What Should You Think About During Your Big Race?

Trust in your plan to settle your pre-race nerves
It's the middle of June and if you are living in the northern hemisphere then you're likely to be building up to your key race of the season sometime in the coming weeks.

You've been preparing diligently, working on your stroke technique, you swim fitness and open water skills. But come race day and the gun going off, what should you actually think about whilst you swim to perform at your very best?

We suggest you make a (very) short list of one, two or three things to rotate through in your mind during the race. Pre-plan this list and you can be confident going to the start line about what you are going to do and think. Don't choose more than three!

Remember to only think about one thing at a time - if you have several items on your list then rotate through them in turn, spending about 10 seconds on each for the duration of the event.

Here's some ideas you might want to choose from and why each might be right for you :

- Breathe-bubble-bubble-breathe... Most people are nervous at the start of any race (and particularly an open water swim) so what's the first thing they instinctively do? Hold their breath! Holding your breath builds up excess CO2 in your system which can easily lead to a panic attack. Make sure you exhale smoothly and continuously into the water from the very start of the race and combine it with bilateral breathing timing using Swim Smooth's most famous mantra: Breathe-bubble-bubble-breathe.

- Straight-bubble-bubble-straight. A variation of breathe-bubble-bubble-breathe but instead of thinking "breathe" when breathing, think "straight" to keep focus on what that lead arm is doing as it enters and extends forwards underwater. Choose this if you know you have a crossover in your stroke when your breathe. The mantra will help reduce the crossover and in turn help you swim straighter.

A "crossover" is where the lead arm crosses the centre line in front of the head

- Tap Your Big Toes. This is perfect for anyone with a scissor kick or any issue with their kicking technique. As you swim brush your big toes lightly as they pass each other - make sure this is a continuous and regular tap-tap-tap-tap. Any gap in the taps (especially when you breathe) indicates a scissor kick!

A scissor kick is like opening a parachute behind you!
It most commonly happens when you breathe.

- Am I going too fast? Nearly everyone starts their race too fast and then slows down progressively through the race losing more time overall than they ever gained at the start. Especially in the first half of the swim, continuously ask yourself if you are going too fast and if you can realistically sustain this pace. If you missed it first time around, check out our classic The Gradual Crescendo blog post on this subject.

- Think: Rhythm, Range, Relax... Rhythm, Range, Relax... This is a nice mantra for stronger swimmers who may feel a little frantic at the start of a race, or when encountering choppy conditions which are throwing them off their game. Rhythm is absolutely key to great open water swimming. Keep the Range in your stroke from extension out front to finishing at the thigh. And stay Relaxed even when working hard.


Remember less is more when picking your list. Choose the items that will make the biggest difference to you and remember the golden rule: only ever think about one thing at a time.

Have an awesome race!

Swim Smooth!
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Let's Get Real - You're Not Ian Thorpe

If you've been following Swim Smooth for a while you'll know that the great Ian Thorpe is one of our favourite swimmers.

The Pride of Australia: The great Ian Thorpe
winning the 200m freestyle at the Athens Olympics
Here's a fascinating quote from Thorpie's autobiography This Is Me, where he talks about counting his strokes in a 50m pool:

I also aim to reduce the stroke count (during technique sessions). I've got it down to 24 per lap which is about as low as I want it to get. I could reduce it by another four strokes but the danger is that I'd get to the point where I'm gliding rather than swimming efficiently.

Ian's talking about deliberately taking fewer strokes per length during a technique set but simultaneously warning us about the dangers of gliding.

But here's the really interesting point: When racing, Ian actually took 30-32 strokes per 50m. From the quote above we know that's a full 10-12 strokes more than he could do if he wanted to. Here he is winning the 200m at the Athens Olympics (wearing the black suit):



So whilst Thorpie has an exceptionally long smooth stroke, it isn't anywhere near as long as he could make it if he wanted to. The right stroke length for him is a full 10-12 strokes more than his minimum!

From the underwater view you get a real impression of the power and positivity he's putting into his stroke:


If you have been watching swimmers like Thorpe and thinking that the secret to better swimming is to make your stroke as long as possible then sit up and take notice. Just like Ian, your optimal point of swimming when you are at your fastest and most effective is not your minimum stroke count, it's a place a little shorter when you have strong rhythm and purpose to your stroke.


One Secret Is The Kick - The Fins Test

Try swimming 50m normally and count your strokes. Now don a large pair of fins and swim 50m again. How many fewer strokes did you take? You'll be anywhere from 3 to 12 fewer!

Did you know that Ian could kick 100m (with a kickboard) in under 70 seconds? That's almost certainly faster than you could whilst wearing those large fins. Try it if you like!

So one of the reasons Ian's got such a long stroke is that his kick is super-powerful, way stronger than 99% of age group swimmers, even if they are wearing fins. Having size 17 feet makes buying shoes difficult but is epic when it comes to swimming!

But it's not just his kick of course... Are you 1.95m (6'5") tall? Do you have super long arms? Hands like paddles? Do you have the flexibility of an Olympic gymnast to stretch into extreme positions? Do you swim 12 times per week?

Only if you can answer yes to all those questions (and you can kick 100m without fins in 70 seconds) should you reasonably expect to match Thorpie and take 30-32 strokes per 50m.

Of course, the further you are away from having Ian Thorpe like attributes, the shorter your optimum stroke is going to be. That doesn't mean you can't swim very well yourself - far from it - but you need to swim at the optimal stroke length for yourself, which like Ian is significantly shorter than your minimum stroke count.


Swim Smooth!
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