When Your Heat Goes Cold: Ten Ways to Turn Around a Poor Heat Swim

Photo Courtesy: Brooke Wright

By Wayne Goldsmith.

You’ve trained for weeks – months – maybe even years for this Meet.

Everything’s ready.

Diet – perfect.

Training – haven’t missed a workout for six months.

Coach is happy – you’re happy – the world is a wonderful place.

You can’t wait to get to the Meet and show the world – and yourself – the result of so much hard work, dedication and commitment.

You’re in heat 6 of 7 of the 100 breast with a Personal Best of 1:22.51

The gun goes – you’re off – swimming fast and smooth for the first 50. You turn – kick off hard and streamline like a spear cutting through the water.

You keep stroking – working hard to the finish and finally hit the end of the pool with a driving, surging two-handed touch.

You look up at the score board – look for your name and see – and see….1:24.91!!!!

You’re shocked….disappointed….appalled….confused….angry….sad…you’re not even sure how you feel right now.

Your coach is standing there just as flabbergasted and as stunned as you are.

You’ve made it to the final – but only just. The outside lane. And over four seconds behind the fastest qualifier in lane 4.

The question is how can you and will you swim seconds faster in just a few hours in the final.

First Find the Right Solution to the Right Problem

When things haven’t gone to plan in the heats, the key is to figure out what went wrong in your heat swim, what you learned from the experience and what you need to do to turn things around before the final.

  1. Is the problem physical? For example, a physical issue could be any one or a combination of the following factors:
    • Start
    • Turns
    • Finish
    • Warm up – (too much, too little, intensity too high or too low, warm up too early or too late relative to race start time etc).
    • Fatigue
    • Stroke technique
    • Breathing rhythm and timing
    • Race tactics, pacing and overall race strategy
    • Hydration
    • Nutrition
  2. Is the problem mental?
    • Too nervous
    • Unable to relax before the race
    • Not mentally tough enough when it mattered
    • Lacked “killer-instinct”
    • Not “aroused” enough – i.e. felt down, slow and flat even before you started
    • Overlyt “aroused”, i.e. too excited, wasted too much energy before the race
    • Didn’t focus on the key aspects of your race plan, race strategies, technique and skills
    • Lost concentration for one reason or another
    • Didn’t relax during the race and “tightened” up over the final 50
  3. Is the problem a combination of both physical and mental factors?

After a disappointing heat swim it’s important you and your coach systematically and methodically look for a solution – but it needs to be the right solution – and to the right problem. Improving your kick will only make a difference IF your kick was the problem in the first place. Changing when and where you breathe will only improve your final swim IF your breathing was the thing that caused you to swim slow in the heat.

Ten Ways To Get Faster From Heats To Finals

  1. Do nothing. That’s right. Sometimes the right strategy to improve from heats to finals is to do nothing. Sometimes the most effective strategy is to just shrug your shoulders, accept that not every swim can go the way you want it to go and move on.
  2. Rest. One of the most common factors leading to a poor heat swim is to go in “over-cooked”, i.e. be tired – maybe from a poor sleep the night before. Find a quiet place. Put on some eye-shades. Put in some ear-plugs. Lay your head on a soft, comfortable pillow and get some ZZZZs. Doesn’t need to be a long, deep sleep – but the difference a one hour power nap can make will sometimes astound you.
  3. Swim. Go for a swim. Not just a swim down. But an easy, relaxed, slow, comfortable “flowing through the water”, playing type swim. Just move loosely and quietly through the water and become friends with it again. Don’t take times. Don’t record distances. Don’t count laps. Just you and the water – peaceful and relaxed.
  4. Eat and drink something. It’s important to swim “light” but it’s also important to re-fuel and re-hydrate. Try snacking on some light, natural foods and drinking some cool, clean water. Give yourself a little “treat” but don’t go crazy – maybe one or two pieces of chocolate or your favourite candy. It may not be the perfect high performance food recommended by sports dieticians but a small amount of your favourite treat will not hurt you and might even put a smile on your face: and smiles are a much under-rated performance enhancement tool.
  5. Do things you love to do. If you love to read – read. If you enjoy music – listen to some music. If you’re passionate about art – do a drawing. Do something completely unrelated and disconnected to swimming that fills your heart with joy and leaves your mind at peace.
  6. Work through the heat swim with your coach but….try not to spend too much time on race analysis. Leave that to your coach. Your coach is trained to review races, identify ways of improving your performance and give you strategies to put them into practice in the final. Trust in your coach. Don’t spend too much time on reflection and review of the technical stuff by yourself.
  7. Don’t listen to too many people. When you go a great heat swim – everyone is happy, relaxed and smiling. When you lose, everyone becomes a coach….mom, dad, your team mates, the media, your friends, fans…….everyone. The best strategy is to listen to two people: your coach and you. Listen to your coach for the strategic and technical things that can help you swim faster in the final. Listen to your own “voice” for the confident, courageous, positive talk you need to improve your race performance in the final.
  8. Look forward – not backward. It’s no use crying over spilt milk – or in this case – spilt chlorinated water. Look forward to the final with excitement, with focus and with a calm, cool confidence – knowing that your final will be fast. Forget the past. You can’t change it. You can’t deduct a few seconds from the heat time you swam by staring over and over at the results sheet. Just accept it – look forward – move on and swim fast.
  9. Simplify – clarify. As the final gets closer, simplify and clarify your race in your mind. Work with your coach to identify just one or two things you need to focus on to improve your race performance. Keep the “self-talk” simple. Words and phrases like “explode off the blocks”, “attack the wall”, “smooth arms first 25”, “fast feet last 25” are very powerful in that they give your mind clarity of focus and simplify your swim when everything around seems crazy and chaotic.
  10. Start again. This is hard to do – but if you can master it – it’s a great way to get a lot faster from heats to finals. Basically go to the pool for finals and forget that the heats ever happened. There were no heats! Arrive at the pool in clean and dry clothes – i.e. clothes that you didn’t wear in the morning. Put on a clean, dry swim suit and swim with a different pair of goggles and cap. Do a great warm up and swim your final like it’s the only race you’ve raced all day.

Summary – Heats to Finals

  1. Having a poor heat swim is – just that. A poor heat swim. The sun will still rise tomorrow. The only thing that happened was you swam a race that wasn’t as fast as you hoped it would be. Big deal! Get over it. Learn from it. Do something about it. Go faster.
  2. There’s a great saying…“it’s not what happens to you that matters – it’s how you choose to react to what happens to you that matters”. You can go back to your hotel and cry, scream, yell, eat a family size jumbo pizza by yourself, get angry, be sad – sure you can do all those things OR you can choose to move on quickly, come up with a strategy to turn things around and get on with life. Win or lose – you choose.
  3. The most important message is this: winning or losing doesn’t matter – (well…it does) – but not in the way you might think. If  you swim slowly in a heat swim – what will you do? Learn from it and figure out a way to go faster next time. If you swim fast in a heat what will you do? Learn from it and figure out a way to go faster next time. When you think about it, the way you react to a slow heat swim or a fast heat swim is exactly the same if long-term success is your goal.

Wayne Goldsmith

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