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by Jen Schumacher

September 20, 2019

Calm jitters with a routine that gets you ready to swim fast

Masters swimmers all have habitual routines they follow as they go through their daily lives and their training, with some being more structured than others. These habits are often mindless and require little to no thought process; they are in fact, routine.

For some Masters swimmers, it’s the bathroom routine—using the bathroom, brushing their teeth, and washing their faces immediately upon waking up. For others, it’s their breakfast—same oatmeal, piece of fruit, and cup of coffee. Masters swimmers often develop habitual routines around training—putting their suit on, walking out onto the pool deck, putting on their cap and goggles, doing a few arm swings, and then jumping into the water.

The key is that these habits are mindless. They don’t think much about what they’re engaged in, which is excellent if they’re, say, trying to get out of the house without losing their keys, or forming a habit of flossing in the morning, or meditating before practice. They can anchor the task to a pre-existing habit to ensure it gets done with consistency.

Pre-performance routines differ from habitual routines in the sense that they’re intentional and serve a purpose. A great prerace or pre-practice routine—which may include habits that are on autopilot—also incorporate elements intended to get into the right mindset for high performance. Specifically, a great routine can set Masters swimmers up to have the right attitude, energy, and focus. Here’s how to develop that routine.


Your attitude is your mindset—how you choose to think about yourself and the situation. Think back to your best races. What were you thinking before, during, and after, if anything? How are you typically thinking during your best sets in training?

Generally, high performers think constructively about themselves and the situation. This isn’t to say they aren’t challenged with self-doubt and worry from time to time. But they choose to refocus their mind in ways that enhance performance. They think about all of the training they put in, their trust in their coach, previous great races, how they don’t need to feel great to race fast, etc. Repeating a cue word or phrase like that behind the blocks as part of a prerace routine can allow you to optimize attitude.


All Masters swimmers have experienced races and practices in which they’ve felt too much or too little energy, where they’re affected by jitters and nerves or heaviness and lethargy. Managing your energy level is a key mental skill, and through deliberate practice you can learn to adjust your energy levels at will, like a dimmer switch.

Breathing strategies are effective energy management techniques that can be easily incorporated into a prerace routine. Try taking a deep diaphragmatic breath (one in which your belly rises and falls more so than does your chest) with a five-count inhale and a seven-count exhale (full Mississippi counts; don’t rush!). After a couple of five-count-inhale-seven-count-exhale cycles, you’d be hard-pressed to have too much energy for anything.

Once this skill is well learned, include a five-count-inhale-seven-count-exhale breath once you step up on the blocks or enter the water for backstroke events. This can help instill a sense of composure and settle any prerace jitters you may experience.


Although it might not always seem controllable in today’s fast-paced world, you can train your focus and attention with practice. Think back to what you were focused on before your best performances. Perhaps it was race strategy, a simple technique change, a number of dolphin kicks, a breathing pattern, the idea of pushing yourself through competition, or just the way you wanted to feel as you flew across the surface of the water. Taking a brief moment in your prerace routine to image or “feel” the way you want the race to go and what you’d like to focus on can help you direct your attention to the task at hand. Just make sure to keep it to one simple and controllable element of the race.

One Final Thought

Engaging in each of these three elements behind the blocks can transform your habits into a prerace routine, which channels prerace jitters into fast swimming and sets the stage for more consistent performances. As with any skill, use practice to prepare for the meet—use test sets and off-the-blocks work in practice to become as comfortable with your prerace routine as you are with your breathing pattern and full-speed flip turns. When you get behind the blocks, your routine will be well-rehearsed and work to harness attitude, energy, and focus toward swimming at your best.


  • Technique and Training


  • Mental Training