You wouldn't go into an exam without preparation and a swimming meet should be no different. Many swimmers neglect to implement a clear race strategy prior to meets and this can be the difference between success and failure. The battle for the podium no longer starts in the pool, but weeks beforehand when a race plan is formulated. This will ensure when the big day comes you have every possible advantage over your opponents.
So what elements should be included in your race plan? My coach and I always include the following:
Food and nutrition
- It's vital to find the right dietary balance prior to a race and this varies considerably from one swimmer to another, so this will take time to perfect and requires some testing. Long distance swimmers taking part in races over 90 minutes or so in length use carb loading in the few days prior to a race, to ensure increased glucose is stored in the muscles for an extra energy boost.
The time you eat before a race is crucial in optimising your performance. If you leave it too long the carbs in your meal won't have metabolised fully, and you will suffer from a shortage of energy-rich blood glucose, which your body craves during physical exertion. Eating too soon on the other hand can lead to tiredness and lethargy come race time. It's a difficult balancing act but I find 2 hours prior to my event to be the optimum meal time for me.
- As much as you want to go hell for leather and build up a lead from the start, sports science has demonstrated the key to a fast time is to actually hold back in the early stages. The faster you swim, the quicker lactic acid builds up in your body, interfering with muscle function and hindering performance.
A race strategy has to be capable of adapting to the conditions you'll be facing on the day. If you've researched your competitors times this season and have a pace in mind then that's a great start, but it's no use sticking to a rigid pace if the rest of the field go dramatically quicker. You need to be able to rapidly adapt your strategy to suit the conditions of the race, so its wise to do some 'what if?' planning to explore the alternative scenarios you could face.
- There's nothing more important on meet day than to have a good warm up. That doesn't just mean any warm-up will do, I take mine very seriously and perform the same routine religiously before each meet. The idea is that over time my body will learn this sequence of exercise is a pre-cursor to vigorous exertion, which will offer physical preparation and enhance my race. A weakness of many competitors is a failure to warm up properly so by giving yourself a quality warm up you can give yourself an early advantage.
- A good race plan shouldn't end with the event. You need to listen to your body and give aching muscle groups time to repair themselves and wind down. Gentle cool down laps followed by stretching the major muscle groups will help prevent injury and maximise muscle recovery.
A sensible race plan will give you the best possible start to your meet and inspire confident performances in the pool.