Teaching Tuesday: Pre-race Routine

Do you have your own pre-race routine?

How did the greatest swimmer in history prepare on the day of his biggest performances? Here is what we can learn from Michael Phelps’ full race day routine.

On the morning of the big race we wake up with excitement and possibly even dread. (But hopefully mostly excitement!)

With all the hard work in practices behind us—all those two-a-days, the reps on reps of 400s pull, the timed kick sets—now it’s time to see what we are capable of.

For the greatest swimmer of all time, Michael Phelps, a pre-race routine was fundamental to helping him feel in control, stay calm in the face of insane amounts of pressure, and remain laser-focused on his own performance.

Here’s what Michael’s race day routine looked like.


In Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit (Amazon), he outlined the race day routine that Phelps used during his remarkable 8-gold medal winning performance in Beijing.

To fuel himself for the grueling days of competition, Phelps started off each day eating the same race-day breakfast of eggs, oatmeal and four energy shakes.

When he arrived at the pool he would do the same well-worn stretching routine that limbered him up to help feel ready while warming up. Arms, back, chest, ankles, hamstrings—he’d target each systematically, checking them off one by one.

His warm up was the same each day. (And not that different from what most of us mortals do in our own meet warm-up.) He’d start with 800 swim, mixing it up. 600 kick to get his legs warm. 400 pull. 200 drill. And then a series of 25s at race pace to wake up his nervous system and get those fast twitch muscles primed.

The approach was simple—maybe not as complicated or as crazy as we’d imagine from the GOAT—but it’s purpose was clear: to give Phelps a sense of control. By having a set procedure to follow he could box out what was happening around him and focus solely on executing his best possible performance.


Now, I know what you are probably thinking: that is a lot of stuff. When you break it down item by item Phelps’ race day prep starts to look more like a NASA space shuttle launch list than a recipe for fast swimming.

But your race day/pre-race routine doesn’t need to detail every moment of the big day. Just a handful of things you know give you confidence and calm.

Here are some questions to help get you started on your own routine:

  • Do the things on your pre-race routine depend on the actions of others? (Hint: They shouldn’t.) The sneaky power of a pre-race routine is that it’s something you 100% control. One of the benefits of a routine that you control is that it instills confidence and motivation. That motivation and focus slips away the more control you give up.
  • Does your pre-race routine prepare you mentally and physically? Warming up in the pool is one thing, but make sure that you include mental prep as part of your pre-race routine. This could include finding ten minutes before your race to close your eyes and working on breathing exercises.
  • What are the things in the past that have helped you in the past? Here’s where your pre-race routine becomes uniquely yours. Search out your own performance history for the things that have helped you swim at your best. Write down what works, and if you’re feeling particularly ambitious, write down the things to steer clear of as well.