One of my favorite things to do at swim meets is to watch how swimmers behave in the moments before they explode off the blocks. The body language, the different levels of intensity, the chest slapping, water spitting, dancing and nervous leg-pumping.
Watching the pre-race routines of swimmers, trying to “hack” my own over the years, and helping athletes develop their own routine have shown me what it takes each swimmer to do their best is unique.
The pre-race routine is custom to each swimmer.
It’s tempting to look at what our idols do before they race—Phelps’ double arm backslap, for instance—and seek to emulate it. But it’s not the double arm backslap that helped Phelps swim fast, it was the comfort and routine of that movement that helped him swim his best.
Here are some ideas on putting together a pre-race routine that will help you swim like a rock star at your next swim meet.
What does it take for you to feel ready?
Swimmers often ask me what they need to do to perform their best on race day. But the truth is, you already know. The things that help you swim at your best are littered throughout past performances.
Look back at the swims where you swam out of your mind. Those moments where you exceeded expectations and surprised yourself. What was your mindset like? What were you thinking about? What was your emotional state?
Work backwards from these things, developing a race day routine that builds you to that high-performing mindset and emotional state.
Avoid trying out new things on race day.
One of the big benefits of a pre-race routine is that it gives you control. Even though things might be going nuts around you—the people in the stands, the fast swimming of other athletes in the pool—you can lean on your routine to keep you stay calm and focused on doing the things you need to do to perform your best. That sense of control goes out the window if you start switching things up on race day. A new diet. A different hand placement on your pulling motion. Trying a start that you’ve never done before.
The work has already been done, your technique is dialed in (for better or worse). Stick to your plan and avoid the urge to do last minute tweaks to your preparation.
Pool decks aren’t always the warmest of places. Cold metal bleachers plus sitting around between your races means that our body temperature can fall quickly. Bundle up and get another warm-up in 15-20 minutes before your race for optimal performance.
Have a plan as part of your overall race day routine to stay warm and loose during those long sessions at the pool.
Do your own thing.
When I was a young age-grouper, I would typically spend half the meet watching the older, national-level swimmers. I would jump into their lanes during warm-up. Study the things they did behind the block. Marvel at their technique and efficiency.
I would usually end up imitating some part of their preparation. The logic was that if it worked for them, it should work for me. As I got older, I realized the value in having a pre-race routine is that was my own. What I needed to feel prepared didn’t always match up with what my idols were doing.
Pre-race routines provide familiarity and control—if you are constantly changing things up on the fly, it reduces the sense of control you have. Have your own plan for race day.
Remember that nerves are normal.
The stress and pressure of competition is real. The physical symptoms are something we all experience—one study of ballroom dancers found that the physical stress response before competing is as stressful as jumping out of an airplane—but how we frame and experience it makes all the difference.
During those stomach-churning minutes behind the block, remember that the nerves are normal. Instead of trying to quash the nerves (which usually just backfires and makes it worse), reframe them as excitement and ride them to faster swimming.
Writing out “Nerves are part of the process,” and “I’m excited to see what I can do,” into your pre-race routine serve as critical reminders that what you are feeling is normal and even beneficial to your race performance.
Write out a list of performance cues for your race.
Okay, so we’ve made it to the block. We hunch over, grip the edge, and when the starter finally beeps, we launch ourselves into the water. At this point your race strategy and performance cues kick in.
What are performance cues? Simple phrases that keep you focused on your race. Easy speed is a cue that will help you not spin out on the first 25 of a 100. Snap and explode when you head into the wall to turn. Hulk smash when there is just 15m left.
Performance cues give you specific things to focus on that keep your attention on maximizing your performance, and not getting distracted by what’s happening in the lanes next to you.
The next step
A pre-race routine should be part of your overall competition preparation. Something you can work on over the course of the season and tweak as necessary so that when you step up on the block during championship season, you will know you’ve done everything possible to throw down on your PB’s.
Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer and contributor to USA Swimming.
He’s the author of Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High-Performance Mindset, a 300-page workbook that gives swimmers the tools and knowledge necessary to bulletproof their performances in the pool.
He also writes a weekly mental training tips newsletter for swimmers and coaches that you can subscribe to for free here.