The days leading up to a big meet can be nerve-wracking. You've trained for months. You're bounding in energy because of your taper. You are probably in a hotel in a city you're not familiar with. You've shaved your legs and arms, which make everything, even the air, feel weird. You're thinking about your goal time or beating the competitor who beat you last year. Or knowing if you make it into the big finals you can score some nice points for your team. Then there's not wanting to mess up an relay exchange or a flip turn, remembering not to circle swim, wondering if you've trained correctly. There is simply way too much to think about.
Of course, getting into the pool well before the race is critical. You need to try out the starting blocks, see how the walls look from under the water, how to gauge your depth as you come up from your underwaters, how the walls feel for turning, and how the backstroke flags appear as you prepare for your turn. Practice all these things until you are comfortable.
Once you are done checking out the pool, it's smart to distract yourself from the worries and do something else with your time in the days leading up to and even between the sessions of a big, important meet. Here are some ideas:
Tip #1: Read.
Find a great book and enjoy it. I remember Matt Biondi commenting about how he was reading a post-Return of the Jedi Star Wars book during the 1991 World Championships in Perth. Why does fiction help us? Losing yourself in a great story takes away your worries and stresses, which allow your muscles to relax.
Tip #2: See some sights.
Notice I said "some" sights. This is not the time to rush around to try to fit everything in. Leave plenty of time to get to where you need to be.
Tip #3: Hang out with friends.
Chatting with teammates or friends from other teams helps pass the time and, especially if you are an extrovert, can energize you.
Tip #4: Meditate.
If you've never tried to literally think about nothing, this will be difficult for you. But those who become good at it swear to meditation's ability to help you bring things into perspective. We found this video to be helpful in reducing stress before competition:
Tip #5: Homework.
If you are in school, don't forget that knocking out that paper before race day will probably reduce your stress. One less thing to worry about!
Tip #6: Eat what you are used to eating.
Your body doesn't need the extra stress of coping with food it's not used to. If you are not used to eating a diet high in fiber, high in fat, or high in protein, the days before a bid swim meet are not the time to start. If you've never eaten shrimp, don't down a plate of them just before the meet. Or if you rarely eat salad, don't get the all-you-can-eat salad bar. This is one more reason why you should make it a normal practice to eat well. You don't want to change your routine before a big meet.
One big reason for this is how our metabolism works. It is so much more than just chemical reactions. If our cells receive nutrients that are unfamiliar, it will trigger other processes that in turn will create enzymes and binding protein receptors that your body may not need pre-meet. That just takes more energy from you. You have most likely heard, “don’t shock your system,” and this is very much like it, but knows you know some reasoning behind it.
I remember going to an out-of-town dual meet where our coach took us to an Italian restaurant. During the weeks prior to this meet, I had eaten plenty of pasta, but not with garlic Parmesan Alfredo sauce. But what did I order and consume at this Italian restaurant? A gigantic plate full of Fettuccini with garlic Parmesan Alfredo sauce. And then I had to try the spumoni! I was so sluggish during that meet that I swam my worst times of the season and embarrassed myself against a very good team. I should have chosen something I was used to eating.
Tip #7: Practice Visualization.
This is my favorite pre-meet and pre-race activity. Close your eyes and relax, then imagine being at the starting blocks. See yourself in your mind doing a perfect start, powerful underwaters, quick turns, the target stroke rate, and finishing exactly where you want to finish. Do this often enough and you will be amazed how your races will improve.
True story: On one occasion as a Junior in college, I was practicing visualization with my coach. I had a goal time for a mid-season dual meet swim of :55.7 for a 100y breaststroke the next day. I knew how many strokes I wanted to take per length and how the race should feel. Once I was relaxed and ready, he said, "Swimmers, take your mark, go!" Just for fun, he started his stop watch. I began the race in my head and imagined I was feeling the water flow past me, my arms pulling strong and my legs kicking behind me. After the four lengths were done, I said "and...touch" just as I reached for the wall in my mind. The coach's watch read :55.7. Do you think that gave me confidence to go do that the next day? You bet it did!
Whatever you decide to do before and during the free time of a meet, make sure it helps you relax and focus, not stress out and worry. It's once you get behind the starting blocks that you'll want to get pumped up and ready to swim fast. Save it for the race!