18 Things Being A Competitive Swimmer Taught Me

Photo Courtesy: Kara Sekenski

By Trevor Lee, Swimming World Guest Contributor

Eat. Sleep. Swim. Repeat.

As a former competitive swimmer on a year-round swim team (I swam throughout the year, except during mid-August to early September), I hold on to countless lessons that my swimming experience has imparted. Swimming is arguably one of the hardest sports, regardless of how easy professional swimmers make it out to be. Regardless of how good a swimmer you were, all swimmers can testify that the mentality of swimming continues not only inside the pool, but also outside the water.

1. Wake up and get to work at 5 a.m. (even when your body aches and mind wants to sleep).

Coaches recognize that swimmers, like other people, have busy schedules and classes often interfere with practice times. Since there are no classes held at 5 a.m., why not hold swim practice? Discipline is key here. One trick that I used to help me wake up was leaving my warm, comfortable bed and brushing my teeth. Since getting ready in the morning is programmed into my body, getting up to brush my teeth instinctively prepare me for the rest of the day and helped me forget about the coziness of my blankets.

2. Embrace the cold.

Remember, the chilly morning air that strikes you before you enter the water is an unavoidable feeling. Disregard it and jump into the water, feet first, like a champion.

3. Hydrate frequently.

Make hydration a priority. You may not realize it, but you still sweat while you swim. Do not wait until your throat feels dry to drink water or a sports drink (like Gatorade, which contains electrolytes to speed up your recovery in the water). Continually hydrate your body whenever you stop at the wall in between sets.

4. Stock up on food and immediately focus on recovery.

See item 3. Not only does food foster happiness, but it also provides nutrients so that your body can recover from your workouts and repair tissue. The recovery process ensures that you will have something to take away from a hard workout. After all, why undergo rigorous training and retain nothing other than exhaustion?

Food can be one of your best friends before, during and after practice. But beware: your parents might wonder what happened to their supply of food after purchasing groceries a few days ago.

5. Always arrive prepared.

You might as well bring a trove of goggles, practice (and tech) suits, caps, bags, water bottles, towels, etc. Unfortunately, swimmers tend to lose or break their gear at swim meets. Try to prepare yourself for any scenario possible at your swim meets. Chances are, it will occur and you do not want to swim with a torn suit (Olympian Nathan Adrian, specializing in sprint freestyle events, did so and won his event at the 2012 Indianapolis Grand Prix).

6. Not every aspect of practice needs to be race-oriented.

Work on technique as well! As one of my swim coaches used to tell me, “The fastest swimmer is one that uses the least amount of energy.” Seize any opportunity you have to capitalize on easy speed and swim faster.

7. Never lose sight of showers.

When practice ends and the pool has been reset to short course (the lane lines and hooks are often adjusted to switch the pool to the long course meters format), head straight to the bliss of hot showers! It is nice to not physically move your limbs through water, but to soothe your sore muscles after a stressful workout. Note that it is not enjoyable to freeze outside (especially when it is winter).

8. Do not lose sight of the finish.

Even when you think your opponents are light-years ahead of you, you can still shave seconds off your final time. Never give up and always remain concentrated on the last yards of your race.

This might seem obvious to some swimmers because you are ecstatic to end your grueling race. For others, you may feel disappointed during the race when you cannot catch up to your opponent. Either way, stay calm and deliver a crushing finish. After all, it could mean the difference between an Olympic gold medal or silver one.

9. Chat away between sets.

Any shot to goof off or engage in deep conversation during practice is worthwhile! It will distract you from worrying about the incredibly difficult main set and provides an opportunity to catch up with friends.You might even convince your coach to drop that one set …

10. The Summer Olympics are not the only swimming event we follow.

Yes, there are other spectacles that we pay attention to, like Pan Pacs, Pan Am Championships, US Nationals, US Junior Nationals, the World Cup, NCAAs, Olympic Trials, and so on. Did you think that swimmers solely watch the summer Olympics?

The list never ends, and neither does our admiration for swimmers who deliver mind-blowing performances and manage the media attention well.

