swimmer's body can do, right?

Although physical ability is one factor that contributes to performance, mental strength and conditioning are important as well. How athletes train mentally and what they do to prepare for the specific race has a lot to do with the eventual outcome. Swimmers need to be purposeful about preparing both their minds and their bodies for competition.

Just as scientists have identified physical, physiological, and technical profiles of elite athletes, similar work has been done to identify psychological profiles and characteristics. This research has identified a number of psychological attributes related to success. One of the key characteristics of top performers is having a well-developed precompetition routine. Combined with high levels of motivation and commitment, coping skills, self-confidence, and arousal management skills, having a precompetition routine helps athletes achieve higher levels of performance.

After the 1996 Olympics, researchers identified factors that had positive and negative effects on performance at the Games. One of the findings that distinguished athletes who performed well from those who didn't was the development of and adherence to physical and mental preparation plans. Successful athletes had a precompetition routine that they developed, practiced, and stuck to even at the biggest competitions (Gould and Dieffenbach 2002).

In 1998, 10 athletes from the U.S. World Championships swim team were interviewed to uncover how they approached and dealt with the mental aspect of swimming. In particular, the athletes were asked to describe how they got ready to race. Although they prepared for their races differently, all the athletes had a routine or plan to get mentally ready to race (Riewald 2002).

Although the benefits of mental training and the development of a toolbox of mental skills is discussed in detail in chapter 16, it is helpful here to highlight the reasons why and how a prerace routine can influence performance. Following a consistent and practiced routine will help athletes achieve the following goals.

Attain an Ideal State or Zone

The primary benefit or purpose of a mental preparation plan is to get the athlete in a mental state that seems to relate to successful performance. The process that the swimmer goes through to get there will be unique to the individual.

Achieve Greater Self-Confidence

Success breeds confidence. When athletes are able to see and feel past and future successes as part of their mental preparation, confidence is not far behind. Imaging a successful upcoming race is the dress rehearsal to the real deal. Visualizing a great performance enhances the athlete's belief that he can really do it.

Gain Greater Control of Mental Energy

Swimmers need to manage mental energy so that they are neither too flat nor too amped up before racing. The goal is to get into that ideal state. During preparation, athletes may listen to certain songs to increase energy and put them into the proper racing state. Alternatively, they may visualize a relaxing scene to slow their hurrying thoughts. Such strategies can be a purposeful part of a mental routine to manage mental energy.

Give More Effective Focus

A mental preparation routine can help swimmers focus on important aspects of their performance. Technical cues ("explode off the blocks" or "hold your streamline") or images ("torpedo") can be integrated into preparation to direct attention where it needs to be as opposed to having the focus on unproductive or negative things.

Provide Comfort in Structure

A mental routine can be a security blanket, something to turn to in the stressful moments leading up to the competition. Swimmers can use their mental routine to bring consistency to their preparation and performance, whether they are swimming in a dual meet or at Olympic Trials. To some degree, a mental preparation routine can take the environment out of the performance.

Engage the Mind

The mind is a valuable commodity. When purposefully recruited and engaged, the athlete has the additional support of positive emotions, feelings, and thoughts. Athletes should make wise use of all the resources at their disposal as they prepare for competition.

Coaches can do certain things to help their swimmers develop and strengthen effective prerace routines. Coaches should talk to their swimmers about what mental preparation is and why they should have a mental plan. Coaches need to define some of the key components that make up a mental plan, such as imagery, goal setting, self-talk, concentration, and energy management, and explain that there is no right or wrong way to create a mental plan. Each swimmer will have a personal, unique mental plan.

Next, the coach should have the swimmers reflect on past performances to begin to understand how they feel when they perform well and what they need to do to ensure good performances. Additionally, they should examine how they feel when they do not perform well and identify what they need to do to get out of that state.

Coaches should have the athletes create a mental plan, write the plan down, and refer to it throughout the season. Coaches must provide opportunities and encouragement to practice the plans. For example, a coach might set up a swim practice before a big meet and have the swimmers run through their prerace routines, giving them a chance to do their own premeet warm-up. This approach allows the athletes to take ownership of their prerace readiness routines and make changes if needed.

Although these things may seem insignificant when taken individually, consider what it is that distinguishes the gold medal winner from the athlete who won the silver, the third-place finisher from those who did not win a medal. It often boils down to how the athletes prepared for the competition. The best athletes in the world have strategies that help them perform to their utmost ability, and they think about those points as they prepare for competition. Swimmers who do the same will see their athletic performances improve.

Learn more about Science of Swimming Faster.

More Excerpts From Science of Swimming Faster