- Technique and Training
- Coaches Only
Preparing for Your First Nationals
Goal-setting, consistent training is key to a successful meet
You’ve thought about it for a long time, and after much deliberation, you’ve decided to attend your first U.S. Masters Swimming National Championship. That’s great, but if you want to have a great meet, there’s a lot more you need to do than just sign up for the meet and book your hotel room. This groundwork begins months before you step up for your first race. Preparing early for the big meet will increase your chances of success tenfold.
National championships are indeed bigger and more intense than the local meets you might have attended before, but Nationals doesn’t have to be twice as intimidating—if you’re fully prepared. Below are some tips to get you ready for a fun and successful experience.
Pick Your Events
The first thing to do is pick your events. Look at the schedule of events to see if the races you want to swim fit into your timeline. If your times are slower than the qualifying times, you’re allowed to swim up to three events at Nationals. In this case, the best thing for you to do would be to pick three events that aren’t too demanding. Wanting to swim the 400 IM at your first Nationals is admirable, but that race might have to wait until you have more experience swimming it. The 50 fly might be a good start instead.
Set Your Goals
Now that you’ve selected your events, it’s time to set some goals. Write them down on paper and discuss them with your coach. Vocalizing the goals makes them real, and your coach can help you reach them. It’ll also make you less nervous about the events themselves.
Now, it’s time to train toward your goals. Every time you’re in the water for swim practice, work hard to reach your goal. If you want to go under 2:20 in the 200-meter freestyle, break down the swim into separate parts. Ideally, the first 100 meters should be 1:08, and the final 100 meters under 1:12. When you’re doing pace work, set a goal to reach those splits. The more often you can achieve your desired splits, the easier it’ll be to do the same at Nationals. It’s also important to be consistent in your training. If you’re a sporadic attendee, make it a priority to attend as many workouts as possible. Goals aren’t achieved if you choose staying up late over getting up early the next morning for practice.
Before you race at your first National Championship, you should compete in as many meets as possible. You need to practice your race pacing, and how you swim in a workout is very different from the way you’ll swim in a meet. Even if you aren’t feeling great physically, swimming in a meet will let you know what aspects of racing still need work. You’ll also be able to rehearse your warmup routine and learn the intricacies of a Masters swim meet. Many swimmers turn up at a National Championship without knowing the system of whistles given by the referee before the race starts. Getting used to them at a local meet first will reduce your anxiety.
Select Your Wardrobe
During one of these meets, you need to try on that new state-of-the-art racing suit you mortgaged your home to own. These swimsuits are often time-consuming to put on, and you’ll need to know how much time and effort it will take you to put it on. If you’ve never worn a techsuit before, you’ll find that it’s worth the money, but it takes major effort to put on your body. Plus, the suit gets easier to put on after the first time, which means it should be a breeze to slide on at Nationals.
With two weeks to go before Nationals, it’s time to visualize your races. This technique goes a long way to settling those fears you have about embarrassing yourself in front of hundreds of people. Visualization puts the focus squarely on your race, from the moment you step onto the blocks to the instant you see your goal time on the scoreboard at the end of the race. The more often you visualize “the perfect race,” the more confident you will be about that race.
Tapering is the hardest part of any swim season. There’s no right way to taper for the big meet, and it’s more of an art than a science. Taper can begin anywhere from 7 to 14 days before your first race at Nationals, and it’s an individualized endeavor. Two people who do the exact same taper are not likely to feel the same physically when the season-ending meet begins. If you feel like your body is ready to collapse from training, it might be best to do a two-week taper. If you’ve been hitting your goal pace times without much effort, perhaps a very short taper is best. The key is to listen to your body. If you’re feeling very good and ready to race but you’re still one week out from Nationals, it’s best to put in a day or two of hard training to avoid getting out of shape. Most people don’t get to that “ready-to-race” mode until about three days before the meet.
Once you get to Nationals, everything should pretty much take care of itself, if you’ve taken the previous three or four months to prepare properly. Once you step on the block for your race, you should be confident, physically fit, and ready to take on the other swimmers in your heat.
I’ve saved the most important tip for last: Have fun! The best racers have a serious focus just before their swims, but having a loose demeanor under the warrior snarl goes a long way to keeping the butterflies out of your stomach. A happy swimmer is a fast swimmer!