11. Respect the 200 Fly and 400 IM (long course).


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Yes, the 200 fly and 400 IM are my favorite races to swim, both in short course yards and long course meters. To clarify for non-swimmers, short course yards is the typical format used in high school and collegiate meets. It is also the format for most meets in the US (the rest of the world uses short course meters) during the fall, winter, and spring seasons (with a few exceptions like US Winter Nationals). Long course is the format employed in the Olympic Games and offers less walls, meaning you swim for 50 meters before reaching a wall to rest or accelerate off of it.

Both races are known to instill fear in swimmers. After all, they require a lot of endurance. By the time you reach the last 15 meters of the race, your arms and legs are ready to stop functioning and start sleeping.

The key is negative splitting your races; negative splitting means swimming half of your race slightly slower than the latter part of your race. Also underwater streamlining (this is my favorite part of swimming). If executed properly and wisely, it will shave off a lot of time and lessen some of the exhaustion experienced after swimming your race.

Yes, I used to swim the 200 fly in almost every single meet. Was it enjoyable each time I swam it? No. Does the race become easier to swim each time you swim it? It becomes easier to mentally process, but the physical process never grows old.

12. Outdoor pools are better than indoor pools.

Outdoor pools offer fresh air, a nice view, and sometimes wonderful weather. I would rather endure chilly winds and rain in a outdoor pool than breathe less-than-pleasant air in a indoor pool. Plus, even if it rains or hails, you will barely notice because the pool indirectly negates some of the weather conditions (except thunderstorms. If those occur, it likely signifies the cancellation or curtailment of practice.). On the other hand, you cannot excuse yourself from attending practice even with heavy rain. After all, you are a swimmer. You move through water everyday.

13. There is an immediate instinct when you are about to swim a bad race.

Sometime before you reach the 50 meter or yard mark, you realize that you have expended too much energy or do not have enough to finish the entire race with a strong pace. You instantly grimace and try to survive swimming the rest of the event.

14. Diving and then streamlining bolsters your confidence.

You feel as though you are flying through spatial dimensions, except you are entering a medium that slows you down instantly. This is the fastest portion of your race, so use this chance to edge out your opponents. However, remember that you cannot streamline beyond the 15 yards, or you will be automatically disqualified in an officiated event.

15. Coach knows a lot, but can only do so much for you.

An exceptional coach will communicate his intentions behind advice and will genuinely help you succeed.
Like all relationships, maintain clear intentions and thoughts with your coach. An excellent coach will attempt to understand your feelings, while providing sufficient advice to improve your swimming. Your coach has feelings and is human, so remember that when you instinctively groan at the main set.

16. Manage your time well.

Swimming consumes a lot of time and requires you to invest much dedication. Do not underestimate the temptations of naps, food, and conversations with friends. Prioritize academics and other areas of your life. If this means bringing your homework to swim meets, do so.

17. Get-out swims or relays after practice induces energy.

Somehow, some swimmers summon an enormous amount of energy to compete against each other in relays after practice. Exhaustion is forgotten and replaced by spontaneous merriment.

18. Take a moment to enjoy the horizon.


Photo Courtesy: Annie Grevers

I usually noticed the sun, etched out across the sky, after completing or toward the end of my morning practices. No, I did not take photos and post them on Instagram (or on social media). Consider these spectacles as your treat for completing that practice! Also recognize how lucky you are to afford the opportunity of swimming within a marvelous world of nature.

There are a thousand of moments from competitive swimming that I did not capture in this article. Regardless, this sport is worthwhile – join a swim team, and you may find yourself breaking seemingly unapproachable limits.

This article was used with permission of Odyssey. Click here to learn more about the author.

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Glenn Eckholm
8 years ago

Cannot streamline past 15 meters, not yards.

Trevor Lee
8 years ago

Thank you so much for posting this 🙂

Paulina Monge
8 years ago

Katia Monge

Byiringiro M Jacob
8 years ago

great advice. Thanks

Teena Gianatti Paini
8 years ago

Christina Paini ☺️

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