Surviving and Thriving in Multi-Finals Gauntlets: Part One

By guest writer Julia Wilkinson-Minks (2008 & 2012 Canadian Olympian)

One of the most talked-about feats during World Championships was not a world-record performance, but an impressive triple that had the rest of the swimming world reeling and reassessing the meaning of the word “tough”.

In the span of two short hours, Ryan Lochte won the 200 backstroke, took the top seed in the men’s 100 butterfly, and capped off his evening with an invaluable leg in the men’s 4×200 freestyle relay that resulted in the U.S. win. Lochte hit the water third, and gave the Americans a commanding lead. His split of 1:44.98 was only beaten by one swimmer in the entire field: China’s Sun Yang. His response to questions about the triple following his final race was simply that “it really hurt”, which probably went without saying.

How does a swimmer prepare for such a feat? Although Lochte stands in rare company with his success in handling multiple races on this world stage, younger swimmers everywhere face the daunting task of preparing for multiple events in a single session. Swimmers often don’t begin to specialize until their late teens, and will find themselves with many more options if they are able to emulate Lochte’s versatility at the club level.

There are four main elements to address when preparing for multiple finals: the physical side, both at practice and during a meet, the psychological preparation needed, and the execution of mental fortitude. During the next four days, Swimming World will feature an in-depth look at each of these four aspects.

Physical Preparation: Before The Meet

Racing multiple events, especially at an elite level, means training for multiple events. Amazing freestylers will eventually reach a point where their talent and hard work–in freestyle–doesn’t help them win the 100 backstroke anymore. Clubs that follow an IM-based training program often produce very versatile swimmers, because even if you have one stroke that embarrasses you and thus prevents you from having a successful IM (who hasn’t wished for the 150-meter IM that cuts out their worst stroke?), the other three will benefit immensely. And switching up strokes in practice seems to have similar benefits to interval training on land: without your body being able to sink into a rhythm, you ultimately end up working harder. Harder work makes for a fitter swimmer. Fitter swimmers can swim multiple events more successfully.

IM training does not necessarily have to be all IM sets all the time, however. Take a week that includes 9 practices: three are specifically reserved for butterfly, backstroke, and breaststroke respectively, regardless of a swimmer’s skills in those strokes. Even breaststroke scull and pull has some overlap with other strokes, even if non-breaststrokers feel like they may as well be playing soccer when they are swimming because it feels so foreign.

The other six practices are divided up equally between freestyle, best stroke, and IM. One butterfly practice per week doesn’t seem so bad from a swimmer’s perspective, and then the end of the season rolls around and you realize you have done 52 butterfly practices. Well played, coach, well played.

Once a swimmer knows that she will be facing multiple finals at a meet, it is never a bad idea to do a mock-up of what the session will be like. Although swimmers often swim multiple efforts in practice, sometimes that does not fully translate to confidence come race day.

Although it is not always available in a timely manner, having a timeline for the meet is helpful: if a coach knows that his swimmer will have the 100 backstroke followed by the 200 IM, with approximately 15 minutes in between the two events, he could set up a workout with two efforts (either the full event or broken) with 15 minutes in between them. Measuring a swimmer’s lactate, heart rate, as well as qualitative commentary from the athlete right after the first effort and right before the second will be a good indicator of how quickly the swimmer is recovering and what can be expected at the meet.

If the coach has the time to do this more than once with the swimmer, he can play with different types of warm-downs in order to determine how the swimmer can maximize the time in between the races.

Last summer at the Olympic Games, Missy Franklin was given the green light to warm-down in the diving well by the competition pool between her events, allowing her more time in the pool and less time on her feet. When you are looking at less than 10 minutes to flush in the pool, one minute extra might be the difference maker between success and failure. Practicing different warm-down strategies in workout is just as important as the hard work, because no matter how prepared a swimmer is for the race, not having enough warm-down will negate all of that.

But it doesn’t stop there. Unless your busy night falls on the last day of competition, you will probably need to pull yourself out of bed and back to the pool for more racing the next day. Different swimmers benefit from different types of recovery, and it is important to figure out what works for you before the big meet. Whether it is a dip in the cold tub after your warm-down, a massage, compression pants, a combination or something else altogether, the first step is knowing what works for you, and then following through once you get to the meet.

There is plenty of physical training that needs to be done before a swimmer can even fathom success at a busy night of finals. Tomorrow, we will look at the psychological preparation that compliments this.

Julia Wilkinson-Minks is a two-time Olympian for Canada and was a finalist in the 200-meter IM at the 2008 Beijing Games. In 2010, she became Texas A&M’s first ever NCAA champion in swimming when she won the 100-yard freestyle. She graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in Speech Communication. Julia retired from competitive swimming following the London Olympic Games and now lives in Texas with her husband Shane.

Follow her on twitter @juliah2o

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