You’ve spent a lot of hours in the pool and in the gym, preparing for your important, soon-to-be-happening competition. You’re fit, you’re ready, you’re psyched, and now you’re anxiously waiting for the days prior to the meet to pass (why do they always take so long?!). The questions you’re probably asking are, “What should I do in the days leading up to the race? Perhaps more importantly, what should I do on race morning so that I can achieve the best results possible?” Here are a few time-proven tips that we’re sure will help you.
Avoid the temptation to train too much and/or too close to race day.
Because of the wide ranges of distances involved in swimming competitions—from sprint races to long endurance races—there’s certain to be varying types of tapering strategies. For sprinters, the key is to stay sharp (which means some time in the pool) but without spending too much time or expending too much energy to do so. This is even truer for long distance swimmers; like sprinters, you do need some pool time but the primary focus needs to be on resting, allowing your body to soak up all the hard work you’ve accrued in the many weeks of hard training.
One well-known coach tells us, “The emphasis on the days prior to a competition is on resting up and topping off your energy stores. ‘Training’ is done to keep the engine lubed and tuned up, nothing more. If you think you're going to further your fitness through training in the days prior to your key race/s, you're sadly mistaken. If you are the type to train right up to the event, you will almost certainly underperform.”
Don’t let your diet deviate too much from what got you there in the first place.
In the days leading up to a race, many athletes, swimmers included, try to get a head start on their race day fueling requirements by consuming extra amounts of water, calories and sodium. This is completely counterproductive because the body is simply not designed to accept these excess amounts of fluid, calories, and salt. As one well-known sports scientist states, “When we try too hard to help ourselves we end up causing more problems that we resolve.”
Since the majority of athletes tend to go overboard with calorie intake during this time, let’s focus on that one aspect. If you hope to achieve the best results possible, in the days leading up to your competitions, don’t stuff yourself with extra food in the hopes that you're “carbo loading.” The time period for carbohydrate loading (i.e., maximizing muscle glycogen storage capabilities) has, for all intents and purposes, passed. In essence, carbo loading is what you did in the 0-60 minutes after all of your workouts in the weeks and months leading up to the race. That’s when the glycogen synthase enzyme—which controls glycogen storage—is most active, and that’s how you maximized and topped off your glycogen stores. Any excess food you eat in the days leading up to the race is either going to be passed through the bowels or, most likely, stored as fat (i.e. dead weight). Neither of those things will benefit you come race day.
The night before the race eat clean, eat until you’re satisfied, then call it a night.
As it is during a taper (read: “mostly resting, not training”) period, you can’t positively affect muscle glycogen storage capabilities the night before the race, a time when the glycogen synthase enzyme—which again, is the enzyme that controls glycogen storage—is inactive (hint: that’s why post-workout refueling is so important). The night before the race, consume complex carbohydrates, some high quality protein, and low-to-no saturated fat, and be sure to drink sufficient amounts of water (but not too much). At those pre-race “pasta feeds,” skip going back for seconds or thirds – all those excess calories will serve you no purpose whatsoever. Additionally, skip the alcohol, fatty foods, and dessert. If you’re going to eat those kinds of things, save them as a reward of sorts for after your race/s are completed.
For all races (workouts too!) under 60 minutes in length, refrain from eating anything for three hours prior to the start.
The first fuel your body will use when the race begins is muscle glycogen (again, this is why post-workout refueling is so vital; it’s how you maximize glycogen stores). Eating a pre-race meal at the wrong time will negatively affect how your body utilizes its finite stores of glycogen, which will negatively impact your performance.
Do you know what happens when you eat within three hours prior to the start? Your muscle glycogen stores get burned much more rapidly. In long-duration events that's definitely not performance enhancing! For races lasting longer than 60 minutes, refraining from calorie consumption for the three-hour period prior to the start is crucial because you want to preserve your glycogen stores, not accelerate their depletion. If you must have something to eat prior to your 60+ minute race, consume a small amount of easily digested fuel no more than 5-8 minutes prior to the start. Why at this time? Because by the time those calories are digested and blood sugar levels are elevated, you’ll have already started the race but without negatively affecting how your body will burn its limited stores of muscle glycogen.
During shorter distance races, however, accelerated rates of glycogen depletion are not problematic so following the “no calories for three hours prior” rule isn't a necessity. You don't need the calories for energy (muscle glycogen stores will take care of the majority of that), but the presence of carbohydrates will elevate glycogen utilization. That's what you want for a short race. If you eat something 1-2 hours prior to the start of a short-duration race, thus causing the insulin "flood gates" to open, yes, you will be depleting your glycogen stores at maximum rates. However, at this distance it's a beneficial effect, as glycogen depletion is not an issue when the race is over within 60 minutes.
Many competitive swimmers, like numerous other athletes, oftentimes overcompensate prior to an important race by:
- Training with too much frequency and/or intensity instead of focusing on resting.
- Consuming too much fluids, calories, and salt in the days leading up to the race, as well as the night before the race.
Refraining from going overboard in the few days prior to a competition, especially in your training and in your food, fluid, and salt consumption, will play a major role in determining how well your performance will be. In the days leading up to an important competition be wise— knowing that your body needs this time to soak up all the hard work you’ve accrued in your training. Realize also that your body is incapable of taking on excess amounts of calories, fluids, and salt. In other words, what you want to do is give your body a helping hand but not kill it with kindness.
If you really want to get to the race start with a significant advantage, remember that carbo loading is not what you do in the week before the race, nor is it what you do the night before the race. It’s what you do during that first 0-60 minute window of opportunity after all of your workouts leading up to the race. That’s where post-workout drinks like Recoverite will shine, providing your body with precisely what it’s craving after a tough workout. The glutamine component will help maintain strong immunity, the whey protein isolate will provide the amino acids the muscles need to rebuild strong and swift, and the complex carbohydrates will help to replenish and maximize stores of muscle glycogen, the first fuel your body will use when the race begins.
Lastly, if you adopt these strategies regarding pre-exercise/race calorie consumption, we guarantee you will experience better results. On the surface, those recommendations may sound somewhat counterintuitive. Physiologically speaking, however, they make perfect sense and they really work. Fast three hours prior to the start of a longer-duration event (60+ minutes) or have a small amount of easily digested fuel (such as Hammer Gel or HEED) as soon as possible prior to the start. For shorter events, consuming a small amount of fuel—sipping on a bottle of HEED is a great option—an hour to two prior to the start will noticeably enhance performance.