A Simple Way to Calm Pre-Race Anxiety for Swimmers

Michael Butler
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The Misery of Being Too Excited

Many pre-race jitters are normal and natural. It’s the body’s response to increased adrenaline. It’s hard to control your emotions when the body is already pumped-up on adrenaline.

But one way some athletes and race day mentors help to keep anxiety in check is with a simple breathing exercise. For runners, they may start by counting their steps while taking in a deep breath. For swimmers, they may count strokes while focusing on inhaling on one outstroke and exhaling on the next stroke.

Take the time to find a breathing exercise that works for you. Practice it so that it’s automatic the morning of your race.

How Journaling Can Help You Produce Positive Nervousness

Optimism and Confidence Before a Competition.

There are a lot of techniques you can use to bring your nervousness down before an event. Athletes refer to this as “getting in the zone.” Humans have a natural fight-or-flight response to stress that pushes them to either stand down, with a racing heart and an elevated cortisol level, or to fight and overcome the stress.

Journaling before the event is a simple way to make sure you’re in the right mindset before the high-tension aspects of the competition.

Keep a pen and paper (ideally on the same notebook you keep your other goals and notes) by your bedside before a big day of competition. Write out exactly what’s bothering you before the big day.

Make a list of every outcome you can think of and every negative scenario. If you’re really feeling a pounding heart, list everything that’s pushing your heart to race and your adrenaline to pump. If you’re being pessimistic, try to come up with every worst-case scenario you can think of.

The two reasons I love this exercise:

Swimmers, just like many other athletes, are prone to getting anxious before a race. They’re also prone to not knowing how to calm themselves down and end up melting down in the middle of a race or even worse, in the middle of a workout!

The first time I tried this exercise, it felt a little silly and I wasn’t so sure I was going to like it. But within a few minutes, I was completely relaxed. And now, I use it to mentally prepare myself for every swim meet I have.

Before you read the exercise, a warning: some people get nauseous when they relax their abdominal muscles. If you know you’re prone to this disability, proceed with caution.

Here’s what you do:

{1}. Lie on the ground, on your back. Make sure your back is firmly on the ground.
{2}. Place one hand on your belly and the other hand just above your navel.
{3}. Slow down your breathing.
{4}. Contract your muscle, pulling your navel in toward your spine. (Imagine that your belly button is being pulled to the ground.)
{5}. Hold your breath.
{6}. Hold for 5 seconds.
{7}. Release.
{8}. Repeat.
{9}. Repeat, relax.

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Loss aversion also applies to fear. When you’re about to race, you may experience a lot of anxiety. That’s normal.

However, you don’t want to let anxiety disrupt your performance. Here’s an easy way to stay cool and calm in the minutes leading up to your race.

Before your race starts, take a moment to find the first stroke that you plan to use in your race. If you’re a breaststroke swimmer, find the first breaststroke stroke before your race starts. Focus on how you move your arms and legs, squeezing the water, then pulling yourself through the water.

As you do this, you’re implementing a psychological trick called mindfulness. Focusing on one single, specific item will lower your heart rate and help you practice calming techniques.

Also, if you’re wearing goggles, place them on your eyes before you start. The goggles may shield you from the noise of the crowd and distractions. Also, they’ll help keep the sun out of your eyes, which can lower your heart rate a few more beats.