Pre-Race Routines: That Point When your Friend Starts Getting Weird Before their Swim! (Coaches’ Corner #10)

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By Jonathan Kraft, Group Coach, JRs

Pre-race routines are often overlooked aspects of a swimmer’s preparation for a meet or even a specific race. However, this is an important part of competition and should be viewed as an equal part of the swimmer’s regimen. 

Every swimmer begins to develop their own pre-race routines since most people tend to be superstitious.

When little Billy swims a best time in his race, Billy becomes convinced that it was because he did not eat the red Froot Loops that morning.

Similarly, when Jane finally breaks 1 minute in her 100 Freestyle, she becomes whole-heartedly set on doing three leg swings, two arm swings and banging the diving block twice before her race.

To everyone but Billy and Jane, these ideas may seem silly. But silly or not, that’s not important. What is important is that these behaviours have given Jane and Billy a pattern, or a constant, that they can control, and that can instill them with a sense of control over their performance.

There are two aspects to a pre-race routine that affect the swimmer: the physical and the mental.

Studies have shown that humans are always searching for ways to control the world around them and become the captains of their ships, rather than let random currents carry them along. While it’s obvious that red Froot Loops do not possess an inherently greater potential to affect performance (positively or negatively) than do the green ones, this is a way for Billy to (seemingly) take control over his race. While Billy’s breakfast eating practices do not actually affect his performance, it’s the fact that Billy performs a specific act which his mind associates with past success that then primes his body to perform.

Pre-race routines are not activations, or physical acts that inherently improve one’s performance, but they are activities that cause a mental response. One of the brain’s helpful abilities is to draw connections and subconsciously enact physical changes based on various stimuli.

Ivan Pavlov proved this concept with his research in classical conditioning that won him a Nobel Prize. Pavlov stipulated that the sound of a bell would cause a subconscious impulse to cause a dog to salivate in preparation to receive food… regardless whether food was actually present.

This classical conditioning is ever-present in swimming: once one activity is associated with success by the brain, that stimuli will begin to cause a subconscious response that primes the swimmer for their race. So, Jane’s arm swings and block smashing are in effect causing neural stimulation that translates to something along the lines of “I am about to be pushed to my limits… I am not ready for this… I need more oxygen, this is going to be taxing on my body, I need to be ready to go!” which may then translate to an increased breathing rate and increased heart rate (to increase oxygen supply) as well as muscles beginning activate in preparation for the race. In this sense, the pre-race routine plays a very large role in putting the finishing touches on activation and warm-up and making sure the body is in a state to perform at its best from the beginning.

The other aspect to a pre-race routine is the mental side of it.

As discussed in Coaches Corner #3, the mental side of swimming is undeniably important. Therefore, if an optimal mental state or zone is a known key for success, then the mind needs a way to trigger this state or zone to be entered and that is what the pre-race routine allows. It provides triggers that direct your brain to that optimal performance mental zone.

Jane’s block smashing may also play a role in assuring the brain that this is what it takes to swim well. Ironically, athletes’ self-talk tends to simplify the preparation they have done to get where they are on race day. As a coach, it is amusing to see how so many hours of training, sweat, tears and exhausting sets can be traded in for something as simple as splashing oneself with water and blowing some water out of one’s mouth. The mind tends to look past the hard work and fixate on some small act that was done in the past that resulted in positive outcomes. This act then becomes synonymous with success in the mind, and when repeated in the future it results in a confidence boost – so much so, that the mind may become superstitious and seemingly require specific actions to be at peace and have confidence for a race.

This is where the importance of making a pre-race routine and sticking with it plays an important role. A pre-race routine can be a powerful tool that puts the final prep in for the swimmer’s mental game as well as preps the swimmer’s body for physical exertion and its potential effects progress and increase as it becomes more and more synonymous with that in the brain.

Ultimately pre-race routines have very little physical effect on the race; however they are a valuable tool that can be used strategically to ‘trick’ the body into preparing itself fully for the race as well as tricking the mind into getting into its optimal zone.

Watching every top athlete going to the Olympics in Rio this summer will reveal that every top athlete has their own unique pre-race routine that they follow to get themselves in the optimal place to compete.  The key for you is to experiment and find something that works for you… not your sister, not the strongest swimmer in your group, not even your role model in the swimming world, find something that works for you and stick to it!