Techniques for Staying in "Good Nervous" Pre-Race

You've heard the saying that races are won & lost before the start.

The main reason for this is that swimmers tend to get themselves too nervous pre-race and this “over-activation” tightens their muscles, makes their breathing faster and shallower, both of which kill their endurance and slow them way down.

The secret to swimming fast under pressure is staying loose and calm, in a state I call “good nervous.” You're excited to swim, looking forward to it, and still physically loose and mentally composed.

The key question here is HOW do you get yourself into “good nervous,” especially when you're tapered, at your championship meet and about to race in your event?

To do this, you have to have one or more “relaxation tools” available in your mental toughness toolbox, and even more important, you have to have practiced using these tools enough times so that they will hold up for you under the pressure of a big meet.

Without adequate practice ahead of time, any relaxation strategies you may have learned will not work for you when you're faced with the stress of an important race.

Let me present two simple breathing relaxation exercises for you to experiment with. Keep in mind there are many varied ways to calm yourself down. The trick is to find the ones that are right for you.

Probably the fastest way for you to calm down and get yourself back into “good nervous” is by deliberately changing the rate and depth of your breathing. For each of these exercises, sit comfortably, feet flat on the floor, arms and legs uncrossed in a space that's free from distractions. Allow at least 5 minutes practice time for each technique and try to get in the habit of practicing one or both of these daily. A good time to practice is usually right before bedtime.

1. Breath Control Training

Close your eyes and shift your focus of concentration to your breathing. Inhale to a slow count of 4, pause, and then exhale to a slightly faster count of 7 or 8. As you inhale, be sure that you are filling up your entire abdominal area. To ensure this is happening, you may want to place one hand on your diaphragm and feel it rise and fall with your breathing. As you inhale and exhale, be sure you are not straining to get to the right number. Your breathing throughout the exercise should be relatively comfortable. Repeat this process of inhaling to a slow 4 count and exhaling to that 7 or 8 count. As you do this, you'll probably find that your mind may wander. This is normal, and each time it happens, be sure to quickly return your focus to your breathing and your internal counting. 

2. Breath by 4 (Sometimes called Square Breathing)

Focusing your attention on your breathing, inhale to a slow count of 4, making sure you're comfortable and not straining with this... Pause to a slow count of 4... Exhale to that same count of 4... and then pause again to a slow count of 4. In this exercise, you do not have to deliberately deepen your breathing and, as in exercise No. 1. Every time that you find your focus drifting elsewhere, quickly and gently bring your concentration back to your breath and the counting. 

It's important to keep in mind that having the ability to calm yourself under pressure is a learned skill. It takes consistent practice when you're not under pressure to learn and master it. The more that you practice these exercises in a relaxed environment, the quicker you'll integrate them into your “muscle memory” so that they'll be available to you when you're behind the blocks, waiting for your big race.