7 Ways to Develop a Killer Pre-Race Routine to Swim Out of Your Mind

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer based out of Victoria, BC. In feeding his passion for swimming, he has developed YourSwimBook, a powerful log book and goal setting guide made specifically for swimmers. Sign up for the YourSwimBook newsletter (free) and get weekly motivational tips by clicking here.

The process of getting ready to swim fast is one that is sacred and unique to each athlete. We each have our own approaches to racing, our superstitions, our special meals, and so on.

For some swimmers they need to go somewhere quiet, and not talk to anyone before their race. They’ll zone out to some music, a towel hanging over their head marking “do not disturb.” Others are the polar opposite; they talk with teammates, joke around, and seem to not have a care in the world as time drains before race time.

In both cases, the swimmer is doing what is necessary for them to relax, to get primed, and to prepare to swim fast.

Developing a powerful pre-race routine that you can use to unleash fast swims consistently will ultimately come down to what works best for you. The mental and physical preparation required for an athlete doesn’t suit a one-size-fits-all approach, and even the suggestions from your coach or parents might not work best for you.

Ultimately, you will have to figure out what works best, what gets you in the zone, and what has you feeling ready and primed to swim like a demon.


  • Places you into comfortable surroundings, which is especially helpful on away meets, where the pool, competition and even the language might not be what you are used to.
  • Helps reduce the distractions that comes with being at a swim meet, surrounded by heaps of friends and teammates who may be more interested in the social aspect of the meet than swimming fast.
  • It will reduce stress and anxiety by giving you a familiar set of cues to focus on executing.
  • Having a consistent pre-race routine has also been shown to make you 16.8 times more attractive. **

But where do I start, man?

Bad news is that there is no template that works for every athlete. The good news is that you have your own personal history to draw from. From this you can draw up your own personalized program. No matter how long you have been doing this by now you should have a good idea of what works for you, and what doesn’t.

Think back to the last time you swam out of your mind. Where you performed exactly as you hoped you would, where you swam effortlessly and quickly and achieved what you set out to do:

  • How did you feel before the race? Calm? Focused? Think back and try to remember what was going through your mind in the moments and minutes before the race.
  • Did you give yourself enough time to fully warm-up and stretch out before the big race?
  • How was your nutrition and hydration that day? Do you remember what you ate that morning?
  • What did you do to get focused in the 20-30 minutes leading up to the race?
  • Were you feeling exceptionally confidant that day? And if so, why?

The answers to these questions will help give you a general idea of what your pre-race routine should look like.

If you are a little short on ideas for what works for you, or you haven’t had one in the past but would like to develop a routine moving forward, here are some ideas to help you get going:

1. Visualization.

We discussed visualization a little bit earlier this week, and how it can help hardwire the performance you want into your noodle. To make the most of this tool you should be practicing it long before the big competition.

Either way, sit down 20-30 minutes before your race and visualize it in glorious detail from beginning to end, burning the performance into your brain so that the moment you step up on the blocks you’ll get the sensation that you’ve already raced this race 1,000 times.

2. Simulate race starts (on land).

Before you step up on the blocks, go somewhere where you can still hear the starter’s gun. Crouch down into the racing position, and jump forward in sync with the starter. Doing this a couple times will get your brain and muscles firing and ready for the real thing later.

3. Walk the plank, err, deck.

One of my teammates back in the day used to do this; he would set a timer, and walk up and down the distance of the pool, trying to walk exactly as fast as he wanted to swim. He would simulate the breathing he was aiming to do as well; no breaths in and out of the turns, off the breakout, etc.

In his mind he would be visualizing himself swimming the race, while adding the relative speed by walking along the pool. So not only was he rehearsing the race mentally, but also incorporating the physical cues — breathing, speed — making the rehearsal even more real.

(Doing this can get tricky at a busy meet, with officials, swimmers and coaches milling about the pool deck; consider trying this at practice as well to give yourself a feel for how long the race will actually be.)

4. Avoid tinkering on race day.

The unrested, untapered meets, as well as practice, are the times to try out new stuff. Not in the minutes and hours before the biggest race of the season. There is always a time to try out something unique and new, and it is called training.

5. Go through the motions during training.

Practice your pre-race routine in the days and weeks leading up to the big meet. You can get as detailed as you like with this as well; getting up at the same time as you will on race day, go to the pool at the same time, and even include some all-out efforts in the water around the time that you estimate that you’d be competing.

The more you make your pre-race routine a habit, the less stress, the more focus, and the more confidant you will be feeling when it comes to crunch time.

6. Have your pre-start cues lined up.

Phelps has been doing the same double arm swing thing on the blocks since he was an age grouper.

Have a couple very simple movements that you perform in the moments before you get up on the blocks — a couple arm swings, chest slaps, fist clenches — combined with a couple quick action words — Let’s go! Focus! Let slip the dogs of war! — to let your body and mind know that it is GO TIME.

Having this set of cues, and using them consistently, will make priming your body automatic, which can become especially helpful over long meets or in moments where you are feeling distracted or overwhelmed.

(To make the most of this use it in practice as well before main sets or whenever you are doing max effort work to fully ingrain the cue.)

7. Remember that it’s up to you to be ready.

If your coach has prescribed a certain warm-up, and if after completing it you still feel like you need to shake some cobwebs loose, let her know! Also, just because your friends or teammates are getting out of the warm pool, doesn’t mean you need to if you aren’t 100% ready to go yet.

** Just kidding.

First published Feb 2016.

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6 years ago

You might travel Down Under and give a seminar on this. The AUS team could use a few pointers on this topic.

bobo gigi
6 years ago
bobo gigi
6 years ago
bobo gigi
6 years ago
Coach Eve
6 years ago

Expect the unexpected…don’t let a pre race routine gone wrong ruin your ability to step up and race.

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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