Which Pre-Race Routine Fits Your Style?

tanner getting pumped
Photo Courtesy: Jeremy Crawford

Which Pre-Race Routine Fits Your Style?

By Nick Pecoraro

Before almost every race, you will see swimmers either flailing their arms back and forth or rocking out with headphones on before they hop on the blocks, ready to go. To the untrained eye, this might look silly or unnecessary. To swimmers, this pre-race routine is necessary to get in the zone and cue their bodies and minds that it’s race time! So, what should everyone’s pre-race routine look like?

Hit the rewind button to roughly 20 years ago – the 2000 Olympic final of the men’s 50 meter freestyle at the Sydney Olympics. Among the finalists were two Americans, Gary Hall Jr. and Anthony Ervin. Hall Jr. and Ervin had been training together leading up to the Olympics. Yet behind the blocks, the training partners were two completely different people. Hall Jr. was getting charged up with energy from the crowd, while Ervin was stoically quieting his nerves. From this scenario, whose pre-race routine would earn him the gold?

Plot twist: They tied for the gold.

It didn’t matter who did what to get the gold. Why? Because every pre-race routine is designed to specifically work for each individual swimmer. 

So the big question is: How do you personalize your pre-race routine?

daniella spewing water

Photo Courtesy: Daniel Alexander

Finding Your Style

When constructing your pre-race routine, answer questions about what makes you comfortable or uncomfortable. Do high-pressure situations like a big swim race excite you or freak you out? Would you rather be calm before the storm or vicious for combat? As suggested by sports psychologist Jim Taylor, Ph.D., you can personalize your pre-race routine by uncovering your focus style and intensity level.

Taylor describes two types of focus styles in pre-race preparation: the external focus style and the internal focus style. The external focus style involves widening your focus to keep your mind off your race and prevent overthinking. In contrast, the internal focus style is aimed towards avoiding outside distractions to establish maximum focus.

Taylor also distinguishes between two types of intensity levels: the low and high intensity levels. The low intensity level calls for a long time span to execute routines at an easy pace. On the other hand, the high intensity level generates routines at a rapid pace with little to no time standing around waiting.

These focus styles and intensity levels can be interchangeable to fit anyone’s strengthens and weaknesses. Below are examples of how each focus style and intensity level combination is displayed in a pre-race routine.

1. Low Intensity/Internal Focus Style

coach comforts swimmer

Photo Courtesy: Dan Vos

Be sure to set aside sufficient time to stay composed and protect your body from stress. Mental strategies can comprise of yoga and meditation along with listening to music to drown out diversions. A larger time frame lends to lower stress levels and lower heart rate.

2. Low Intensity/External Focus Style

Especially if you are more of the anxious type, surrounding yourself with laid-back teammates may help free yourself from the butterflies. Chatting with your teammates or coaches eases invasive thoughts about your race and provides a healthy distraction. During my own pre-race routine, sharing a few laughs with my teammates before my races keeps me from being swarmed by negative thoughts.

3. High Intensity/Internal Focus Style

Because you don’t need much time to get ready for your race, you are continually in motion to equip your body. Similar to the low intensity type, listening to your headphones can help get you in the zone. But instead of chill music, you’ve got empowering jams to help eliminate distractions. Be sure to take advantage of your time by blasting last-minute sprints in the water and performing dynamic stretches ahead of time. In accordance with this style, Cesar Cielo slapped his chest multiple times before his races to stimulate his energy.

4. High Intensity/External Focus Style

jake flexing

Photo Courtesy: Jeremy Crawford

Share your energy with others and get psyched together! If you’re anxious about your race yet would rather feel excited than scurry into your shell, interact with your teammates and coaches. They are there to gear you up for battle. Lighten the mood with tossing high-fives and chants while still keeping your eye on the prize. Missy Franklin was often spotted being lighthearted with her fellow competitors and loosening up the ready room.

Your Key to Success

The goal in forming the right pre-race routine is to continue testing out new methods until finding the precise fit. Your personalized routine is for you and you only. Just like a preschooler trying to jam a triangle into a circle hole, attempting a pre-race routine that doesn’t fit your personality and line-up will not work.

Swimming is all about having fun and enjoying the thrill of the competition. Whether you prefer a slow pace or a party before your race, your pre-race routine is your personalized key to success.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.


  1. avatar
    Paul Windrath

    When I coached, I knew one of my swimmers was ready when she walked by, on her way to the blocks, and she just touched my shoulder. No words. No Rah Rahs. No last minute suggestions. Did not need to. She was a competitor and I nicknamed her “The Badger” because she was fiesty.

    BUT, there is a pre-race routine that should get swimmers DQ’d. That is when they insult (aka disrespect/bully/intimidate their competition). Amy Van Dykenen used to spit in the competitors lane before the race. Sorry, because of that, I will never be a fan in spite of her accomplishments – even as she rehabs from her injury. Some may say that is part of sport – not to this coach!

    • avatar
      Nick Pecoraro

      I love the touch the shoulder one! However that second one with the spitting, that sounds more of a superstitious act/ritual. I wish I could’ve gone more in depth with routines vs rituals. The spitting ritual sounds a lot like Santo Condorelli’s ritual of giving his dad the middle finger. Definitely not classy, but it had good intentions-ish.

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