After such a long break from racing, World & Commonwealth Champion offers 8 valuable tips and advice for all age-group swimmers.
Racing is finally back! Whilst some swimmers had a taste of Level X club racing in 2020, others will have had no racing for 18 months or more. Clubs, having returned to training a couple of months ago are now starting to bring in time trials and events using Level X conditions. In addition, the Festival of Swimming, organised by Swim England, will be taking place across the Country this Summer, aiming to provide as many youngsters as possible the opportunity to return to racing.
But how does a year of no training or racing impact an age-group swimmer and how should they approach competitions? Not only will they be out of practice and may be more nervous, but their growth and development over this period may have a massive impact. We know of a 13 year old swimmer who is now 5 inches taller since the start of lockdown, how will this impact their times and performance? (not to mention outgrowing their race suit which has only been worn once previously!)
For all developing swimmers there will need to be some understanding and adjustments going into these races with adaptations and realistic expectations made.
Double Olympian, World and Commonwealth Champion Katy Sexton MBE, knows just what it's like to be away from competition for so long. Katy had over 18 months out from racing because of an injury. She spent that time adapting and focusing on things she could control, developing her mental strength as well as physical strength (around her injury) which allowed her to come back stronger - she became World Champion not long after!
Here are 8 tips for all age-group swimmers to consider as they return to competition:
1. Start with a blank page!
Let's not put pressure on ourselves. It has been a year like no other so there should not be any specific expectation or pressure for you to perform a certain way. Step back, understand that this has been an unprecedented period of time out and cut yourself some slack; you don't know how you will perform but it shouldn't matter, the fact that you have a chance to race should be enough.
Just because you haven't been regularly training in water doesn't mean that you haven't become stronger or capable of great performances. Hundreds of swimmers have been able to train with their clubs online throughout lockdown and they will have built fitness, strength, power and flexibility through those land training programmes. The majority of these swimmers will have felt the benefit of this regime immediately upon returning to the water.
When it comes to racing, treat these races as a foundation, laying down times for future races you can look to improve on. Don't dwell on previous PB's or your competition as you will all have coped differently and had different experiences and training opportunities so take the pressure off, relax and just see what you can do.
2. Consider how you have grown and developed this last year.
As we’ve already stated, some age group swimmers will have grown considerably since they last raced. Puberty not only involves emotional and hormonal changes but also physical changes which can impact performances; co-ordination and balance can be temporarily impaired and our strength can be affected as our bodies adapt to these changes.
Keep a diary as to what has happened to you since you last raced and take this into account (we always recommend keeping a height chart to help you understand when growth spurts are taking place and when they slow down).
3. Nerves are ok!
Treat nerves as excitement. Without this excitement you won't perform and being nervous (excited) is your body's way of preparing you to race so embrace it. Everyone feels it differently, some show it some don't but just focus on your race, your lane, and your goals. Before race day help deal with any nerves by remembering the layout of the pool, the changing rooms, the seating areas, the cafe and toilets etc, this helps prepare you and can help calm you down. Pack your bag yourself and all the snacks and drinks you need for the day, even put a note in there with positive words that can help you just before you go to marshalling eg 'Believe in Yourself' or 'You've Got This' etc
On the day use the warm up to check the flags, the blocks, the feel of the water, the turns and the finish etc. Then keep warm and relaxed, chat to friends or listen to music whilst waiting.
Get to marshalling with enough time, do a pre-race warm up so your body is ready, and visualise the race in advance (some athletes do this a day, a week or months in advance depending on the enormity of the competition and it is a highly effective method to calm any athlete before they perform). A great way to reduce your nerves just before the race is to take in a deep belly breath through the nose and exhale out the mouth, this naturally tells your brain to calm down and helps reduce stress and anxiety, repeat 3 times (with practice this becomes more effective).
Remember why you are doing this - because you love the sport (hopefully!). If you are nervous because you are worried you may let someone down such as a parent then STOP right there! Yes, you want to do well and yes you want to please your coach and parent but you must own it, you must want to race and you must want to do well for yourself, not just for others!
Do not focus too much on the outcome of the race but instead focus on what you are doing at the present moment in time which will help control those nerves. Most of all, go out there and enjoy it!
4. Build a positive mindset
No matter what has happened you have to have a positive (growth) mindset to perform to your best. Believe you can achieve and don't let negative doubts or negative thoughts stop you; yes these negative thoughts may come into your head but learn to acknowledge them and move them on without dwelling (with practice this become easier).
Forget all those things that can impact your performance or are out of your control. Instead focus on all the good things that have happened and those little wins (eg when coach said you swam well, when you got a good grade in English - all aspects of your life can impact your mood and performance). Tell yourself "you can do it" or "you're strong, powerful and ready to race" as these type of mantras leading up to a race can help you keep positive and focussed.
5. What to eat leading up to and on race day
Do not experiment with new foods on race day and try to avoid heavily processed foods the night before (eg pizzas, burgers, sugary foods, cakes etc). Sometimes you just don't want to eat or can't face it the night before or the morning of the race - there is no need to panic, as long as you have been eating in the days before you will be ok. To keep your energy levels up eat and drink little and often if you can.
Good snack ideas on race day include nut butter and jam sandwiches, yoghurt and fruit, plain pasta, slices of turkey/chicken, berries/apples/bananas or carrot sticks and hummus. Jelly sweets in between races are not all bad as they can give a quick boost but avoid large amounts.
Water sipped throughout the day should be enough to rehydrate. If you have a full programme or long distance events having a carbohydrate drink (6% -8% carbs) can also help replenish electrolytes. You don't need to waste money on shop bought products which can be full of sugar, however coconut water is the most natural electrolyte you can buy. Alternatively, a homemade version is even cheaper - 1/2 cup fruit juice, 1/2 cup water, pinch of salt, squeeze lemon juice....simple!
6. Journal your journey (save 20% throughout July and August on our development swim journals)
Katy wrote diaries throughout her 15 year swim career and they were fundamental to her success. Setting and keeping track of goals, logging training, recording stats such as heart rate, how she was feeling, her results and performances and then discussing with her coach were crucial for improving performances.
All swimmers should use a journal to help them become the best they can be. Writing things down helps you process things differently and more deeply, helping you to lay the foundations for future training and racing and personal development. Journaling is crucial to building positivity and confidence as you discover what works well, what needs changing and who or what can help you achieve your goals.
7. If things don't go right…
As we've already stated it's important to manage your expectations and to reward any performance no matter how small. There are times, however, when things just don't go right and again this is something you need to accept and learn how to deal with.
Those with a positive 'growth' mindset embrace challenges and use mistakes as a way to learn and develop. All mistakes are a chance for you to learn so don’t think they are bad! Write it all down, how it made you feel, what you can learn from it and how you should cope if it happens again. Chat to your coach or support team for advice as their input can be vital to how you cope with things.
Another little tip...a few days after the competition you will have less emotion attached to the mistake so look at it again to see if there are other things you can learn from it and write them down to help you move forward.
8. Looking Ahead
Keep journaling your training, your goals, your feelings and your progress to build motivation and confidence. Make sure you combine your swim training with land training, and take time out to train your brain which will give you more success (don't forget a positive attitude and belief wins every time).
Your support team includes your coach, your friends in and out of swimming, and your family. Talk to them, communicate with them and make sure you use them to help you achieve your goals.
With such a long time out the water it is easy to overdo things too early. Be careful not to over-train. Keep a check on tiredness and fatigue, check you are getting enough sleep (8-9 hours each night), eat healthily (lots of colourful veg - 7-8 portions a day, 2-3 portions of fresh fruit a day, limit your processed foods) and keep a diary as to how you are feeling.
One thing we can all feel the same excitement for is that racing is returning and this marks the start of the future with more races to come and finally to put the last 18 months behind us.
Good luck to all swimmers, coaches, parents, and officials in the coming weeks!
By the way, that 13 year old who grew 5 inches since they last raced....in their first club gala back they achieved numerous PB's dropping 5 secs on a 50m and 14 secs for a 200m, free and back! They have now qualified for 9 events at the Festival of Swimming and we are sure there are many more swimmers out there who will be experiencing the same thing, laying great foundations for their future training and racing performances.
Click here for Swim England Swim Festival dates and locations